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Opening Remarks by Minister of State Sun Xueling at Singapore University of Social Sciences’ Early Childhood Care & Education Conference on 18 November 2023

Type: Official Speeches: Sun Xueling, Official Speeches (All)

Topic(s): Children & Families,  


Good morning, everyone. First, I would like to thank some very important people who have been working very hard to organise this event and continue their leadership efforts in this area:

Provost of SUSS, Professor Robbie Goh,
CEO of KidSTART, Ms Rahayu Buang,
Co-Founder and Board Director Playeum, Ms Sumitra Pasupathy, 
Keynote speakers, who have travelled from afar,
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Introduction

1. Thank you all for being here this morning. It is with great pleasure that I'm here at the SUSS Early Childhood Conference co-organised with Playeum. Today’s conference is really something that I truly believe in from the bottom of my heart. And I try my very best, whether in the professional domain, or in my personal time to promote all the principles that we talk about and encourage here at the conference.

Partnership between Families and Preschools

2. You probably have heard this before, that an eminent early childhood educator and researcher, Lillian Katz, spoke on the importance of having a whole-village approach to support young children’s learning and development. The key is that there must be a partnership between families and preschools. What we have here in this room are researchers, advocates, practitioners, and many of us are parents as well. But there are also parents who are not involved in day-to-day professional execution of pedagogy and teaching to young minds and children.

3. The good news is that they do take guidance from teachers. The bad news is that all parents have a view as to how children should be taught and can be taught. With Google, they feel that they are in command of all the resources in the world, which may or may not be entirely aligned with what we are promoting based on new neuroscience research and our day-to-day experiences with children. Regardless, we should never lose sight of this partnership between family and preschool. We must do our very best to bring parents along with us on this journey.

4. Under the Study of Early Childhood Development in Singapore, otherwise known as SG LEADS, we found that the quality of caregiving in the early years has a significant impact on children’s cognitive and socio-emotional development. Many of us know that. The question is, what do we do to make sure that what we do in preschools is complemented by what happens at home, and that the positive effects of what we continually do multiplies and is emphasised throughout different milestones of the child's learning journey. 

5. I think first and foremost, we must bring parents alongside us. Singaporean parents are very practical. We have to speak to them in a language that they understand. When we use terms like socio-emotional learning is very important to your child, they go ‘what’? There are too many syllables in ‘socio-emotional learning’. But if you tell them do this, and the IQ of a child does not decrease and may increase, then they understand it. I do not want us to go away thinking that what we do in life is just about IQ, and how that child does for PSLE. That could be an outcome of what we do, but that should not be the reason for what we do.

6. I know that today's conference is about play. If we use the word play, just play itself to parents, many parents think of it as “masak-masak”. They see it as a distraction from academic pursuits, and therefore not good for children. While we believe in the power of play, we must think about how we communicate this to parents. So that they understand play works alongside all the other learnings and development that the child undergoes and how it is mutually complementary. How it helps the child when it comes to cognitive development and subsequent execution and functioning, and how all of that is ultimately beneficial for the child. 

7. One of the very fundamental things that we must start off with is to work with parents to think about what it is, that determines or defines success, achievement, meaning and purpose in our society. Because if parents go away thinking that the determinant of a successful child is a high AL score at PSLE, no matter what you tell them about the holistic development of a child, they will not come alongside us.

8. We have to work together with society to look at it fundamentally, and work with parents. Many of whom are around our age groups; it can be our friends, colleagues, or relatives – talk to them about what you aspire and desire for your child. Are academic results the end game? Or are they just one step towards developing a child and making sure that this child has the skills, competencies and resilience to be able to tackle whatever challenges that come their way. 

9. We have to work with parents for them to look at it fundamentally, to see that what you're doing, can complement what is happening in preschools. And that together, we are working with the child to develop all-rounded skills so that we are able to support their curiosity, and they can be independent learners who are able to interact with others. Many of those skills are crystallised through day-to-day play. 

