SINGAPORE - When Ms Yeo Siok Ee's six-year-old daughter, En Rui, was given a project in Kindergarten 2 recently to envision a neighbourhood, she wanted it to have a playground that everyone could access.
The teacher's prompt was for the neighbourhood to be an inclusive community, so En Rui said she wanted to have tactile guiding systems on the ground for the blind and visually impaired, as well as ramps for wheelchair users and benches for the elderly.
"These are powerful seeds to be planted in the children and hopefully it will stick with them," said Ms Yeo, 37.
This is the value of inclusive education - the hallmark of Kindle Garden, Singapore's first inclusive pre-school that was set up in 2016 by social service agency Awwa at the Enabling Village in Lengkok Bahru.
Of the children in the school, 30 per cent have developmental needs. The teachers cater to the varying levels of learning by applying differentiated teaching strategies, said principal Sandy Koh.
For example, if a class of three-year-olds is having an art and craft session to learn to identify shapes, those who are more well-versed will be asked to draw the shapes, helping them to further develop their fine motor skills.
Six years on, both parents and the school's educators continue to extol the value of having children with and without additional needs sharing the same classroom.
They can learn to interact with and respect children who are different from them while also learning at their own pace, said Ms Koh.
Ms Yeo and her husband believe so firmly in the value of such an education and environment that they decided it was worth the additional commute to keep En Rui and her younger sister En Xi, who's four, in the school after the family moved farther away in end-2019.
Two years ago, En Rui was assigned as a buddy to a boy with added needs and she initially did everything for him, said Ms Yeo.
As a buddy, she was meant to help him learn and grow on his own, and provide help only when he needed it, said Ms Yeo, adding that it is a powerful concept for a four-year-old to grasp.
Senior teacher Vyvyan Gan highlighted some examples of how the children with different abilities support one another, such as when one child slows down for another while running so they can exercise together, or when a child says his friend just needs space when his peer is having a meltdown.
She said: "These are just reminders of how the wheels of inclusion are already in motion and can progress organically without additional intervention, if the foundation of an inclusive environment starts off properly."
For Ms Geraldine Tay, 34, a pastry chef, it was a relief to get a spot at Kindle Garden in December 2020 for her son Zachary, who is four now.
At his previous pre-school, the teachers said he was exhibiting symptoms of autism, for which the school could not provide adequate care, said Ms Tay.
His overall development has since improved and he can now express himself more verbally. "Before, he wouldn't even call papa or mama, but one day he started to express verbally if he was happy or not," she added.
Kindle Garden has been facing a decline in enrolment numbers by about 10 per cent each year since 2018, said Ms Koh.
It has 56 children currently but can take in up to 90. Its highest enrolment was 85.
One major reason was its inability to hold physical open houses for parents during Covid-19, though this is now resuming, said Ms Koh.
Other factors are its location in a mature estate and competition from about 30 pre-schools within a 1km radius that range from anchor operators, which receive government funding to keep fees at a cap, to private operators, whose monthly fees could be in the thousands.
Kindle Garden offers full-day childcare for children from 18 months to six years, with monthly fees ranging from $980 to $1,800, said Ms Koh.
This is before government subsidies such as the financial assistance scheme, which can see low-income families paying as little as $5 monthly.
But the pre-school and Awwa know the value of the institution and are keen to continue to spread the benefits of inclusion.
Ms Ng Lee Lee, head of disability and inclusion at Awwa, said: "Our aspiration of seeing a more inclusive society is gradually taking form with each new inclusive pre-school being built or each new inclusive practice being trialled and embedded in pre-schools across the nation."
She added that while parents of typically developing children may have once viewed inclusive pre-schools as having simplified curricula that may not be adequate for their children's development, many parents now view them as an opportunity for their children to have an added advantage over their peers.
Kindle Garden hopes to continue to be a trailblazer in the early childhood space and work with partners to encourage more to adopt inclusive practices, said Ms Ng.
For example, it has begun the Awwa Inclusion Expert Series of in-person talks and webinars to share information and skills with professionals to help them better practise inclusion. To date, there have been 10 sessions with over 5,700 participants.
It is also working with the Haring Center for Inclusive Education in the United States to strengthen the pre-school's practices.