Developing A Growth Mindset in Kids or, Astronaut Training Camp – A foundational skills workshop by The Little Executive (A Review)

Back in 1995 when I was in Smartypants Class in secondary school, I did a school research project on highly intelligent “gifted and talented” children – partly because I could and partly because it pleased me to think that I was experimenting on my classmates.

My project was an independent study on children who were identified via the use of standardised testing to have IQs within the top 0.5 percentile of their peers. I wanted to compare the emotional and social development of “gifted and talented” children to that of their peers to find out if there was any real or perceived difference.

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Case in point: Debs G going to Smartypants Class (Picture Credit: The Far Side of Gary Larson)

One of the things that I discovered whilst working on this project is that there are a great number of “gifted and talented” children who are also seen to be underachievers by their teachers and that this in fact a rather common phenomenon. I also realised that in my particular cohort of students, these underachievers were from the group of girls who entered the Smartypants Class at 10 years old during Primary School, and were known to be the “Black Sheep” of the class. These black sheep did comparatively poorly on standardised tests as compared to their peers. It was a mystery as to why this should happen, when they had so much potential so as to be identified as “gifted” at a younger age!

Through surveys of my classmates and their parents, I found out that many of my friends believed (as I also did) that success is based on personal aptitude. Amongst ourselves, we would go through great lengths to prove our God-given cleverness to each other, claiming not to have studied for tests or exams as well as making sport of classmates who did work hard in order to score well, calling them “muggertoads”. In fact, so much of our personal identity was wrapped up in being in the Smartypants Class that one of the biggest fears that we had was that of failure – especially if we had bothered to put in effort – because it would prove that we weren’t special at all.

Sad, right?

As part of my project research, I found a book called “Learning and Motivation in Children” at the Smartypants Centre library, and there was an article about how children’s perceptions of their own intelligence affected their ability to learn. In a nutshell, it showed me exactly what I already knew from observation – that kids who were told early that they were smart and talented also became perfectionists who stopped trying when they couldn’t be perfect straightaway. This was called having a ‘fixed mindset’. This article affected me profoundly, as I realised that putting too much stock in my own innate intelligence and abilities instead of valuing persistence and hard work could hold me back from achieving my personal goals.

I didn’t know this at the time, but one of the authors of that article, Carol Dweck, went on to publish many more articles and books about an individual’s implicit theory of intelligence and the importance of children developing and thinking with a growth mindset. She is currently one of the world’s leading psychologists in the field of development and motivation. In her research on learning and motivation, she found that having a growth mindset is a key feature of people who are internally motivated and who are also more likely to succeed when faced with challenges both in school, in work and in life.

Now, as a parent, I have been trying to teach J and Little E  to work hard and persevere, to be self-aware and learn from criticism or setbacks. These are important foundational skills that I feel are important for them to develop at a young age.  Now, I realise that determination, persistence and perceptiveness are considered to be traits which most people will develop on their own through personal life experience, however, it is becoming quite clear that not everybody has the opportunity to figure these things out before they enter the workforce. This is why even our National University of Singapore has set aside a special department, The Centre of Future Ready Graduates, in order to equip all their tertiary level students with these skills!

However, I’m not an expert in education and pedagogy, and all I am doing is trying to muddle through and guide my kids in the best way that I can. When Michelle, co-founder of The Little Executive, contacted me to ask if I would be interested in sending J and Little E to an Astronaut Training Camp during the December holls last year, I was more than happy to oblige!

the-little-executive

J and Little E having fun at Astronaut Training Camp with The Little Executive

The Little Executive actually came into being when one of the founders of Leapfrogs Children’s Therapy Centre, which supports children with learning disabilities, realised that there were more and more parents attempting to enrol their mainstream schoolchildren into her occupational or educational therapy classes.

She realised that all these children, even though they had no learning disabilities at all, seemed to struggle in school on a daily basis as they not only lacked resilience but also had certain learning gaps and a fixed mindset about their innate capabilities. The Little Executive aims to help children develop those essential executive functioning skills needed in order to develop a healthy growth mindset towards lifelong learning.

