Teaching infants and toddlers up to three years old is no child's play, and experts note that the period is critical for brain development.
But guidance given to children in this age group may not have been ideal in the past, with staff taking care of only the children's basic needs, said the chief executive of Singapore's second-largest pre-school operator - NTUC First Campus, which has about 140 My First Skool centres across the island.
In an interview with The Straits Times, Mr Chan Tee Seng said NTUC First Campus will be spending $3 million in the next three years on the development of children three years old and younger.
The funds are to help teachers hone their craft, as well as for research projects focusing on the children. Money will also be set aside to develop resources for the children's parents.
The sum is on top of the $3 million the pre-school operator has pumped over the past five years into programmes and initiatives targeting children up to three years old.
Mr Chan said about three-quarters of NTUC First Campus' new intake this year is made up of children three years and younger. In 2012, it had 4,000 children in that age group. This doubled to 8,000 last year. According to projections by NTUC First Campus, the figure will grow to about 16,000 in 2025.
Mr Chan said the operator aims to improve the quality of programmes for younger children by ensuring its educators are better qualified.
From next year, it will work towards having 20 per cent of its centres which offer infant care (for children between two months and 18 months old) have at least one staff member with a diploma in early childhood education.
This is a higher qualification than the advanced certificate in early years, certificate in infant/toddler care and development, and higher certificate in infant care that current educarers - or teachers looking after infants - have.
Mr Chan said that for teachers of children up to three years old, seeing only to the children's basic needs or using teaching methods meant for older children are not ideal approaches. "Either of these is not satisfactory because (learning) has to be age-appropriate," he said.
"It is not just custodial care, it requires planning, thinking ability, observation," he said, adding that having one staff member with a higher qualification will allow for greater oversight of programme quality.
However, Mr Chan said the operator is not in a rush to implement the new requirement for all its centres as better-qualified staff come at a price, and infant care is already the most costly among NTUC First Campus programmes - at more than $1,300 a month for Singaporeans before subsidies - because of the low staff-to-child ratio of one to five.
To better understand its youngest charges, NTUC First Campus' research specialists have tied up with Australia's Deakin University to study 150 infants across My First Skool centres. The study, which started this year, will track the infants over the course of three years to observe their well-being, cognitive development and how engaged they are in school.
Separately, NTUC First Campus is starting a programme next year to develop health and nutrition resources for children from low-income families. About 15 per cent of children enrolled in its centres are from families with a gross monthly household income of $3,500 or less.
Mr Chan said the pre-school operator will also be laying the foundation for mother tongue languages. From next year, infants and toddlers will be exposed to Chinese, Malay or Tamil for 30 minutes a day.
"We want to be more intentional about mother tongue exposure at the infant stage, which is very important," said Mr Chan.
Older pre-schoolers will also have greater access to mother tongue language classes, with 57 centres offering Malay and 12 providing Tamil next year, up from 22 and two, respectively, three to four years ago. All My First Skool centres already offer Chinese.
Ms Adelin Osman, 29, a police officer, enrolled her 10-month-old daughter in a My First Skool centre in Jurong West in August. "My husband and I believe in the importance of early education, and we try our best not to leave her all the time with her grandparents," she said.
"She had no problem adapting. The most significant change we see is that she has become more talkative and laughs a lot, after mixing with other infants and teachers."
Helping parents with parenting
Even parents need some help to learn how to be parents.
Seed Institute, the early childhood education training arm of NTUC First Campus, has, since 2016, been organising a series of parenting workshops under an initiative called Parents College.
The workshops are open to the public. Topics include parent-child relationships, pre-literacy skills and how to engage young children in mother tongue languages.
It has also developed the KidzMatters app for parents with pre-schoolers to track their children's developmental milestones, get recommendations for age-appropriate books and activities around Singapore for children, and learn more about parent well-being.
"We are not trying to turn parents into teachers... Our idea is not to supplant the role of families and parents, our role is to support them," said Mr Chan Tee Seng, chief executive of NTUC First Campus.
The aim is to "create a set of credible and locally created parenting resources", he said, adding that these materials need to be bite-size for time-starved parents.
Last year, NTUC First Campus' group mother tongue languages officer Connie Lum and her team of curriculum specialists published a set of 12 Chinese picture books for children three years old and under.
The books are being translated into Malay and Tamil.