When play is more than what it seems

When play is more than what it seems

In Amanda Yap’s class, The Three Little Pigs is not a mere fable. It is a way for the children to create hypothesis, make predications, learn problem-solving skills and appreciate the properties of materials.

Using the example of the little pigs building houses from different materials to protect themselves from a wolf, Amanda gets the children at The Little Skool-House to build mini structures from straws, blocks and twigs to see how easily each of them collapses.

This is more than just play, says the 30-year-old who received the Outstanding Early Childhood Teacher Award from the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) in September this year. The ECDA Awards Ceremony recognises exemplary educarers, teachers, leaders and centres that have excelled in teaching and learning, and in their innovative practices.

“It’s intentional play, where learning takes place all the time,” Amanda says.

According to research, children learn best through play where there are hands-on and interactive activities. Such play is structured around an objective and clear learning outcomes. Giving children a variety of boxes, for instance, could be a way for them to build their creativity by imagining different uses for them. Amanda is always looking for innovative ways of teaching to engage the children meaningfully.

She is currently enrolled in the Advanced Diploma in Early Childhood Leadership course at NIEC. Having worked for nine years in the early childhood sector, she says she has come across certain misconceptions about her profession, like “you need to clean pee and poo all day”.

She laughs, seeing the funny side of this stereotype, but points out that seemingly routine care such as mealtimes, and bathing forms part of the curriculum and offers learning and connecting opportunities, “Children learn to be more independent and build their self-help skills”.

“There’s so much more to early childhood education than what many people think,” Amanda says. “It’s really about growing and developing the physical, cognitive, language and social-emotional development of a child. We help foster creativity and imagination, and nurture character building. When an educator provides quality early childhood experiences, has meaningful conversations with a child and builds a strong relationship, these help to develop the child holistically”.

The biggest challenge of her job is when parents are not on the same page with her, she says. Some parents expect their two-year-old to read and write, or compare their child’s performance with that of other children. In such situations, she will talk to the parents to help them understand that each child learns at a different pace.

Asked how she teaches children who need additional help, she says, “It’s about being—that word again—intentional. It’s about observing each child and understanding his unique needs and how he learns, and then planning experiences to cater to these individual needs.”

The rewards of teaching, for her, lie in the improvements she sees children make. Amanda proudly cites the example of “a very introverted child” taking the first step of initiating a conversation with her peers.

“Even if it was just a simple ‘hello’, it was something big to celebrate.”

Find out more about Amanda and the work she does at https://youtu.be/ENTfmjXZ9yA.

 

KidSTART: Kickstarting better child development

KidSTART officer Lee Wei Qi finds joy in “being on the ground, and working directly with parents and young children”. As part of the Home Visitation Team of the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA)’s KidSTART programme, she makes her way to their homes, to equip and empower parents in caregiving.

Since the programme started in 2016, over 900 children have received KidSTART support, in the pilot regions of Kreta Ayer, Bukit Merah, Taman Jurong, Boon Lay and Geylang Serai.

One of KidSTART’s guiding principles, as Wei Qi puts it, is “Parents are the children’s first teachers.” It is therefore crucial to equip parents with the knowledge and skills to nurture their children effectively and independently.

One parent who has benefited from KidSTART support is Nurhidayah Binte Abdullah, a mother of three. Initially, she had allowed her children excessive screen time on the television and their electronic devices, thinking that games and videos would suffice as learning. Following Wei Qi’s visits and advice on the importance of outdoor activities, use of language to engage children and the harmful effects of excessive screen time, she now regularly brings her children to the playground, conversing with them as they develop psychomotor skills.

From being completely silent during Wei Qi’s initial visits, Nurhidayah’s three-year-old daughter is now chatty and vibrant. “When we go outdoors, they are running, climbing and observing things around them,” says Wei Qi, explaining the importance of developing a child’s different senses for learning.

KidSTART’s methodology in this area is guided by the Abecedarian Approach, which is evidence based and developed in 1972 by Dr Joseph Sparling and Dr Craig Remy. Its hallmarks include turning everyday experiences into opportunities for learning, conversing and adding educational content.

KidSTART officers, like Wei Qi, also teach parents songs and rhymes that can be incorporated into daily routines to enhance the quality of interaction for parent and child.

Wei Qi and her team are currently working on a guide with more tips for KidSTART parents to incorporate into their routines. One challenge is customising resource material to make it more accessible to parents, she says, joking that the English in some of the existing textbooks is “a bit cheem” (Singlish for profound).

With her fellow KidSTART colleagues, Wei Qi is also looking to incorporate infographics and localised examples as illustrations for learning. For example, instead of telling parents to bring their children to the backyard, as is common in Western countries, they would tell them to bring their children to the void deck or playground.

