FASTEN your seat belts, everyone. We are going to the farm.” With his calm, soothing voice and affable manner, it is no surprise to see how fast the little children warm up to Michael Corbidge.
The artistic director with the Singapore-based child enrichment centre, iHappy Child Learning International Pte Ltd, looked strange in his huge, Dr Seuss-like, colourful top hat, but he had the wee ones eating out of his hand in no time. At his beck and call, they wiggled, jumped, stretched out their hands and made funny noises. Learning became one big adventure.
“I believe children learn best in a stress-free and fun environment where they can grow to enjoy learning,” says the experienced professional drama trainer.
“The first few years are vital. You give a child confidence at a very early age, and then work that confidence. That child will become more resourceful and powerful,” Corbidge adds.
At iHappy Child, youngsters are taught life skills for success through fun and play. The enrichment centre opened in Singapore last year, and a subsidiary was set up in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, early this year, called the Happy Child Development Centre. Its revolutionary approach to learning has caught on fast among Malaysian parents who want to unlock their children’s creativity.
Corbidge was in Malaysia recently to introduce the Speech and Drama programme for the next school year at Happy Child. Running a few model lessons for parents and children, he shared how arts has been successfully integrated with the programme’s rudimentary learning skills.
“Each kid learns in a different way – some through visuals, some through touch, and others through movement,” he says.
Preparing children for life
Eschewing worksheets and examinations, the courses – devised by some of Singapore’s most adventurous educators – focus on lots of play, projects and performances.
Says Corbidge: “Traditional teaching methods don’t often engage children, and when they are not happy, they don’t develop positive attitudes. We have to decide if we want children to be brave enough to scream and blow their heads off or be model students – timid and quiet.”
The centre thus encourages children to explore and have fun through games, storytelling and role-playing.
Based on renowned child psychologist Dr Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple-intelligence (see chart), the classes are engineered to engage youngsters on specifics – movement, real-life experiences, visuals, nature and interaction.
In fact, iHappy Child is a unique early learning centre in the region, which develops its own constantly up-dated curriculum, syllabus and learning materials. Regular feedback from teachers is used to review and revise the curriculum content and its implementation process to suit children’s needs and their learning environment.
Says Jennifer Liew-Reyes, one of the centre’s directors: “At iHappy Child, we have set out to make children want to and enjoy learning, as well as be confident and curious.
“Our purpose is to motivate them to find out for themselves, and to think creatively and independently, not to just give the right answer.”
Citing Singapore as an example, she says education that develops imaginative, flexible and creative thinking skills is salient in a society where the workforce is placing increasing emphasis on an employee’s ability to create and generate ideas.
“I fact, you could say we’re trying to do our bit towards moulding the new breed of Singaporean – gracious, socially adept, bright – someone with high emotional and intelligence quotients.”
As Malaysia has a very much exam-oriented education system, Happy Child has relatively similar aims here. “You can see that Malaysian children need a more creative education curriculum too,” say Liew-Reyes.
History has shown that we specialise too early in life, she adds. “We compartmentalise each skill. For example, if we want to be an accountant, we learn all we need to know about accountancy, and nothing else.”
She explains that at Happy Child, they try to provide a balanced programme to engage the various intelligences that a child is born instead of having a narrow focus on academic skills.
Morning and afternoon care
Interestingly, Liew-Reyes established Happy Child Centre in Malaysia after having trouble finding a school that could offer bilingual classes for her over-active, pre-school daughter.
She says that the centre in Petaling Jaya caters for the multi-cultural and multi-lingual aspects of Malaysian society.
Happy Child thus works as a pre-school and more.
“We try to take into account busy working parents who send their children off in the morning before they go to work and pick them up after work due to their tight schedules. So what we run is a preschool in the morning and enrichment programmes in the afternoon,” she says.
Parents can choose from a diverse range of enrichment options for their child, from Mandarin, Bahasa Melayu and computing to music, visual arts, dance, drama and cooking. The enrichment combination is left to parents and their preferences, unlike a regular school where everything is fixed.
Happy Child has been open to children aged three to six. From next year, it will be open to children aged 18 months onwards.
Liew-Reyes says Happy Child is not a day care centre. “The enrichment variety is aimed at providing holistic education for the children,” she explains.
“Basically, it is to teach the young ‘life skills’, such as how to listen, how to come up with creative solutions to problems and how to develop their artistic abilities.”
A lot of the activities are aimed at empowering children, while encouraging them to run around and have fun.
One enrichment course – cooking – is particularly good for providing real life experience, she says. “They begin to understand the dos and don’ts in the kitchen. We don’t just tell them how dangerous it is.”
Elaine Ng, an early childhood learning specialist responsible for the development of iHappy Child’s programmes, says the courses are designed to provide experiential learning.
She adds: “We let them have the experience, not just show them a picture and then discuss it. It is important that they get involved in the experience; that is how they should learn. It is more meaningful.
“We try to show that visual arts, for example, is not just about colouring. We expand on their experience and knowledge by talking about the process.”
The enrichment programmes are run in the afternoon and open to other students, including primary school pupils.
It is now common knowledge that arts is important in stimulating children’s creativity, and enhancing their learning and communication skills. Hence, iHappy Child will be introducing its Speech and Drama programme next year.
“Researchers have found that children can attain higher levels of achievement through exposure to the arts. When a child is engaged in a learning environment involving the arts, whether it’s a drama, music, painting or dance class, the child’s creative side becomes stimulated,” says Corbidge, who was involved in the design of the centre’s performance-based programmes.
“The arts can nurture children’s ability to think, and develop a natural desire to participate, examine, and learn,” he adds.
Ng concurs that children who are exposed to the arts early in life develop a different perspective of life.
She notes that current research shows that exposure to the arts has a direct impact on the learning capabilities of children. “They provide greater opportunities for children to excel in reading, writing and mathematics than those who focus solely on academics.”
Along with the speech and drama programme, Happy Child is planning to launch a full-scale stage production with young performers picked from a nationwide audition.
The project, successfully introduced in Singapore this year, will not only expose the young to all aspects of the arts but also enrich their lives.
Children can discover their artistic abilities when given the opportunity to display their talents, says Corbidge. “The boost in their self-confidence will last them a lifetime, spurring them on to greater things.”
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