Early education in Singapore

Rachel Zeng
Guest writer

“So long as he can read, write and is a good boy who gives no problems, we are happy enough because we are busy parents who cannot really spend much time teaching him.” – Father of M

“Does he keep up with the rest of his peers? If he doesn’t, do inform us because when it comes to Primary One, it might be too late for us to do anything.” – Mother of M

“I am depending on you to improve her attention span. She cannot sit still for 10 minutes but I would like to send her to enrichment classes next month and it is important that she focuses. Otherwise it will be a waste of money. It is all very competitive out there, she should get a good headstart before going to primary school.” – Mother of S


Welcome to Singapore. It is a garden (as described by a taxi driver in Shanghai) and a first world nation among other things. While we attain “first world standards” in many regards, our people’s knowledge in the area of early childhood education (ECE) is appalling.

The above-mentioned quotes are from parents whose children are only four years old. At such a young age when they should be enjoying themselves, discovering the world through exploration, imaginative play and such, they are being driven from one enrichment class to another.

What were you doing when you were four, can you recall? I can — fondly. I spent all my time getting into trouble and trying to get my younger brother from following me all over because he was such a pest. But it was hell of a fun! Undoubtedly the results were never pretty as canning was still not frowned upon back then.

Anyway, coming back to the question of early childhood education it is sad to see most parents being so ignorant. As gathered from most of the conversations with Singaporean parents over the past 2 years, the general belief is that preschools are only here to prepare the child for formal education (primary school) besides helping out with their child care load.

As an early childhood educator I find that the Ministry of Community, Youth and Sports (MCYS) is not doing enough to contribute to the awareness of what an early childhood education is about. From what I see, some of their officers have no idea of it themselves. Yet they are the people auditing and assessing the quality in preschools islandwide. This often frustrates me.

So what is early childhood education?

From a local perspective, ECE simply means sending a child to a preschool, be it a kindergarten or a child care centre. This is not so. It refers to the education of a child from birth to the age of 8 in general and it does not have to take place in the absence of parents or caregivers in a formal setting of a classroom or school. It takes many forms, depending on the educational beliefs of the parents or teachers.

To put it simply, it refers to the learning experiences of a child at an early age. So broad is the term that the process of toilet training a child at home is also considered a form of ECE. This is because infants, toddlers and young children learn differently from older children and adults. They learn mainly through experiences and are especially effective if all the five senses are involved in the experiences.

Words like ‘dangerous’ and ‘slippery’ mean nothing to them unless they step on a slippery surface and take a fall. Concepts like ‘high’ and ‘low’ cannot be understood well enough unless, for example, they take turns climbing up a tree and look down from an elevated height. It is only through such experiences that a child begins to understand various concepts of the world.

Conscious and unconscious facilitation by an adult or an older child will further enhance this learning process as they introduce the vocabulary through explanations to build up the logic of an experience. This facilitation is what educationist, Lev Vygotsky, refers to as “scaffolding”. The following are the main areas of development that ECE focuses upon (especially in the very early years):-

1. Social
2. Physical
3. Intellectual
4. Creative
5. Emotional

In between the above areas of development stated, we also have language development as well as the development of morals and sense of responsibility and independence.

Effective ECE is not about training a child to be an instruction follower and adult-pleaser. It is also not just about preparing the child for formal and institutionalised schooling. It is about developing the child into a thinking being who, by facilitation, gradually makes sense of the concepts of life while at the same time maintaining their thirst for further understanding and attainment of knowledge and life skills.

That to me as an early childhood educator, is the most important aspect of my role in the lives of the children under my care. For it to work, the co-ordination and collaboration of effort between parents and educator make a huge difference in the development of children.

May I be so daring as to claim that ECE is as, if not more, important as university education. For how can one even write a thesis without first learning how to develop an idea or thought?

Rachel Zeng is a pre-school educator. She contributed this piece for the SDP website.

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