10 things you must know when choosing a preschool or childcare centre in Singapore

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Choosing a preschool or child care in Singapore for your child? Here's what you must know before you shortlist a childcare centre, playgroup or kindergarten for your little one.

Determine the care service or programme your child needs

Playgroup, infant care, childcare and kindergarten are the different types of care services and programmes available in Singapore.

Playgroup is designed for children aged 18 to 30 months old, with sessions lasting from two to four hours.

Elisabeth Lew, principal of Learning Vision Surbana One, says playgroup is a good choice if you're looking for a short programme that allows your child to interact with other kids and help build his social skills. Playgroup is usually adult-accompanied, and the activities, facilitator-led.

Infant care is suitable for children aged two to 18 months.

Fiona McDonald, head of learning support at Chiltern House, says that centres offering infant care may offer half- or full-day programmes.

These centres provide an environment and activities that support the physical, social and cognitive development of your child. Infant-care centres also provide showers and meals, adds Elisabeth.

Childcare centres in Singapore offer preschool programmes on top of the childcare services many working parents need. It is ideal for children aged 18 months to six years old. Childcare centres offer full-day (7am to 7pm), half-day, and flexible programmes to cater to different needs of families. Meals, naps and showers are included.

Kindergarten is curriculum-oriented and doesn't incorporate childcare services. The programme caters to kids aged 18 months to six years old.

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Pauline Leong, principal of Brighton Montessori The Grassroots' Club, says kindergarten programmes usually last for three to four hours. Some are run according to two age groups (for example, K1 and K2), while others may include younger children (from 18 months).

When considering a programme or centre for your child, Fiona says to first consider your and your child's needs. For instance, if you and your spouse work long hours and have no one to mind your child during the day, consider a full-day programme at a childcare centre.

If your child is ready for a more structured curriculum and you'd only like him to be in the programme for a few hours a day, kindergarten could be better.

Make sure the school is in a convenient location

This is crucial since you and your child must travel to and from the child care centre for the next few years.

"It doesn't matter if the school is nearer to home or your workplace," says Pauline.

"The location should suit both parents and not pose any challenge for either parent in terms of sending and picking your child up. If there's an emergency or your child is unwell, it might be easier for you to get your child if his preschool is near your office. However, a location nearer to home might be better if you have someone, like a helper or family member, looking after your child during the day."

Of course, if your child spends most of the day at his grandparents', you may go with a school that's nearer to their home so it's convenient for them to send him to and pick him up from school.

Ask about the curriculum and assess the quality of the teachers and school

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Patricia Koh, chief executive of Maplebear Singapore, recommends a visit to the centre in order to find out more from the teachers about the school's philosophy and curriculum.

"You'll gain some perspective about the quality of the teachers and the way the staff interacts with the children," she explains. "By observing the classrooms and their displays, you can tell whether children are allowed the space to share their ideas and talents."

Ask the staff these questions:

  • What activities do the children do daily?
  • How does the school ensure that the children are prepared for the next stage of their learning?
  • How do the teachers ensure there's a balance between the kids' social, emotional and intellectual development?
  • How well is the curriculum suited to different learning styles, abilities and personalities?

Other quality indicators, like tenure of licence, can be checked with the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA). Childcare centres must be licensed and issued with tenures of six, 12 or 24 months.

Adds Pauline: "Centres with two-year licences have met the ECDA's safety requirements and regulations. However, if the centre has only been given a licence for a year or six months, find out whether the centre is newly established or if it needs to improve in some way before being granted a two-year licence."

Some preschools have Spark (Singapore Pre-school Accreditation Framework) accreditation. Such centres are recognised by the ECDA for its quality programmes.

Check that the school is clean, safe and child-friendly

When you visit, look out for safety or security gates and doors. Patricia says these keep the children safely indoors and ensure they don't wander out on their own or unnoticed.

Furniture and play equipment should be child-appropriate and not have sharp edges, she adds. Procedures, like health and temperature checks, should be standard and carried out regularly, as should the enforcement of hand-washing rules.

There should also be evidence of a cleaning schedule and cleaners on-site. One of the best places to evaluate the school's cleanliness standard is the toilet, says Elisabeth. It should be clean and dry.

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Infectious diseases such as hand, foot and mouth disease, tend to be common in preschools because of close proximity among children and adults, notes Dr Chan Lin Ho, senior lecturer in the Early Childhood Education Programme, School of Human Development & Social Services at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.

"It is also more difficult to ensure good personal hygiene practices and respiratory etiquette in very young children," Dr Chan adds.

