With 2020 less than two months away, many parents will no doubt be looking into preschools for the upcoming year. But which one should you pick? Which one can you even dream of being successfully enrolled in? For first-time parents, it’s difficult to figure out where to even start.

Lucky for you, we’ve scoped out the field and narrowed down some really great tips for parents who are new to preschool selection. Read on to find out the five mistakes you should avoid making when choosing the right preschool for your children.

1. Thinking that half-day kindergarten is better

How much time would you like your child to spend learning and developing? In other words, should you opt for childcare or kindy? In Singapore, childcare centres cater to children from 18 months to 6 years of age with half-day (4–6 hours), full-day (7am–7pm), and flexible options. Kindergartens, on the other hand, offer sessions of 2–4 hours for children from 18 months to 6 years old.

The common misconception here is that the only difference between full-day and half-day preschool is extra meals, naps, and playtime.

Parents tend to assume that kindergarten, in particular, is more academics-based because it is more formally structured and mirrors the primary school calendar. They also think that children will learn more because their daily curriculum is condensed into a few hours.

Full-day childcare allows for more learning opportunities of life skills

If you think that the most important objective of preschool education is academic preparation, your expectations could be misguided. Preschool aims to inculcate life skills in children so that they will become independent and more resilient. Eating, showering, and napping are actually opportunities for developing cognitive abilities and practising essential motor skills required to achieve self-care.

When at home, most primary caregivers would button up the preschooler’s clothes, feed them, and perhaps wrestle to put them down at naptime. However, at a childcare centre, a preschooler would be encouraged to attempt these tasks by themselves, with a view to achieving self-reliance. That’s why a child who has been through full-day childcare is usually more independent than one who has only been through kindergarten.

Children are more independent and learn about life skills when they spend more time in preschool.
Children are more independent and learn about life skills when they spend more time in preschool.

Deeper learning occurs when relationships are built

Young children thrive on routine. Routine and structure establish important habits and give children a sense of security. Routine care also helps children build relationships with their caregivers, allowing for deeper learning to occur as the child feels settled and at ease.

Being in the centre for the full day allows caregivers time to observe the child, and allows them to try things at their own pace.

A child feels safe, secure, and can learn better when there is a strong relationship with the caregiver.
A child feels safe, secure, and can learn better when there is a strong relationship with the caregiver.

Unlike kindergarten, childcare centres are opened throughout the year

A major advantage that childcare centres have over kindergarten is that childcare centres do not have school holidays like kindergarten. As childcare centres are open throughout the year, they are great for working parents who cannot find alternatives during school holidays.

Other advantages of full-day childcare

Other than hands-on learning, full-day childcare also has a strong academic component. And it seems that on average, full-day pre-schoolers tend to do better than their kindergarten counterparts.

Another plus point of full-day childcare is the greater development of the children’s social skills. Dawn Sim (@thatmomoffour), a business owner and yoga-pilates coach, transferred two of her daughters over to My First Skool from another preschool with shorter hours because she “wanted them to have more interaction with their friends”.

2. Thinking that price equals quality

According to the Straits Times, parents may “perceive more expensive [childcare] programmes to be better”. But regardless of fees, experts point to leadership, teacher-child interaction, and engagement with parents as vital indicators of quality. Factors such as a conducive environment for learning, opportunities for parental partnerships, and anything that can value-add to the curriculum must be considered too.

When you tour a preschool and assess it for suitability, the environment is probably the first thing which arrests your attention. But it shouldn’t just be pleasing to your eyes. My First Skool preschools are designed based on seven design principles: 1) safety and health, 2) age appropriateness, 3) comfort and softness, 4) competence and autonomy, 5) order and consistency, 6) aesthetics, 7) privacy and social space.

The environment at this My First Skool centre is designed with the children’s competence and autonomy in mind.
The environment at this My First Skool centre is designed with the children’s competence and autonomy in mind.
A separate dining area where multi-age integration occurs. With the large glass panel windows, children can observe and connect with what is happening outside the centre, creating social interaction opportunities between the children where they can chat about the weather and happenings in the park.
A separate dining area where multi-age integration occurs. With the large glass panel windows, children can observe and connect with what is happening outside the centre, creating social interaction opportunities between the children where they can chat about the weather and happenings in the park.

With your child away from your side for a solid eight hours every day, you will want to assess the preschool based on their home-school partnerships as they are crucial when it comes to developing your child’s potential to the fullest. My First Skool maintains a strong relationship with parents, with their own parent’s portal app for you to keep track of your child’s activities and progress. They also extend invites to parental workshops, field trips, and other experiences that you can share with your children. Parents are allowed to stay with their children for the first three days to help them adjust, whereas in other preschools they might be limited to just half a day.

Something unique that came up during our research for this article is that My First Skool has a “3 for me” programme in which they invite parents to the preschool to take over a three-hour lesson to impart life-learnings to the children. At the same time, parents can better understand the operations of the school and experience what a day is like for a My First Skool child.

Curriculum is not the same across all brands

The centre should also have in place value-added curriculum to nurture children’s interests. Childcare centres and kindergartens generally do offer a number of enrichment options, which often will have you paying more.

