Saturday, November 13, 2010

The hunt for Ryan's pre-school (Part 4)

If a dream kindergarten exists, I think we visited it today.

We dropped by our new unit today to check on the renovation. On our way home, Richard mentioned that, when he was driving through Mountbatten Road yesterday, he noticed a new pre-school there although he did not manage to get a good look. We decided to drive past again and see. It turned out to be "EtonHouse International Pre-School and Research Centre", otherwise called EtonHouse Mountbatten 718.

Although there are a number of EtonHouse branches in Singapore, Etonhouse has not been our first or even second choice as we've always felt that it was more of an "expat" school which meant that students would come and leave as their expat parents got posted in and out of Singapore. We were concerned that this would have a negative impact on Ryan's ability to form lasting friendships. Second reason was that it was not apparent to us what value the school or its curriculum offered compared to other schools and this is important because their fees are not cheap. The various EtonHouse branches charge different fees (the fees are stated on their website). For pre-nursery at the branch nearest to us at present (Etonhouse International Pre-School at 2 Orchard Boulevard), it costs S$7,000 plus GST per term (for full day programme). For nursery levels, it costs S$6,600 plus GST for the full day and S$5,500 plus GST for the half day. There are three terms a year. We would also have to pay a non-refundable registration fee of S$1,500 plus GST and place a deposit of one term's fees. Chiltern House and Nanyang Kindergarten are charging around S$1,000 per month. Therefore there had to be a lot of "extra" value for us to feel justified about spending a lot more money at EtonHouse. (Edit: these figures may no longer be accurate at the time you read this post, please check with the individual schools.)

Anyway, we drove to Mountbatten and, as luck would have it, the pre-school was having an open house. The banner outside stated that they would be operational in January 2011. So this branch is newly set up and, in fact, we could still smell the newly painted walls when we went inside.

Of all the EtonHouse branches, I think this is the largest. The school is mainly housed in two fairly large buildings. There is ample parking space within the compound (no parking charges apply!) and the outdoor compound is huge.

At the first main building, we were greeted by one of the teachers who would be our tour guide. We first went to check out the classrooms. The pre-nursery and nursery classrooms are on the ground floor, while the kindergarten classes are on the upper floor. The classrooms were absolutely beautiful. Of course, everything is new - all the furniture and all the materials are new, but that wasn't all.

There were distinct and dedicated areas for different activities. There were low tables for doing jigsaw puzzles or playing games. There were little dolls in their beds, teapots and cups for pretend tea parties, toy fruit, food and animals for more pretend play and for other learning activities. There were bookshelves with inviting books, materials for writing and drawing and creating. There was a mat with a large train set on the floor and there were low shelves with containers of blocks, cubes, shells, buttons, etc. There were children's artworks on the walls alongside replicas of famous art pieces. There were different types of tables for the children - some large tables for group interaction, some smaller tables for individual work, some tables had mirrors for tabletops, some could be lighted up from under the tabletop for the children to do tracing. There were easels set up for drawing. The classroom was spacious and bright. Everything was just so adorable! I wanted to stay there and slurp it all up.

Ryan was very comfortable in the classroom - he investigated the materials laid out and even picked some up. He went over to the train set on the mat and played with the trains and blocks. He even did some pretend play at one of the tables - pouring pretend tea from the teapot into the cups.

Apart from the classrooms, there was a separate library area outside the classrooms where the children could read while they waited for their parents to fetch them from school. This area was beautifully decorated with paper umbrellas hanging from the ceiling. Ryan went "wow" when he saw them. There was also a Chinese cultural section with Chinese calligraphy on the wall and Chinese books on the shelves.

Of course, most other pre-schools have books and toys and other materials. The difference was the way everything was laid out here and how bright and spacious the classrooms were. I've seen classrooms in other pre-schools that are full of stuff but things get stashed to one side, the classrooms are usually small and there is usually just one or two main tables or areas for the children to work at.

Ok, to be honest, if that was all, I would still not have thought that this pre-school was that much better than some of the pre-schools I've visited to justify parting with double the money. But that was not all.

We went outside. There is a shaded play area for children to dress up in different costumes and fool around with musical instruments and other noise makers. There was this huge triangular structure that Ryan could walk through and he loved it because there were mirrors all over the inside of it and he was so intrigued at seeing so many Ryans.

In a small building between the two main buildings there is a small canteen where the older children can have lunch. All the buildings are connected by covered walkways.

The outdoor areas were not finished yet but according to our tour guide, there will be:
A sand play area (this is finished) for the children to dig and construct structures
A garden for the children to plant their own plants and vegetables (this is finished) to cook in their own kitchen
A tricycle park (and we saw all the little tricycles!)
A herb and sensory garden
A water play area where the children can splash about and do little water experiments
A playground area where the children can run about and bounce a ball around.
Climbing equipment for climbing and co-ordination challenges.

Can you imagine? At this point, I had to pick my jaw up off the ground. I cannot think of any pre-school in Singapore that has such a wide, and I would say complete, range of outdoor facilities. All this time we were thinking, oh this or that pre-school has a large compound and a large playground area, that's very good. Boy oh boy, what we saw today beats the rest hands down. It's not just providing some slides and monkey bars and plastic houses for the children to burn off energy. Here, the outdoor areas are well thought out and planned carefully so that the children continue learning when they are outdoors. Everything is available for the children to touch, to feel, to sense and to experience to the fullest.