In my opinion, courses aimed teaching study skills tend to be quite dry and boring as they are often quite abstract in nature – and yes, I have attended my share of such courses as a kid attending the Smartypants Class. However I was pleasantly surprised to find that The Little Executive has found ways to help kids develop these skills in a really fun, hands-on way! I don’t think that the kids even realise that they are learning how to learn – but I have seen the results on my kids and I can tell you that it works. I wish I’d attended these classes myself as a kid, because it really would have saved me a lot of angst.

the-little-executive-space-programme

J with Jim, one of the educators at The Little Executive

The Astronaut Training Camp, which was held over 4 mornings, was a real treat for J and Little E. Through games, sensory experiments and brainstorming sessions, the kids used their problem solving, communication and observational skills to learn about various aspects of preparing for space travel – even preparing their own dehydrated snacks from bananas, troubleshooting potential issues that might happen during space missions and working together to construct their own shuttle!

Parents were invited to attend a short presentation on the last day of the camp, and I got to tinker with all their craft projects and find out more about what went on during the camp. I was most impressed with the incredible rapport that the educators were able to build with the kids in such a short space of time. Additionally, they were able to engage not only the youngest preschooler (Little E), but also the oldest primary school kid (J) and cater to their different learning abilities.

space-rocket-astronaut-recycle

After exploring the space shuttle, Thumper is waiting for his turn!

The educators also gave me great verbal feedback on the strengths and shortcomings of both J and Little E, which showed me how experienced they were in assessing children and working on supporting their weaknesses. I would also have appreciated some written feedback on the kids that I could peruse and mull over at my own leisure!

Thumper was really excited to see all the things that his brother and sister made during the camp (especially the really cool jetpacks), and I can tell that he is waiting for his turn to attend Astronaut Training Camp with The Little Executive one day.

I think the greatest reward for me was to see how the course affected J and Little E. I’ve been observing the two of them since school reopened and I have noticed two things:

  1. J’s handwriting has improved dramatically as he has become more conscientious in class, taking more pride in his work.
  2. Little E has started revising her Chinese language readers on a daily basis, asking her brother for help with words that she doesn’t know.

Needless to say, I am more than pleased!

For more information about The Little Executive click here.

Trial classes for The Little Executive’s regular programme are held every Saturday (SGD$48 for a 1.5 hour parent-accompanied class). For more information on trial classes click here.

The Little Executive has got two very exciting camps lined up for the 2017 March school holidays:

the-little-executive-holiday-camp

A Special for Owls Well Readers: Congratulations for getting to the end of the post! The Little Executive has kindly offered a very generous discount code just for Owls Well Readers! If you would like to sign your kids up for any of classes at The Little Executive, just quote  OWLSWELLBLOG15 for 15% off the total fee! 

SurviveINK – a creative writing holiday camp by Monsters Under The Bed

Now, you may remember that I wrote about the importance of creative writing and J’s experience at a 3-day workshop with Monsters Under the Bed (MUTB) earlier this year.

J enjoyed his experience at the EpicQuestINK workshop so much, that he was absolutely delighted to be invited back to attend another Imagination and Knowledge “INK” creative writing workshop with MUTB during the June School Holidays – the SurviveINK workshop!

The tagline for the SurviveINK camp was “With friends like these, who needs zombies?”, so we were prepared for him to have a zombie-themed writing workshop. J is quite familiar with the concept of zombies, having come across them during our weekly family jaunts into the world of Minecraft.

However we weren’t prepared for the scale of the SurviveINK holiday camp as presented by MUTB! It was a total immersive experience! I was so impressed by the commitment and dedication of the MUTB trainers in putting this together for the kids.

A week prior to the start of the workshop, J received an email warning him of a zombie-virus epidemic and advising him to prepare himself. This was a brilliant way of getting J to think about what items and skills he might need in order to survive without basic comforts and also how people might behave when faced with impending doom.

To get him hyped up even more, we received a link to this video on the eve of the workshop!

WOOHOOOOOO!!! What a way to get the adrenaline pumping! J could hardly get to sleep for the excitement of it all.

The next day, J, Little E and I (as well as Thumper, drowsing in his sling) headed to The Arts House.