It has not always been smooth-sailing for the KidSTART home visitor. Wei Qi says that when she first started, some parents would challenge her, questioning her ability to teach about parenting given that she is not a parent herself.

However, over time, the former early childhood educator and preschool principal managed to build rapport with the parents and they began to see how Wei Qi was able to engage them and their children through her warm, intentional interactions and extensive knowledge of early childhood development. They saw for themselves how well their children responded to the techniques taught by Wei Qi and eventually “let their guard down” and trusted her.

Besides giving individual attention to parents, KidSTART also leverages on peer support through its Group Connect sessions. At these sessions, parents are invited to connect with one another and are happy to exchange telephone numbers. Knowing that they all have common concerns, such as tackling sibling rivalries and ensuring child nutrition, helps to bond the parents too, says Wei Qi. KidSTART also works closely with community partners and if families require additional support, they are referred to Family Service Centres (FSCs) and Social Service Offices (SSOs)

Parents who have completed the programme still keep in touch through a WhatsApp group they created. They share baby items with one another and set up play dates among themselves. They have built their own social support network and are independently keeping their networks going, something which KidSTART supports.

For Wei Qi, KidSTART is not a one-way process. “As much as we are sharing parenting strategies with them, I think we as officers also learn a lot from the families—they are very resilient…despite the stresses they face in their lives.

“Seeing their love and care for the children is really touching and inspiring.”

From preschool to home: supporting a child with learning needs

Ethan Wong, like any other preschooler, enjoys playing with toy cars and Lego blocks. The bubbly five-year-old attends NTUC First Campus’ My First Skool @ Punggol Place. According to his mother Mrs Wong however, he used to have some difficulty following instructions and would be easily distracted in class.

After a screening assessment by his preschool, which identified him as eligible for early intervention services, his parents enrolled him in the Learning Support (LS) programme in September 2018. Under this programme, children with learning needs receive support in their preschools from Learning Support Educators, in areas such as handwriting, social communication, language development and literacy.

In addition to supporting Ethan once a week at his preschool, the Learning Support Educators also taught Mrs Wong how to better support her son at home. She conscientiously incorporates the toys that her son likes into step-by-step instructional games to increase his attention span for example.

Today, after eight months of early intervention support, Ethan is able to stay attentive in class and follow two- to three-step verbal instructions. Mrs Wong says such improvements take time and require support both within and outside of the classroom. “I believe parents need to take part. Parents need to go back and practise more with their kid at home,” she says.

It helps that the LS programme is conducted within the preschool. Mrs Wong does not need to seek external sources of help and can spend more time supporting her child’s development. She also finds it a useful resource for parents who may not be familiar with such programmes, and is a “good start” for children with mild learning needs.

In preschool, Ethan was supported by Ms Veronica Tang, a Learning Support Educator from NTUC First Campus. Ms Tang – or “Teacher Veron”, as students affectionately call her – gives extra guidance to children from My First Skool with developmental needs. Over the course of three months, she conducted 10 early intervention sessions with Ethan. These sessions were customised to Ethan’s specific learning needs, targeted at focusing on tasks at hand and following step-by-step instructions through the use of play and daily routines. Ms Tang provided a progress report to Mrs Wong after each session.

Ms Tang says early intervention services give “peace of mind to parents” because they know they have “additional support” at their children’s preschools.

Recognising the importance of such support, MSF announced in January 2019 that spending on early intervention programmes would be raised to around $60 million per year, up from $45 million previously.

The Ministry further announced in April 2019 the setting up of a cross-sectoral inclusive preschool workgroup to study and develop recommendations to further support children with moderate to severe developmental needs within preschools. The workgroup is co-chaired by Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Social and Family Development Associate Professor Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim and National Institute of Education Associate Dean (Education Research) Kenneth Poon.

And progressively from July 2019 till end 2020, the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) will oversee both early intervention services and preschool services.

These initiatives will ensure better coordination and delivery of the various services for children with developmental needs.

Ms Deniece Bidhiya, Senior Manager (Learning & Developmental Support) at NTUC First Campus’ Child Support Services, says more parents have been enrolling their children in such programmes since the school started offering them in 2012.

Initially, she shares, some parents were apprehensive. A common concern was that their children might feel singled out through such intervention lessons, or be viewed differently by their friends.

“I always assure parents that the Learning Support Educators are professionals and know how to build a relationship with not just the child, but also their peers.”  She adds that the children find Ms Tang’s activities so fun, they sometimes cannot wait for their turns with her.

As Ms Tang describes her approach to education, “Learning cannot be just: ‘Sit at the table, read a book and then write, write, write’. It needs to be engaging.”

Judging by the scene when she walks around the preschool, the students are certainly engaged. They crowd around her, eager to chat and share their latest drawings with her.

