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.