From rain-or-shine forest schools to giving kids their freedom where police officers teach them safety skills and parents are requested to not drive them to school!
In our latest Overseas Mama series, Singaporean Sumathi V Selvaretnam talks about life in Zurich, Switzerland where she lives with her German computer scientist husband and eight-year-old daughter. Sumathi shares how her daughter is now bilingual thanks to the ‘One Parent One Language’ approach (her husband communicates with her exclusively in German, while she does so in English). She shares that there’s a lot to love about life in Switzerland—the proximity to forests and mountains, and the opportunity for family hikes—though the cost of living is high. Read on for an interesting insight into Swiss life, from the emphasis on cognitive and social development in early education to the freedoms given to children where parents are requested to not drive them to school!
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Hello! My name is Sumathi. I’m a mama to a delightful eight-year-old named Emma. My lovely husband, Tobias, is from Germany and works as a computer scientist. We made Switzerland our home in 2016.
I’m a content and communications specialist by profession. Additionally, I volunteer with Temasek Club Switzerland, a non-profit community organisation for Singaporeans, and served as its president for the past six years. We organise social events, workshops and other activities to help Singaporeans make new friends as they find their footing in this home away from home. It’s meaningful work that I enjoy, as it allows me to serve our community and stay connected to my roots.
What brought you to Zurich? How long have you been living overseas?
We moved to Zurich to be closer to my husband’s family. We’ve been living here for 7 years now.
Favourite aspect about living in Zurich?
I have always loved the great outdoors and really enjoy the proximity to nature that Zurich offers. We are surrounded by beautiful forests, rivers, lakes, and mountains.
And the worst part?
High cost of living makes even a simple meal out very expensive
How do you think parenting (and schools) in Zurich differ from Singapore? What do you appreciate most about it?
The early years of schooling (between ages 4 and 6) in Switzerland are focused on cognitive and social development. There is a lesser urgency for example, in learning how to read. Our daughter attended a forest kindergarten for two years where the focus was on learning through play while being immersed in nature. Come rain, shine, or snow, the kids were always outdoors, playing, singing, building, and creating. She often came home covered in mud or soot, and with stones and sticks in her pockets. More work for the parents but it was totally worth the effort! She now has good knowledge of our natural environment, has fun in all seasons (no bad weather!), is a curious and confident learner, and is better at taking managed risks.
Kids here are also taught to be independent from a very young age and are encouraged to walk home on their own as early as kindergarten. A policeman visits them and teaches them how to cross the roads safely. Schools are assigned according to proximity to home and are usually within walking distance. Our municipal office even sends out flyers requesting that parents give their children space and not drive them to school.
Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-baby?
In Singapore, I was working as a journalist and editor for most of my career and I enjoyed it immensely. I was a bit of a workaholic and didn’t mind the tight deadlines and long hours. We moved to Switzerland less than a year after our daughter was born, and I took a career break for a few years before heading back to work. I was comfortable doing that as many moms here cut back on work or fully focus on motherhood during their child’s early years. Discovering a new city together with my daughter deepened our bond and I have a lot of precious memories from this period.
Getting an English-speaking job in a predominantly German-speaking environment came with its own challenges but I persevered and made a career pivot into the field of corporate communications. I headed back into the workforce with renewed priorities. I am now more productive and efficient, have better boundaries, and can strike a better balance between work and home.
Top five places in or around Zurich you would recommend to parents travelling with kids and why.
1. Trübsee Snow Park in Engelberg
This snow park at Mount Titlis in Engelberg makes a great winter’s day out for the whole family. Whizz down the slopes in a rubber tube or sledge, ride the magic carpet (conveyor belt) back up, and repeat the process another 20x! The landscape is absolutely stunning and you can even walk around the frozen lake (Trübsee).
2. Lindt Home of Chocolate
A fun and interactive museum where you can trace the journey of cocoa from bean to bar via an audio guided tour. Highlights include a giant chocolate fountain as well as a tasting room where you can sample an unlimited amount of chocolate. Naturally a big hit with the kiddos.
