Giving children the freedom of self-expression

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 June, 2007, 12:00am

After-school classes offer kids the opportunity to get creative

Many children in the west grow up with the 'art for art's sake' attitude that nurtures and promotes creativity. They are used to splashing paint on paper, having free artistic reign and getting their hands dirty.

For many local children such expressive freedoms are alien, and children in local government schools are still taught art as if it were a science, with little opportunity to explore or develop their own creative expression.

'Many people in Hong Kong say that there is art education, but what they are talking about is pushing a child through grade eight violin at the age of 12. This is not what I call arts education,' said Joanna Hotung, founder and managing director of Kids' Gallery Hong Kong.

Seeing a niche need for kids' art classes, Ms Hotung founded Kids' Gallery in 1996. Starting with one teacher and a handful of students, she offered opportunities in art that the local schools were missing.

'We went from 10 children to 300 children in four months,' Ms Hotung said. 'I could see there was a gap in the market and realised the potential.'

Eleven years on she employs 75 staff across four centres and offers a range of classes in visual arts, performing arts and language arts to 2,500 children each week.

In the early years it was expatriate children who kept the business afloat. Local Chinese parents, who had little or no art education themselves, were more hesitant. When Sars hit and many western families left, Ms Hotung reached out to the local community. Now 70 per cent of her students are local Chinese children, and only 30 per cent are expatriates.

As awareness of art education increases, so do the number of art classes on offer. Kids can now choose from a range of courses in different locations, with varying themes and modes of delivery - English, Cantonese or Putonghua. Many of these businesses are younger, smaller operations, serving the kids in the immediate locale.

Colour My World runs 5,000 sqft of studio space in Aberdeen. Comprising six art areas, one drama studio and gallery space, it serves 220 students each week and offers budding artists a safe and intimate environment in which to explore their creative world.

'Here at Colour My World we encourage children to come up with different, rather than similar solutions,' said Anna Tam, director of Colour My World. 'Every day these children will encounter problems that they need to solve and the arts can help them think creatively about these problems.'

Both organisations write and develop their own teaching material in subjects as diverse as fine art, mosaic making, drama, dance, fabric design, storytelling and soap-making. Teachers brainstorm ideas and come up with themes.

Classes are taught and then re-evaluated for their effectiveness, delivery and age appropriateness. Where necessary, changes are implemented.

In many cases, classes are built around projects that progress towards well defined goals. Ms Hotung believed that giving children a framework for creative expression, and a clear destination, was important and had helped her win the confidence of local parents.

'Process is very important in the west,' she said. 'And the end product often doesn't matter. But in the east the opposite is true; process is often undervalued and end product is put on a pedestal.'

Ms Hotung found that by devising curriculums that combine the two values she was able to extend her appeal to both parent sectors.

But it is not only a school's philosophy and curriculum that parents are looking for. The quality and sincerity of the teaching staff is also vital.

'The staff has to be really mature and creative and have a genuine interest in children,' said Ms Tam, who currently leads seven full-time teachers. 'They also have to know how to stretch a child, to let a child make mistakes and inspire them.'

But finding the right staff for the job is a challenge.

'We are only as good as our teachers,' said Ms Hotung, who looks for staff both locally and during recruitment drives overseas. 'We look for people with good tertiary level education in their field. If they don't have experience working with children then they work as teaching assistants until they are ready to be lead teachers.'

Key Players


Visual arts teacher

Performing arts teacher

Curriculum development co-ordinator

Assistant teacher

Technical support staff


Lesson plan a plan of the activities and objectives for each class.

Programme guide a brochure that describes the courses and classes on offer.

Reference material anything that a teacher uses as a reference for their artistic work.

Mock-ups pre-made examples of the end product in an artistic project. This gives students and teachers a visual reference for what they are doing.

Mixed-media art using a variety of different materials, such as paint, clay or fabric, in one composition.

Life model a person who stands or sits in front of the class so that the class participants can

draw them.


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