Staying home with the young and the restless

While most people are winding down for the day at 10pm, Ms Chow Keat Yeng’s work day is just ramping up. The 40-year-old adjunct lecturer in communications works into the wee hours of the morning, grading assignments from her students.

Since circuit breaker measures kicked in on April 7, the mother of two girls aged 3½ and two has hardly had any sleep.

“I can hardly do my work in the day because my daughters have an impeccable sense of timing – whenever I open my laptop, they will start a new activity that requires my supervision or they decide to wake up from their nap,” she says. “I’m running on adrenaline now and I hope this fuel will last me till the end of May.”

With pre-schools and childcare centres closed for at least one month, many parents of young kids below six are tearing their hair out trying to keep their energetic broods occupied at home.

Mrs Patricia Koh, 68, education ambassador of the MapleBear Singapore chain of pre-schools, sums up the work-from-home (WFH) and home-based learning (HBL) dilemma for parents with toddlers and pre-schoolers: “I think most of us are more fearful of the fact that we have to stay home with our children than fighting the virus.”

Mrs Koh, who has 48 years of experience in early childhood education, uses the acronym Fear to explain how many parents feel about this age group – they are Fast and furious, Energy-draining, Attention-seeking and Restless. A child below age three, she notes, cannot sit still for longer than three minutes.

Now is the time to “develop a new view of quality time – instead of imposing adult expectations, let yourself be led by your child’s needs”, advise early childhood teacher-educators at the National Institute of Early Childhood Development (NIEC). Set up by the Ministry of Education, it trains early childhood educators.

Toddlers up to age three demand attention in two ways, the experts explain. There is “want something” time, which includes routine care, where parent and child cooperate to do something together, such as meal and bath times. Then there is “want nothing” time, where the child just needs the parent to watch, listen and anticipate his or her needs.

As toddlers have a short attention span, parents should keep activities to 15 to 20 minutes long and let the children lead, rather than forcing them to follow adult cues, the experts advise. Use positive language to verbalise your instructions.

Pre-schoolers aged four to six thrive on activities that engage their senses, “so ensure those little hands and feet keep moving”, they say.

If parents find themselves in a power struggle with a pre-schooler who is asserting independence, avoid insisting on activities he or she is clearly not interested in. “Keep the activities open-ended and let the children set the pace,” the NIEC experts suggest.

Parents can use items in the house to create activities for children, says Ms Fynn Sor, who runs an activity resource website called Happy Tot Shelf. Here, her children, Riley, four, and Zachary, seven, go through a line obstacle course where they trace the lines marked on the floor by jumping about on one leg, going on all fours or pretending to be a wheelbarrow. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

While pre-schools have provided parents with activity packs and, in some cases, online lessons, there is no need to be fixated on online learning, says Mrs Koh.

“Lessons are often caught rather than taught, so do not expect your pre-school teachers to teach a lesson, but rather, share something interesting that can last them a lifetime.”

At the same time, setting a daily routine is important. While some parents may baulk at the thought of a structured timetable for young children, a “consistent routine will help children and their body clocks with many day-to-day processes”, says Ms Chow, who owns Artistic Expressions, a speech and drama school.

“It also makes them feel safe. When it’s time to read, they know how to quieten down; when it is time to play, they look forward to the time and play their hearts out.”

This circuit breaker period is also an excellent opportunity to teach young children to help themselves, says Ms Fynn Sor, 37, a former secondary school teacher who runs Happy Tot Shelf, a website offering learning activity ideas to parents of toddlers and pre-schoolers.

“This is the best time to teach children independence. Communicate confidence in them to take care of themselves while you are working.

“Look around the house and see how you can improve the space for your children to help themselves easily. Examples include a stool for children to reach the tap and a self-help snack corner,” says the stay-at-home mum of three children aged one to seven.

Sibling squabbles are also amplified when the family is together all the time, but parents do not have to resort to raising their voices every five minutes, says Ms Chow.

“My daughters, Michelle and Nicole, squabble all the time. Most times, I let them be. I give them space and encourage them to sort the problem out by themselves.

“Even if I intervene, I guide them to find a solution. More often than not, we come down very hard on the children because we get agitated.”

Above all, make this time a memorable one for your little ones.

MapleBear’s Mrs Koh says: “This is the time to sing to your child, laugh and dance like there is no tomorrow, paint rainbows for the world to see, go meet all our friends in the storybooks and write lots of love letters to the ones who care for you.”

