An innovative way forward in early childhood education is gathering pace
Goal-focused preschools are placing enormous stress on children, but the idea of learning through fun is slowly catching on
Educators and parents often question whether most kindergartens and nurseries in Hong Kong are too focused on academic goals, rather than the all-round development of young children. Many believe it is because some schools are merely satisfying the demands of parents who want to prepare their children for primary school admission, which is extremely competitive in Hong Kong.
C.Y. Choi, whose five-year-old son is already subject to an excessive academic workload, says she is extremely concerned about the situation. "My son is now in K-3. When he was in K-1 and K-2, it all seemed all right and the curriculum was, in fact, rather relaxed. The changes only happened this year.
"When I asked the school why this is happening, they said the curriculum had been changed in response to the demands of parents. Many of them want the school to intensify academic learning to better prepare students for primary school admission," Choi says.
Her son now spends at least 90 minutes on homework every night. The work covers a range of subjects such as Chinese language, English and mathematics. In addition, he is required to do book reviews. "This all sounds so unreasonably demanding for a child his age," says Choi.
Dora Ho Choi-wa, associate professor and associate head of the Hong Kong Institute of Education's department of early childhood education, agrees that the market has been influenced by demands from parents who want kindergartens to intensify learning.
"This has created a vicious cycle," she says. "When children get into primary schools, very often the schools have to further upgrade their teaching after finding out that these kindergarten graduates have already learned what has to be learned in Primary One."
Ho says it is wrong to force young children to learn complicated things such as writing Chinese characters because they haven't even fully developed their muscles. "It is not good for their physical or mental development, because they are not ready yet. Forcing them will make them lose interest in learning."
Another parent, Connie Ng, agrees that the competitive nature of getting children into a good primary school is the root cause of the problems many parents are now facing. "I am quite relaxed ... because I am not worried about my daughter getting into a good primary school. But it seems to be a huge problem for most parents," she says.
But there is an answer and it is right here in Hong Kong, where an innovative way forward in early childhood education (ECE) is quickly gathering pace.
ECE focuses on children learning through the power of play. The belief is that children learn more efficiently and gain more knowledge through play-based activities such as dramatic play, art and social games.
Researchers and early childhood educators v iew parents as an integral part of the ECE process and feel it is very important for parents to stay engaged in their child's learning. After all, parents are often regarded as a child's first and best teacher.
Antony Yim, school supervisor of the popular Learning Habitat Kindergarten & Bilingual Nursery, believes flexibility in implementing the curriculum is most important.
On the question of heavy workloads, Yim says the kindergarten has developed take-home kits for students, so that homework is fun and interesting. Parents are also encouraged to participate. He says their level of homework is reasonable, requiring students to spend up to one hour a night.
However, schools must enable students to face the growing challenges of the 21st century, Yim says.
And to achieve that, the kindergarten emphasises effective communication skills in both English and Chinese (Cantonese and Putonghua), effective higher thinking abilities, strong self-confidence, self-respect and respect for others, society, and the environment, and the ability to manage success and failure.
Managing failure is certainly one critical factor in an increasingly competitive world, says Nicola Weir, Western Co-Principal, Yew Chung International Children's School ECE. "Hong Kong is well-known for ambition, drive, determination and success. Failure is not a word in the vocabulary of achievers in any walk of life. So when it comes to education it has always been totally unacceptable to even consider failure. That's why we see many eager parents start planning their children's university education when they have just started kindergarten," Weir says.
As an ECE advocate, Weir believes young children should be allowed to have fun at school, where they are encouraged to follow their interests and focus on personal, social and emotional development.
When the time comes, they should be allowed to fail and learn from that failure. "That once popular old-school belief that failure can only be bad is now a thing of the past, as early childhood education teaching shows us that learning to fail at an early age can actually help a young child mature," says Weir.
When it comes to learning, Ho says the most important driver is curiosity.
"Kids are motivated by curiosity, so we need to arouse their curiosity. Force feeding them information only does the opposite."
She advises parents not to put academic pressure on their young children, especially at kindergarten level. Instead, parents should spend more quality time with their children, teaching them to appreciate the outdoors and nature. "Very often parents need to show appreciation to their children because this is also a powerful form of motivation," says Ho.
"Children should be given the time and space to daydream, because a happy childhood that gives them such freedom certainly arouses curiosity and curiosity motivates learning and creativity."