There is a wide choice of international schools and standalone nurseries in Singapore offering places to children as young as 18 months. Parents can opt for a more formal school life setting from Kindergarten or FS1 if they feel their child is ready, or keep them in one of the many nurseries, kindergartens and preschools which only cater to children up to six years old.
While most parents will appreciate having a variety of options available, this decision can prove to be challenging for many, with the developmental needs of children at this sensitive age ranging widely. We asked some of Singapore’s early years experts for their insights on what it means for a child to be ‘school ready’ and take an in-depth look at which international schools are offering a pre-school education for children from as young as six months.
Your child is three and, in the eyes of Singapore, old enough to go to school and enter FS1. But is he or she ready? Paula Craigie, Head of Infant School at Tanglin Trust School, explains that school readiness for young children is much more about social and emotional development than academic ability, such as numerical or phonetic awareness.
“School readiness refers to whether a child is ready to attend school. While many parents think of academics (e.g., writing their name, counting to 10, knowing the colours) as key indicators, school readiness is much more. School readiness includes a child’s age appropriate independence such as going to the bathroom, self-feeding, being able to change into a PE kit – all with guidance and encouragement.”
There’s a huge pre-school sector in Singapore including both government-run and private kindergartens, and pre-schools that are part of an international school. So, how do you make the right choice when deciding between a standalone nursery or a pre-school attached to a school?
Many of Singapore’s most popular international schools offer nursery and kindergarten classes in a self-contained early years’ centre with its own community of classrooms, learning pods and recreational areas. Children can benefit from being part of a larger school environment with all the opportunities that an all-through school can offer. These can range from access to sports and arts facilities to after-school activities and bilingual programmes. They often have lessons from specialist subject teams, such as Mandarin, swimming, music, dance and PE, and have access to outstanding facilities that smaller nurseries simply cannot offer.
In terms of curriculum, parents have a choice at both standalone and ‘attached’ pre-schools. From ages three upwards, most schools will follow the International Baccalaureate Programme (PYP), the UK’s Early Years Foundation Stage Framework (EYFS) or a Reggio Emilia-inspired curriculum. Most pre-schools will teach Mandarin, but this can range from one lesson per week to a full immersion programme at schools including Canadian International School.
Ms Craigie (Tanglin) explains that, while early years in an international school is not a foreign concept, not all parents are aware of it.
“In Singapore specifically, many parents enrol their child into a pre-school setting. However, once their child reaches statutory school age (the year they turn five in the UK), they send them to an international school, where the child needs to adjust to a new environment and make new friends all over again.
“Tanglin has a bespoke curriculum framework for students from 3-14 years of age. This 3-14 curriculum framework aims to ensure clear, planned progression across the whole school, within each subject discipline; to ensure the curriculum is relevant to its students and Tanglin’s context in Singapore; and to provide the best possible foundation for higher education. This means that the children will have a seamless transition from Infant School into Junior School and beyond. Most importantly, the children can progress to the next stage together with their friends.”
For some children at three and four-years-old, a standalone nursery setting (whether private or run by an international school group) may be more suitable to meet their social and emotional needs. Generally smaller in scale, it’s easier for children to have that feeling of belonging – and this can be harder to deliver in a school that has hundreds of students as old as 18 years. Pre-schools located within international schools cannot always match the small class sizes, low teacher:student ratios, and intimacy of a standalone nursery – and they will only offer pre-school childcare during term-time. Also, parents may simply prefer the charm and warmth of a small nursery that has a genuine village feel.
Elizabeth Scahill, Principal of EtonHouse International Pre-School Claymore, explains why parents choose the standalone setting of EtonHouse's pre-schools.
"As a smaller community, each family and child are known by name by the teachers and staff in the school. The learning that takes place is tailored to each child, learning style, competencies and interests rather than as a group. Being in an environment that is nurturing throughout the early years prepares children to be ready for their transitions to larger international schools such as taking the bus and navigating a large campus. We provide them with skills of confidence, independence and responsibility, setting them up for success in those situations."
Many of Singapore’s largest and most popular schools have opened a pre-school on campus in recent years in response to demand from parent. There are practical differences (timings, uniform and transport for example), cost differences, and each have their own approach to the education and care of your child. While these considerations are clearly, what's more important is the suitability of the setting for their child.
There's a wide choice of early years' settings in international schools – from schools with less than 100 children to those with over 2,000 students. There are schools that focus on bilingual programmes, outdoor education and music – and campuses that have dedicated infant facilities including gyms, swimming pools and STEAM labs.
Typical of the larger schools, Tanglin Trust School has a 'schools within a school' model, and each of the infant, junior, and senior/sixth form schools have their own head of school, uniform, house system, timetable etc. Bigger can mean better and, at Tanglin, each school has its own community within the campus and dedicated facilities such as a library, sports hall and play areas.
