SINGAPORE: Carrying a green backpack and wearing the distinctive white, blue and red uniform of Singapore’s largest pre-school operator PCF Sparkletots, six-year-old Larren Kiw smiled shyly as he arrived at his school in Marsiling.
Spanning 3,000 square metres, the bright, airy centre is the anchor operator’s largest yet, with capacity to take in 370 children. There are green walls, a rooftop playground, and lots of space for children like Larren to try their hand at planting – and harvesting – vegetables.
Larren is enjoying the facilities today, but it has not always been the case: This is the third pre-school he has attended.
“When I first put my child in playgroup, it was under the void deck, very crowded and gloomy,” said Larren’s father, Mr Dominic Kiw. “And the air circulation was not very good. Later, I put him in a private school, which was good but too far away, and it was difficult for me to manage.”
Mr Kiw came across the PCF Sparkletots centre through the news and decided to try it out. And it has paid off. The centre, he said, is a perfect fit for his son.
“Larren is able to play outdoors a lot in this mega school, and he can do activities like planting in the school garden, which stimulates his curiosity,” he said.
“Every day, I ask him the same question. 'Larren, how is your day?' And his reply is always the same: I enjoy the school.”
CHILDCARE CENTRES OF THE FUTURE?
Since the first mega childcare centre was opened last year by anchor operator E-Bridge, such large centres seem to have become an increasingly common sight in Singapore. They generally have enrolments of between 300 to 1,000 places, a much bigger capacity than the average 100 places in typical centres sited in Housing Board void decks.
A case in point is the E-Bridge childcare centre at Edgedale Plains, which has space for up to 500 children and is seven times larger than an average E-Bridge centre.
It is one of the five large childcare centres run by anchor operators that have opened since last year. In January, the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) announced that four more will be built by mid-2018, in areas like Punggol, Sengkang and Bukit Panjang.
The four will be run by the Government-appointed anchor operators, who get funding support from the Government and priority in the allocation of sites in HDB estates. In return, they have to keep to a fee cap of S$720 a month for full-day childcare, and ensure that any fee increases are kept affordable for parents.
“This strategy is part of the Government’s continued efforts to meet the demand for childcare places by young families as well as address the accessibility and affordability aspects of providing childcare for young children in high demand areas,” said Dr Chan Lin Ho, senior lecturer of early childhood education at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS).
She explained that large childcare centres may be a more “cost-effective approach” to planning and setting up childcare and pre-school facilities in HDB estates with a high population of children below six years.
“Rather than ... look for eight to ten different sites to cater to 1,000 childcare places, it is more expedient in terms of time and resources to build a large childcare centre that can offer the same number of childcare places.”
International schools in Singapore are also setting up mega centres. The Early Learning Village, which is a collaboration between the Stamford American International School and Australian International School, officially opened its doors on Aug 30. At 50,000 square metres, five buildings - complete with its own swimming pool specially for young children - and 2,100 children, both schools say the village is the “world’s largest pre-school”.
It is open to children of all nationalities, including Singaporeans. About 80 Singaporean children are currently enrolled in the village, which charges fees of about S$14,500 per semester for a three-year-old on a five-day week.
MORE OPPORTUNITIES FOR OUTDOOR LEARNING
Parents Channel NewsAsia spoke to lauded the large, open spaces and ample opportunities for outdoor learning that these mega centres are able to offer.
Mrs Sammie Yeo, who has two sons in the E-Bridge centre at Edgedale Plains, said the large size of the centre gave the impression of “extensive campus facilities”, which she said was a “plus point” compared to most other childcare centres.
“We can see that a lot of thought has been put into creating the different zones in the school to enhance learning, and my elder son raves about the rooftop garden where he and his friends grow and harvest their own plants.”
Ms Pavithra Karunaratne considered several, smaller pre-schools for her daughter, but eventually chose Stamford American after getting a good impression during a school visit. Her four-year-old is now enrolled in the Early Learning Village.
“They have plenty of playgrounds tailored to that age group, swimming and music programmes,” she said. “I can see that her motor skills have improved, and she has benefitted from the facilities.
“It is also good that all her enrichment classes are in one place, and during school hours.”
