SingaporeMotherhood | Preschooler & Up

December 2012

Pre-school Education and Enrichment: A Cross-cultural Experience

Mention the word “enrichment” and what springs to most parents’ mind is most likely a Saturday afternoon spent ferrying junior from Speech and Drama class to Music, Art or Abacus lessons, followed by an evening of swimming lessons or a play-gym session. However, after spending a year in Scotland, with my then three-year-old son, I came home with a broader perspective on how, as a parent, I could enrich my child’s life.

Exploratory Play

Suspecting that the emphasis of pre-school education overseas would be different from the academically-oriented one in Singapore, I packed at least 20 kg worth of books and educational materials for my stay in Scotland. Fearing that my son would not be able to catch up with his school’s syllabus upon our return to Singapore, I had intended to supplement whatever he learnt in his Scottish pre-school with what I had brought.

I had a culture shock within the first week when I realised that pre-school was effectively play-school. Of the two-and-a-half hour session each day, only 40 minutes were dedicated to structured activities such as story-telling, group discussions, singing or exercise sessions.

The children were encouraged to play with whatever caught their fancy for the rest of the time. The classroom was attractively laid out with a craft section, computer stations, musical instruments, sand and water play areas and corners for role-playing and reading. To keep the children interested, the themes and toys for each area were changed regularly.

Teachers sought the children’s opinions when planning the curriculum, from the theme which they wanted for their role-playing area, to topics for group discussion, right down to the type of snacks they wanted for each day! As far as possible, the teachers would try to accommodate their requests. Having always taken a structured approach in teaching my son, I struggled with the idea of giving three-year-olds so much say in their curriculum.

In Singapore, my son used to bring home worksheets which assured me that he was learning his alphabet and numbers. In Scotland, he was assigned his own drawer to fill with whatever he did for that day.

There were weeks when he came home with only bits of paper cut into shreds —- which told me that he was learning how to use the scissors. At other times, he brought back paper that was stapled with numerous bullets or riddled with holes made by a hole-puncher, or a pebble collection from the school playground. I began wondering what he could possibly learn when he was given the autonomy to choose his activities each day.

However, after several months at his pre-school, I came to appreciate the advantages of this student-directed (as opposed to teacher-led) style of learning. My son was allowed to explore his areas of curiosity and he developed a creativity that would otherwise have been stifled if he had been bound to colour worksheets or trace letters and numbers under a fixed syllabus.

He was encouraged to articulate his opinions and explore his ideas, and in the process, grew in confidence and independence during that year. All these took place in a context of mutual respect between teachers and students such that he also learnt the basic values and manners of courtesy.

Enrichment Lessons

Unlike in Singapore, where tuition and enrichment centres sometimes take up an entire level of a shopping mall, I did not see a single centre in the Scottish city malls, which were strictly for shopping, dining and entertainment. There was only an occasional advertisement offering private tuition in the newspapers.

While holiday classes in Singapore go along the lines of “Primary One / PSLE boot camp”, the activities advertised for Scottish school holidays included “Teddy bear picnics”, “Mud pie making”, traditional or modern dance, or an excursion to the rock pools by the sea.

I asked the only other Singaporean mother I knew in Scotland what she did to nurture her intelligent and bubbly five-year-old. She replied, “Oh, we just do fun stuff. I guess he picks things up along the way.”

As I began to do “fun stuff” with my son too, I realised how much he was learning through each experience—lessons which were perhaps better understood than if I had attempted to teach him from books.

Science Enrichment and Mental Arithmetic

We went for “treasure hunts” in parks and took long nature walks along rivers and through the woods, trying to spot elusive squirrels, birds and deer, or unusual plants.

Away from the constant rush of a Singaporean lifestyle, we could afford the time to stop and observe our surroundings. My son asked questions about everything around him, and we explored the answers together. He learnt about the life cycle of plants as we studied the shrubs and trees over the four seasons. We made bubbles with different liquids to understand surface tension, and he learnt about the refraction of light as he looked through our water jug over a leisurely lunch one day. During bus rides, we counted objects which we passed and played number games. Our surroundings, rather than enrichment centres, became our classroom.

Music Lessons

Unable to afford a musical instrument or music lessons in Scotland, my son’s only “music enrichment” was through the numerous free concerts which we attended. Unlike Singapore, where children under six are barred from many performances, my three-year-old was welcomed at concerts where both classical and world music were featured.

He was exposed to the Indonesian gamelan, steel pans from Trinidad and Tobago, Scottish bagpipes, and even Puccini’s opera, Madame Butterfly. Through all these, my son’s interest in music grew. He began making up his own tunes which I then transcribed for him.

Play Gyms and Speech and Drama Sessions

As an over-protective first-time-mother, I had taught my little boy that everything was either dirty or dangerous. I observed the freedom which Scottish children were given to explore and play, and slowly encouraged my son to try new things at the playground as well.

I watched as my wee lad, who was initially too cautious to attempt anything, grew in confidence and dexterity on the balance beam, rope bridges, and “spider webs” which he climbed. As he played, he would often make up stories and act them out, occasionally pretending to be a fireman going through all the obstacles to save his imaginary friends.

Returning to Singapore

After a year of doing “fun stuff” in Scotland, we brought home our 20 kg worth of books —- almost untouched except for a few. As expected, the first report card which we received from his Singapore school noted that my son was still unable to hold a pen with a “tripod grip” or recite nursery rhymes well, and that his grasp of Chinese had gone down the drain!

Yet, I did not feel that my son was disadvantaged for having missed a year in the Singapore system and not having formal “enrichment classes” — he caught up with his peers within months.

We’ve been back for over a year and my husband and I continue to give him the autonomy in choosing the “fun stuff” which he would like to do. While I’ve heard of his peers bargaining their way out of yet another enrichment class, or being punished for not practicing the piano, my five-year-old surprises me with his idea of “fun”: he is obsessed with multiplication tables, practices the piano with as much enthusiasm as he plays with his Lego bricks, enjoys travel and culinary DVDs, and prefers a 10 km trek to and from MacRitchie Reservoir’s tree-top walk over a shopping mall playground.

Beyond the knowledge and skills which he had picked up during our year abroad, I’d like to think that his horizons have been broadened beyond the classroom and his appetite for learning whetted by all the “fun stuff” that we had done.

Hopefully, this freedom to explore will allow him to develop a self-motivated, life-long love for learning. More importantly, I hope that these experiences will form a part of his happy, carefree childhood memories, and that his life will be richer because of them.

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Pre-school Education and Enrichment: A Cross-cultural Experience