Ms Craigie explains how this model enables the school to offer the same nurturing and child-centred approach as a nursery.
“Starting from Nursery, Tanglin creates an environment where children’s natural curiosity can grow, flourishing into a lifelong love of learning.
“Tanglin’s Early Years are holistic and balanced, developing the whole child because happy children learn better. The school takes pride in a strong pastoral programme, incorporating soft skills, such as conflict resolution tools. All children are taught to manage small ‘problems’ through a bespoke tool – Griff’s Great Choices – to help them understand how to independently build resilience and be reflective as they initiate and sustain positive friendships.”
Tanglin offers a bespoke curriculum for its very youngest students; The Curiosity Approach is run alongside the EYFS in the nursery to transform its youngest classes into “an even calmer and more tranquil learning environment”. It also recently launched a Forest School programme to encourage discovery, hands-on learning from as young as Nursery age.
“Both approaches encourage children to use authentic materials, appreciate the natural environment and use learning spaces as the “third teacher” to support play, exploration and wonder in learning, which are of utmost importance for children, so they can develop their academic, creative, personal and social skills,” says Ms Craigie.
The school was Highly Commended in the WhichSchoolAdvisor (Singapore) Best Schools Award 2022 for Best Early Years Programme; judges highlighted how The Curiosity Approach in the younger years "starts the education journey of those students on a clear upward trajectory", while “a clear investment in resources allows students to fulfil all areas of the curriculum using a range of approaches, and the early leadership skills developed as Wellbeing Warriors embed the school's ethos.”
Another standout international school for early years education is Dulwich College (Singapore), which was the Winner of the WhichSchoolAdvisor (Singapore) Best Schools Award 2022 for Best Early Years Programme. Judges said that Dulwich College (Singapore) “leads with a vision of being child-centric and then consistently demonstrates a deep understanding of what this really means. The physical, social and emotional and communication development of the children is paramount here.”
The school’s youngest students join the Dulwich College Kindergarten School (DUCKS) for 2-7 years, which is in a purpose-built early years building with age-appropriate facilities. It was the first international school in Singapore to introduce Forest School, which is accredited by the UK's Forest School Learning Initiative (FSLI), into its DUCKS Early Years programme. The school also stands out for its dual-language Mandarin programme offered to children from two years old, and huge choice of CCAs for this age group to provide enrichment (choir, maths club, yoga, mindfulness or sports clubs from as young as two).
Chatsworth International School has a strong early years’ programme that follows the IB PYP play-based learning programme in its Early Childhood Centre on campus for students as young as 18 months. Students start inquiring about different concepts from as young as K1 and are immersed in a play-based curriculum that equips them well for the PYP.
At GESS, all students enter the same pre-school curriculum (two to five years), which is built on the IB Primary Years Programme (PYP); instruction is in both English and German. The pre-school is a self-contained centre within the school’s green campus next to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, and children then have the option of joining the European IB stream or the German stream from Grade 1.
The school says:
“We want to keep the pre-school self-contained and self-sufficient, and on a day-to-day basis they have everything they need. However, they will still come to the main campus for celebrations and whole-school events, so they do get that sense of familiarity.”
At Canadian International School, the focus for its youngest learners (aged two to five) is very much on imagination, creativity and self-discovery. At Lakeside’s dedicated kindergarten wings, you’ll find a kitchen, black box theatre, STEAM makerspace, and a kindergarten aquatics complex. While there are all the facilities you’d expect from a nursery environment – colourful classrooms, a junior library and a swimming pool – the kindergarten’s headline attraction is the Outdoor Discovery Centre, which is used for plenty of play-based learning.
Elsewhere, Stamford American Early Learning Village offers daily Mandarin or Spanish lessons taught by native speaking specialists; from pre-kindergarten. SAIS is also the only school in Singapore to offer the Suzuki Violin Programme from the age of 3, with the option to progress to cello from KG2.
Nexus has an early childhood centre for kindergarten and nursery with specialist art and music rooms, as well as an outdoor double-storey treehouse that appears to reinforce the school’s focus on play-based learning at this level. This outdoor space also includes a mud kitchen, teepees and sand and water play areas.
And, popular with Dutch expats in Singapore, Hollandse School is a small but well-established, centrally located primary school that balances a truly Dutch education with an international curriculum where English is taught as a second language. Children in the early years Jip & Janneke classes (two to four years) have both a Dutch and English-speaking teacher for the full school day.
