Kate has just started preschool. Hooray for mummy! I have chosen a school near our home, one that is cosy, with a small enrolment. She will start off with 3 hours a day (8.30 – 11.30am), moving on to 4 hours as she gets older. I find this timing perfect as she comes back and has her nap from 12-2pm.
These days, the range of preschools available is simply mind-boggling. Besides the PAP, church-based and Montessori ones, there are the play-based, right-brain-left-brain, Emilio Reggio, and ‘branded’ preschool chains with long waiting lists.
So how did I go about choosing the one that suits Kate best and what advice do I give my friends who ask me this million-dollar-question? Having had the experience of putting the 5 older kids in 4 different preschools, here are 6 things I would suggest you consider.
1. Your priority
To begin with, you need to sit down with your spouse and decide what are the top 3 priorities you want out of a preschool. The truth is, there is NO preschool which is the best. Yes, I know all parents want the best for their child, but every preschool has it’s pros and cons, with different philosophies and approaches, and other factors as well.
It is virtually impossible to compare apples to oranges. For example you might really like a particular preschool’s curriculum but it may be very far, or the only available slot is the afternoon session when it is your child’s nap time. Which ranks higher on your priority scale? The curriculum? Protecting your child’s natural nap schedule? Or having proper sit down meals at home? (I know of preschool kids who have their meals in the car as they get shuttled to one preschool in the morning and a different one in the afternoon).
Then there is the option of either choosing a childcare or kindergarten. If you need the childcare option, it is simpler as you rule out the kindergartens. However if there is someone at home taking care of your child, you can either choose to enrol your child in a kindergarten or if you like the curriculum in a particular childcare, you can choose the half-day option. There are government subsidies for childcare centres but not for kindergartens.
What I advice my friends to do is to jot down their priorities. Do you prefer more play or more academic work? More emphasis on Chinese? Outdoor play everyday? Extras like speech and drama? Aircon or non-aircon? I personally prefer a non-aircon environment as it minimises the spread of viruses going around.
After listing it all down, rate it in terms of priority. Then try and match it with the preschools you have shortlisted.
Without knowing your priority, you will be easily swayed when friends tell you they heard that this school is very good, or that school has a long waiting list “so it must be good”, and you will be confused all over again.
Once you know what you are looking for in a preschool, you can start checking out the available options closest to your home, office or parents’ home (depending on your family’s transport arrangements).
Personally, I will never drive from one end of the island to another as I believe there are no schools out there way above the others to warrant the inconvenience and time wasted, not to mention having the child endure the long commute every single day. I would rather use the time to have a proper sit down breakfast together or let the child have enough sleep and be well-rested.
Instead, I will try to achieve the desired outcome with different means. For example, if my top priority is to immerse my child in a Mandarin speaking environment but the reputable preschool which is strong in Mandarin is too far away, what I could do is to engage a native Chinese university student to come over twice a week to converse with Kate. That’s 2 hours free babysitting as well!
I have seen how teachers have impacted my 5 kids (both positively and negatively) during their kindy years, so this is also one important aspect to consider. As the child is very young, the teachers who are in direct contact with the child is very important for 2 reasons.
Firstly, it takes a young child time to get used to the teacher before she builds a bond with her. If the teacher keeps changing every few months, it will be unsettling for the child. Secondly, as the child is unable to articulate all that is happening in school, if a teacher is not treating the child well, we may not know what is happening until much later. Thus I would choose a school where the teachers genuinely care for the children.
Insider tips to find out if the teachers are good? The best way is to ask friends or neighbours with kids already in the school. If not, go earlier or linger around after the scheduled appointment with the principal and see how the teachers interact with the kids and if they look happy (yes, both the teachers and the kids). I will also ask about the teacher turnover rate, and would not put my child in a school with a high turnover rate.
I firmly believe that young children should be guided to open their minds at this early age. They should be exposed to a lot of different experiences, topics, modalities, and of course a lot of play and experimentation. I would not choose a school where there is too much desk time and worksheets. It is easy for teachers to simply hand out worksheets and get the kids to sit quietly to do pencil work.
I would choose a curriculum where the teachers are actively engaging them, telling them stories, singing, and getting them to explore. As they move into Kindergarten 1 and 2, the focus will gradually be more on acquiring the skills and knowledge for primary school, hence there will be more table work, which is understandable. However, I would still expect them to be taught to think, be creative, and have ample opportunities for hands-on experiences.
5. Good fit for your child
When my son entered preschool at 2, I knew I had to send him to a different school from his 4 older sisters. Being a very active boy, there was no way he could sit for 30 minutes in a big group of 20 listening to the teacher standing in front of the class. In the end I opted for a Montessori close to our home as he would be free to roam and explore and to learn via a more hands-on approach.
When he was in K1, I decided to switch him to a different kindergarten because he was now ready to sit for longer periods of time. It was not that the Montessori system is no good, but gradually, the one that he was in was filled with children of one particular foreign race and they interacted with one another and left him out. None of them spoke Mandarin and the Mandarin lessons were conducted mostly with English translations, so I decided to move him. He settled down immediately and made new friends on the first day. Having seen that, I am of the opinion that it is fine to change preschool if there is a problem as most kids are able to adapt very quickly.
In fact, I made the mistake with #3 which I regret. In her K2 year, the teacher resigned due to health reasons. Most of us parents decided not to pull our kids out as we thought it was just 7 or 8 months left and they would miss their friends, and have to get used to a new school all over again. The replacement teacher left within a short few months. At that stage, a handful of her classmates switched to other schools. We stayed on. The next replacement teacher was pretty dismal as it was hard for them to find a good teacher at such short notice during the year end. In the end, #3 “wasted” almost the entire K2 year and hardly learnt anything at a time when other children were going full steam ahead in preparation for primary one.
6. Look beyond the hype
It doesn’t necessarily mean that those branded preschools with many awards such as “Best preschool 2014” are really the best. I found out that to be awarded the ‘best’ preschool, one of the criteria they looked at was the percentage increment of enrolment in that year. Hence, a new school that started with just a handful of students would find it much easier to snag that title compared to another which is already running at full capacity. Even within the same chain, different branches can vary significantly, depending on the owners/principals (if they are franchises), the management, and the teachers.
Sometimes, the curriculum which has been drafted sounds absolutely amazing, but can they really carry out what they promise? The delivery of the curriculum is critical, and is an important factor that most parents overlook.
Some centres are decked out with interactive displays, fancy gyms, or child-sized pretend play centres. The school might look very impressive, but if the ‘software’ is not there, I won’t be taken in by the ‘hardware’.
Sane tip: I much prefer small to medium sized schools where the teachers have been there for ages (better still if the teachers are the owners and they started this school because they were very passionate about early childhood education). Because to me, preschool is a time when their natural love of learning should be nurtured, in a safe and happy environment.
Save tip: It doesn’t mean that the more expensive the fees, the better the school is. Sometimes, the big brands have a huge marketing budget to portray a professional image, but in reality, the quality is similar to a more reasonably priced preschool.
Hope this helps to navigate the maze of options out there.
6 tips to choose a primary school for your child
6 tips to Really prepare your child for P1