They're heeeere....

They’re heeeere….

We were greeted by a dude in SWAT gear and gas mask (“Sgt Leroy”), patrolling the hallway with a huge gun, whilst a nearby radio played a broadcast in the background, warning us that infected persons will be shot on sight. You can tell by the big grin on J’s face that he was ready for a real adventure!

At 10am, the doors burst open with a clang, and out stalked a lanky, long-haired titaness towering over everyone and wearing the most frightening stilettos I had ever seen. This was “Goth Leader” Xiangxiang, who seemed to be in charge of running the SurviveINK workshop this time.

“CHECK THEM ALL FOR BITES!” she shrieked, waving her gun in the air, “AND GET THE CLEAN ONES IN THE SAFEHOUSE!!”

The children immediately crowded around her with a million questions. “What’s going on?” “Can we go in yet?” “I have a plaster, can I still come in?”

“SHADDUPSHADDUPSHADDUP”, she yelled, glaring around her, “JUST SHADDUP AND GET IN THE SAFEHOUSE!”

Some of the more mild-tempered children were clearly very intimidated by her brusque manner and hid behind their mums. Not so much J and Little E who were getting more bloodthirsty by the second and asking me if they were going to shoot zombies now or later.

House rules and a creative brainstorm

Safehouse rules and a creative brainstorm

Inside the hall, the children were divided into groups by age, and the various trainers introduced themselves and went through the SafeHouse rules before leading the kids through their first exercise of the day – a creative brainstorm called the ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’. Each child had to come up with as many uses as possible for a bucket of ice should the zombies start to attack the safe house.

J immediately came up with a whole bunch of different ways to deal with zombies using a bucket of ice and he scribbled all of these down on his worksheet, ignoring grammar, punctuation and spelling in his haste to get as many ideas down in a short period of time. I was very surprised that he came up with more than ten ways to dispatch zombies using an ice bucket!

This was the first of several creative challenges given to the kids during the duration of the workshop.

At the end of each challenge, the kids were given points based on the quantity and complexity of their ideas, and they could use these points throughout the workshop to exchange for skill sets and equipment. This helped them to be more focussed when thinking of characters for their stories and what strengths and weaknesses their characters would have. It also ensured that they did not create superhuman characters with infinite resources which would make for less tension and conflict in their stories.

Points for weapons!

Points for weapons and skills!

At the end of the first day, the children were informed that Safehouse had managed to get into contact with the university laboratory which was responsible for ‘Project Icarus’, the source of the zombie virus. The trainers spoke over the speakerphone to the scientist who had barricaded herself in the lab as zombies hammered on her doors. She had developed a potential cure but hadn’t had time to test it yet! We listened in horror as we heard the zombies smash the laboratory doors down and attack the scientist whose conversation was cut off with a bloodcurdling scream. There was a hideous moan, followed by the wet sounds of chewing.

GROSS.

One of the trainers, who was playing the role of Lab Assistant, broke down in tears as the children looked on in concern. We were told to go and find a safe place to rest and reconvene in the morning.

Well, how’s that for a cliffhanger ending to the first day at the SurviveINK workshop?

J could not wait to return to find out what would happen next, and spent the afternoon discussing with Little E various methods of faking one’s death for a speakerphone conversation.

The next morning, when we arrived at the Arts House, we were congratulated by the gun and pistol wielding MUTB trainers for reaching the ‘Project Icarus Lab’. The MUTB trainers had smeared dirt on their faces and were bespattered with what looked like blood. Dishevelled and panting from exhaustion, they told all the wide-eyed children that they had cleared the whole area of all the zombies overnight but had realised their zombie-detection alarm was still going off. Was it malfunctioning?

The children were each assigned a face mask and latex gloves, and told to enter the Project Icarus lab to look for clues to the location of the zombie cure. They went into the room in batches according to their assigned groups.

When it was finally J’s turn, we entered the room to find that it had been transformed into the Project Icarus laboratory, with glass beakers, petri dishes and even a toy microscope! Chairs and tables were overturned and there were signs of a scuffle. Impressive!