Parents also have the choice of enrolling their child into a standalone pre-school that is run by an international school group. These standalone pre-schools offer various advantages: students are given priority for admission into primary school; they prepare their students for a smooth transition into ‘big’ school; and students who stay with the same school group have a greater chance of continuity in terms of friends and routine.
By far the largest is the Early Learning Village in Serangoon, which is run jointly by Stamford American International School (SAIS), Australian International School (AIS), and Brighton College (Singapore). Fondly known as The Village, this 50,000 sq m shared campus has the capacity for 2,100 children aged two months to six years and it is child-friendly in every sense: classrooms are arranged in small clusters, a swimming pool is designed for wading and learning to swim, outdoor spaces encourage discovery and play, there are toddler-sized work benches in the teaching kitchens and science labs, and in every classroom children can venture through pint-sized doors to a dedicated outdoor learning space.
EtonHouse has 10 standalone International and Singapore pre-schools across Singapore, and a new Gardens by the Bay pre-school opening in March 2023. Elizabeth Scahill, Principal of EtonHouse International Pre-School Claymore, explains the benefits of attending a smaller, standalone pre-school before moving onto 'big school'.
"A standalone pre-school offers a more tailored approach to education, allowing for deeper connections between teachers, children as well as the learning concepts that they engage with, with more meaningful collaboration with parents.
"Smaller schools allow for learning to be differentiated more as well as build children's character and confidence as they nurture meaningful connections with peers and adults. The overall feeling of community is more present at a small school as teachers, families, and children can connect more frequently and meaningfully than at a big school, creating a positive learning environment for children."
One World International School (OWIS), which has an all through campus in Jurong, has a pre-school for children aged three to six years at its Mountbatten campus in eastern Singapore. And children who graduate from Invictus Preschool (formerly known as White Lodge) will have priority admission into Invictus International School and The Perse School, Singapore.
International schools across Singapore are investing in early years education as parents are looking for the very best start in education for their child. As well as new pre-schools opening, we are seeing schools announce campus redevelopments and new facilities that can help to build a better learning environment for children as young as three.
At Tanglin, the new Centenary Buildin, which opens in January 2023, will house new pre-school spaces such as an infant dining hall and multipurpose halls that are child-friendly with flexible learning spaces.
Ms Craigie adds:
“From the calming colours to the acoustic sounds, everything here has been designed with infant children in mind. There will also be new music classrooms and a small performance space, so children can develop self-confidence, an important life skill, through informal performances.”
Canadian International School (CIS) is opening a new Junior Wing in January 2023 at its Lakeside campus. This will include a huge 2,600 sqm Outdoor Discovery Centre with sound and art gardens, a mud kitchen and eco pond, as well as nature tunnels, a play fort and yoga lawn. The new wing, designed for students in kindergarten through to Grade 6, will also include an indoor swimming complex which consists of a 25-metre and learn to swim pool, a new indoor gymnasium, learning bakery and a 200-seat black-box theatre.
Singapore American School (SAS) is upgrading its 36-acre Woodlands site to include a new elementary school for Kindergarten to Grade 5. The elementary school, which is the largest part of the school, will have more play areas, more learning spaces, a covered bus bay, new dining areas, a gym, and a 25m covered swimming pool.
The Grange Institution is developing new sheltered outdoor classrooms to support its focus on outdoor learning for pre-school and primary students, as well as a new running track. It will support the school’s ongoing Garden-To-Table project, which sees students and their families growing fresh produce such as brinjal, okra and long beans in the school’s garden.
A new opening includes EtonHouse Garden School by the Bay pre-school, which will open in March 2023 for infant care through to six years with a curriculum designed around the three pillars of nature education, sustainability and community.
EtonHouse International Education Group CEO Ng Yi Xian said:
“The experience in the heart of the most iconic, dynamic, and innovative garden space, which is the pride of Singapore, will provide families and staff with an unparalleled early years’ experience, one that will be woven intricately with nature and sustainable practices. With innovation at the heart of this school’s programme and environment, we are sure it will set a new standard for early childhood education in Singapore.”
It is important to remember that a child at three or four-years-old has very valid and specific needs and although these needs will change and develop as they get older, this decision should be made based on the here and now, rather than what will likely later be the case. Positive and age-appropriate early learning experiences will impact a child’s attitudes and experiences for many years to come.
It is also important to consider that both schools and nurseries in Singapore vary enormously in their early years practice, approach, and expertise. Some nurseries will push academic-style learning very early, and conversely, many schools are appropriately play-based in the early years. Parents are recommended to explore each option in detail before making a decision.
The most crucial considerations in making this decision for parents relate to their uniquely developing child. Rather than viewing this as choice between schools or nurseries, whichschooladvisor.com recommends focusing on what the child’s needs are, and then exploring how well short-listed schools and nurseries would cater to these needs.