Enrichment programmes for children from low-income families amid Covid-19 pandemic

Sessions offered by community groups help children spend time at home productively

Children attend an online session of a reading programme by Shine Children and Youth Services and its partners. PHOTO: SHINE CHILDREN AND YOUTH SERVICES
A child attends an online session of a reading programme by Shine Children and Youth Services and its partners. PHOTO: SHINE CHILDREN AND YOUTH SERVICES

Enrichment programmes such as art or drama may be the norm for children during the school holidays, but not all families can afford them.

Thus, community groups and organisations have stepped in to ensure that children from families in the low-income bracket spend their time at home productively, as the Covid-19 outbreak stretches on.

Some have organised remote sessions that involve reading stories and watching plays, while others have delivered learning kits to homes.

Though schools will reopen tomorrow, all students - except those in the Primary 6 as well as Secondary 4 and 5 graduating cohorts - will alternate weekly between home-based learning and classes in school.

Social workers and counsellors said children from low-income families face a multitude of challenges during this period, as they may have no access to extracurricular programmes and are cooped up at home with limited space.

That is why community support is important, they added.

Ms Geraldine Low, director of educational psychology service at Shine Children and Youth Services, said that Shine shifted its reading programme online from the beginning of last month.

Shine works with organisations and groups around Singapore to implement its reading programme. After the programme went online, five out of the 10 groups it works with decided to implement the Reading Odyssey: Stories at Home programme.

"Normally, the programme is meant for primary school pupils, but some of their pre-schooler siblings also join in," said Ms Low.

The sessions curate stories from existing resources like Storyline Online, which features actors reading children's books. The children discuss the stories when they meet on Zoom, and have follow-up activities and quizzes based on the stories.

"We want to complement the school curriculum and support children's foundational skills in reading for meaning. Having understanding will help learning in general," said Ms Low.

Staff and volunteers from Touch Young Arrows - an arm of Touch Community Services - also organise weekly online sessions for children, with topics like time management and cyber wellness. And it holds talent contests to keep the children engaged creatively.

These activities are in place of its usual holiday programmes like movies, games, outings or enrichment workshops, said a spokesman.

Upper-primary pupils also have online coaching for subjects like English language and mathematics, alongside the activities.

"Parents appreciate this breather when these activities take place on Saturdays, particularly as we know low-income families are undergoing more stress and decision-making during this period," said the spokesman.

Another group, ReadAble - which runs literacy and numeracy programmes, mostly for families in the Jalan Kukoh area - is using videos, interactive games, songs, plays and more to engage its 60 children.

For instance, a pre-school class had a singalong session as they watched a virtual concert, while some teenagers are writing reflections on the pandemic.

ReadAble's co-founder Amanda Chong, 30, a lawyer, said: "The teens watched video clips of what people in Rome or New York have been going through. We want them to process what Covid-19 looks like around the world, and show them that we're living in a part of history worth documenting.

"Then we get them to document their own stories and emotions they have experienced. In a sense, it's not just a literary exercise."

Some older children have watched local plays online, and for those who are avid readers, Ms Chong has arranged for books donated by family and friends to be delivered to their homes.

"I started a reading challenge and a spreadsheet to keep track of the books they have read. The students write comments about the books and new words they learn.

"These families don't have the capacity to sign the kids up for enrichment programmes, so we step in to try to provide sessions according to their interests, within our resources," said Ms Chong, who also arranged for online sessions on philosophy for an eight-year-old boy who expressed interest in the subject.

Some organisations are also focusing on helping children and youth cope with their emotions.

Ms Lena Teo, deputy director of therapy and mental wellness services at the Children-At-Risk Empowerment Association (Care) Singapore, said that besides linking needy students to donors for food and laptops for home-based learning, mental health support is also a priority.

"Some children are frustrated and angsty about being stuck at home, with no peer support and no school field to run around in. Some of their parents' incomes have been badly hit, and the adults' frustrations get passed on to them," she said.

She added that although parents may be working from home, "it doesn't mean they'll have the time or know-how to support their kids".

Ms Teo said that with children having more screen time, counsellors are also seeing more cyber-bullying cases and gaming problems.

Care Singapore started an online helpline, Hear4U, in April. It has received more than 700 calls, most of them from students between nine and 17 years old. The rest are adults, some of whom are parents.

"We used to have face-to-face socio-emotional support in schools before the circuit breaker, but now, with everyone isolated at home, our counsellors have to reach out to the students via all means, by phone or video calls," said Ms Teo.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2020, with the headline Enrichment programmes for children from low-income families amid Covid-19 pandemic. Subscribe