Investigating the lab for clues

Investigating the lab for clues

After searching around the room, J and his group mates found a bloodstained note as well as several bottles of suspicious looking liquids in various colours.

In their groups, they spent some time figuring out the code and decoding the note in order to find out which bottle contained the potential zombie cure. In the meantime, the kids began drafting their first ideas for their zombie-themed story.

J’s idea was to bake the antiviral medication into pies and launch them at the zombies who will inadvertently consume the medicine after receiving a pie-to-the-face. “Then they will be cured!” said J in triumph.

Decoding a puzzle!

Decoding a puzzle!

During the core of the day, the trainers revealed to us that the experimental drug only had a 50% chance of working to cure an infected person and inoculate a non-infected person. If it didn’t work it would either speed up the zombification process, else turn a non-infected person into zombie straightaway.

Xiangxiang pointed out that the zombie-detection alarm was still going off so somebody in the room was infected with the zombie virus. At this, all the children in the room started getting very excited, each pointing at the various trainers, yelling at the top of their lungs and accusing them of being zombies.

“SHADDUPSHADDUPSHADDUP!”, hollered Xiangxiang, for what seemed to be the millionth time that day, “SHADDUP I NEED TO THINK!”

At this point, J turned to me and whispered, “Do you know who the zombie-in-hiding is? I think it is that shouty lady. Because she’s so angry and zombies are always angry.”

At the end of the second day of the workshop, Xiangxiang accused the Lab Assistant (who had been coughing and shuffling her feet and generally acting suspicious all day long) of being infected, forcing her to drink the experimental drug. Unfortunately, she turned into a zombie and had to be dispatched!

“WHOA!” gasped the room in unison.

Sgt Leroy, falling to his knees, pointed out that that zombie-detection alarm was still going off. So not only did the experimental cure turn out to be a complete dud, but Xiangxiang had wrongly accused the innocent Lab Assistant!

Ooooh, the plot thickens!

“SHADDUPSHADDUPSHADDUP ALL OF YOU GET OUT, JUST GET OUT AND LEAVE ME ALONE! I didn’t mean to kill her!” wailed Xiangxiang in despair, refusing to break character as all of us shuffled past her to leave the room.

Talk about Dramatic Endings!

Oopsie!

Sorry no cure! (literally)

The last day of the workshop was much less exciting at the start. The children were encouraged to improve and fine tune their stories,  writing out a complete final story draft under the tutelage of the trainers. The group leaders and trainers went from child to child, encouraging them and helping to iron out kinks in their plot lines whilst correcting their drafts for grammar and punctuation.

Each child was given a booklet for which to use to illustrate and copy out their completed story. This took up most of the time of the last day.

Finally, all the worksheets and booklets were collected by the trainers (so that the work could be organised neatly), and it was time for all of us to leave the room for a short break which the kids welcomed. The excuse given was that Sgt Leroy was working with another of the MUTB trainers to find a new cure, one which actually works!

When we returned, Sgt Leroy had built himself a barricade and was pacing around inside of it like a caged lion. It turned out that he’d discovered some hidden CCTV footage of Leader Xiangxiang revealing herself to have been bitten in the leg by a zombie, and conspiring with one of the other MUTB trainers to frame the Lab Assistant. So Sgt Leroy completely lost his marbles, destroying the zombie cure and executing everyone in the room one by one, to Dramatic Music!!

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Everybody’s dead, Dave.

As the music stopped, all the MUTB trainers who had been playing dead on the ground got up for a curtain call, and we clapped and cheered for all of their hard work!

J was very excited to receive his mini book from his group leader, who posed with him for a photo. When I asked him how he found the workshop, he replied without hesitation, “IT WAS FUN! Much more fun than the EpicQuestINK!”

J with his group leader looking fierce

J with his group leader looking fierce

Thank you to Monsters Under the Bed for this super-exciting experience with SurviveINK! We all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and we are looking forward to attending more creative writing workshops with MUTB!

Monsters Under the Bed are running more INK workshops during the September, November and December holidays this year, so if you’re interested, definitely sign up as spaces get snapped up really fast!