However, we found out that some preschool providers offer niche programmes which are integrated into the curriculum at no extra cost. These include the ever-popular STEM-based learning, arts-based learning, and nature-based learning in conjunction with the Nature Society of Singapore.

That last one might be new to some of us—one such centre is the My First Skool on Segar Road, located within Zhenghua Nature Park, which just opened last year. Children enrolled in this centre, The Straits Times reports, “monitor the 35 species of birds in the park and its surrounding nature reserve”.

Language learning is also a curriculum highlight for My First Skool, with other centres providing Malay Language learning through heritage and a bilingualism programme that is the product of a collaboration with the Childhood Bilingualism Research Centre of Chinese University Hong Kong and NTU’s Early Cognition Lab.

These niche programmes all come on top of My First Skool’s regular relationships-based and inquiry-based learning, meant to develop children holistically in the areas of language, numeracy, general knowledge, motor skills, creative arts, and social and emotional development.

Initially, Dawn says, the greatest pull factor of My First Skool was their dedicated Chinese language teachers and immersion programmes. She wanted her daughters to have more exposure to the language, but they were not picking it up quickly enough in their previous preschool.

Character building is incorporated into regular Chinese lessons, aimed to inculcate core values such as respect, responsibility, honesty and care through engagement, and critical thinking and action. These soft skill programmes are what Dawn grew to really appreciate about the centre, where she eventually enrolled all four of her daughters.

At My First Skool, fees before subsidy range from S$770.40 to S$1,155.60 per month, while fees at Singapore’s most expensive international names can cost upwards of S$30,000 in a year.

3. Thinking that accessibility is not important

It is not uncommon to hear of parents enrolling at an inconveniently-located preschool because of glowing recommendations from friends, or because they like a certain brand name. Such a decision can have a far-reaching impact. Having to drop off and pick up your child on time at a far-flung location may not be the wisest thing to do on a daily basis, especially if both parents are working.

Thanks to peak hour traffic, you may end up being late for work, or being late to pick up your child on time in the evening. But these snafus are completely avoidable when you pick a centre with accessibility in mind.

With more than 140 My First Skool centres nationwide, you can be sure that there is at least one near you. Even if you move house and need a transfer to another centre, the transition process for the child is eased because the environments at My First Skool centres are similar.

4. Thinking that all preschool meals are the same

Over the past few years, reports on mass food poisoning in pre-schools have arrested public attention. More often than not, subsequent investigation revealed that the contamination came from caterers, which the preschools rely on to supply their meals.

This is where My First Skool is different. Instead of relying on a third party to provide catering, meals are cooked and baked daily by in-house chefs and cooks at all My First Skool centres. All food-handling staff are required to attend food and hygiene courses by the Early Childhood Development Agency.

On top of hygiene, My First Skool believes in providing nutrition and balance. They also believe in exposing children’s palates to different spices and cultures at a young age. That is why dishes such as Mee Briyani Goreng and Korma Fish Curry make their rotation on the menu. While they sound sinful, they are prepared according to the guidelines from the Health Promotion Board. So proud they are of their recipes that NTUC First Campus launched a publication earlier this year. You can download 21 of their recipes here and try them out at home.

5. Thinking that all brands are the same, big network or small

All other factors aside, parents usually don’t see the differences between childcare centres operated by big brands and those which are managed by small brands. While location is a big one, network is arguably the most important.

A brand with a large network is more likely to have better trained-teachers, as they have the resources to send teachers for regular courses. Big-brand preschools will also have the critical mass for their staff to have productive peer-to peer-sharing sessions. Plus, they are more likely to have a structured system and clearer set of practices in place.

Other than the meal protocol earlier mentioned, My First Skool also practises a standard hygiene protocol across all its centres. It conducts hygiene cleaning every week at its centres and every day in the case of any hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD) outbreak. They also follow proper standard operating procedures if any child is down with HFMD.

Each centre follows a clear set of practices, like temperature screening and a general health check every morning before each child is admitted into the school grounds. The moment a child shows symptoms of illness, parents will be alerted. In the case of HFMD, quarantine rules will apply.

Smaller brands, however, some of which have more than one CC individually run by different principals, may not have the luxury of such an integrated network and efficient system.

Being part of a big network also allows the preschool organisation more opportunities to partner with a variety of other organisations to offer more options in their curriculum and enrichment activities. They also have the resources and economies of scale to conduct experiential parent workshops.

Conclusion

There are always a ton of factors to consider when choosing a preschool for the first time, but you should be the one to decide what matters most to you and your child. Like Dawn, you might want to give them more exposure to the Chinese language, or perhaps to ground them in the creative arts.

As a frazzled parent having to deal with both work and a young family, it’s easy to just buy into the narrative of ‘higher price, better quality’ or ‘less time spent, less time wasted’. But, as Dawn says, “preschool shouldn’t just be a dumping ground.”

We couldn’t agree more. We hope that these mistakes we’ve highlighted will help you make your child’s first school the very best one.

To learn more about what contributed to Dawn’s four-time success story with NTUC First Campus’ My First Skool, head over to their website for more information now.