And you know what? That was still not the end.

We walked over to the other large building. There were some more classrooms there, but the highlight was the "art gallery", which was a large classroom for art and crafts. In there, there were all sorts of painting and drawing equipment, all sorts of crafting material on the low tables and shelves and lots of display panels showing off the children's masterpieces. One entire wall of the classroom is a floor-to-ceiling glass window which looks out to green grass and beyond that, to Mountbatten Road. Easels are set up next to this glass window for the children to paint and draw. It was pure delight.

Ryan walked right up to one of the tables, pulled one of the pencils out (from a container on the table) and started drawing on the paper laid out on the table. There were also some soft foam cubes (probably for painting) on the table and he was quite interested in them so he sat down and got some out to play with.

This is the first time that we brought Ryan with us to visit a pre-school but I think I can safely say that he loved it.

We asked about the curriculum. The curriculum is bilingual - there will be an English speaking teacher and a Mandarin speaking teacher at all times, plus there is a dedicated Mandarin session everyday. The programme is child-led and heavily based on Reggio Emilia philosophies, although according to our tour guide, it does draw on other teaching methods, including Montessori. According to her, they "take the best from other methods" and integrate these into their curriculum.

Interestingly, our tour guide told us that she had been a Montessori teacher for 6 years prior to joining EtonHouse, so I managed to ask her a few questions to get her perspective on Montessori teaching and the method at EtonHouse. (We did visit Brighton Montessori a while back, I will post an entry about it soon.)

So, the big question - what are the fees? Well, the fees are not cheap. But I can see where all my fees are going, I can see what I'm paying for and I can see the value that I'm buying. If you could apply a hotel-type rating, I would say this is a six or even seven-star pre-school in terms of facilities and equipment.

So what do we think? Well, we can certainly imagine Ryan being very comfortable there, he would be eager to go to school everyday and reluctant to leave. We can picture him pedalling a tricycle during outdoor playtime and splashing about in the shallow pool. We can see him sprawled out on the floor reading a book in the library and musing over his art as the sun shines through the giant glass window in the art gallery. Whatever he feels like doing, he will be able to. There will be ready materials and there will be a conducive workspace.

The issues of concern for us are the fact that it is so new, the teachers and the "expat" factor. If we decide on this pre-school, we'll definitely wait one or two terms at the minimum and let it iron out any teething problems before enrolling Ryan. Time will also show whether the teachers are good or not and also whether the students are mostly from expat families or otherwise.

Of course, the fees are not cheap and, even if we can afford it, the question is whether we should. The other night, over mahjong, one of our friends was telling us how crazy it was that Nanyang Kindergarten was charging about S$1,000 per month. The response from one guy was, "Nobody is going to ask you what kindergarten you come from when you apply for a job." So true.

So do we buy Ryan the childhood that we all dream of or do we save the money for other things? What do you think?


Jasopheleb said...

maybe in 20 years down, ppl will ask, "which kindergarten you were from?" our kids are indeed living in a different generation ya. but like you we are also torn if we should spend our resources sending our kids to an expensive good kindergarten or saving and sending them to a cheaper and generally reputable one.

Unknown said...

I ask ppl wat kinder their kids are in ... :)

If u think money is not a factor.. Spend on that 6-7 star school.. I mean y not. I would do so.. Just tat I want to have 2-3 kids and trev will roll his eyes if he has to spend so much on preschools... From a business point of view it's just not viable . I just calculated it will cost u min. 84k to send Ryan there for 4 years or so... With such envirnoment, Tao nan may not be suitable eventually.. Ur better off sending to AcS with big tennis courts, swimming poor with great amentities hehehe

Really, bottom line is we want best for our child ... U hv 1 yr more to think good luck!!!

Anonymous said...

Hihi, I chanced upon your blog when doing some 'research' on pre-schools. I feel that the question which really reflects the dilemma us parents have in choosing any education options may be "what can I do to ensure that I have given the best to my child in these few early years of his life when he is absorbing the whole world at the fastest pace of his/her life?"

Every now and then, I've got to ask myself whether I am doing everything that I can so that my child can fulfil his biggest potential. It is not so much that he has to be great or exceptionally good or that he has to be #1, it is more about making sure he has the resources or is in an environment to do the best that he can.

Tough questions we all need to ask ourselves, esp when cost is also a huge consideration? :)

Pinkie Pirate said...

hi Anonymous, I agree with you! From the very beginning, from breastfeeding to which brand of diaper to wear, from home environment to formal education, everything is a source of endless debate and consideration for parents. In the end, as long as we start with love then I suppose the goal is not so much what is best for our child but, as you put it, whether we have done our best, within our means and circumstances, for our child. Good thoughts. Thanks for stopping by!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your post. I just visited the school today and was as blown away as you were 2 years ago when the school first opened. Our son is nearly 3 and he already goes to an international school. We were looking for a comparable school in the east where he could add mandarin as a third language (he's biligual in both his parents' languages). I don't know where you decided to put your son but for me this is a very important choice. Early educational experiences set the stage for future learning. Their minds at this age are like sponges. They just need exposure to all kinds of experiences and I think this school provides that. I'd rather spend the money now so that he enjoys education and then he can get a scholarship for university. No one asks where you went to kindergarten, granted. But everyone can tell if you did not go to one that provided a grounding in social and intellectual skills. Ask someone you consider accomplished and chances are, there was some special input into their early learning, from their parents, family, friends or environment.

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