Spell CraftINK

Date: 7 – 9 September 2015
Time: 10am – 1pm
Venue: The Arts House

The HowlINK

Date: 23 – 25 November 2015
Time: 10am – 1pm
Venue: The Arts House

INK to the Void

Date: 14 – 16 December 2015
Time: 10am – 1pm
Venue: The Arts House

Monsters Under the Bed have also recently opened their first brick-and-mortar branch! You can now find their creative writing school at:

MUTB@Frankel
492 Changi Road, Singapore 419900

 

EpicQuestINK – a creative writing workshop by Monsters Under The Bed

When I was 11 years old, I was invited to take part in a programme which offered college-level summer courses for children in a variety of disciplines. At the time, being a math nerd, I really wanted to take a course in calculus, but my father persuaded me to take on a creative writing programme instead, reasoning that it was a subject rarely taught in formal education, at least at the pre-tertiary level. I have never regretted following his advice as that three week programme was one of the most enlightening experiences of my life.

In my opinion, creative writing is a highly underrated field of study. Creative writing not only improves literacy by strengthening grammar and vocabulary whilst encouraging a love of literature, but also encourages the writer to exercise his or her imagination and examine a narrative from different perspectives. This means learning to think critically, learning to plan carefully, learning to communicate effectively and learning to empathise with other people, all of which are skills that will be useful to any child or adult.

And…it’s fun to make up stories.

This is why, when Monsters Under The Bed invited J to attend their EpicQuestINK creative writing camp at The Arts House over the March school holidays, I was really happy and excited for him to have this wonderful opportunity!

J at EpicQuestINK over the March School Holidays

J at EpicQuestINK over the March School Holidays

Monsters Under The Bed is a writing school founded and taught by professional, published writers. During the year, they run both regular weekly in-house classes in both creative writing and expository writing for students (and adults) as well as holiday creative writing camps for 7-12 year olds known as INK (Imagination & Knowledge) workshops.

The INK workshops all have different themes which are not repeated in order to ensure a unique experience each time, and the trainers use a combination of roleplaying, group discussions and writing exercises to get the kids involved and passionate about their own stories.

The theme of EpicQuestINK was based around Greek myths and legends, a subject that J is familiar with, and the focus of the workshop was aimed at teaching the kids how to utilise the concept of the monomyth, or “Hero’s Journey”, in order to formulate a complete and comprehensive narrative. Through the age-old stories of heroes like Heracles, Theseus and Perseus and their battles with fantastical creatures like gorgons and minotaurs, the kids would be inspired to formulate their own protagonists and antagonists as well.

Sounds complex, right?

One of the first rules of the INK workshops is that the trainers do not try to revise or over-simplify the subject matter just for young children. They feel that by doing so, they would be lowering both reading and intellectual standards. Instead, they work alongside the kids, guiding them towards understanding the topics, thereby helping to stimulate and open up their young minds.

In fact, preparation for the holiday course began long before the first day of the course. Imagine my surprise when J received an email about one week before the start of the course, addressed to “Titans and young Mubster Agents” and inviting him to “ascend Mount Olympus” with his “modern stylus and wax tablets”. Needless to say, he was immediately intrigued and asked me if he had to bring special shoes for climbing!

The email was accompanied by this video:

as well as four pages of very beautifully written preparatory reading material (to be read together with a parent, of course) consisting an overview of the Hero’s Journey as well as some questions to get J thinking deeply about his own personal experiences and how to apply this personal knowledge into his stories. By the time the first day of the workshop rolled around, J was already brimming with excitement and ready to learn!

At the start of the first day, the children were shown a Percy Jackson video clip. The chief trainer then proceeded to give a brief college-level lecture on Greek Epic Poetry complete with powerpoint slides and quotations from Homer’s Odyssey.

To my utter surprise, the main speaker was not only able to engage a large group of primary school children who were completely mesmerised by him, but he also held the attention of 4 year old Little E who was sitting in the back with me (parents are allowed and encouraged to sit in to observe the workshop at the back).

