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!


I Delay Sending My Daughter To Pre-School. Here’s Why.

In kiasu Singapore, some parents send their kids to pre-school as young as 18 months, supposedly for them to learn languages, arts and crafts, music, etc., as well as social skills. Unless you’re a Singaporean citizen or enroll in a pre-school run by a religious organization, these schools can charge around SG$1,000 for half day programs and $2,000 for full day programs.

I can understand dropping off the kids at pre-schools when both parents are working and there are no alternative child care arrangement.

But if you do, OR if you’re a stay-at-home parent like me, how much value are you getting from these expensive pre-schools? I’m convinced that you don’t get value for money. Here’s why.

1. You can teach the same skills at home.

By now I have seen more than 10 early education centers, from church-run kindergartens, name-brand schools, Montessori schools to full-scale international schools. They do pretty much the same arts and craft projects that I give my daughter at home. Story telling was pretty much the same as what I do at home. They spend half hour a day doing it, while my daughter and I do this all day! They do excursions. Guess what? I do that too! They do music and movement, and I do a whole lot more of those at home than the daily allocated time at any pre-schools. They do puzzles and building blocks. Yeah … we do that everyday too, by the way.

There is NOTHING that these schools do that I can’t do at home, with the exception of teaching Mandarin by immersion plus REGULAR social interaction with other kids. Not to say that my daughter doesn’t interact with other kids … just not as long or as often.

Anyhow, in one particular school visit today, the program director of the center observed my daughter throughout the one-hour tour -where he allowed my daughter to join the Nursery 1 classrooms (supposedly for kids turning three years). My daughter is the youngest of the lot, having only turned 2 a few weeks ago. And the director said, “Her skills are very well developed for kids her age. Good manners too.”

I tried not to smirk in pride. We have obviously done some things right, and it’s good to have that feedback from a seasoned educator 🙂 His feedback convinced us that our daughter doesn’t need pre-school until at least another year.

2. The cost is prohibitive.

Seriously … $1-2K a month for stuff that you can mostly teach at home?  By doing casual home-schooling using online or DIY materials, organizing play dates plus sending her to weekly sessions of play that I can’t give at home, I spend on average $350 instead of $1-2K a month on her education. She goes to a weekly gym class where she does tumbling, swinging on monkey bars, and obstacle courses. She’s now about to start a weekly music and movement class. Now … to some people, even $350 a month can be a lot. Don’t worry – your kids won’t be scarred for life if they don’t have these state-of-the-art gym classes. Just as long as you take them to public playgrounds every now and then. And sing with them!

3. Once starting school, they get sick a lot

I’m not saying this from experience, but EVERY mom tells me so. I’m not overly worried about it … my kid is super healthy, but for some parents this may be a consideration for delaying enrolling in a school.

4. I value individualized learning experience

I believe I know best how to motivate my child to love learning. I use the principle of “muchness” with her … whatever she happens to be interested in, I use that A LOT to engage her in learning experiences. She’s now obsessed with scribbling. I use that to introduce different drawing mediums, colors, shapes, opposites, animals, etc. She likes seeing me cooking, so we use that to introduce different fruits and vegetables, different movements like chopping, peeling, stirring, sprinkling; and the names of utensils we use. With me, she progresses at her own pace, learning new things using familiar tools that she has already found fascinating. If I can’t get her to engage in 5-10 minutes, I use another tool to introduce the same concept, or let her learn other things first. Simple as that. In a pre-school, unless it’s fully Montessori, she has to follow the class schedule, move on at the same pace as others, using tools that she may not totally find interesting. Would you pay $1-2K a month for such a thing? 🙂

5. What my child lacks in regular social interaction, I can make up through other means.

My daughter is more clingy than other kids, the typical fallout of not sending her to pre-school early. But is this issue worth spending $1,200 a month for daily half-day pre-school program?  I think not. There are ways around it …  play dates, signing up for church’s kids programs, or invite more visitors to the house! The interaction may not be as regular or extensive as spending 3-8 hours a day with the same teacher and groups of friends everyday, but I’m a firm believer that when a kid is ready for school, they will be over the separation anxiety in a few weeks. Max. Regardless of how clingy they originally were.

I’m not a proponent of lifelong homeschooling. We’re definitely going to do 2 years of kindergarten (4-6yo).   I just don’t believe there are significant benefits in spending $$$$$ for a level of education that you can otherwise provide yourselves.