We mostly draw blanks when we tell people that our son, Asher, attends preschool at Tambalog. We don’t blame them. While even the smallest set-ups these days have at least a Facebook page for publicity, there is very little information to be found about Tambalog on the Internet. It’s run by a team of early childhood practitioners and headed by Mrs Thila Chandran, an experienced childhood educator who has adamantly not advertised Tambalog (for a thousand good reasons, in her view) except by word of mouth all these years. You would most likely have heard about this 40-student outfit from a friend, if at all.
I fell in love with Tambalog…a meeting place sometime in 2012, when I visited the black-and-white colonial house it was formerly located in, to interview one of the teachers for an assignment. Children freely playing in a muddy puddle greeted me as I walked up the private driveway of 16 Evans Road. The ground was littered by a windfall of mangoes, courtesy of the brief but heavy shower that morning.
I was charmed not just by the other-worldliness of the environment, but also the impression that children were allowed to exercise their independence, whether indoors or outdoors. The little ones as young as 18 months knew exactly how to feed themselves from their lunchboxes, which were packed from home. It was, to me, as close as to Totto-chan’s school (Tomoe Gakuen in the children’s book by Japanese TV personality Tetsuko Kuroyanagi) as a Singaporean preschool could be.
I correctly sensed that Tambalog was different, in the best possible sense of the word. A school which lives by the words “faith”, “hope”, “love”, and “joy” simply has to be.
Like Tomoe Gakuen’s principal, Mrs Thila, an early childhood educator with 23 years of experience, has her unique vision for Tambalog. She established the school to be a meeting place for children to “close their eyes and listen to their hearts and see the magic within… where children feel the rhythm in their hearts and dance to the music of their souls.” This means that children are invited to breathe, sit back, relax, and simply just be children. Mrs Thila believes that this creates individuals who are able to relax and stay calm in order to observe, learn, focus, and listen.
Tambalog is also a meeting place for children to play, both freely and with rules. As such, Tambalog’s niche is sports as it stems from play. The preschool has a fully trained physical training instructor on its permanent staff to take the children on at least one PE lesson per week. At the end of the year, the graduating K2 class compete in a small-scale triathlon, and the K1s have Sports Day. These (non-ticketed) events are well-attended by parents, who celebrate with the children when they complete the races and games.
Apart from sports, a child’s time at Tambalog is characterised by plenty of outdoor play, socialisation, exposure to nature, autonomy, negotiations, and simply being themselves.
To prepare the children for literacy, the teachers do an exercise called “patterning” with them at the beginning of K1. Instead of having to use a pencil to write their ABCs and numbers, they work, without any interference from teachers, with push pins to dot letters of the alphabet, shapes and numbers, which sharpens fine motor skills. They are also asked to draw items that begin with the letter sounds, which reinforces their lessons in phonics. Instead of being given worksheets, students are presented with plain jotter books so as to encourage independent expression and interpretation. Worksheets are only presented in the last quarter of the K2 level.
Tambalog’s unique approach to education extends to reading. Children are observed as to their aptitude and willingness to learn how to read. As the children mature during K1, they are taken for individual reading lessons with their teacher, so that learning can take place at a comfortable pace for each child.
But the best thing I really like about Tambalog is how they train children to be emotionally resilient. For example, the school takes a very different approach when handling bullying. Instead of taking a top-down approach whereby a grown-up will come and sort things out, children are taught how to react and reply when confronted by bully-ish behaviour. Children are taught to say “No,” “Stop it,” “I don’t like it,” “It’s my turn,” instead of “I’ll tell!” Of course, they are free to tell, but the essence of it is: They are the masters of their social dynamic.
At the end of 2015, Tambalog reluctantly moved from 16 Evans Road to the Old Fire Station in Upper Bukit Timah Road when its 12-year lease with the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) expired and could not be renewed. Despite many attempted appeals and pleas to authorities, SLA was adamant that this unit, along with a few others also in Evans Road, would be set aside for the expansion of the NUS Institute of Policy Studies. Sitting right across the road from the Co-Curricular Activities Branch (CCAB), Tambalog’s original location was perfect because children had easy access to the swimming pool and track and field. This is important because of the annual Tambalog triathlon.
That said, true to its philosophy and tradition, Tambalog has continued with its sporting events and activities even after the move.
During the interim period when Tambalog was still waiting for its new premises at the Old Fire Station to be renovated, Mrs Thila actually operated the school out of a function room at the Hollandse Club, with frequent field trips for the children. Instead of charging school fees, she asked the parents to cover her for entrance fees, transportation, and the cost of renting the room at the club. She was willing to do this because Tambalog believes in the spirit of thanksgiving and gratitude. Therefore the fee reduction was a gesture of goodwill to all parents who supported the school during the painful move and trusted the Tambalog team to build up the school again, no matter where the new location was, she said.