After the lecture, the class then split into small groups by age and writing ability. The trainers who managed each small group began to lead the children into avid discourse on the topic and it was clear that they were very quickly able to encourage the children to share their thoughts and ideas. By the end of the day’s session, I noticed that even the most shy child in J’s group was actively involved and freely participating in discussion. What sorcery is this?!

In fact, after the class that day, J was able to tell me all about the different stages of the hero’s journey from “the call to adventure” to “receiving a boon” to “completing trials”, as well as examples of each that he had personally dreamed up during the small group discussion. He could barely wait to return to the workshop the next day!

On the second day of the course, the kids were encouraged to come dressed as a hero or villain as Monsters Under The Bed often incorporates a little bit of roleplaying and dramatisation into their workshops, which is not only fun for everyone but also helps when considering character development in creative writing.

As you can see from the picture below, J is dressed as The Dreadful Pirate Dread, whose scarred face is the scourge of the icy seas, especially after he successfully burgled Captain America and now carries the iconic shield as a trophy. (Little E is wearing her ladybird bug hat – she just wanted to show solidarity for her big brother.)

The 2nd and 3rd day of EpicQuestINK

J participating in the group discussion and dressing up on the 2nd of EpicQuestINK

When J returned home at the end of the last day of the course, he had completed a three page short story (involving the first day at school, a fire-breathing school principal and a tiny Pegasus that you can keep in a backpack) on which his trainer had written some useful comments and tips for further improvement. He was so excited about his work, that once he got home, he insisted on revising the story one more time in order to take into consideration the advice given by his trainer. He even woke up extra early in the morning and when I got up at 6am, I found him labouriously copying his final version of the short story into a blank book.

Since then, J has even started writing another short story entirely of his own accord during his free time, using the methods taught during the EpicQuestINK Workshop. I was surprised when he sat down and wrote out character sketches, a plot outline and then afterwards, drafted out a complete story, all of his own accord. Not bad for a 7 year old kid, I think!

By the way, Monsters Under the Bed has already released their line up of INK workshops for the rest of the year:

SurviveINK

Date: 3 – 5 June 2015
Time: 10am – 1pm
Venue: The Arts House

Spell CraftINK

Date: 7 – 9 September 2015
Time: 10am – 1pm
Venue: The Arts House

The HowlINK

Date: 23 – 25 November 2015
Time: 10am – 1pm
Venue: The Arts House

INK to the Void

Date: 14 – 16 December 2015
Time: 10am – 1pm
Venue: The Arts House

You can register for the workshops online or contact Monsters Under The Bed at +65 6100 4363 or via email to riza@mutb.com.sg. Also, do check out their Facebook page for more information on their previous INK workshops as well as their blog which is chock-a-block full of great writing tips!

As you can tell from J’s response to the workshop as well as the comment he wrote on the EpicQuestINK poster (which you can see at the top of this post), he thoroughly enjoyed himself and has since been asking me if he will be able to attend another INK workshop in the future!

Big, BIG thanks you to Monsters Under the Bed for inviting J to EpicQuestINK – J thanks you for the EPIC experience and hopes he will be able to be back for SurviveINK in June 2015 for more inspirational creative writing fun!

P.S. Check out these reviews by Life’s Tiny Miracles and Tan Family Chronicles on previous INK workshops!

Enrichment classes for kids – 6 tips for making a good selection

We like to keep busy - but not too busy!

We like to keep busy – but not too busy!

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:

  1. Sports and physical development (e.g. swimming, gymnastics, football)
  2. Aesthetic (e.g. art, music, dance, drama)
  3. Academic (e.g. phonics, abacus, language immersion)
  4. 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 [1]. 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.


[1] Barn Owl is British and his mandarin vocabulary is one (he can say “pain” in mandarin), and I only speak Windmill Chinese.

31 of the best (FREE) online learning resources for preschoolers

Over here in Singapore, there is tremendous pressure on children to excel academically, and many of Little E and J’s preschool classmates are enrolled in various expensive enrichment classes.

Although I am trying my best to avoid hot-housing my children, both J and Little E have a innate love of learning and I like to find ways to nurture and encourage them in their educational journey. Now with the June school holidays on the horizon, I find myself actively looking for meaningful home activities to keep them gainfully occupied during the day!