Indeed, the large size and purpose-built facilities of mega childcare centres mean that operators are able to introduce more creative learning for children. There are “greater possibilities in design and provision of care and education to cater to the needs of various age groups of children”, said SUSS’s head of early childhood education programmes, Dr Theresa Lu.
For example, playgrounds and other outdoor play spaces can be customised to the ages and needs of different children.
The outdoor spaces mean children will have more opportunities to practice their gross motor skills like running, jumping and crawling,” added Dr G Kaveri, an early childhood education lecturer at SUSS.
At PCF Sparkletots at Marsiling, tree stumps are positioned for children to enjoy board games which can be configured by the teachers according to the children’s interests.
“Children have ample opportunities to ride or drive child-sized vehicles in the spacious playground and get lots of sunshine which is essential for health,” said CEO of PAP Community Foundation Victor Bay.
E-Bridge pre-school at Edgedale Plains has dedicated learning spaces like a sand pit, water play area, and technology centre, designed in such a way that activities can carry on even in inclement weather. There is also a garden maze in the school’s rooftop garden.
“Although children in all E-Bridge schools have access to outdoor spaces, children at other E-Bridge centres use public facilities for outdoor play that are usually exposed to weather elements,” said Ng Gim Choo, founder and managing director of EtonHouse, which operates E-Bridge.
“The spacious facilities also allow for more opportunities for hosting community initiatives like gardening activities for parents and members of the community, and teacher training programmes.”
And, in the case of the two international schools, there are also economic benefits to be had in collaborating to open the Early Learning Village.
“The economies of scale is a really useful thing for us,” said Mr Michael Day, Stamford American’s early years’ principal. “We are able to have an amazing swimming facility, and an amazing Hive, which is our big multi-purpose hall used by both the Australian and American side of the school.
“If we had set up schools separately, we wouldn’t have been able to have such an amazing facility that we can both share.”
"Every classroom also has an outdoor space,” added Mr Adam Patterson, head of early years at the Australian International School. “As an early childhood educator or child, being able to come inside and outside to be part of their learning and play is a really unique experience.”
But going big also creates several unique challenges, which SUSS’s Dr Chan highlighted.
For one, she said infection control guidelines provided by the Health Ministry need to be adhered to and incorporated into daily routines. This includes adopting good hygiene practices like hand washing, and having appropriate and adequate cleaning and sanitising of childcare areas and equipment like communal toys and play areas. “This will help to prevent the spread of illnesses,” she said.
“Spaces and places for napping, meals and activity areas should be properly designed and carefully planned to help contain and mitigate outbreaks,” she added.
She also stressed the importance of having good teacher-to-child ratios and group sizes that are not too large. “This is so the quality of interactions between teacher and children would be warm and responsive towards nurturing the children’s learning and development.”
Classrooms and learning environments should also be designed and laid out to create a home-like environment and provide sufficient spaces for small group activities. “These can be alcoves or niches where children can engage in private play by themselves, so they do not need to be in a large group throughout the day,” she said.
E-Bridge’s Mrs Ng noted that manpower is a challenge - not just for those running mega centres, but by the early years sector in general.
“Fortunately, we have a ready pool of passionate and highly trained educators from our existing network of 13 EtonHouse schools and 10 E-Bridge centres."
Both PCF Sparkletots and E-Bridge have teacher-to-child ratios that are within the ECDA guidelines. According to these guidelines, the ratio should be up to 1:5 for a child in infant care aged two to 18 months, 1:15 for a child in Nursery 2 aged between three and four, and 1:25 for a child in K2, aged five to six.
At the Early Learning Village, teacher-to-child ratios range from 1:5 for a child aged up to three years, and go up to 1:12 for a child aged five to six years old.
Mr Kiw agreed that he was initially concerned about the teacher-to-child ratio at PCF Sparkletots. But after Larren joined the centre in January, he learnt that the class size is capped at a “very good size”.
“I saw that the teacher could really monitor and keep note of the activities easily,” he said. “And the teachers in this school are professionally qualified, well-trained and dedicated, and I am constantly kept in the loop.”
And from Larren’s experience, he stressed that when it comes to childcare, bigger is definitely better.
“I strongly believe that Singapore should have more of these schools, because it will benefit the schoolchildren a lot,” he said. “Children of this age really require a lot of exposure to nature to play and learn in an open environment.”