Updated: Aug 25, 2019
Children need positive early learning experiences to foster their physical, intellectual, social and emotional development and lay the foundation for later school success. We have done our research on early childhood education, trawled the country to look at the many different types of pre-schools and came up with a checklist (beyond the obvious factors of location, cost and timing) to help you pick the right pre-school, whether in a nursery/kindergarten, or a childcare setting.
AN INVITING ENVIRONMENT Is there plenty of space for the children to run around? Is there an outdoor area for the children to play? Are the classrooms well-lit with natural light and air ventilation? Are the play items and tables low down, at a child’s level? Are the classrooms chaotic or calm? Are the classrooms cluttered with toys or are they neat and organised? Research says that children learn much better in an uncluttered classroom environment. If you don’t like the overall environment, trust your gut! Bring your child for a trial class and see how your child interacts with the environment.
OUTDOOR TIME The pre-school or childcare centre may have a fantastic outdoor space but the children may only be allowed a short time outside to play daily, if at all. We are BIG on outdoor time, children learn from playing both indoors and outdoors, but being outdoors for a few hours a day will help prevent short-sightedness! If there isn’t an outdoor area, then are there scheduled times for the children to be brought outdoors? If so, when are the children allowed to play outdoors? Ask yourself if the timings are appropriate. For instance, 9 – 10 am is a much better time for children to be outdoors compared to 12 – 1 pm. This may not be a deal breaker if you or your bub’s caregiver gets lots of outdoor time after he or she gets home. Are there climbing structures and playgrounds for a child to develop his gross motor development?
THE TEACHER:STUDENT RATIO The teacher:student ratio should be as low as possible. If your bub is looked after by you, your helper or grandparent(s), remember that he or she is going from a 1:1 care environment to a completely different environment which will be a huge change for him or her. A low teacher:student ratio (1:3-1:6) ensures that your child gets enough attention or help when he or she requires it. This is especially necessary for toddlers, who have difficulty regulating their emotions and need more support at that age.
THE DAILY SCHEDULE Ask for the timetable and take a look at what a child does during the time spent at pre-school. A daily predictable rhythm will help a child settle down, but sufficient time and flexibility must be allocated for each type of play or activity. For instance, if a pre-school only sets aside 20 minutes for outdoor and unstructured play, that may not be enough. Imagine a child just getting absorbed in play only to be directed to go in to wash up.
HOMEWORK/TESTS We would be wary of pre-schools which give out regular homework and conduct tests. Not only is it unnecessary, but there is much research showing that formalised instructional learning in the early years can actually be detrimental.
TEACHING PHILOSOPHY Does the pre-school subscribe to any teaching philosophy? There are so many to choose from – Reggio, Montessori, project-based approach, Multiple Intelligences etc. Which of these appeal to you and for what reasons? Does the pre-school actually follow the philosophy? Research shows that a child-led and play-based approach to learning is usually better than an instructional teacher-led approach in the early years. Is there an appreciation of the importance of imaginative, self-directed play, and toys to support it?
LANGUAGE/CULTURE Do the teachers speak good English? Listen to the children’s language skills too. If it is important for you to raise a child who can mix well and learn from with children from different backgrounds, consider whether the pre-school will provide him or her with a culturally diverse group of peers.
2ND LANGUAGE (E.G. CHINESE) If you would like to child to be effectively bilingual, ask about their 2nd language program. Is scheduled slot of language classes every day or alternate days? If you want your child to be effectively bilingual, you may wish to opt for a bilingual pre-school. In a bilingual English/Chinese pre-school, there are usually always two teachers present in every class – one exclusively speaking in English, and one exclusively speaking in Chinese. If you have a chance to observe a class happening, see if the teachers are committed to teaching the second language properly. We have heard of Chinese teachers frequently conversing in English to the students, or speaking in both English and Chinese in the same conversation.
SETTLING-IN POLICY Most pre-schools have a settling in policy. Some pre-schools allow parents to stay in class for a few weeks while their children settle into pre-school while some have a strict drop-off policy. Pick one which supports your child’s needs, keeping in mind that some children suffer from severe separation anxiety upon entering a pre-school/childcare setting and some children will have little issue settling down quickly at a pre-school. Ask them how they handle distressed children, and how you will be kept informed of their settling in if the pre-school does not allow you to stay for a settling-in period.
TEACHER'S ROLE Most parents will tell you that the teachers make the pre-school and we completely agree. What is the teacher’s background, training, philosophy and experience in teaching or parenting? If possible, schedule a tour whilst children are present (and awake) so that you can watch the interactions between the teachers and the students. Is the teacher warm and kind in her actions and speech? Are the activities child-led or teacher-led? The teacher should be on the side-lines observing, stepping in where necessary to help, encourage or to prevent hurt, asking probing questions and challenging children to comprehend at deeper levels by the nature of the questions they pose. Find out about the turnover rate of the staff/teachers too and whether there is any continuity of teachers through the years. Young children usually form an attachment to one individual teacher so the availability of continued care and support of that teacher through the first year or two will be beneficial.
APPROPRIATE ACTIVITIES Are there televisions or computers for the children to play with? Screen time is best avoided and minimised in the early years. Are there books available for children or is there a reading corner for children? What role does music play in the program? Is all the music recorded, or is there music & movement? Are artistic activities such as painting, colouring and crafts available? If so, are these activities child-led or teacher-directed? You can tell whether the art & craft activities are child-led by looking at them! If they look too ‘pretty’ and neat, chances are that they were not done by the teacher and hence, are of little value. Are the activities developmentally appropriate for the child?
PARENT-SCHOOL COMMUNICATION Will you get daily, weekly or monthly updates? How can you contact teachers if you have questions or feedback?
HEALTH/NUTRITION Ask for the menu and take a look at the meals served. Is the food served nutritious? Children can get ill a lot upon entering pre-school. Consider whether the pre-school is well ventilated with natural air flow and what measures they have in place to prevent the spreading of infectious diseases such as HFMD. Ask what measures the school takes when the haze reaches unhealthy levels during the haze season. If mosquitoes are a problem, does the school take steps to keep them at bay? How does the pre-school manage the nutrition of children with allergies? Are children allowed to bring in their own food?
TOILET-TRAINING Does the pre-school require your child to be toilet-trained by a certain age? If your child is not toilet-trained, will the pre-school work with you to support your potty-training goals?
DISCIPLINE Last but not least, ask how good behaviour is recognised and how bad behaviour is addressed? Are you in agreement with the approaches taken by the pre-school? Parents should prioritise which factors they deem as the most important as it may be difficult to find a pre-school which ticks all the boxes. Ultimately, we believe that a loving and nurturing home is the most important for a young child. That being said, do not hesitate to go back to the drawing board if your child is having a very difficult time settling down at his or her new school. Good luck with your search!
Good luck with your search and trust your gut. Remember that you are your child's first teacher!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shumei is a local girl of Sri Lankan-Chinese heritage. Married to a British architect, she is a working mum by day and a serial multi-tasker by night. She is known in her local neighbourhood as the mother whose kid is always dirty from running around. She believes that she was born to be a mama, and loves being one! She has a heart for pregnant ladies and new parents and wants to support them as they start on their parenting journey, remembering how overwhelmed she felt as a new parent.
Shumei holds certificates in Early Childhood Education and Playwork Perspectives. She also co-founded the Respectful/Mindful Parenting Singapore group on Facebook.