Is there more to the rope trick than an amusing diversion? Plenty, according to English-language teacher and illusionist Stuart Palm. Easily identifiable by his distinctive curling moustache, the Florida native watches closely as his young charge attempts the first exercise for the day.
Isaac Cheng Yan-shek, six, holds up a piece of soft rope in the middle, the two ends drooping on each side, and carefully rubs it with his fingers. Then, presto! As if held up by mysterious forces, the string turns into a stiff rod. Still, Isaac can do better and Palm patiently explains how he can improve on the trick.
Welcome to M.A.G.I.C. class, the acronym being short for Mastery of Attentiveness, Growth, Imagination, Confidence. Presented by Smarticle Creative Learning centre in Wan Chai, it's a series of lessons infused with tricks "to get kids at a young age to be able to stand in front of a room to present something", Palm says.
"The best way to do that is to teach them something they enjoy showing to people. If they're having fun, they own the experience. If kids are not having fun, they're not going to commit themselves. They're not going to practice or learn. Fun generates the ability and the focus.
"It also shows them a way to break the ice. Later in life they've learned the skills that will allow them to deal with such social situations," he says.
The children begin by mastering small tricks using everyday objects such as paper clips or simple gestures such as snapping their fingers that help develop physical dexterity before they move on to longer, more complicated tricks.
For their next exercise, Palm's class learns some sleight-of-hand. They throw a ball up into the air, and swish! Using a paper bag, they scoop it with a flourish, before revealing that there is nothing inside. So where did the ball go?
As it turns out, there was no ball. The children are only pretending to throw one, and snap the paper bag to simulate the sound of an object dropping into it.
Whatever the trick, the most important goal is to build up the four qualities of attentiveness, growth, imagination and confidence.
However, that can take a while because children are all different, Palm says. "There're kids who are shy and some who ham it up a little more. What happens is the kids who are more hammy and more excited to get in front of the crowd will stir an interest in the shy kids too. They want to be able to do it too because of their competitive nature. So it's just a matter of balancing them so that everybody gets some attention," he says.
"One thing really important in learning magic is learning to deal with things going wrong because every time you go in front of a group, at some point, inevitably they may forget the steps and so on. It's going to backfire.
"The tendency, especially for young kids, is to just get upset and say they can't do it. But what I want them to be able to do is to deal with that pressure and deal with that moment and be able to say, 'It's OK, I can keep going.' The ability to deal with failure grows from that."
The lessons seem to be working for Isaac, says his mother, Joyce Chik Wai-kwan. "He's very excited and likes it a lot. He's always showing his younger brother the tricks he learned when he's back home. He shows more confidence in himself."
The soft skills that M.A.G.I.C. introduces are exactly why former banker Carolyn Chow Chia-yung started Smarticle. A mother of two, she set up the learning centre after encountering a dearth of less-academic extracurricular programmes for her six-year-old elder son. "I don't want them to go through that very academic style of learning which is all spoon-feeding and textbook learning. I'm more keen on something creative and that allows him to explore for himself his strengths and what he likes, and also to think beyond what is taught at school," she says.
"Kids [should] learn in a fun way and also learn soft skills. There's a lot they can learn at this age that is not taught at school nor in textbooks. By soft skills I mean things that you can apply in daily life or when you grow up, such as communication and interpersonal skills, self-confidence, patience, concentration, presentation: things that you learn from practice, self-experimentation and self-discovery."
Two franchised learning programmes that the centre provides reflect this belief. Lego helps children develop concentration, spatial concepts and problem-solving skills by engaging them in projects using the toy building blocks and mechanical parts, while Math Monkey teaches basic mathematical concepts through games and activities.
Chow and her team have also developed other English-based programmes, Little Readers and Little Green Fingers. The former uses storytelling to help instil a love of reading in children, with exercises such as role play and art to further stretch their imagination beyond the basic storyline.
In Little Green Fingers, children discuss basic environmental issues such as the need for recycling, followed by related activities such as a recycled art project.
"Many people think of soft skills as side products of what you learn at school. But a lot of times what they learn there is basic academic stuff. They don't spend a lot of time on [things like] presentation skills so I can't rely on schools for that kind of exposure. We have to look elsewhere," Chow says.
"But kids are so busy these days. What we're offering is really not for everyone because if you're in the local system, you'll be so busy with the courses for English, Chinese and maths you won't really have time for anything else.
"A Lego class would not be a priority, so that's our challenge. However, I think there are mothers who want a balance in their children's extracurricular activities. Just like me."