Principal of the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan (SHHK) Preschool, Ms Tham Kum Fong is a strong believer that character-building is critical for children at pre-school age, so as to equip them with the necessary life skills to take on life’s challenges.
A holder of two masters degrees, the first a Masters in Business Administration from the National University of Singapore, and the second a Masters in Early Childhood Education from the National Institute of Education, Ms Tham, 61, quit her managerial position in the commercial sector 16 years ago to join the early childhood sector.
“I have always thought about becoming a teacher while I was still a student, but I wasn’t sure if I could do it because I knew a teacher had to do more than just teach. Being a teacher meant being a role model for your students（以身作则）.”
But that inhibition did not stop her from regularly volunteering with children since the start of her career. Through these experiences, Ms Tham found herself having a natural affinity for children, and discovered her patience and ability to engage and communicate with them. However, it was a self-reflection course she attended at the age of 45 that ultimately prompted her to take the plunge and respond to her calling as a teacher.
She soon enrolled herself in the two-and-a-half-year specialist diploma course in early childhood education in Ngee Ann Polytechnic, which kick-started her journey in the early childhood sector, one that she says she finds immensely meaningful and fulfilling, and has “no regrets” about.
Now helming the SHHK Preschool, which prides itself on its bilingual curriculum and emphasis on character-building through their eight core values, Ms Tham believes that character-building through practical hands-on activities is critical to equip children with the necessary life skills to take on life’s challenges later on.
However, rather than learning these life skills from books or stories, which may be too abstract for the children to understand, Ms Tham integrates activities like martial arts and gardening into the school’s curriculum to equip children with life skills, through what she calls “incidental learning”.
With the current generation often referred to as a “strawberry generation” (草莓族), she stated her intentions for incorporating martial arts (武术操) into the school’s curriculum, “I did not want this label to apply to my children graduating from this pre-school”. Fondly recounting how proud she was when her students were able to hold the horse stance (扎马步) for up to a hundred counts, when they started out not being able to last even five counts, she says that practicing martial arts teaches children endurance, discipline and self-motivation. Additionally, she cites the benefit of practicing martial arts as a challenge to oneself, rather than potentially promoting unhealthy competition among children.
The school’s Living Garden is another project that Ms Tham believes plays an immense role in imparting values like care, responsibility, and selflessness to the children. During each school term, each class will be tasked with growing a particular plant. The abstract concept of responsibility now becomes tangible to the children, as they have to care for their plant and make sure that it grows well. While caring for their own plant, the children are also told that they have to look out for the other plants in the garden and make sure they are well taken care of. This breeds a culture of selflessness and responsibility – once abstract concepts that the children can now enact and practise on a daily basis, and which Ms Tham hopes they can develop and internalise in the longer term.
Reminiscing about her own childhood, Ms Tham shared that she was a very introverted child herself. While her teachers commended her for being diligent and well-behaved, she felt that her quiet and introverted nature led to many missed opportunities for exploration and discovery as a young child. It was her own passive learning journey that motivated Ms Tham to expose her students and encourage them to discover their talents and interests.
“If you want happy and healthy children who are naturally inquisitive about the things around them, give them the time and space to grow and explore on their own. Learning the alphabet and numbers are important, but those can be gradually picked up as the child grows older. What is more important at this age is to build up their character, nurture a sense of curiosity, and love for learning.”
Picture source: Ms Tham Kum Fong
Written by: Sharon Lim
Sharon is currently reading Communications and New Media at NUS. She loves animals, nature, and wwoofing.