Giving Children A Solid Foundation
SIF Volunteer Award recipient 2012, Dr Khoo Kim Choo (above), believes in raising education standards and implementing new curricula for disadvantaged children in Singapore and beyond.
By Low Yit Leng
Dr Khoo Kim Choo has given many children a headstart in life.
A former social worker as well as an expert in the field of early childhood education, she has been influential since the 1980s for raising the standards of early childhood development as well as the quality of care offered in childcare centres in Singapore.
Keenly aware of the importance of early childhood education for children, including the role of parents and teachers in giving children a good foundation, Dr Khoo initiated three programmes in the 1980s and early 1990s: One on upgrading the quality of childcare; another on parent and community involvement; and a third on setting up the Regional Training and Resource Centre in Early Childhood Care and Education for Asia (renamed SEED Institute).
Her projects were funded by The Bernard van Leer Foundation, a Netherlands-based foundation that uplifts the lives of children who live in socially and economically difficult circumstances through partnerships with organisations. “With their support, as well as UNICEF’s, we undertook the training of principals, started a modest training centre, and worked on a curriculum for the teachers,” says Dr Khoo, referring to the regional training and resource centre.
“With their (Bernard van Leef foundation) support, as well as UNICEF’s, we undertook the training of principals, started a modest training centre, and worked on a curriculum for the teachers.”
— Dr Khoo Kim Choo
FOLLOWING HER HEART
As a child, Dr Khoo wanted to be a nurse because she was inspired by Florence Nightingale. However, her father objected strongly and she was persuaded to go for teacher training instead. She later undertook a course on social work and social administration at the University of Singapore, something she felt she wanted to do most.
Upon her graduation, Dr Khoo joined the Ministry of Social Affairs, which sent her to head a crèche under its purview. It was set up to look after children from low-income families whose mothers had to work to supplement the family income.
“Being sent to the crèche in 1970 was my first encounter with the early childhood field,” recalls Dr Khoo.
Dr Khoo subsequently moved on to other areas of social work, and encountered children and teenage girls who were neglected, abused and involved in vice. She felt strongly that preventive intervention — by identifying and helping children-at-risk from an early age and working with their families on parenting would be helpful in protecting them.
“Being sent to the crèche in 1970 was my first encounter with the early childhood field.”
— Dr Khoo Kim Choo
“Lots of problems in children can be traced to issues at a young age,” she explains.
So she left the Ministry of Social Affairs to do her Master’s and, subsequently, a PhD at the University of Washington in Seattle, focusing on primary preventive work with children and families. She completed her PhD dissertation on cognitive problem-solving in children based on her real-life research conducted on four-year-olds at NTUC-run preschools.
Upon her return to Singapore in 1984, she was invited to join NTUC’s childcare arm to raise the quality of its teachers through training and programme development. She eventually rose to become the executive director of Singapore’s largest childcare provider, NTUC Childcare.
GETTING PARENTS INVOLVED
One of Dr Khoo’s projects, funded by the Bernard van Leer Foundation, focused on latch-key children in Singapore, for whom she set up toy and book library corners in HDB
(Housing and Development Board) void decks in Singapore’s suburban estates of Bukit Merah and Yishun. While children
in the neighbourhood read and played with the books and toys there, a project team on site conducted informal sessions to teach parents about how children learn.
She also initiated the ‘Parents Teachers Group’ to get parents involved in their children’s early developmental years. Subsequently, these schemes were adopted by different social and welfare organisations serving children, and a number of children’s libraries were built in the void decks of public housing estates in Singapore.
Dr Khoo recognised that books on parenting as well as books for children were scarce in the 1980s, so she
authored three books for children. In 1987, she published Nurture, the first bilingual English and Chinese magazine on parenting issues.
Dr Khoo initiated the Parents Teachers Group to get parents involved in their children’s early developmental years.
RAISING STANDARDS OF EARLY CHILDHOOD TEACHERS
Dr Khoo has also worked with international agencies in many countries such as the Save the Children project in Mongolia with UK and UNICEF, in 1998, and the Early Childhood Policy Review Project in Indonesia with OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) and UNICEF, in 2004.
Through her connections with these organisations and other NGOs, she exchanged information, resources and ideas with them and with international universities to learn how early childhood training was carried out in other countries.
Dr Khoo brought the ideas back to Singapore and implemented measures that contributed greatly to the development of the early childhood field here. One example of an idea resulting from cultural exchange was Dr Khoo’s recognition on the importance of raising the quality of early childhood teachers.
In the 1990s, diplomas were not required for early childhood teachers. So, Dr Khoo developed a joint Master’s programme in early childhood education with Wheelock College Singapore (which offers international education) to equip trainers with skills to impart childhood pedagogy to other early childhood professionals. She also developed pathways for professional development of early childhood personnel — from state-required courses and enrichment courses to a diploma programme accredited by Wheelock College, USA. The raising of standards of early childhood teachers also drew more people to the profession.
EXTENDING THE HAND OF FRIENDSHIP OVERSEAS
Dr Khoo’s voluntary work with the Singapore International Foundation (SIF) started in 2000. “I was then an adjunct Associate Professor at the Social Work Department in NUS. When SIF asked whether I was keen to lead a training of trainers project with Vietnam’s Ministry of Education and Training, I immediately agreed,” she said.
“Our team of volunteers went to Hanoi, Haiphong, Ho Chi Minh and Dalat to conduct the training of trainers in early childhood development and education course over four years.”
Dr Khoo also designed a simple teacher-training centre for teachers working in the provinces. During her second visit to Vietnam in 2003, she met parents, teachers and community leaders of the K’Ho people — an ethnic group living in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. A committee of teachers and parents was formed, and they were encouraged to work together to oversee the centre.
Dr Khoo brought the ideas back to Singapore and implemented measures that contributed greatly to the development of the early childhood field.
“They found old tyres, boxes, plastic bottles, soft drinks cans, rubber bands, coconuts, bamboo, stones and even seeds and leaves which were put to creative use as teaching materials. Parents who turned up were given old newspapers and rubber bands to make toys for their children.”
LOCAL AND INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITIES
In 2004, she embarked on another SIF programme in Myanmar. Together with 10 specialist volunteers, Dr Khoo trained two cohorts of teacher trainers from the Social Welfare Department, the Ministry of Education, UNICEF and other non-governmental organisations in Yangon and Mandalay.
“We felt that it was important to have a resource centre for trainers and teachers to continue their professional development. Both the local and international communities got involved — the people of Myanmar sponsored the flooring, the air-conditioning and shelves, while the SIF team brought in technical support, reference books, children’s books and samples of commercial children’s books and teaching aids.
Trainees made books for teachers and children, as well as samples of low-cost teaching aids and educational toys. Launched in 2009, it was the first of its kind in Myanmar.”
This project will culminate in the launch of a resource book,
Nurturing Children’s Development and Learning, at the end of 2014. The book, which is the result of a collaboration between the Singapore and Myanmar trainers, will be used by Myanmar preschool teachers.
Meanwhile, Dr Khoo is also leading a smaller project in Myanmar, training teachers to teach English to preschool children, which will run until 2015.
Today, Dr Khoo is a highly sought-after consultant, here and internationally and has since opened two of her own preschools. She continues to be engaged in various programmes in Singapore such as the Circle of Care Project, a joint programme between philanthropy group Lien Foundation and welfare organisation Care Corner, which supports children from disadvantaged backgrounds to give them a leg up in their early development.
Dr Khoo is certain that the children will have a bright future ahead.
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