As you can imagine of a preschool which doesn’t compromise on what it feels is best for the children, Tambalog doesn’t really cater to mainstream expectations. Parents, especially Singaporean parents who are very concerned about academic progress, might want to know whether further enrichment classes are required outside of Tambalog. As a self-confessed Asian tiger mum, I signed Asher up for math and Chinese enrichment classes last year, to build up his confidence (and mine) for Primary 1. So, some might say, if you’re an Asian tigress, then why bother with Tambalog?
Because I felt that Tambalog offers an education in areas not available anywhere else. Believe me, I’ve looked. I can send Asher to any kind of class to brush up on arithmetic and literacy, but I haven’t been able to find another preschool which nurtures a child’s innocence in an organic way like Tambalog does.
To help you decide whether Tambalog is for you and your cub, here are two lists of what you WILL find and WON’T find here. You can take it as the TL;DR version of this lengthy article.
What’s at Tambalog:
– An international community of students.
– Lots of opportunities for supervised outdoor play. There’s a wet pool, trampoline, swing set, basketball court, and a garden area.
– A bilingual education. Children have Chinese lessons daily. Chinese is the only mother tongue language taught at the school.
– A qualified Phys. Ed. teacher takes the kids for their weekly PE lesson and trains them for the triathlon.
– Music class with a qualified Kindermusik instructor. Cost is included in the school fees but materials are charged separately.
– Ukulele class with abovementioned music instructor when kids go to K1. You do not need to purchase an instrument for your kid.
– One-on-one drumming lessons; cost is already included in the fees.
– Swimming lesson on Monday afternoons at $20/session with a qualified swim coach.
– Baby/child massage sessions in a dedicated massage room with Tambalog’s in-house massage therapist. Last year when Asher was in K1, his class gave their mothers a relaxing half hour massage as a Mother’s Day gift.
– Yoga for those K1 and above. Bring your own yoga mat.
– Weekly cookery class for K2s. After PE on Thursdays , they go to a real kitchen next to Spruce that is equipped with the necessary appliances for baking and cooking warm meals.
– Birthday celebrations at Tambalog are hosted by a child from the K2 class who will don a sports jacket for the event. As per tradition, those in the K1 class will play a ditty on their ukuleles for the celebration.
– A yearly project each level will work on and then exhibit at the end of the year. Last year, the K1 class worked on learning Monet’s Impressionist painting techniques in their own replication of his water lilies.
– Rock-climbing for the K2s during school holidays.
– Direct communication with the principal, who is herself involved in the teaching of the children on a day-to-day basis.
– A school calendar which includes two weeks of school holidays during summer (July/August) and another few weeks in December. This is to ensure that the staff get ample rest and are not overworked. The school calendar changes every year and is issued only in January. School fees still apply during holiday periods.
– An excellent teacher-to-student ratio of about two teachers for every six to 12 students, depending on age group. The younger classes are largest while the K2 class is smallest, as those attending international school will start the year at their new school. The school makes no attempts to increase the numbers in the K2 class, as they believe that the smaller the group size, the better prepared the K2 children will be at their academic work, when transitioning to local primary school.
What’s NOT at Tambalog:
– Racial discrimination. Children of all races and religions are welcome.
– Children who are left to “cry it out”, whatever the reason.
– An “enrichment classes” menu. Some preschools may require you to sign your child up for additional enrichment classes should you prefer them to be engaged in some sort of meaningful activity in the afternoon.
– School-provided meals. The school does not cater meals. You will need to pack snacks and lunch for your kid.
– Uniforms. Children can wear almost whatever they please. They have a PE t-shirt with the school logo to wear on PE day and Sports Day, but that’s about it.
– Yakult subscriptions.
– Processed beverages such as MILO are not served.
– Late fines. But parents generally don’t abuse this.
– Concerts and performances where you have to buy a ticket to watch your own child perform.
– Those official-looking, detailed progress report folders you might get if your child is enrolled at a brand-name preschool.
Asher leaves Tambalog for the primary school rat race at the end of this year. I’m curious and nervous about how he will fare, but when it gets overwhelming, I’m sure all he needs is to close his eyes, listen to his heart, “and see the magic within.”
If my exuberant spiel about Tambalog has convinced you to consider it a potential choice for your bambinos, please call 6734-5538 or e-mail [email protected] for an appointment to view the premises. Tambalog is located at the Old Fire Station, 264 Upper Bukit Timah Road.