There’s a plethora of enrichment classes available for children in Singapore and a temptation in Singapore to cram as many activities into a child’s weekly schedule as possible. I think it is very easy to get carried away when choosing enrichment classes because of our innate desire as parents to provide as many opportunities as possible for our children to learn, grow and become well-rounded individuals.
However, I believe that it is important for my children to have some free time because not only can they relax during this time but it also gives them a chance to develop their imagination and creativity. Children who have free time will learn to keep themselves gainfully and meaningfully occupied. They will rarely complain of boredom as they are not dependant on someone or something else to entertain them every second of the day.
This is why the Barn Owl and I are very selective when it comes to deciding what sort of classes and activities that J and Little E attend regularly outside of school. So here’s our decision-making process:
1. The activity has to fulfil more than one possible function
At the moment, the kind of enrichment classes that are available to J and Little E fall under the following disciplines:
- Sports and physical development (e.g. swimming, gymnastics, football)
- Aesthetic (e.g. art, music, dance, drama)
- Academic (e.g. phonics, abacus, language immersion)
- Life skills (e.g. first aid, cooking, computer literacy)
We like to choose activities that tend to fall into more than one of the above categories.
As soon as both J and Little E have been consistently able to follow instructions, we have taken them for swimming lessons. This is because we consider swimming and water safety as an important life skill, especially in Singapore where there are open swimming pools, reservoirs, fountains and canals everywhere. It is also a sporty activity from which they can get plenty of exercise and there is opportunity for them to swim competitively if they have the inclination.
2. Enrichment classes should help develop character weaknesses or encourage personal strengths and interests.
When I was in primary school, I tended to skulk about in corners and mumble when spoken to. My parents wanted me to be more certain of myself, so I was packed off to speech and drama lessons for a few years. This helped me to develop stage presence which is a very handy thing to have, not just for giving presentations or managing the occasional job interview, but on a daily basis. It was especially useful when I was still active in the field of medicine where one has to communicate well and command respect and attention from patients and families.
We want J and Little E to be confident individuals who carry themselves well and are not afraid to express themselves in public. However, we also want them to be self-controlled and disciplined. With this in mind, we allowed J to learn martial arts and enrolled Little E in ballet lessons as both of them have expressed an interest in these specific fields.
For J, learning wushu is less about self-defence and more about wushu as a performing art or competitive sport. Additionally, he gets a chance to practice his mandarin with other children during the class, and stimulate his interest in Chinese culture. He is a very active little boy so wushu is a great physical outlet that enhances his natural hand-eye coordination skills, and helps him to build confidence whilst developing much-needed self-discipline and emotional control. This is pretty much same for Little E, who is really enjoying her ballet classes. Dance is both a performing art and a sport, a gateway to other forms of dance and self-expression. We have been told that ballet gives a good foundation in self-discipline, musicality and personal poise!
3. The lessons do not repeat what is taught as part of the school curriculum.
Now, there are plenty of programmes out there intent on hothousing young minds and pushing their academic standards beyond that of the regular school curriculum. The Barn Owl and I do not see the point of sending our children for these programmes for the following reasons:
- We believe that in order to cultivate a lifelong desire to learn, children need to be encouraged to seek out information independently and not have it constantly forced into them from outside sources. If we find that our children are particularly interested in an academic subject or they want to understand more about a topic that is not covered in the school curriculum, then we would prefer that they do their own study and research. We support their search for knowledge by providing access to reference texts and DVDs, finding appropriate online learning resources, and bringing them to the public library.
- We think that the current school curriculum is more than adequate and there is no need for our children to attend hothouse classes in order to be ahead of the school’s set lesson plan. It would be a foolish waste of our children’s precious time to sit through the same lesson twice. If we personally felt that the school curriculum is lacking and that our children would receive a better education via hothouse programmes, then we would not bother wasting time sending them to school.
4. The lessons cannot be taught by ourselves at home.
We would only consider sending our children for academic-related classes if they were struggling to keep up with the school curriculum and need extra help which neither the Barn Owl nor myself can provide.
Both J and Little E attend after-school mandarin classes regularly as our ability to encourage them in this area is extremely limited . However, we tried our best to find a mandarin class that encourages and maintains their interest in learning and using mandarin, without too much emphasis on scholastic achievement. In the end, it is more important to us that they develop a love and appreciation of the language than achieve top marks in class.