10. Now, I'd like to come back to the main topic of today's conference. We know that play is an effective way to nurture children's holistic development. At the same time, research also shows that when we talk about play, an important element is the caregiver sensitivity in the process of play. A child can play effectively on his or her own. We can leave the child with Lego blocks, and your child can play quite happily on his or her own. But what the child can learn and make greater use of in those playful moments, is if the caregiver is very sensitive to the child's cues. 

11. Now, for that to happen, the caregiver, whether a parent, grandparent, foreign domestic worker, or yourself as a teacher, must have the time and the interest to do so. Many of our parents are so stressed, they are unable to play with their children. We require a whole-of-society effort to work with parents so that they can be a little bit less stressed when it comes to work, and they can devote more to quality time with their children. 

12. What can be helpful is that if we are quite clear with parents that play doesn't mean leaving a child to play on his or her own, neither does it mean just leaving a child with a mobile device. Play requires a to and fro, and you do this through certain mediums, building blocks and play materials. However, there needs to be a caregiver, a trusted adult, who is interested and willing to devote time and attention to play with the child. 

13. When we have a chance to interact with parents, let us try to explain play to them. Play seems like a very simple concept – children understand what is play. But there is so much science and research behind it. We must find simple ways to talk to parents about how they can be involved in play. 

Importance of Play in Early Childhood

14. ECDA and MOE have been working hard to develop certain frameworks to help our educators. Recently, we launched the Early Years Development Framework 2023, termed as C.H.I.L.D (or ‘Child’ in short). When planning and implementing quality experiences for children, educators are encouraged to adopt ‘L’, which stands for “Learning through exploration and play in a safe and enriching environment”. This EYDF framework is for children two months to three years old. 

15. Beyond that, for the ages of four to six, MOE has another framework known as the Nurturing Early Learners (NEL) Framework, which was revised in 2022. The ‘e’ in the “iTeach” principles stands for “engaging children in learning through purposeful play”. We see a continuous principle, regardless of whether it is the EYDF or the NEL framework. Where there is an emphasis on play in a safe and enriching environment, play can be purposeful.

Role of Early Childhood Practitioners in Facilitating Play and Learning

16. I know teachers have been working very hard to create different types of play experiences for children, ranging from child-led to teacher-directed play. While planning for playful experiences is prevalent and important, we know educators need to be in a proper state of mind and be supported in their well-being to conduct play effectively. 

17. Many times, in the teaching profession we say we cannot pour from an empty cup. It does not just extend to preschool educators but for educators as a whole, and for any caregiver. MSF has been doing quite a lot for early childhood professionals, because we know that you work best in supportive environments. 

Continued Support for Early Childhood Professionals

18. At the Early Childhood Celebrations and Conference held last month, Minister Masagos announced that more protected time will be carved out for educators to rest and develop professionally. This adds to the removal of the requirement for preschools to operate on Saturdays. It is an important opportunity for us to remind parents that the education of their children does not just rest on educators, and parents have to play their part. All these announcements and measures are geared towards helping our preschool educators better balance work-life demands. If you are happier with your work, and happier with your workplace, it is more likely that you are able to transfer your happiness to your young charges and your children. 

19. Apart from that, it is also important that we continue to invest in our educators’ and leaders’ professional development. To do so, our local Institutes of Higher Learning, and SUSS is a wonderful example – collaborate with partners to strengthen teacher education and leadership development programmes, which is in tandem with practice-based research.

Conclusion

20. Today’s conference brings together a diverse group of industry professionals and partners. I hope today’s conference will allow us to rethink the connections between play and learning. How do we share to a wider audience what we are discussing? Perhaps to push the envelope even further for us to rethink and convince the public. What do we mean by a happy, productive child who lives life with meaning and purpose? And beyond that, when this child grows up, what would this child find meaningful and purposeful in his or her life? 

21. If we are able to push the envelope of these conversations, I think we might be able to have parents come alongside us so that they do not see academic pursuits as the end all or be all of a child's early years development. I am going to need everyone's help to amplify those messages. When we work cohesively in partnership with parents, we can go the furthest to develop the best for every child. 

22. Thank you very much.