Here is a list of 30 of my favourite (free!) online learning resources that I find myself returning to again and again!

Phonics and Early Reading

With most schools returning to phonics to help children to learn how to read, these are some brilliant websites which will help you to reinforce what your preschooler is learning!

  1. Reading Bear – there are some very lovely videos to help capture your kid’s interest
  2. Progressive Phonics – this has some great e-books and worksheets too
  3. Starfall Phonics – the animations may be rather crude, but the songs are pretty catchy!
  4. Phonics4free – this is a series of videos and guides for empowering parents to teach phonics
  5. ABC Fast Phonics – A very simple no-frills guide to the basics which is good for parents who want to help their kids at home

Mandarin

Bilingualism is very important in Singapore with Mandarin chinese offered as a second language in most preschools. We speak very little Mandarin at home, so I have to find creative ways to expose my children to the nuances in both the spoken and written word. These websites have really helped me to keep my kids interested and engaged!

  1. Chineasy – This is a beautiful website which focusses on the pictorial nature of the chinese written script and helps kids (and adults) to remember chinese characters using gorgeous illustrations and beautifully animated teaching videos.
  2. CCTV Learn Chinese – This is an extensive library of videos aimed at teaching conversational chinese and touches on aspects of chinese culture and daily living as well.
  3. Fun Fun Elmo – Sesame Street has most recently developed a preschool mandarin programme featuring the ever-popular Elmo in a series of 10 minute vignettes! This first season is available on Youtube – and hopefully Sesame Street will release their subsequent episodes online too.
  4. Semanda  – These are some free printable flashcards which cover some basic concepts (such as colours, fruits, animals, vehicles etc) as well as some multiple choice style quizzes
  5. Hanlexon Chinese – This is a useful website for printing out writing practice worksheets. You can alter the worksheet to show the stroke order or allow tracing of the characters

Math

  1. Khan Academy – This site is brilliant for kids who already know how to count. J loves this because he can unlock achievement badges and trophies when he has achieved mastery of a new concept!
  2. Math Worksheet Wizard – Here is a simple worksheet generator to help reinforce simple counting, addition as well as subtraction.
  3. ScootPad – This has a basic free system for individuals as well as a subscription service for classrooms. The basic free system has both Math as well as Reading practice pages (but the Math pages are prettier), as well as some really fun math games!
  4. Math Game Time – this is self explanatory, but helps kids to reinforce their rote counting and number recognition skills
  5. Soft Schools – Here you can find some great free printable worksheets and online games to help grow little mathletes.

Art

These art sites are more for parents who are looking for simple, foolproof art projects for preschoolers as well as lesson plans to introduce kids to art history!

  1. Mrs Brown’s Art Class
  2. Teach Kids Art
  3. Art Projects for Kids
  4. KinderArt
  5. Museum of Modern Art NY

Science

These are a collection of brilliant websites that include some very impressive science demonstration videos as well as projects and simple experiments that you can set up at home!

  1. Science For Preschoolers
  2. Ellen McHenry’s Basement Workshop
  3. The Kid Should See This
  4. BrainPOP
  5. SESL Writing Wizard

Other Useful Resources

There are plenty of awesome sites out there that will inspire your kids to learn more about the world around them! Here are our current favourites that include everything from World History to Astrophysics :

  1. Typing Club
  2. Learning with Fun
  3. Crash Course World History
  4. NASA Kids Club
  5. The Good Stuff
  6. Smarter Every Day

Kid’s Art Jamming at My Art Studio

The Learning Palette at My Art Studio

The Learning Palette at My Art Studio

Earlier this month, J and Little E were invited to a trial lesson at My Art Studio, a private art school that aims to enhance early childhood development and learning through creative expression and discovery.

My Art Studio was started by a group of Singaporean parents who were looking for a way to encourage their own children to be imaginative and innovative through the exploration of various artistic techniques and materials. The course teaches children toappreciate visual art (and maybe a little art history too!) and to be confident in their own ability to express themselves through craftwork, drawing and painting.  The Learning Palette, which is My Art Studio’s inhouse programme, is aimed at children from 3-12 years of age, with different levels matched according to each child’s age and ability.

