Preschools : What Are They?

Image Beginning of last year, I went on a preschool hunt for Dominic. He was turning 3, and in view of the new addition to the family, we thought it would be a good idea to send him off to school for half a day so that I get a break from have both kids around and just concentrate on taking care of the baby.

Actually, the ‘hunt’ started the year before because we wanted him to start school from January 2004. But we didn’t really do any research or real hunting. Instead, we relied on the recommendation from a close family member, and sent Dominic to a Montessori school.

The very day Dominic started school, we received news from the school that they have lost the lease to the premise and would be moving to a new centre which is further away and in a commercial building. We were very pissed by this and felt cheated because the school could have forewarned us of the possible move when we registered. We would have taken that into consideration and might not have enrolled Dominic into that school.

Anyway, because of that, I decided to do my own research and preschool hunt. That’s when the real hunt began. Little did I know that there was such a lot to learn, so much confusing information, and such a lot of work just to find a school.

So here are all the things I have learned through the month long, tedious process. Hope this will at least shed some light on the preschool ‘industry’ in Singapore and save some work for you.

What is a Preschool?

The broad definition of a preschool in the local context is basically a school that provides structured education in preparation for the formal schooling system (which begins at Primary one).

Playgroup & Nursery

Basically, there are three main ‘creatures’ in the preschool arena – kindergarten, childcare and enrichment centres. Within these, you will find playgroup and nursery. In other words, ‘playgroup’ and ‘nursery’ basically refers to the type of classes.

If you are new to the preschool scene, you can be very confused by all the names that possibly refer to some form of preschool education. E.g. playgroup, nursery, childcare, kindergarten, enrichment centre, etc. They seem to mean different thing, yet seem to offer the same thing.

How ‘playgroup’ and ‘nursery’ is defined in terms of age group may vary from centre to centre but generally, playgroups are for young toddlers from about 18 months, whereas nursery classes are for children around the age of 3.

In summary, the terms ‘playgroup’ and ‘nursery’ basically refers to the type of classes.

Nursery is usually part of a structured programme, and it usually refers to the ‘entry level’. In other words, a child in a kindergarten would most likely start off in a Nursery class at the age of 3 or 4, and then move on to kindergarten class at the age of 5.

Playgroup may or may not be part of a structured education programme. In other words, an enrichment centre may provide stand-alone playgroup classes, which may not be on a daily basis. On the other hand, a childcare may have a structure programme leading from 18 months all the way to 6 years old, of which ‘playgroup’ refers to the level for toddlers from 18 – 35 months.

Hence, you can basically see ‘playgroup’ as ‘a group of children coming together to play’.

There are even informal ‘playgroups’ organised by mothers for their children to come together for self-organised enrichment activities and for their children to socialise and interact.

Enrichment Centres

Enrichment centres may or may not provide structured programme for the purpose of preparing the child for primary one. They may have their own programme for the various age groups, but only for a specific ‘skill type’, e.g. speech and drama, mathematics, Chinese, Montessori methods, phonics, etc.

Enrichment centres also typically serves children up to primary six level.

There are also schools that are registered as enrichment centres but they do provide structured programme leading to primary one education. In this case, their programme is usually based on a certain method e.g Montessori. At the same time, they provide ‘enrichment classes’ for children who are not schooling with them but only attends specific classes on a, say, once a week basis.

The biggest confusion I had when I was doing my preschool hunt was between Kindergartens and Childcare Centres. They seem so similar but yet, so different. In order to know which to send Dominic to, I had to answer my own questions like what’s the difference between the two, which is better, which one will prepare Dominic for primary one, what’s the lesson structure, etc.


Kindergartens are registered with the Ministry of Education (MOE). Most of us are familiar with kindergarten. They are the most common ‘route’ that lead up to formal schooling. E.g. PAP, Church kindergarten. Although in terms of Level, the term ‘kindergarten’ refers to classes for 5 & 6 year olds, kindergartens (as schools) accept children from 3 to 4 years old under their Nursery Class. The school as a whole is considered a Kindergarten, as they provide preschool education and are registered under MOE and do not need to fulfil childcare requirements as stipulated by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sport (MCYS).

