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Making Learning Fun, instead of 'Play and No Homework'

Making Learning Fun should be every parents' goal during the preschool years. A little effort made during this critical time can make a big difference in the child's readiness for primary school.

What did you think of Singapore's prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong's recent suggestion that children in kindergarten and preschool should just play and not do any homework? I was astounded and dismayed by what he implied. A little hard work at such a critical time (the brain does a lot of pruning during this period, use it or lose it!) was somehow detrimental to our kids. This is reality, people - The hardworking bird gets the most worms.

The better suggestion might have been to make learning way more fun. You may not believe it but most kids don't know any better and homework isn't a dirty word to them yet at such a young age. They even find it challenging when approached correctly. Maybe his words were meant for public consumption but I doubt this was even the way he was raised and he is our country's prime minister!

You will notice something about most successful people, watch any Ted.com talk, from Al Gore to Bill Gates, from Richard Feynman to Bill Clinton, they have one over-riding similarity - they are endlessly curious, they are hungry to explore and learn more about the world and they want to make a positive change in the world in their own way.

The diverse topics in Ted talks range from how to tie shoe laces (yes, there is a Ted talk on that) to climate change, from investigating the smallest genes in the human body and how they work to exploring the smallest atoms in the universe, from finding a cure for cancer to finding a solution to wars.

Watch this Ted.com video by Sir Ken Robinson: Bring on the learning revolution!

Making Learning Fun is easier than you think

How can any child taught the joy of learning and improving their mind be afraid of finding out more about everything around them? Children are insatiably curious about everything. When I am with my kids on outings, I find myself stopping for all sorts of things (most mothers of preschoolers know what that's like) that we adults have just taken for granted - the trails of ants, the horns on snails, the pollen on the stamen of flowers. There is wonder in everything. That's part of acquiring science skills.

"How about the numbers on the license plates of cars? Add them up, come on, quick." These are simple math games for kids and show them that math is fun.

"Hey, can you read that sign over there for mommy?" That's preschool reading for the emergent reader. Children need to be taught that books are fun.

"When we get home, let do some mazes, remember to look ahead so you won't get stuck." That's a spot of problem solving for the 5 year old. When we make learning interesting, it really tickles kids and is fun for the brain.

Don't put our misconceptions on kids. What is that misconception? It is that if kids do some homework in kindergarten, it is somehow ruining their childhood and that they don't have any time to play. On the contrary, when kids know their stuff, they have an easier time in primary school and actually have more time for recreation because they have already done their work in advance.

My younger brother, Eu Meng won the Lee Kuan Yew prize for Math and Science at 'A' Levels (Junior college in Singapore). That means he was top 3 in a cohort of about 45,000 kids. He scored straight A's and 2 'S' paper distinctions. He also obtained first class honours from the London School of Economics in Acturial Science. What was he doing during exam times? You would find him watching a movie to relax instead of studying. Why? Because he had already gone through his work and revised 6 times already.

Even my husband who is a doctor told me he went through the tremendous amount of medical information he had to learn throughout his medical course at least 6 times before exams. Okay, he was and is a very focused and disciplined person who didn't allow himself to be distracted.

I have found consistently that the top scorers each year for PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examination) exam did about 3 to 7 hours of work each day. This is concentrated, focused work, not the horsing around "Can I go to the toilet / have a snack?" every 30 minutes kind of work. Even if you take an average of 4 hours each day, from the time they finish school till they sleep at night, that still leaves plenty of time for other activities.

In my children's Shichida classes, I noticed that more often than not, the kids are just itching for the next 'game'. What was the game? Not what you would imagine - a math addition matrix of 10 numbers by 10 numbers or the new poem they just memorised, maybe it is the 200 pictures they can recall and recite from memory effortlessly within 3 minutes. I joke you not. No whining about homework here, the normal average Shichida kid wants you to lay it on them.

Focus on the issue at hand right now, don't you remember the dread and fear you felt in school when you didn't understand what on earth the teacher was talking about in class? Getting your kids to study ahead is way better any day than your child having that dreadful feeling in class. That's what self-regulated learning is all about, the child WANTS to learn.

Everything adds up over time, so if you are of the thinking that you should just kick back and let it all hang out with regard to your kids, it is better to have a promising future through hard work when necessary than a misconceived idea that children should be playing their childhoods away otherwise they are being deprived.

I was amazed when I heard a recent BBC Radio piece on Shanghai schools, acknowledged to be the best in the world according to global surveys on Math and Science skills. The schools are segregated into schools for native Shanghainese and those for immigrants into Shanghai. They found that even there, the Shanghainese felt threatened by the fact that the immigrant children were more motivated and worked harder than the native kids. Imagine that!

When my brother attended the International Chemistry Olympiad in 1990, he told me he felt somewhat intimidated by the Chinese students. They were not just excellent in Chemistry (they all received the gold medal), they were also Olympiad standard too in Biology, Physics and Mathematics. Now 22 years later, not only are they highly motivated, you can be sure the educational level of average Chinese children in China have only improved further.

Watch this funny but sobering Ted talk on the ascendency of China and India by Hans Rosling and ask yourself if you should be relaxing or making sure that your kids are armed with the necessary skills and knowledge to compete in the world arena of the future or do you want to send them into 'battle' naked without any weapons?

How's that for a reality check?


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