How We Chose Our Daughter’s Pre-School

In Singapore, there are countless pre-schools the search for “the one” is daunting. I  visited over 20 before deciding. So I thought I’d write it to help  parents make this journey easier  🙂

Determine the kind of education you want for your kids

Our criteria:

  1. Play-based / inquiry-based curriculum
  2. Bilingual immersion in English and Chinese
  3. Daily physical (preferably outdoor) activity
  4. A music/movement program that is taken seriously
  5. No homework

With just five criteria, we managed to disqualify MOST schools within 5 kilometers from home. Many schools don’t offer daily physical activity and don’t have a qualified music teacher. There was one school where the teacher was singing off key and, in another, they had musical toys that were not chromatic. Many do not have bilingual immersion. We also disqualified every school in a shopping mall.

Determine how much you’re willing to spend

There was one school I was interested in but costs over $2,000 a month. We skipped it even though we heard many good things about it.

Check school reviews

Check online reviews, but be discerning. My daughter’s school gets consistently poor review by parents who think the school is not “academic” enough and wastes too much time on physical activities and music/movement. The poor reviews are actually my reasons for wanting to check it out!

But there are poor reviews that are off-putting. I crossed out a school for consistent review of “no clear curriculum, teachers not communicating with the parents, lack of discipline”. These are general bad things you want to stay away from.

Then it’s down to the visit

Once you have budget + criteria, your final choice would be dependent on what you see during the visit. Some important notes:

1. Bring your child. There was one school I had high hopes for – the curriculum was play-based, lots of physical activities, teachers very animated … but my child hated the classrooms. They  were tiny with full floor-to-ceiling walls and no natural light … even I felt claustrophobic.

In another, the school was located on such uneven terrain there were so many outdoor stairs to get in and out of the school. I just thought it was safety hazard.

2. Ask what sets them apart from other schools. Some school administrators / teachers have absolutely no idea what makes their school distinct. I cross these schools out immediately for lack of direction / focus.

There was one school that I loved (but beyond our budget) where they have a “library cart” that visits each classroom and every child gets to bring home 1 fiction + 1 non fiction book every week for their parents to read. I like their focus on literature 🙂

There was another school I really like that looks like Little House on The Prairie: huge playground on grass field, fishing pond, tree house, rabbits and chickens, big breezy classrooms that don’t require aircon. If this school is within 5kms from home, I probably would have sent my daughter there.

3. Ask them what they do to prepare kids for P1. This question doesn’t quite apply to me because I just want my child to love learning and develop confidence. But to many of you, the answer to this question could be important.

There was one school that prepares the kids for P1 by introducing a classroom concept (desk + chair for each child) at K1 and K2. There was another that starts introducing worksheet at K1/K2.

I intentionally don’t name these schools because what I find “unfit” for us doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. You can comment if you want to know which schools these are 😀 but hopefully the steps help you out!

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My Take on Raising Multilingual Kids

I grew up trilingual: Indonesian, English and the Javanese dialect. I later spent two years learning Japanese at school (and forgot them all), two years of Mandarin (and forgot most of it other than very basic conversation), and two years of Spanish (which I still speak today).

Now I have a two year-old daughter exposed to three languages at home. So I get a lot of questions on how to raise a multilingual kid. Here’s a list of things that work in my situation:

1. Immersion

The four languages I still use are the products of immersion, not in-class learning. My parents never missed an opportunity to host an exchange student from overseas or entertain a foreign guest. Then they would occasionally leave me to entertain the guest. Ha! ☺

The result: I was already holding up hour-long conversations with English native speakers when my friends were learning “How are you?” in Grade 4.

And while I learned Spanish in a classroom as an adult, I spent a month living in Paraguay after one year of learning and I have friends in Latin America whom I continue to stay in touch with. They use me to learn English, I use them to practice Spanish.

2. Songs

Most people are not lyrical listener of songs, meaning they don’t pay much attention to the full lyrics. I do. Growing up in the 90s, I listened to songs while reading the lyrics until I could sing them by memory. I memorized all NKOTB’s songs to Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby”. Yes, including the rap bit.

I learned a number of bad words along the way, but most importantly I learned how to use words in various context, how words become sentences, sentences become stanzas, and how beautiful it is when sentences rhyme. Through songs, I also learned that Roxette’s lyrics are really poor English.

3. Bed-Time Stories

My mom read me stories since I was little. When she got bored reading the same books over and over, she made up her own stories or told me something about the family. My mom, an English lecturer, passed on her passion for language and literature to me. She never “taught” me to read, but nevertheless I could read at age 5, even before my friends started learning “ini ibu budi”.

4. Story-Telling

My mom and dad were really good about giving me opportunities to tell a story. Their questions were mostly open ended, like, “Why do you think that’s an elephant and not a tiger?” And I would blurt out sentences like because the “nose” is long, it’s grey, it’s huge, and the ears are floppy.

As I grew older, their questions would be more like, “What do you think?”

To them, language skills are never just about vocabs and memorization of greetings. It’s about being able to use it to communicate.

In addition, I should say that my dad only learned English in his late forties and he had no chance of passing an English exam. But he could deliver formal presentations and engage in day-long discussions on serious matters in English. If I’m an employer, I’d hire my dad over someone who gets A in English exams but is a terrible communicator.

5. Less is More

When I was a child, there was only one TV channel. So my dad recorded, like, 10 half-hour cartoons and I watched them over and over and over again. Eventually I remembered the dialogue line by line, and unconsciously learned sentence structures as well as proper (and improper) responses to questions.

There are so many content and materials these days, it’s really tempting NOT to stick to one set of materials or methodology. My advice: continue to use one set of materials that appeals to your child until he/she masters them before moving on.

6. Internal Motivation

I flunked Japanese real bad and managed to learn nothing in two years simply because I HAD to learn it as part of high school graduation requirement. I had no desire of learning it.

On the other hand, I really wanted to speak Spanish and I was conversational within a year even though I only spent two hours a week in a classroom. The rest was me happily and willingly doing my own practice, from listening to Gloria Estefan to chatting to Spanish-speaking friends.

In summary, what I could say to other parents is that my parents never forced language on me. They simply made sure we grew up in a home where good books are aplenty and the use of multiple languages is the norm. The love of linguistics and literature came later, unforced. And they never used flash cards!!!