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Rethinking Pre-Schools

By Stephanie

Chapter Zero Singapore | Learning | Rethinking Pre-Schools | Photo by Cotaro Tahara

The past decade has seen the mushrooming of childcare and enrichment centres promising to hothouse our children into the next generation of prodigies, from teaching babies to develop a photographic memory to GEP test preparation courses for school-age children.

A lot has been written about the harmful psychological and emotional effects on children of overly academic pre-school programmes. But did you know that such methods do not even deliver on their promises of long-term academic excellence?

Here are three major problems with your typical pre-school:


What skill do you think is the most important for children to succeed in school? You might be surprised to learn that it isn’t reading ability or numeracy, but this thing called “self-directed executive function” - a combination of the ability to decide on their own goals, keep the goal in mind, make decisions that work towards that goal, and control impulses that would get in the way of achieving the goal. All these skills develop through practice, and can’t be explicitly taught.

Chapter Zero Singapore | Learning | Rethinking Pre-Schools | Photo by Jeff Turner

When parents and teachers fill children’s time with too many adult-directed activities, including “educational experiences”, these activities crowd out opportunities for children to engage in the type of self-directed free play that allows executive function to develop. A 2014 study by the University of Colorado Boulder found that the more time 6-year-olds spent in structured activities, the worse their self-directed executive function was.

Although play-based learning is now one of the hottest buzzwords in the Singapore early childhood education scene, the “play” at many centres is structured by adults and directed in a way that helps fulfill predetermined learning objectives. It’s all too common, for instance, to see teachers showing children how to better reproduce a craft that the teacher has already demonstrated, rather than allowing the child to freely use the art materials. The worst programmes are the fast-paced ones that jump from one activity to the next on the assumption that children’s attention spans are too short to cope with longer activities. The best ones have plenty of unstructured free time planned into each day, for children themselves to decide what to do and when to do it.


These days children are expected to arrive at Primary One already knowing how to read and write, so it’s no surprise that pre-schools are obsessed with literacy. But what if we told you that teaching children to read before the age of seven leads to poorer long-term reading outcomes?

In 2012, two studies in New Zealand found that although children who are taught to read before the age of five may learn to read earlier than those who start learning at seven, the late-starters catch up in reading ability by the age of eleven. More importantly, those who started learning to read later showed better reading comprehension, and enjoyed reading more than those who were taught to read prematurely.

Chapter Zero Singapore | Learning | Rethinking Pre-Schools | Photo by Katherine Clark

How then can we get children to both learn to read and love reading? It’s simple - read with them, as much as possible. Not teaching, but modeling a love for reading and showing them how to enjoy the written word.


“Clever girl/boy”, “so guai”, stamps, stickers, and even snack rewards? Research on the pitfalls of rewarding “good behaviour” dates back to the 70s. Yet pre-schools continue to advertise their use of positive reinforcement to manage undesired behaviours.

Positive reinforcement is commonly viewed as the antidote to the punitive and severe Asian parenting and teaching stereotypes. To be sure, rewards are not as emotionally damaging as punishments. But rewarding good behaviour sends a message to the child that the behaviour is only worth engaging in to obtain a reward, and not for its own sake (this is known as the “overjustification effect”). In a situation with no rewards, why would children still behave as desired? In studies on children in Western countries, they don’t.

Worst of all are tangible rewards that children expect to receive beforehand. However, even verbal rewards, such as praise have been shown to backfire. Children who were praised for sharing and helping ended up sharing and helping less than those who had not been praised for good behaviour, and children who were praised for their performance became more unsure of themselves, took fewer risks and gave up more easily.

Asian kids might continue with their good behaviour out of a sense of duty and obligation to their parents, and the good opinion of the community, not because of any inherent joy in learning or genuine empathy. They then end up going through the motions without spontaneity or enjoyment, be it learning, working or sharing. Would it even occur to them to go the extra mile?

No praise can be more gratifying than the thrill of achievement, and no punishment or reward is more effective in the long run than simply holding the line on predefined boundaries, free from judgement or anger. Sharing and helping are spontaneous actions that should be completely voluntary. In none of the above situations is praise really necessary, but if something must be said, descriptive statements like “you did it!” or even a sincere “thank you” can make children feel competent and respected, not manipulated.


Stephanie is the co-founder of Treebubs, an outdoor Mandarin playgroup that nurtures young children’s inborn fascination with nature into a love for Chinese culture and language. Trained in Psychology and Linguistics at the University of Western Australia and University College London, she worked in Singapore’s foreign service before becoming a mother and co-founding Stephanie now works from home while unschooling her two young children, who often accompany her to business meetings. Her work has appeared in Encounters and Wine & Dine Magazine.

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