Lien Foundation makes available 10 free designs of pre-schools, urges rethink on spaces for pre-schools

(From left) Joshua Comaroff and Ong Ker-Shing from Lekker Architects, and Lien Foundation CEO Lee Poh Wah. The philanthropic organisation has commissioned Lekker Architects to come up with 10 innovative designs for pre-schools and locate them in unde
(From left) Joshua Comaroff and Ong Ker-Shing from Lekker Architects, and Lien Foundation CEO Lee Poh Wah. The philanthropic organisation has commissioned Lekker Architects to come up with 10 innovative designs for pre-schools and locate them in underused and overlooked plots of land in Singapore. -- ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Think of a kindergarten in Singapore and images of spaces carved out of HDB void decks or refurbished old bungalows come to mind.

But how about floating a kindergarten on Punggol River? Or one straddling Rochor Canal with a water wheel to generate electricity? What about placing a kindergarten at East Coast beach?

Philanthropic organisation Lien Foundation, an advocate for quality pre-school education, has commissioned local firm Lekker Architects to come up with 10 innovative designs for pre-schools and locate them in underused and overlooked plots of land in Singapore.

Besides building pre-schools over waterways such as the Punggol River and Rochor Canal and at East Coast Beach, other suggested locations are at the road reserve between the Central Expressway and Tiong Poh Road, within the campus at the National University of Singapore, on top of the multi-storey carpark in Bukit Panjang Ring Road, Choa Chu Kang Park, on a farm at Neo Tiew Road and at the Rail Corridor near Buona Vista MRT station.

It wants to spark a discussion about the design of pre-schools and encourage pre-school operators to think beyond the cookie cutter kindergarten designs found in HDB void decks.

A book containing the designs by husband and wife team Joshua Comaroff and Ong Ker-Shing will be distributed to government agencies and pre-school leaders. The book can be downloaded for free online.

Lien Foundation chief executive Lee Poh Wah hoped that operators and the government will "shamelessly plagiarise" the designs.

He said: "Schools are currently built in a narrow range of settings and many of these, such as void deck units, constrain the potential of design and hamper the creation of compelling buildings for our children. Inspiring spaces are all around us. These include highway buffers, large drains and our beaches and waterways.

"With a little fairy dust, they can be turned into magical spaces for children."

The book is being released just as the government is ramping up the construction of pre-schools - 200 new child care centres will be built by 2018, mostly in HDB estates. They will provide places for 14,000 to 20,000 children.

There are just over 1,000 child care centres.

Mr Lee said pre-schools need not be exclusively "owned" by a single institution.

They can be spaces shared by several pre-schools, similar to the forest kindergartens in Finland, which are used by all the neighbouring pre-schools to teach children about nature.

Harvard University graduates Mr Comaroff, 41, and Ms Ong, 39, said the book was not an academic exercise.

They and their staff went all over the island to scout for locations to site the pre-schools they have designed.

Ms Ong, a Singaporean who attended Marymount kindergarten, said: "We don't want the designs to be pie-in-the sky ideas. We want them to be feasible, that's why we came up with designs based on actual locations around Singapore. And we ensured that they are all easily accessible by car and public transport. "

For example, the three suggested locations for the pre-school straddling a canal are in Rochor Road, Ulu Pandan and Alexandra Road.

She suggested that teachers could incorporate geographical features of the sites into lessons.

The pre-school over a canal with a water wheel could use the water wheel to teach children about environment-friendly energy sources. The school at the beach can emphasise tactile learning experiences such as sand and water play.

But what about the issue of safety?

Accountant Derek Lim, 35, father of two toddlers, said after viewing the drawings: "My favourite is the one on Punggol River and I would love to send my children there if a school is built on the river. But I would have some concerns about safety."

The architects, who have two pre-school-going children, said they took inspiration from the Singapore Zoo.

"You don't see fences or electric wires at the zoo. In the same way pre-schools can be made safe in not so obvious ways. You can hide fences in the shrubs and schools can be ringfenced with trees and shrubs which can act as a natural safety buffer," said Mr Comaroff.

The floating pre-school on the river sits on submerged platforms and is bounded by a deck.

Ms Ong said instead of trying to insulate children from risks, the children can be guided to navigate risky situations.

"Supervised risk taking helps to instil competence and confidence," she said.

Apart from persuading parents to accept the unconventional designs and locations, building costs could prove to be another hurdle.

Retrofitting a void deck pre-school for 80 to 100 children costs between $400,000 and $500,000. To build a school in a void deck using Lekker Architects' design would cost about $1.3 million.

Pre-school operators interviewed liked the couple's designs but said it would not be feasible to adopt the designs wholesale, because of the costs and the limitations of the sites available to them.

Mr Richard Chung, director of St James Church Kindergarten in Harding Road which will be moving to Gilstead Road at the end of next year, said his rent for the new kindergarten is $105,000 a month.

This adds up to $10 million over the eight-year lease. He said: "Imagine if the government provided the land free as it does for schools. Then I could build one of these pre-schools."

The buildings given to pre-school operators typically come with an eight or a nine year lease. Operators said even if they were allowed to make extensive modifications to the buildings they are given, it does not make sense to invest so much in a building with a short lease.

Etonhouse Goup managing director Ng Gim Choo said she hoped that the book will spur the government to release sites in unusual locations such as parks and beaches and she will consider building one.

The Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA), the government agency in charge of the pre-school sector, said it has been working with various government agencies to explore the use of atypical spaces for pre-schools. It added that the report gives more ideas for consideration.

Mr Lee said that the exercise need not stop at pre-schools. Spaces for other social services, such as senior activity centres, nursing homes and hospices, can also be re-imagined.

"These spaces need inspiring and attractive architecture to help turn the 'not-in-my-backyard' syndrome into a 'please, in-my-backyard' attitude.

"Our decisions in space allocation communicate our societal values, signalling what and who we consider to be important."

Calling young parents: Want to win the new iPhones recently announced? Lien Foundation has partnered ST's Education Community to present its project A Different Class: Pre-school Spaces Redefined. The philanthropic house aims to start a public conversation and cast a fresh eye on where pre-schools could potentially be located in Singapore.

See out-of-the-box designs and enter our contest to get your views published so you stand a chance to win:

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