3. Verkehrshaus Luzern (Lucerne Transport Museum)
Located less than an hour away from Zurich, we’ve been visiting this museum since our daughter’s toddler days and it still continues to educate and entertain. Plenty of hands on and interactive exhibits covering different modes of transport including planes, trains, boats, automobiles and spacecraft. Our favourites include the outdoor “construction site” where kids don hard hats and safety vests before they start digging and excavating, as well as go-karting at a road safety park where they learn Swiss road rules.
4. A family friendly hike along the Toggenburg Tone Trail
One of the best things about summer here is the start of hiking season. Switzerland offers many family friendly hiking trails with interactive stations to keep kids motivated and moving. The Toggenburg Tone Trail is a firm favourite as it offers beautiful mountain views and has fun musical “instruments” scattered along the way to keep kids engaged. We often pack a picnic and there are also fire pits and BBQ grills (with wood provided) to grill sausages.
5. Zoo Zurich
Easily accessible from the city centre by tram, the Zurich Zoo is a popular destination in all seasons thanks to its good mix of outdoor and indoor exhibits, as well as fantastic playgrounds. We love the Lewa Savanna where you can view rhinos, giraffes, and Grevy’s zebras. In the winter months, you can catch the penguins out for a waddle around the zoo.
What is the local cuisine like?
I would describe the local cuisine as hearty and comforting with potatoes, cheese, and meat often featuring as the star ingredients. Our favourites include cheese fondue where you dip small pieces of bread into a pot of warm melted cheese and raclette, another melted cheese dish that is served with potatoes. A common breakfast item would be Swiss Bircher Muesli- the original overnight oats!
Is there something that you do to keep your children in touch with their Singaporean roots?
Deepavali is not well known here and is not a public holiday. To help our daughter understand her Indian heritage, we make an effort to follow the rituals and traditions that accompany this special day, dress up in beautiful ethnic wear, and invite family and friends over for a home cooked Indian meal. We also take her to activities organised by Temasek Club Switzerland, like the National Day lunches, and other community events.
Best souvenir one could bring back from Zurich
for a child: A Zurich-themed Wimmelbuch, which is a book full of busy illustrations where you are challenged to spot hidden objects (similar to Where’s Wally)
for a mama friend: champagne truffles from Sprüngli, a popular Swiss chocolatier
What do you find is the hardest part of being a mother living in a foreign country?
Watching my daughter grow up so far away from her grandparents (my parents) who reside in Singapore.
On raising multilingual children …
We practice OPOL (One Parent One Language) so my husband communicates with our daughter exclusively in German, while I do so in English. This has helped her to become effectively bilingual. While we are having dinner for example, she can effortlessly switch between the two languages depending on who she is addressing. She also speaks Swiss German which is the local dialect, and has been picking up a bit of Tamil.
What do you always bring back from Singapore for yourself and for your children?
Jars of kaya, Prima Taste Laksa La Mian, and thermal wear from Uniqlo.
Tell us about your go-to recipe for your family.
It’s a Thai stir fry dish called Pad Kaprow Moo. Key ingredients include Thai Holy Basil, minced pork, garlic, and Thai chillies. It’s my little ode to Bangkok, a favourite city of ours, that we don’t get to visit as often anymore due to the distance. Topped off with a crispy sunny side up and a serving of steaming hot Jasmine rice, it’s perfection. Even our daughter loves it, minus a few chillies.
What’s the one thing you would miss about Zurich if you moved away?
Being close to the mountains.
What is the first thing you do each time you come back to Singapore?
Head to Toast Box for some kaya toast and kopi.
What do you dread most if you are moving back to Singapore?
The high level of consumerism and the stressful education system.
Thoughts on your child moving back and joining Singapore’s education system?
This is probably our main cause for concern as the education system follows a different pace here. All subjects are taught in German. English is introduced as a second language only in the third grade. It would be quite a transition that we would need to prep for in advance.
How do you think Singaporeans can benefit from living overseas?
I do believe that real growth happens outside of your comfort zone. While this doesn’t necessarily warrant an international move, I think that learning to live and thrive in a new environment away from the familiarity and conveniences of home has made me more resilient and self-reliant. Experiencing different cultures and ways of living has also helped me broaden my horizons and develop a more global point of view.