School Year and Hours

Kindergartens typically follows formal schools in terms of their school years and holidays. In other words, they have holidays like June Holidays, December Holidays, etc.

In terms of hours, it is typically 3-4 hours per session and they are usually run back to back. E.g. 8am – 11am, 11am – 2pm, etc. You will see a difference between this and childcare hours when I get to childcare centres later.

Food and Refreshment

Ok, this may sound trivial but there is a difference. Most kindergarten will have a break time within each 3-4hour session. But because the hours are short, the refreshment provided are not meant to be a real meal but more like a snack time. The refreshment provided for the 11am -2pm session is usually a little more substantial as the break is more akin to lunch time.


MOE monitors the type of curriculum the kindergartens provide. However, I think they basically provide just a broad framework for the schools to follow. Having said that, the preschool scene in Singapore is so competitive (and parents generally very kiasu) that I think it is only in the schools’ interest to compete on the curriculum provided.


Usually calculated based on per term basis and works out to be around average of $80 – $100+ a month. Brand name schools may be more expensive. Parents cannot claim childcare subsidy if their children is enrolled in a kindergarten. However, baby bonus can be used.

Childcare Centres

Two integral aspects of childcare centres are to provide a place for children to be cared for during the day while their parents are at work, and to provide structured preschool education that will prepare the children for formal schooling.

Childcare centres take in children from 18 months to below 7 years. Some childcare centres also provide infant care service for babies from 2 to 18 months.

Kindergarten only provides the structred education but not the childcare service.

Childcare centres are registered under MCYS and they are monitored for a lot more things, e.g. whether the premise have sufficient space for kitchen, obviously becaue they provide a wider scope of service compared to a kindergarten.

School Year and Hours

Childcare centres do not follow formal school calendar. They operate every day of the year except Sunday, gazetted Public Holidays and 5 other days in the year (which the centre can decide on the date) and some other ½ days (e.g. Eve of Chinese New Year) . The daily hours are typically 7am to 7pm (weekday) and 7am – 2pm (Sat).

The school year and hours are different from kindergarten because childcare centres have to cater to the needs of working parents.

Some centres provide only full day sessions, which means you have to pay the full day’s fee even though you may bring your child home midday. A lot of them also offer half day sessions. Some parents who actually do not need child-minding services send their children to half day programme just for the sake of the curriculum.

Food and Refreshment

Childcare centres typically provides breakfast, lunch, and afternoon snack. Meals have to meet the requirements of Ministry of Health.


Again, it is a requirment for the centres to provide sound curriculum and it is only in their interest to do so (as mentioned above).

However, due to longer hours that a child stays in a childcare centre, the way the curriculum is executed may be different from that of a kindergarten who runs sessions of 3-4 hours back to back.

Most centres have some sort of a ‘formal school time’ in the morning, where the children are taught the main curriculum. The afternoons are typically used for enrichment and optional courses such as Speech and Drama, computer, abascus, etc. This is so that children who are on half day programme will not lose out on the main part of the education.

Although half day programme are usually run in the morning, some centres do provide half day programme in the afternoon and they do the same thing in the morning as well as in the afternoon.

I find that because of the longer hours, even for a half day programme, children in childcare centres tend to get exposed to a greater variety of activities.  A childcare centre may bring the children out for field trip every month.  Kindergartens may only do it every half a year. Having said that, when it comes to the curriculum, a lot depends on the centre or the kindergarten and the teachers there.


For full day programme, it can range from $300 plus to over $1000 a month. Fees are charged on monthly basis. Parents can claim childcare subsidy. If you are a working mother, you can claim up to $150 subsidy for full day programme and $75 for half day programme. If you are a SAHM, you can claim only $75 regardless of whether your child is going for full day or half day programme.

Baby Bonus can be used to defray the cost of sending your child to a childcare centre.


All preschool teachers must have the necessary qualification as stipulated by MOE/MCYS. This applies to both kindergarten and childcare centres.

For more information on Childcare services, please check out

You may also want to check out where you can find all the details about the requirements a childcare centre must fulfill.

For MOE’s requirement for preschool education in general, check out