Meeting Preschool Needs Up North

By Wong Li Za

THE faces of the children in pink uniforms light up as they file into their favourite room of the school — the science centre. Lessons always prove fascinating and fun since the room is equipped with interesting objects such as a model bearing the inner organs of a human body, a skeleton, stethoscopes and magnifying glasses. The lesson for the day is on magnets and magnetic fields, a big topic for these children who are barely a metre tall. These inquisitive six-year-olds are among 1,500 preschool children aged three to six currently enrolled in the morning and afternoon sessions at Tadika Superkids, Alor Setar, Kedah. It is the largest kindergarten in a single school building in Malaysia and conducts a specially designed programme called ‘Fungates’. Children come from as far as Sungai Petani, Pendang, Simpang Empat and Jitra to attend the kindergarten, with some parents paying more for bus fares than the actual school fees. Designed by the founder of Superkids, Clarine Chun, the Fungates system has been adopted by 13 kindergartens throughout Malaysia. Two kindergartens in Singapore are also using this system while a school in Hong Kong is looking at setting up a similar system. One distinct feature about the Fungates system is its open classroom concept. In the hall of the main block eight classes with about 30 children in each class go on simultaneously, with only low partitions separating them. The purpose of this concept, according to Chun, is to expose children to the concept of multi-tasking, or getting used to doing multiple things at one time.

“Children learn best when they are in an open environment. In fact, we want to pull down walls if necessary,” says Chun. However, she cautions, to teach effectively in such an environment, teachers need to be specially trained. Hence, all teachers at Superkids undergo training yearly which are conducted by Chun herself. Besides the open classroom concept, Fungates prides itself in a lot of guided, hands-on learning apparatus, which Superkids readily invests a lot of money in. All the books come with apparatus to make learning more fun for the children and each child has a set of the same apparatus used by the teacher in class.

“The science lab is the kids’ favourite where they learn about things like water, fire and animals. The purpose of the class is strictly to satisfy their curiosity and to answer their questions on the whys and the hows, of things,” explains Chun, adding that there is no written test on science. The Fungates syllabus is also designed to prepare preschoolers for Primary 1. Their exercise books are like the ones they will be using in Primary 1, in terms of the space between the lines. The main emphasis at Superkids is to look at every aspect of a child’s development, and not only focusing on academic excellence. “We use a lot of positive reinforcement through encouragement, praise, recognition and reward to help them maximise their full potential. We feel we have done well if the children leave here feeling good and confident about themselves.

“We also want to instil in the children a love for our country, to see the country’s goodness and strength,” says Chun. Tadika Superkids started 12 years ago with 35 children and was known as Tadika Bina then. It did not do well and when Chun was asked to take over, she went about making some changes. She gave the exterior a facelift, brought in new furniture and also revamped the syllabus.

“I tried many ways to teach the children, making a lot of mistakes along the way,” admits Chun, who hails from Ipoh. After the first year of her takeover, the kindergarten’s enrolment increased to more than 80. The following year, it doubled to 160 and soon increased by the hundreds. Six years ago, she began to develop her own programme, incorporating science labs, computer labs and language labs, which culminated in the ‘Fungates’ system today.

“The word ‘fun’ is because learning should be fun for kids, and ‘gates’ means the entry points which open a new world to children, especially as three to six are the most impressionable years of a child,” says Chun, who also travelled to the United States and Australia to see how other successful kindergartens were run. Chun also started writing her own books for the subjects taught, except Bahasa Malaysia and computer learning which she intends to do this year, incorporating both the American and the Malaysian education systems.

“I think the books are based on years of making mistakes and observing how children learn best,” says Chun, who is also the author of four inspirational books for teachers. The number of students enrolled at the kindergarten is testimony to the confidence that parents have in the kindergarten and its system of teaching. Tan Sau Hwa has been sending all his three children to Tadika Superkids even though he feels the fees are higher than average. For classes for three-year-olds, the monthly fee is RM100, while for four-year-olds, RM70, and five- and six-year-olds, RM60. Tan’s older children are now in Form Two and Year Five while the youngest, five, is currently attending the morning session at the kindergarten. “Here, there is a better teaching system, especially in Bahasa Malaysia, Math and English, and the children tend to adapt faster when they go into Year One. “My older children were getting very good results in school and that’s why I’m sending my third child here,” says Tan, who first heard about the kindergarten from friends. Of the 40-odd teachers and helpers handling both the morning and afternoon sessions, more than half have been with her for 10 years. As for Chun, fondly known among the children as Auntie Clarine, she finds great joy working with kids.

“It is satisfying to be able to make an impact on kids over so many years, to instil values and the love for the country in the children.” Chun’s time is now divided between acting as a consultant at Superkids and also helping other preschools who have adopted the Fungates system set up classes. She also conducts training seminars, which have been attended by delegates from Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand to England. In the middle of this year, Chun plans to start another kindergarten in Alor Setar which caters for special children such as those with Down’s Syndrome and autism.

“We want to use our own syllabus and trained teachers to meet the needs of these children,” shares Chun, a mother of three children aged 20 to 27. Her kindergarten is also planning to raise funds to start a haemodialysis centre at the venue and offer services to those who need it at a much lower rate.

“We see more and more people needing kidney dialysis around here and each session can be quite costly to them,” says Chun who has been a pastor at Trinity Baptist Church, located next to the kindergarten, for the past 15 years.

“We want to involve the children in some kind of community service. We would like to instil this in them from young,” says Chun.

Sources from The Star Sunday, April 9, 2000