From Starting a School to Charity: Ng Gim Choo Continues Her Mission of Joyful Learning at the EtonHouse Community Fund

Ng Gim Choo, founder of the esteemed EtonHouse pre-schools, is now focused on empowering underprivileged children in Singapore. She intends to do so through a joyful learning movement.
by Lyn Chan

Photo: Lawrence Teo

Mrs Ng Gim Choo may have handed over the EtonHouse reins to her younger son in 2022 as part of a carefully designed succession plan, but her drive for educational reform during a child’s formative years continues unabated.

At 71 years old and a grandmother of three, she currently serves as the founder and chairwoman of the EtonHouse Community Fund (ECF), where her mission has evolved to empower underprivileged children. She is a passionate advocate for the idea that every child, regardless of their socio-economic circumstances, should have the opportunity to experience learning in a happy environment.

Navigating the charity landscape

Photo: Lawrence Teo

Her embrace of novel challenges mirrors the same tenacity that spurred her to start EtonHouse nearly three decades ago. “Steering a charitable organisation is not easy,” Ng reflects. “It’s about creating permanent impact instead of focusing on the bottom line as is the case with for-profit organisations.”

In 2021, Ng and her team derived the Joyful Learning programme to redefine early educational experiences for underprivileged children. According to Ng, some children skip preschool due to its non-compulsory nature. This results in these youngsters first encountering books, specifically through spelling and dictation tests, only when they enter primary school. Regrettably, doing poorly on these assessments sets them back significantly, making progress challenging.

She asserts, “Every child inherently possesses intelligence, regardless of their background.” Drawing upon a Chinese saying that acknowledges the myriad starting points in life, she subtly conveys her hope to create equity for all these children through experiential education.

Challenging perceptions: the role of play in learning

Disrupting entrenched paradigms of education, however, has proven to be a formidable undertaking. Some parents harbour scepticism towards the notion of play-based learning, dismissing the activities as mere frivolous play.

Yet, as Ng delves into the heart of a 90-minute Joyful Learning session, it becomes clear that there is more to this pedagogical approach than meets the eye: The children embark on a meticulously planned journey comprising pre-activity engagement, greetings, an interactive storytelling session that beckons forth curiosity, and a spirited 30-minute interlude of joyous singing and dancing. The class concludes with a goodbye song, after which the kids leave with the book from the storytelling segment.

EtonHouse educators carefully select books for Saturday sessions, such as Goldilocks and the Three Bears. These stories, while seemingly simple, engage young minds in exploring science (like pondering the ideal porridge temperature) and moral values (such as appropriate conduct as guests). Beyond life lessons, children gain exposure to numeracy and literacy, using these timeless tales as tools to ignite their passion for knowledge, creating an enchanting literary experience.

They attend Joyful Learning sessions not solely to accrue knowledge or to meet prescribed educational benchmarks. They come, as Ng poignantly notes, “to be very happy”. In this pursuit of happiness, they find themselves immersed in a world where learning is synonymous with joy, a philosophy that stands as a testament to the life-changing power of education when it embraces the heart and the soul of a child.

Her belief in the pivotal role of play is corroborated by a wealth of research. Dr Catherine Tamis-LeMonda, a professor of applied psychology at New York University specialising in infant and toddler learning and development, states in a New York Times report that play constitutes more than just an activity; it is an approach to learning — a dynamic, fun and inquisitive means of discovering the world.

A holistic definition of success

Ng holds a steadfast philosophy: Success cannot be confined solely to academic achievements. In her view, a child’s overall well-being and happiness take precedence.

Recalling an incident from her time as a homemaker, she reminisces about a fellow mother’s inquiry about her daughter’s test scores, which was subsequently met with a reproach for her lack of knowledge regarding her child’s grades. Ng responds with a chuckle, saying, “To me, the marks are not important. You cannot encapsulate a child’s worth solely through numerical metrics.”

During her school days, she cherished time with her 20 cousins, relishing games like five stones and hide-and-seek after class. She contrasts this with today’s children, often overloaded with weekend enrichment classes.

“I hope to transform parents’ perceptions that equate success solely with examination results.” In the bigger picture, success in life depends on numerous factors. Academic achievement is just one — developing emotional and social intelligence is equally crucial. The intelligence quotient, the cognitive aspect, represents just a fraction of the equation, she says.

There is a perceptible shift in attitudes, she adds, although she deems it insufficient thus far. “I want to transform their misconceptions because children deserve to have a childhood.”

Building a movement

Beneath her nurturing demeanour and soft-spokenness lies an embodiment of steely determination — a woman on a mission. Her ambition for the charity reaches far, involving the establishment of a wide network of skilled volunteers and educators to disseminate the Joyful Learning model across Singapore. Ng is also considering a board revitalisation to ensure the sustainability of the charity. She’s particularly attentive to ECF’s Institute of Public Character status, granted to registered charities for a specific duration, along with the importance of maintaining an independent board.

Without question, Ng’s dedication to reshaping early education represents an ongoing narrative, one still in the making.

This story originally published on The Peak Singapore.

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