Stay-at-home Mom with Peace of Mind

Lee Siok Hong’s family is one of 5,000 households slated to benefit from enhanced child care subsidies. As a non-working mother, the increase in subsidies will allow her to focus on raising her two young children.

Sitting on the couch in her living room, Siok Hong is surrounded by the trappings of home. For most of the day, she tends to her six-month-old baby, Mavis, while her older child, Oscar spends his day at a child care centre.

The 38-year-old put her career in admin and customer service on hold to focus on raising her two children in their crucial early years. With her husband as the sole breadwinner, Siok Hong and her family fall under the middle income category – they do not have to worry about making ends meet, but still feel the pinch of raising a child.

Siok Hong estimates that monthly child care costs for Oscar alone reach up to $450. This adds to the family’s expenses, which include necessities such as diapers for Mavis.

The increase in child care subsidies which Siok Hong will receive from the Early Childhood Development Agency will go a long way in helping her defray some of these costs.

From 1 March 2019, thanks to the Government’s enhanced support for non-working mothers, families like Siok Hong’s can enjoy a further boost in subsidies ranging from $100 to $440, subject to means testing.  It is on top of a $300 monthly basic subsidy.

Besides higher subsidies, Siok Hong can also enjoy these subsidies until her younger child turns 24 months, up from 18 months previously.

Siok Hong recalls that when she took care of Oscar as an infant, she often had to wake up in the middle of the night to tend to his needs. Going to work the next day was exhausting. While Oscar was at infant care, he often got sick and this brought Siok Hong constant worry and stress at work, as she was unable to leave to pick him up.

Instead of having to repeat this tiring routine for Mavis, Siok Hong feels reassured that she can stay home to focus on caring for her.

Read more about ECDA’s announcements here.

More on MSF’s announcements here.

What is a Learning Support Educator?

As a Learning Support Educator (LSEd), Cheryl Goh serves a few PCF Sparkletots preschools that offer the Development Support and Learning Support (DS-LS) programmes.  At the end of each intervention session, she goes through the session summary with the preschool teacher on strategies taught and how the teacher can use them at an appropriate time.

 As announced in MSF’s Committee of Supply 2017, MSF will be expanding the DS-LS programmes to more preschools, and build up a pool of 200 LSEds over the next five years. Also learn more about the programmes from childcare centre Iyad Peradus here and other support services for children with special needs here.

We speak to Cheryl about her three-year experience as an LSEd.

Q: What made you decide to become a Learning Support Educator?

As a child, I faced challenges in understanding the numeracy concepts or language taught in school and remembered how helpless I felt, in the classroom with little support. This experience in my early years piqued my interest to pursue a career in early childhood education, as I wanted to make a difference in nurturing young children and helping them take the first steps to a bright future.

After graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Early Childhood Educational Studies and Leadership, I joined PCF Sparkletots as a Childcare Teacher in June 2012.  While I enjoyed my role, I desired to do more to support children who required learning support. As the largest preschool employer in Singapore, PCF Sparkletots offers multiple career tracks for educators who wish to pursue different career pathways. PCF Sparkletots facilitated my request for a transfer and I went on to complete the Specialist Diploma in Early Learning Support before embarking on my journey as a Learning Support Educator in the Development Support (DS) & Learning Support (LS) Programme in Jan 2015.

It has been such a rewarding and meaningful experience seeing the children and their families benefit from the DS-LS Programme, and I am glad to be part of their learning journey.

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Cheryl working with a student.

 

Q: What do you do as an LSEd?

Together with my Mentor LSEd, we facilitate Teacher’s Briefing sessions by guiding PCF Sparkletots teachers on identification of children with mild developmental needs with use of the Ecological Congruence Assessment (ECA) form and other relevant information. When teachers identify students, we follow up to establish the developmental needs of the child during screening by conducting both standardised (e.g. for general development and literacy) and non-standardised assessments (e.g. observations and child’s work samples).

We provide learning support packages (Literacy, language & Social Skill Group) for the children identified and in-class support for children in the DS Programme. We also collaborate with key stakeholders to support and equip parents and teachers with the strategies to help and empower them and the children under their care.

Q: Any memorable moments at work?

It is always memorable seeing the child applying new acquired skills and using the strategies back in the class after intervention has ended. We teach the child strategies to better function in class. For example, the child learns how each letter sounds and how to spell unfamiliar words by blending the letter sounds. At home and in the class, the child uses these skills to write sentences about a picture, or to spell unfamiliar words.

Q: Any words of encouragement for LSEds?

