It's a popular subject for school essays: My Dream Job. More often than not, youngsters' compositions are based on what they might glean from books or television and movies. Now they may be able offer more concrete reasons for why they like a certain kind of work, thanks to a growing number of learning centres that use role play to give children an idea of what different occupations involve.
Among the new operators is former IT executive Dominic Tong Chi-keung. On a visit to Tokyo with his young daughter two years ago, he was impressed by how much fun children were having at KidZania, an educational theme park where they can "perform" adult jobs. Mexican entrepreneur Xavier Lopez Ancona developed the concept about 15 years ago but, while franchised facilities have since appeared from Lisbon to Dubai and Seoul, there was nothing like it in Hong Kong.
So Tong decided to start his own and named his facility Bom City.
The centre occupies a 30,000 sq ft space in Tai Kok Tsui with more than 30 pavilions mimicking workplaces such as a pharmacy, hospital emergency room and recording studio. Little policemen can hop into a child-sized patrol car to cruise the streets, while nurses learn about care and feeding of newborns using baby dolls. At the traditional Chinese herbalist, they not only learn more about the importance of the apothecary's cabinet, they also pack the herbal prescriptions themselves.
Children can try out 25 occupations and, after each one, they are paid toy money which can be used to buy real food, stationery or make an actual donation to charity Playright Children's Play Association.
Tong says children in Hong Kong have such packed schedules that they don't get to explore and find out what they like and are good at.
"How many occupations can we try out in real life? I'm not talking about changing jobs within an industry but different professions. That's why it's good for kids to experience different jobs at a tender age," he says.
It's also a chance for parents to observe their children's character as well as strengths and weaknesses, Tong adds. Some may want their child to be, say, a doctor, but discover that the youngster is more comfortable doing something else. "Parents can nurture their children based on what they observe and that allows children to better develop their potential."
Tracy Lai, who brought her four-year-old son Casper Tam to Bom City this summer, reckons it has been a useful and fun learning experience for her boy.
"He wasn't too clear what was going on at first but after earning five dollars for being a policeman, he grasped the idea that he has to work to get paid and that he has to look for his own job," she says. Before, her son had wanted to be Spiderman or another superhero.
"He was immersed in a [cartoon] world where people didn't need to work and didn't talk about money. By bringing him here, he's closer to reality," Lai says. Her son got to know that each job has different characteristics with its own rules.
Graceyard Education Centre, which helps adults prepare for recruitment examinations to enter the various disciplined services, recently also launched a series of children's role-play courses built around uniformed officers.
Centre supervisor Gideon Chan Kam-bun says while they want children to have fun learning about the work, it is important for them to learn about the culture and values behind each occupation. That is why the courses aim to nurture youngsters' sense of responsibility, duty and self-discipline.
Chan says he and his colleagues were prompted by educator Wong Ming-lok's best-selling book,
Kong Kids, which highlighted the problems of pampered Hong Kong children who often lacked independence and self-control.
"We were talking about how to rectify that, and figured that the training that disciplined forces receive would be the right solution."
The children's training is distilled from exercises that police and fireman actually undergo, and is conducted by former officers. This gives them the chance to hear first-hand encounters and learn the right attitude, Chan says. For example, a sense of responsibility and integrity, courage and perseverance are key qualities for policemen and firemen to have.
The children begin by making a pledge to try their best in the course before going on to learn about the nature of different jobs, the special gear each uses, as well as specialised knowledge such as fire prevention. Physical activities such as foot drills are used to foster determination as well as build fitness.
Games are included to keep things fun; for example, little policemen train their observation skills by analysing a "crime scene" for clues that could help solve the case, while little firemen's games develop creativity and judgment.
"There's a game - derived from real fireman's training - during which children are blindfolded and paired up to conduct a search. Other than teaching them how to make a search, it also enhances teamwork and obedience as the pair cannot split up - they have to compromise when disagreements arise," says instructor Ng Tit-shing, a former fireman.
Although familiarising children with those jobs is not the major objective, Chan reckons the exposure will prompt them to think about what kind of work they want to do when they grow up.
At the Fluffy Love Learning Club, an English-language training centre, founder Rosana Ng Mei-fung also incorporates role play, which she views as a form of experiential learning. Besides its regular classes, the club also runs five-day programmes during which children get a chance to take on for a day the work of professionals ranging from nutritionists to magicians, and from chefs to veterinarians.
Ng says lessons are built around notions advocated by the US-based Institute of Humane Education, which looks at the relationship between man and nature while cultivating the 3Cs - curiosity, creativity and critical thinking.
"Children are encouraged to be curious about everything around them. They have to be creative and then we'll go into critical thinking. That's important because it's no use if we keep telling them what to do. They have to want to learn what they want to know. It's a much more effective way of learning."
To find out more about the work of an environmentalist, children are taken outdoors to get in touch with nature, and taught how to make a solar oven out of a pizza box. On a sunny day, they use it melt marshmallows or heat other food.
"They can heat things up [with the solar oven] and see that we don't always have to use electricity - they can make use of other forms of energy to generate heat. We want the children to appreciate what is around them. The world is interconnected and we share the resources of the earth," says Ng.
To learn about the work of a veterinarian, youngsters visit the Mong Kok Great Love Non-profit Animal Clinic, where they learn about commitment to pets and the love, care and patience required when keeping a pet.
The children get to study a cat's X-rays, examine a cat flea under a microscope, and a vet demonstrates a basic physical examination using Ng's dog as patient.
A pet lover who ran an animal shelter in Yuen Long for 15 years, Ng realised two years ago that "it's just never enough to be at the back end picking up other people's messes".
"We have more than 200 dogs and 100 cats and we're running out of resources. How many can we look after?"
She was heading a garment company's buying office in Hong Kong at the time and when business slowed, she used the opportunity to review her life goals.
"I had time to really think about what's meaningful to me and [what I] want to do for the rest of my life.
"I came up with the idea that in order to help [make a difference] I would have to start with education. That means starting with the children - they are the future of the planet. We can teach children to respect animals and respect life."
While she was exploring different approaches to children's education Ng came across the Institute of Humane Education. Its ideas resonated immediately, so she trained with the institute in the United States before returning to launch Fluffy Love a year ago.
In teaching about how animal protection, environmental ethics, human rights and culture are interconnected, Ng says she and her staff hope to change how students learn. "We encourage [children] to ask questions. Teachers don't have to know it all - that's why we call ourselves facilitators. We learn ourselves."
"I want to teach them about respect, responsibility and, most importantly, compassion. I want children to try out things. So going to [the veterinary clinic] is a good learning experience. They get to dress up and speak to a real vet. They get to look around, touch the equipment and ask questions. That's the kind of learning that will stay in their mind," Ng says.
Tong concurs: "By learning through role play, we emphasise [broad-based] liberal studies and hands-on experience. It will become the mainstream. Parents are increasingly opting for a more interactive approach to education instead of rote learning. It's the trend and society is heading in that direction."