Lisa Nielsen has a theory about students labelled as "difficult": fix boring schools, not children who are bored. In other words, the American teacher writes on her blog (theinnovativeeducator. blogspot.com if you provide an environment that engages children, they will learn. Hong Kong educational institutions are doing just that.
There are no bright colours, fairytale characters or dinosaurs here. Instead, there is a neutral colour palette and a design that incorporates two sets of systems and furnishings - tall and small - to put child and adult on a level playing field.
Tasked with creating an environment where parents would want to stay and be involved with their child's learning was an exciting challenge for the design team.
"This was a good chance for us to try to make use of design to achieve that [cross-generational engagement], says Joey Ho Tzung-tsien, creative director.
All aspects of the centre are designed to let kids and adults share the space equally. In the cafeteria area, which Ho describes as "a little wonderland", there's a treehouse with swings, but also two sets of cocoon-style pods - big ones where parents can go online while waiting for their children, and smaller pods, without internet access, for the kids to read quietly.
There's also a large screen where parents can watch, via webcam, the goings-on in the classrooms. In the kitchen, where cooking classes are held, children work with a miniature set of professional chefs' equipment.
After the school opened, Ho returned to find the children "crazy" about their new space. This, in turn, was an education for the designer. "I learned that to do a kids' space, we have to be imaginative and not focus on designing something we think is cute. Kids can imagine a lot of things, we just have to let them."
In December last year, Joey Ho Design's Spring Learning Centre won an International Interior Design Association global excellence award.
And last week, the school clinched another two awards: Gold and the Judges' Choice in the spatial category of the Hong Kong Designers Association's Global Design Awards.
Other Hong Kong design firms taking an innovative approach to early learning include davidclovers, whose Morningstar Preschool in Pok Fu Lam utilises two core design elements - wainscoting and lighting - to create an engaging educational space.
The bamboo wainscoting transforms from benches to shelving, to reading "pads" and climbing walls. It moves in and out of classrooms and hallways to become "a tactile learning tool which challenges students to rework it, reuse it and interact with it".
In common areas, exposed lighting conduits are configured into ivy-like climbers with fluorescent petals - a fresco technique conceived by the architects to allow the students to interpret and recognise different patterns of lighting, material and organisation.
Thirty per cent of Chang Bene Design's work is educational projects, including the HK Ling Liang Kindergarten Causeway Bay campus, which received an American Institute of Architects Merit Award of Interiors, and Po Leung Kuk Grandmont Primary School, a design the firm's principal, Christopher Bene, says integrates the idea of play with study, but in a dignified way.
Features at Po Leung Kuk include a hanging wood canopy running through the library, a mural in the double-height reading room, and an open ceiling to expose the duct and conduit mechanisms. These have all been designed as visual stimulants to encourage learning.
Singapore-based EtonHouse preschools, which recently opened its first campus in Hong Kong, has been inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach. This was developed by Italian school teacher Loris Malaguzzi after the second world war, and is now replicated around the world.
"In EtonHouse, the environment is the 'third teacher'. All elements of the environment - physical and human; indoors and outdoors - impact on the type and style of curriculum that can be delivered," says Bipasha Minocha, group brand director at EtonHouse.
"The philosophy is reflected in the overall planning of the environment, shared spaces and the use of innovative furniture and resources that inspire a sense of awe and curiosity amongst young learners."
The Tai Tam campus is "designed through the eyes of a child", with sensitivity to children's scale, such as how they will use the space, what they will see and what kind of experience they will have. It is "an intriguing environment, full of wonder", yet is devoid of overpowering colours, features and literal themes.
The setting "feels like home" - with shared spaces including a calm and quiet light studio, where through various devices children can investigate the properties of light. There is also an indoor garden with treehouse, water table and sandpit - the latter can be covered to form an impromptu stage - an artificial turf floor and playground-like equipment designed to build physical strength.
The centre's design stimulates creativity, and inspires children to be in their own imaginative world, which leads to a lot of incidental learning, Minocha says.
Similarly, Mills International Preschool in Yau Tong is designed to facilitate learning in a stimulating and inspiring environment. It was opened in August 2013 as the first preschool in Hong Kong to incorporate the MindUP curriculum, which includes teaching social and emotional learning skills that link cognitive neuroscience, positive psychology and mindful awareness training utilising a brain-centric approach.
The 13,000 sq ft space incorporates hi-tech classrooms, quiet and activity zones, specialist music/movement and art studios, and a library.
Local schools are excelling in other design genres, too. In October, the US Green Building Council announced Sing Yin Secondary School in Kwun Tong as one of 2013's Greenest Schools on Earth.
Tying for first place with Kenya's Waterbank School at Uaso Nyiro Primary, Sing Yin was selected for extraordinary execution of environmental initiatives, which include thin-film solar panels and sun-shading devices on classrooms, advanced LED lighting, light sensors and motion sensors. Rachel Gutter, director of the USGBC's Centre for Green Schools, commends the local school for using design as a means of sustainability.
She says judges were also impressed with what it is doing at a curricular and co-curricular level.
Sing Yin has a programme to promote energy conservation in the students' homes, and it recruits about 100 students every year to serve as environmental monitors, prefects and ambassadors.