Relax and enjoy the journey! Ask as many questions as you can when you are in doubt. There is a wealth of knowledge that we can tap from other professionals. Be proactive and be open to feedback and suggestions. Each child and family is unique and requires different approaches to succeed. What works with one child may not work with another. Hence, explore, be creative and be flexible. 🙂

Farewell and thank you for making Singapore more caring

Today marks my last day at the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF). When I first entered politics, I had hoped to come to MSF. So it was with great delight that I was posted here in 2015.

Throughout my time at MSF, I have been heartened to work with so many colleagues and partners in the social sector who are passionate and dedicated in their efforts to assisting fellow Singaporeans who need a helping hand. A big thank you to all the heart and hard work that you have put in.

I believe strongly in MSF’s mission – “To nurture resilient individuals, strong families, and a caring society” – and would like to share my hopes for the ministry and Singapore.

Nurturing resilient individuals

MSF started out as a social welfare department in 1946, and while it has gone through many portfolio changes, the aim is still the same – to ensure no one gets left behind. The government has many social safety nets in place for those who need help. We don’t want to just catch them when they fall; more importantly, we want to help them get back onto their feet.

SSO
From my visit to the Social Service Office (SSO) @ Jalan Besar in 2016

We have been working on more upstream measures to identify what are some of the precursors, and step in to help the families or individuals prevent the situation from deteriorating. Over the years, we have set up a network of 24 Social Service Offices across the island to make it easier for those in need to get the help they need. We have also intensified the partnership with the Family Service Centres in the journey with these families and individuals to improve their situations.

shang
From my visit to Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa Resort & Spa to find out how they practice inclusive hiring.

While our programmes and policies will lay the foundations for an inclusive and caring society, we want to build a Singapore that embraces and supports persons of all abilities. Even as we are working at this through the three Enabling Masterplans, it is important to continue strengthening support for our caregivers, as well as bring the wider Singapore on board to be more understanding of those with different needs. This will translate to acceptance by the society for those with special needs, an increase in employment opportunities, and more empathy for caregivers. I appreciate the efforts by the National Council of Social Service, SG Enable, social service organisations and our community partners in their various capacities. I believe we can continue to do more to achieve our aims for an inclusive Singapore.

Building strong families

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From Families for Life Council’s Father’s Day Picnic in 2016

KidSTART is an initiative that is very close to my heart, and I am heartened to see positive results one year into our pilot. Early intervention makes a difference, and we want to help families as early as we can to help level the starting ground for children so they have a chance at a brighter future.

I am grateful to our officers working on KidSTART, community partners, schools and volunteers for providing child development and parenting support to these families and their children. I hope you will continue to work together to give disadvantaged children a good start in life. KidSTART is the right thing to do, and we must continue to do it well.

Family is the most important unit in society, and it’s important to ensure that our family ties remain strong with our immediate and extended families. Parents, do continue to spend time with your children. I have always urged (and will continue to urge) parents to make a conscious choice to be present in our children’s lives. It makes a difference in their developmental and emotional wellbeing. Don’t be disheartened in your parenting journey. Nobody becomes the perfect mum or dad the moment the baby is born. We understand that and have rolled out various parent programmes throughout the years, such as the Positive Parenting Programme to help you as a parent.

Thank you to the Families for Life Council for championing family time and bringing couples and families together at high-point events such as the Singapore Parenting Congress, Marriage Convention and Families for Life Celebrations. Your recent initiative, “My Family Weekend” was a commendable effort that rallied the support of the community and corporates. Would also like to thank the Centre for Fathering and our other community partners for taking the lead in encouraging active fathering and building strong families!

Fostering a caring society

In much of our journey to help Singaporeans, we have had the support of many community partners. I am very grateful and thankful. If we want to achieve in our ideal vision of Singapore, we need the help of the community. Volunteers are very important, especially in the area of MSF’s work and the social service sector. We see changes in our clients when they get the support of the whole kampung – families, friends, neighbours etc.

We want to develop the culture of giving and living out our values. Everyone can play a part and collectively we can make a bigger impact. The whole SG Cares movement is important. It cannot be a fad that runs for a couple of years. I will continue to drive SG Cares, together with Grace and Desmond. We are encouraged by many of the corporates, schools and community who have partnered us in support of SG Cares. I hope more of you would join us by starting various community initiatives, volunteering with your friends, or curating efforts in your neighbourhood.

Thank you and don’t give up

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From our recent MSF Family Active Day.

To all my colleagues at MSF, thank you for what you do. Your work is often not easy, especially when facing difficult decisions concerning safety and welfare of the vulnerable. Don’t give up and do continue to make a difference. It really matters. I will always root for MSF, its causes and its people, regardless of where and in which capacity I serve.

I leave MSF in the good hands of Desmond, who shares the same heart for building a resilient and compassionate society. Let’s continue to work together to build a better Singapore!