An early start

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 October, 2007, 12:00am

Parents are becoming increasingly aware of how crucial the early stages of childrens' lives are in their development. This is the reason behind the rapid rise in the number of preschools in Hong Kong.

The International Montessori School in South Horizons, Ap Lei Chau, realises the prime significance of early childhood and recently opened a toddler's class, on top of its bilingual classes for three- to six-year-olds, while running a separate primary campus in Wan Chai.

The 1?-hour toddlers' lessons are delivered in Putonghua or English, while the classes for older children are bilingual. Parents and caretakers are also invited to the school to see how a child should be working independently, says Anne Sawyer, supervisor and co-founder of the school.

The Montessori classrooms provide a stimulating environment filled with colourful objects that give children a different sense of touch and feeling.

Ms Sawyer was convinced of the need for a different type of training after noticing a trend among many families. 'More parents in Hong Kong are pressuring their children to start academic subjects too early,' she says. Children in her school are aged three to six and they are given ample freedom to do interesting tasks under implicit guidance from teachers.

'Every human being learns and retains more if you do something. If you work with the materials with your hands, you understand things and remember things much more clearly.'

'We realised that children up to the age of three really need the opportunity earlier to start learning for themselves and to become independent; it's not a matter of learning academics, but about learning independence,' says Ms Sawyer.

'I was finding that in the family environment in Hong Kong, we have helpers and their job is to help, but it's difficult for a helper to understand that helping a child to clean their hands, feeding a child and not allowing or encouraging a child to get themselves messy and work with their own hands is actually detrimental to their development.'

Ms Sawyer says children in that age range are like sponges. 'They absorb everything in their environment so we provide them with information, rich activities, and a rich and positive environment so that they can soak everything up and understand how the world works,' says Ms Sawyer, a mother of two.

To this end, everything in the classroom is designed to allow and encourage children to choose for themselves, become independent and master self-control.

At Yew Chung International Kindergarten - Children's House, the emphasis is on children's personal skills rather than academic knowledge. Deputy principal Cecilia Kam Oi-ping says there are three essential qualities to be nurtured - communication, collaboration and creativity skills, and these are valuable for preparing children to be global citizens. Parents play a big role in fostering them.

'Children are part of a family and should be given responsibilities. This helps them develop empathy for others instead of thinking that everyone else is at their disposal,' Ms Kam says.

Involving children in tasks from extending greetings to a security guard in their building to helping their parents bake cakes by mixing flour can help get them ready to serve rather than being served.

Ms Kam says her students joined a charity walk organised by the school last year to raise funds for the Children's Cancer Fund. Among them were one-year-olds who toddled along with their parents and grandparents.

'Only by learning about routines, rules and doing things with others in a social environment can children adapt successfully to future adulthood,' she says.

Parents and schools need to accommodate each child's development needs. It may take time for some two-year-olds to adjust to even watching videos or listening to a story with other classmates in a school setting.

'Some children cannot sit still and they walk around the room while the others are seated, listening to things. We let them play in the gymnasium instead, hoping that they will fit in later,' Ms Kam says.

The home remains the most important place for shaping children's behaviour. Verbal communication with parents and helpers can stimulate a child's language development, Ms Kam says.

'Learning language starts with listening, so singing to a toddler is worth doing. Parents can encourage children to try things out and accept failure. The most important thing is for a child to learn from experience.'