This means that the work produced by the children during class at My Art Studio is 100% their own effort, which is something that is very important to me.

I never expect my children’s artwork to look perfect – what matters to me is that the work is entirely their own.  Some of my friends who have sent their kids to art classes have reported that the children return home with incredible, beautiful pieces of art, but when given the same tools and asked to create another picture, they are unable to do so. To me, this means that the child has not learned to create art independently and to be inventive – but only how to copy. This is why I appreciate art schools like My Art Studio that firmly believe that the process of creative discovery, interpretation and execution is more important than the outcome.

Drafting a self portrait

Drafting a self portrait

During the art lesson, the children present were divided into two levels – INTROductory (3-5 years) and FUNdamental (5-8 years). They were then given a short briefing on single-line portraits in the style of Pablo Picasso. Afterwards, each child was given paper to draft a few very quick sketches of themselves from memory and using only a single unbroken line. This gave the children the opportunity to reflect on their sketches and try to improve their own work with each subsequent drawing.

The art instructors, all qualified professionals in design and art, then floated around the room, either demonstrating the technique again on a separate piece of paper, or giving verbal instructions. I noticed that any hand-holding that occurred was only for the tots around Little E’s age – and this was mostly to correct their pencil grip!

Outlining the sketch on canvas

Outlining the sketch on canvas

After making a few rough sketches on paper, the final image was transferred onto canvas that had first been primed with gesso – clearly some very high quality materials are given to the children to work with –  then, a black marker was used to outline the sketch.

The younger children in Little E’s group were given tempera paints to work with, which are water-based paints that are non-toxic. This is in keeping with the fundamentals of the INTROductory programme for preschoolers, which only uses safe and non-toxic materials. The bigger kids in the FUNdamental group (for 5-8 year olds) used acrylic paints instead, which have a bolder colour.

Filling in the painting

Filling in the painting

J and Little E were really absorbed in their work, quietly and conscientiously focused on their own paintings. The teachers were very good at guiding and encouraging each child in such a way that none of the children felt obliged to look over their shoulder at someone else’s work and compare it to their own. What a wonderful way to encourage individuality in self-expression!

It's all about the environment

It’s all about the environment

My Art Studio encourages a multidisciplinary learning programme and during their lessons.  Children will also explore concepts in math, science, music, nature, language and literacy, all cleverly hidden within a fun environment. At the end of the lesson, J seemed to have some idea of complementary and contrasting colours, which is definitely something that he did not consider before. I’ve also noticed that he has started drafting his ideas out onto scrap paper before deciding on a final image! Little E has also started identifying different shapes that can be added together to make a complete picture, which is a technique that she definitely picked up during the lesson.

Finishing touches

Finishing touches

There was also plenty of opportunity within the class for the children to interact with each other and the room was filled with friendly chatter. They were each encouraged to appraise each other’s paintings in a positive manner and spend a few minutes in a show-and-tell. Even the very shy children had warmed up by the end of the lesson, and were happily talking with the instructors about their works!

Picasso-inspired Single Line Self Portraits

Picasso-inspired Single Line Self Portraits

Here are my kids with their finished portraits! Not bad, huh? I’m impressed!

Oh, and here’s another thing about My Art Studio that impressed me – this private art school is registered with the MOE and not only offers art classes to preschools and primary schools (as part of the school’s art programme – not as an extracurricular enrichment class), but are also open to providing art therapy sessions and working together with organisations that hope to bring joy to children and young people from challenging backgrounds!

The studio also holds art parties, modular art classes for adults, teacher training workshops and corporate events both onsite at their studio in Serangoon Gardens as well as elsewhere. I am personally looking forward to attending a Grown-Up art-jamming session with them in the future!

You can find out more about My Art Studio at their website or Facebook Page.

My Art Studio (Serangoon Gardens): 45 Burghley Drive, #01-13, Burghley Lifestyle Hub, S(559022)

Tel:+65 67373760

Email: info@myartstudio.sg

Peekaboo! We see you!

Peekaboo! We see you!