There are other classes in the realm of aesthetics and sports, such as art and craft or badminton, which the Barn Owl and I can teach them as part of our family recreational time, so we do not feel the need to send them for formal lessons on a regular basis. However, if our kids happen to show an aptitude in one of these areas that is beyond our ability to nurture, then I suppose we would consider hiring a coach or a tutor who is formally trained to guide and mentor such budding genius!
5. The activities do not infringe on family time.
Family time is precious and we guard it very jealously. Evenings and weekends when the Barn Owl is likely to be home from work and we are together as a family are very strictly out-of-bounds so the children are not allowed to attend classes during these times.
The only exception we have made to this rule is for swimming lessons, which are on Sunday afternoons. All of us will head to the swimming pool together for an afternoon of splashing and playing before and after the actual lesson, so the lesson itself doesn’t affect our family time in the slightest.
6. The ultimate goal of the activity is to instil lifelong hobby or interest.
I know that there are many parents in Singapore who have already sent their preschoolers for coaching in sports and activities like football, badminton and chess, in the hope that they will eventually be selected to join school teams and gain entry into elite schools! This is NOT our goal for J and Little E.
We like to choose activities that will have longevity, and it is even better if the hobby can not only be enjoyed on an individual basis but also as part of a group or team.
J is currently learning the violin, which is an instrument that can be played solo as well as as part of an ensemble. Violin is also a small portable instrument that he can take anywhere in the world with him. Although learning an instrument is difficult (and occasionally stressful), we hope he will grow to love it and see the violin as an extension of himself and a vehicle for creative expression.
We have also decided not to send our kids for classes in sports that are only team-based (such as football) or require more than one person in order to play (such as badminton or tennis). Although it’s good for children to learn teamwork and good sportsmanship, we do not think it is necessary for them to receive formal coaching in a team sport – we will probably encourage them to join their school clubs or recreation clubs instead.
Update: Oh, and I nearly forgot! Here’s one more additional piece of advice:
Know when to stop.
For some enrichment classes, there may come a point where it is clear that your child is no longer making any progress. This may be for any of the following reasons:
1. The limiting factor for advancement in the class is dependant on the developmental stage of the child.
When J was 6 months old, we started baby swim lessons, which he really enjoyed. However, after a year, we realised that for a whole term, he did not make any progress because he was limited by his ability to follow verbal instructions. So we decided to cease swim lessons and restart them when he was older.
2. The class no longer appears to achieve its purpose/has completely achieved its purpose.
We used to send J for mandarin speech and drama lessons, in the hope that it would encourage him to be more confident in speaking mandarin. At first, we saw a dramatic improvement in his willingness to speak mandarin and engage with his Chinese teacher in school, and at the end of year class performance, we were proud to see J happily singing chinese songs and reciting chinese poetry together with his classmates.
However, at the end of his second year in the class, we observed that at the end of year class performance, even though the overall standard of the performance was higher than that of the previous year, only a small handful of children was given a speaking role, whilst the rest of the class repeated the same four word phrase over and over again. We knew then that the class has exhausted its ability to nurture J further, so we decided to enrol him in a different Chinese school.
3. The class makes the child miserable.
I used to enjoy ballet lessons as a child, until my ballet teacher told me that my legs were ‘too crooked’. This comment was not meant to encourage me to improve my posture or leg position, but was a criticism of my actual bone structure, which is something that I knew I could not change. The criticism from my beloved teacher hurt me so badly that I began to drag my feet to class. Fortunately, my parents were perceptive enough to understand that my reluctance to attend ballet lessons did not stem from laziness or lack of tenacity. They stopped the lessons and did not force me to continue learning dance, even under a different teacher as they recognised the negative impact that the classes were having on my psyche.
There is no point in continuing a class that has an overall negative effect on a child. Even though a child may appear to excel in that discipline, if he or she despises the subject and derives no joy from it, not even the satisfaction of achievement, then being forced to continue will bring no long-lasting benefit. It is pretty clear when a child is only doing something to please his or her parents and for no other reason.
 Barn Owl is British and his mandarin vocabulary is one (he can say “pain” in mandarin), and I only speak Windmill Chinese.