8 educational activities to try 


1 Soft shape game

Gather old socks, T-shirts or sponges as “throwing toys”, suggest the experts at the National Institute of Early Childhood Development (NIEC). Roll the tees into balls of different sizes or wrap them around small containers of different shapes.

Stretch one T-shirt over a child-sized chair, box or step stool. The neck opening serves as a slot for your child to put the items through. Turn this into a colour-sorting game by using items of different hues, and vary the play by getting your tot to take the objects out of the neck hole or sleeve.

2 Ice cube tray activities

Place an ice cube tray on a larger tray. Guide your toddler as he or she uses spoons of different sizes to scoop and transfer small items like seeds or beans from a bowl into the ice cube tray (the larger tray catches the spilled items). Your child can also use kitchen tongs to transfer coins in the same way while supervised, say NIEC experts. Vary this by making play dough with flour, water and salt, and have your toddler squeeze the balls of dough into the trays.

3 Butterfly print activity

Listen to a reading of The Very Hungry Caterpillar story by Eric Carle on MapleBear Singapore’s YouTube channel at

Afterwards, place a piece of paper on top of a pile of newspapers. Drop non-toxic paint or food colouring lightly onto the paper, then ask your child to close his eyes while you fold the paper in half.

Say “Hey, Presto! A butterfly!” when he opens his eyes and sees the butterfly print. Make more prints with paint of different colours, frame them with cardboard from old boxes and hold an online exhibition.

You can also make caterpillar prints with toilet rolls or a caterpillar using pom-pom balls. Nurture your child’s imagination by allowing him to explore colours, lines, shapes and colours, says Mrs Patricia Koh of MapleBear Singapore pre-schools.

4 Colour-matching activity


If you have toddler-friendly blocks like Duplo and a base board, this activity from Ms Fynn Sor of learning activity website Happy Tot Shelf takes just three minutes to set up.

Place two blocks of the same colour in a row, but leave a block’s worth of space in between. Repeat for the remaining blocks of different colours. Then invite your toddler to fill in the “blanks” with the correct colours, and name each colour as your child does so.

Find a variation of this for pre-schoolers at Visit Ms Sor’s website at for more ideas.


5 Post-it Note number houses


Tape a large piece of paper onto your child’s table. Draw six houses in two rows, then divide each house into four equal parts. Write the numbers 1 to 6 in the roof spaces. Then prepare Post-it Notes with the numbers written in different permutations – for instance, the number 3 can be written as a numeral, three triangles, three dots and so on. Invite your child to match the Post-it Notes to the number.

This activity from Happy Tot Shelf’s Ms Sor can be easily modified for older children. Her seven-year-old son uses it to practise addition, subtraction and multiplication.

6 Riddle me this, riddle me that

“I always believe kids learn better when they discover the answers for themselves,” says Ms Chow Keat Yeng of speech and drama school Artistic Expressions.

“So when you want children to find something, instead of telling them where it is, speak in riddles and get them to solve it.”

As her daughters are below four years old, she focuses on things they are learning in school – colour, size, location and sound. “For example, if I want them to grab something from the oven, I will say: ‘I am black. I am small. I am in the kitchen. I make the sound ding ding when I am done. What am I?'”

After your children are familiar with the concept of riddles, challenge them to create their own for you to solve. Ms Chow also posts twice-weekly podcasts of learning ideas at

7 Green drumming

Make a “green” drum by using objects found in the home, says Mrs Koh of MapleBear. Find a range of drum tones, from low-to mid-range to high-pitched ones. Either paint the items or use starch and paper to make a papier-mache instrument.

Then, watch a kid-friendly song on YouTube, such as Rhythm And The Beat on MapleBear’s YouTube channel. Parents beat the rhythm and the children can copy. After that, reverse roles.

A variation of this is to play a game of “Guess the Song”. One parent-child pair thinks of a tune and plays the rhythm, while the other pair tries to guess the song.

8 Photo album writing

Choose a photo from your old family albums. Let your child practise inventive spelling by writing a sentence about the picture. Focus on the effort and the message, not the spelling, say the experts from NIEC.

If you have a series of photos on a particular event, let your child create a story by sequencing the photos. You can also shoot a video of your child talking about the photo like in show-and-tell sessions, and share it with the family members pictured.

Final pointers: If the child does not take to an activity, introduce it a few weeks later. You can change an element in the activity, such as swopping dot paint markers for dot stickers. Try leaving the activity on your child’s shelf and wait for him to pick it up.

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