Parents forking out up to $10,000 for brain training
Parents are spending on programmes that claim to train their children's brain and enhance cognitive and social skills
Music to enhance learning ability. Art lessons to stretch the brain. Not to forget tuition.
But have such classes lost their allure?
In a country where parents spend more than $1 billion a year on tuition, a new craze is getting them to use their credit cards even more.
Parents are spending on programmes that claim to train their children's brain and enhance cognitive and social skills.
The past few years have seen the establishment of various centres claiming to build up brain power to help kids focus and memorise things over time.
Some use specially developed card and board games and toys to make the brain learn faster and more easily. Others turn to computer programmes and physical activities to improve children's attention span, motor coordination, image-processing and emotional skills.
Ms Cheryl Chia, founder and director of BrainFit Studio, 43, says that Singapore is grade-motivated and "more and more parents are realising the need to teach the brain to focus".
The qualified paediatric physiotherapist who worked at the neonatal intensive care unit of KK Women's and Children's Hospital, says she noticed that young patients with motor coordination problems frequently had language difficulties as well.
"That was how I set this up to focus on their cognitive development," she adds.
Housewife Henny Lee, 40, did not buy into the science at first. Her daughter had problems reading and she was said to have dyslexia.
She recounts: "My sister told me about BrainFit Studio, so I signed her up. But when I found out that she was learning to read by jumping on a trampoline, I almost pulled her out.
"Then, I saw a marked improvement in her schoolwork, especially comprehension, and I started believing in the method."
A customised programme at BrainFit costs between $1,000 and $10,000, lasting two months to two years. The average sign-up is for one semester, which is four months.
Brainy Moves, started by Mr James Tang, 41, a former physical education and maths teacher, has classes comprising exercises such as sensory training, games and complex body movements.
"At Brainy Moves, we strengthen the brain and keep it sharp for learning. Where there are conditions, we treat the conditions at the root of the issue. Without an optimal brain, learning would be a slower process," Mr Tang says.
General manger of Genius Mind Academy, Mr John Choo, 47, says: "A child who enrols in blindfold-reading techniques will be taught techniques such as the correct method of breathing, listening stimulation, eyeball exercises, exercises to stay healthy, colour stimulation, imagination training and photographic training."
He likens it to the heightened senses of a visually handicapped person.
These methods do have their detractors, who say that they are either short-term improvement or memory work because of repetition.
Yet medical practitioners such as Dr John J. Ratey, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School, believes in brain training.
Dr Ratey tells The New Paper on Sunday: "The aims and processes that I observed (at Brainy Moves) are based on science and they will continue to evolve and help the science to evolve as well.
"It is a well thought-out and powerful programme that incorporates activities that improve balance, flexibility, coordination, rhythm and leads to a better behaved, better organised, and better performing child. The staff is well trained and very committed to children of all brain types."
Associate Professor Noel Chia, who is from the Early Childhood and Special Needs Education Academic Group at the National Institute of Education, says that after decades of research, findings suggest that early childhood is a multi-faceted phase marked by critical periods.
"Those are the times when the brain is intensely adaptable to new senses such as sights, sounds, tastes and touches. There is no singular critical period, for example, limited to between the ages of 18 months and six years, but instead a symphony of... bursts in various regions of the brain at different times during development," he explains.
Young children are inquisitive, he says.
"When they are constantly bombarded with sensory information, their developing brain works hard and efficiently to sort relevant from irrelevant details, making sense of their surrounding world. That is why we often say learning is 'caught' at a young age, but has to be 'taught' once these children are older."
What parents say
Mr Koh Bock Keat, 44, engineer
"When my twin boys were about four, they were slow learners and rather clumsy in their behaviour. When they started Primary 1, it was quite tough for them to keep up with their school curriculum.
I read of Brainy Moves in the newspapers and decided that it was worthwhile to get James and Joseph enrolled... I am able to observe the improvement in their psychomotor skills and their school results."
Ms Nur Siti Abdullah, 36, entrepreneur
"My son hated school. He was always the clown and had trouble paying attention in class. He didn't concentrate while doing his schoolwork. I went online in search for help and found Brainfit Studio.
I decided to enrol him to see if unconventional classes could help. I was rather sceptical at first. What has jumping around got to do with grades, I asked? But it helped. Now, he even tries to learn his spelling while on road trips."
Brain training: Focus or hocus-pocus?
PHOTO: BRAINY MOVES
Brain training is part a multi-billion-dollar enrichment industry. But does it work?
A 2011 study by University of London, Birkbeck, found that babies who were shown a series of computer programmes encouraging them to focus on different parts of the screen performed better than those in tests to measure powers of concentration.
The researchers said the findings were significant because improved focus helps children to pick up skills and acquire languages, and the brain is at its most adaptable early in life.
There is also a study by the University of Eastern Finland which found that poorer motor performance was linked to worse academic skills in children, especially among boys.
These are the bases on which many of the brain-training centres are build.
But detractors insist it is all hocus-pocus.
Dr Ulman Lindenberger of Germany's Max Planck Institute for Human Development says there is "little evidence that playing brain games improves underlying broad cognitive abilities, or that it enables one to better navigate a complex realm of everyday life".
Also sceptical, the director of the Center for the Developing Brain at the Child Mind Institute in New York, Dr Mike Milham, says: "There is some research saying brain training has some value and other research saying that it doesn't.
"No one has shown a particularly impressive effect size, so even when you show some benefits, is it worth the time and money spent?"
Indulge in mind games
FUN LEARNING: Mr James Tang, who runs Brainy Moves, guiding a child in a cross-lateral movement. ST FILE PHOTO
BRAINY MOVES STUDIO
Participants carry out 15 to 25 types of movements in a 50-minute session, and they include walking in a line with eyes closed, balancing on platforms to catch balls and raising the opposite arm and knee at the same time.
These target psychomotor skills such as balance and hand-eye control, and train different parts of the brain to work together.
Students receive sensory-motor fitness training twice a week for about 50 minutes each session. They jump in specific patterns on a mini trampoline, do movement exercises on a scooter board, strengthening exercises on a mat, and ball exercises for hand-eye coordination.
Participants say the eye-tracking exercises have helped them in mastering reading and comprehension.
GENIUS MIND ACADEMY
The centre has what it termed a "midbrain activation" programme to get the child to use both sides of the brain instead of only one. The child is also taught the correct method of breathing, listening stimulation, eye-ball exercises, colour stimulation, imagination and photographic training.
After just one day of the programme, participants are said to be able to identify the colour and number of poker cards and UNO cards while blindfolded.
It uses Vedic maths, a method extracted from ancient Hindu texts. Pupils learn addition, subtraction, multiplication and division differently from how it is taught in schools - working from right to left, not left to right.
Akin to the abacus, an ancient Chinese method of computation, it aims to solve difficult problems in a matter of seconds, without the need to write out the working.