Besides having a stringent plan to manage such outbreaks, the preschool mshould have an effective communication system to inform parents and preventative measures, such as keeping sick kids away until they are fully recovered.

Other features that indicate how seriously the school takes the health and safety of the children include air purifiers in classrooms and common areas, and CCTVs.

Candy Low, centre director of Odyssey, The Global Preschool, suggests checking out the neighbourhood the school is in.

"Look out for potential traffic hazards and assess the general safety of the area right outside the centre."

Understand the school's discipline and administrative policies

"To find out how the school manages and disciplines its children, just ask the principal and teachers," says Patricia.

"Trained and experienced educators understand that young children may not always be able to meet the expectations set by grown-ups, so clear and concise instructions must be given if a child is required to respond appropriately."

Positive acknowledgement, in the form of praise, high-fives and hugs, is important to help little ones thrive. This, says Patricia, may help minimise the occurrence of challenging behaviours.

Under no circumstances should the school use physical discipline on the child.

Elisabeth reminds you to also ask about the school's registration and withdrawal policies, new child orientation and other administrative matters. Such information is usually available in the parents' handbook.

Ask about enrichment programmes and facilities

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Every centre offers different enrichment programmes and activities. Fiona says to look for something that works for your child, based on his personality and interests.

"Some centres operate on an 'open' concept with no set classrooms for groups, while others have specific areas for specific age groups," she explains.

"Some children learn best in a variety of settings, but others may need a specific setting. Consider the space, the quality of the materials - for example, are they safe, appropriate and engaging? - and whether the children's work is displayed."

Enrichment programmes add value to your kid's preschool experience. According to Alisa Peeh, marketing communications manager for Stamford Education, an effective programme is one that your child enjoys and helps her develop in various ways.

A project-based programme, for instance, can help improve her teamwork skills, while a speech-and-drama programme can boost her confidence and communication skills.

Adds Candy: "Enrichment classes are optional and should be complementary to your child's holistic development, and not a supplement to her academic development unless really needed."

Know what is and isn't included in the school fees

School fees cover the teaching and learning resources and materials the children need and use daily. They may also include meals and snacks.

What's not usually included: Entrance fees and transportation charges, for example, for excursions, events, and other special activities the school may organise to enhance its curriculum.

The ECDA has guidelines on teacher-to-child ratios, which must be followed by preschools. However, some centres have a higher teacher-to-child ratio (with more teachers around, children receive more attention), which can translate to higher school fees.

How do you know you're getting value for money? Fiona says this relates back to what you want for your child in his early years.

"Observe if your child is happy, engaged, learning and thriving in a variety of areas, then think about how the centre supports and encourages his growth and development and involves you as a parent."

Donna Tan, senior district manager of Pat's Schoolhouse, says it is useful to compare schools or centres for an objective decision.

Enquire about the food served

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Many schools provide meals that are either catered by an outside source or prepared by an in-house chef. One benefit of an in-house chef, Candy points out, is that meals are cooked and served within a certain time frame.

Fiona suggests studying the menu and asking questions that may be relevant to your child, such as: How often does the menu change? Who plans the menu? Do you have specific sources for the ingredients? What if my child's a picky eater?

Most schools cater to children with mild allergies, although it's best to inform the staff if your kid has any allergies or food intolerances prior to enrolment.

"You should also bring up an action plan so the teachers know what to do if your child suffers an allergic reaction to the food," Candy adds.

"If your child's dietary or religious requirements require him to bring his own food to school, be sure to let the principal know, too," says Donna.

Find out what government subsidies you're eligible for

"Subsidies and financial assistance schemes are available to make childcare services more affordable for families," says Patricia. "Parents with children who are Singapore citizens and enrolled in childcare centres licensed by ECDA are eligible for the Basic Subsidy."

The Basic Subsidy amount is based on the main applicant's working status, Candy points out. If the main applicant works more than 56 hours a month, she will receive $150 for a Half-Day Programme, $220 for an Extended Half-Day programme or $300 for a Full-Day programme.

If the main applicant doesn't work, she will receive a subsidy of $150 across the three programmes. For more details, visit the ECDA website.

Explore how you can get involved with the school's activities

Many parents appreciate having close contact with the school and enjoy being involved in school activities.

Ask about the school's channels of communication, reminds Patricia.

Does it send parents updates and announcements via e-mail or snail mail?

Also enquire if the school is open to parent volunteers or has activities throughout the year that you can attend.

Donna says parents may be invited to class to read stories to the children, accompany their child on class excursions and participate in parenting workshops, among others.

This article was first published inĀ Young Parents.