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Parenting: newborns to toddlers

Expert teaches Hong Kong families how to play meaningfully with children

Catalina Parentini designs custom-made plans for children as young as 6 months old to learn through play. Many parents and carers don’t know how to stimulate young kids, says the educator

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 March, 2016, 12:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 March, 2016, 1:40pm

Early childhood educator Catalina Parentini is a great believer in the idea that children learn by doing. “Even through daily tasks, we can introduce the whole world to kids,” she says. “We can teach them everything from maths and science to language, the arts and history.”

This conviction led Parentini to set up a novel education service shortly after she came to Hong Kong one year ago. The Chilean-Italian calls it We Play At Home to reflect the type of learning she aims to facilitate.

For a fee, parents receive a personalised weekly “planner” that sets out creative activities that parents or their helpers can undertake with children every day.

Programmes are based on the Reggio Emilia approach, in which parents and teachers are partners with the child in the learning process and make use of recycled or everyday materials found in the home to guide youngsters in exploring their environment.

These learning schedules help parents and caregivers to structure home-based learning for children from six months to three years of age.

“Many parents in Hong Kong work, so grandparents or helpers are the ones taking care of small kids, but they often don’t know how to stimulate them at home,” says Parentini, who has an 18-month-old son.

“Even stay-at-home parents, or working parents who wish to be engaged, often don’t know where to start. They may have bought many toys, but they don’t know how to make full use of them.”

The weekly planners from We Play At Home map out theme- and project-based activities for each child, taking into account individual interests, personality, pace of learning, and even their napping schedules. Parentini also factors in the space and materials available to the family.

A theme for the week could be anything from transportation and colours to food and insects, and different activities are linked to encourage learning in a range of areas.

“Some parents would give me a list of skills they want me to include, but it doesn’t work that way,” she says. “Learning can take place anywhere and everywhere with little kids.”

When parents allow children to explore things that engage or stimulate them, these provide springboards to effective teaching.

For example, when a three-year-old boy became afraid of bees after being stung, Parentini created activities that guided him to learn about the insects and their role in the environment.

With a little girl who loved shoes, Parentini got her to learn about numbers and colours by asking her to measure and classify all the shoes in her home. To engage particularly energetic children, she incorporates higher levels of physical activity, such as outdoor play or yoga, so youngsters do not have to sit still to learn.

Many of Parentini’s early clients found out about her service through HK Moms, a Facebook group being turned into Mom Cooperative, an online directory of family-focused services. But many more parents have contacted her through word of mouth. Although the weekly plans are available only in English, Parentini is eager to find a Chinese educator with the right background to expand her service to more local families.

As each plan is highly personalised, observation and feedback are essential. Potential clients first fill in a questionnaire to gather basic information such as whether the children go to nursery, who the primary caregiver is, and how much space the children have for their own activities. Parentini then visits the new family to observe their home environment before creating the first plan.

While some families live in more spacious houses in Discovery Bay, others are crowded into a small city apartment. In each case, Parentini identifies a space in the home and tries to tailor activities around it. The available space can later be rearranged to keep children interested in a familiar environment.

After observing the available toys and learning materials in the new home, Parentini often suggests purchasing simple items such as shallow containers for organising “exploration baskets”.

Adhering to the Reggio Emilia philosophy, she incorporates activities that allow caregivers and children to make learning materials together. Among other things, she has recipes for making reusable play-dough and paint.

Plastic floor mats that can be easily cleaned are also important. “The activities are often very messy,” says Parentini.

During home visits, Parentini teaches caregivers the skills essential to carrying out activities, such as involving children in daily tasks effectively. In food-themed activities, for instance, caregivers might be asked to take the children on a visit to the market, cook with them, or instruct them to set up the table. In the process, they can teach children to eat properly or even throw in some maths when counting ingredients, chopsticks or napkins. Language activities encourage parents to make use of Hong Kong’s public library resources together with children.

Weekly feedback from the family helps Parentini identify what works well for particular children, engages them or causes problems. Over time, the schedules are refined and adapted to each family’s unique situation. For example, if a father usually comes home from work at a fixed time every night, the schedule could include a nap for the child in the afternoon in order to extend his bed time. This way, father and child can engage in an activity together in the evening.

In families with more than one young child, plans can be adapted to allow siblings to work on tasks of different complexities under the same theme.

For example, a food-themed activity in one household involved asking a toddler to place chickpeas, one by one, into an empty water bottle to make a safe shaker for her baby brother. While developing her motor skills, the little girl also created an object of sensory stimulation for the baby.

As a parent, I learned many game ideas that I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise
Parent Maggie Cheng

In another activity, the little girl was asked to remove individual kernels from a cob of corn, while the baby tasted the fruits of her labour. Then, the girl used the cobs to print beautiful patterns in different colours, expressing her creativity with a recycled material. More than anything, Parentini says, these activities allow siblings to bond and teach them how to behave around each other.

Some parents find the We Play At Home services invaluable in providing structure, fun, and mental and physical stimulation for their children at home.

“My son really loves the activities. He would be eager to demonstrate something new to me when I’m home at night,” says Maggie Cheng, who has been using the planners with her helper to engage her two-year-old son Edward.

“He became interested in playing with the most basic and readily available materials – he especially loved it when we cracked eggs to make cookies and played with ice.

“As a parent, I learned many game ideas that I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise and gained a new perspective on what interested my baby.”