How do you choose the right kindergarten for your child? For early childhood education expert Dr Doris Cheng Pui-wah, the criteria for a good kindergarten rest on whether or not it lets children play freely.
Cheng says while play is considered an important learning strategy for preschoolers in many developed countries, it is not the case in Hong Kong's nurseries and kindergartens, despite government guidelines requiring preschools to implement play-based learning.
The director of the Centre for Childhood Research and Innovation at the Hong Kong Institute of Education (HKIEd) conducted a study between 2008 and 2010 on how play-based teaching was implemented in preschools. She observed that all schools claimed to do play-based learning, but many were doing it in an instrumental way, where the teacher dominated and directed. Children were passive, and often hurried through their school activities, and the learning was academically orientated.
'A play-based pedagogy involves the teacher using the classroom environment to create a platform to capture, sustain and extend children's interests, while weaving the children's interests with teaching and learning objectives,' Cheng said.
Learning through play involves not only making the classroom a fun, attractive environment with play corners, but also engaging the children in play so that they can become 'serious players'.
Being a serious player means that the youngsters develop a condition of 'playfulness' - a 'flow' where they have clear goals, lose any self-consciousness and have a long attention span. Cheng says learning is very effective in this situation.
She says when parents are looking for a kindergarten, they should find out whether the school provides free playtime for the children, and whether it has any facilities, indoor or outdoor, for children to play freely. She also suggests that parents look for schools that focus on stimulating children's creativity. One indicator of such schools is their provision of natural materials - such as painting boards, cloth, wood, sand and water - instead of ready-made toys, for children to explore and create with.
Having said that, Cheng reminds parents that there is no such thing as a 'best kindergarten'.
'Parents need to understand their child's personality and interests and find a preschool that is suitable for them,' she said. For example if the child likes artistic activities, they should be enrolled in kindergartens that provide these.
It is very important that parents visit the kindergartens, as one indicator of a good school is if children are happy, active and have natural communications with the teachers. Smaller teacher-student ratios are more desirable so that each child gets more individual attention, Cheng says, with the best ratio being one teacher to fewer than 10 children.
Parents should also find out whether the preschool provides a free space for children to opt out of group activities. This indicates the school's ability to cater to diverse needs of children.
'By putting the child in the free space, the teacher can observe their behaviour, and the child can also build up their self-identity and self-confidence,' she said.
Some children may experience separation anxiety when they first start at school. To avoid this, Cheng suggests parents ask if their school can provide transitional measures, such as letting them stay with their children for a short time to help them adjust to the school environment.
In recent years, more parents have sent their children to international kindergartens with the hope of nurturing their English.
But Gail Yuen Wai-kwan, an assistant professor of the department of education policy and leadership at the HKIEd, has reservations about this trend. She says that exposing children to English at an early stage may affect the effectiveness with which they learn if they do not understand the language, especially for children whose parents cannot speak English.
'Learning English in this case is a tool for competition,' she said. 'But Chinese is part of our identity and culture. If we give up our language, the impact is big.'
However, from a quality education perspective, Cheng says many international schools provide children with quality early education, characterised by plenty of free playtime, small classes, and lots of indoor and outdoor play facilities.
International schools are one of three types of kindergarten in Hong Kong, the others are private kindergartens operated by private enterprises; and non-profit-making preschools run by voluntary agencies.
Most kindergartens operate on a half-day basis, and some also offer whole-day classes.
International preschools charge high fees - ranging from HK$40,000 per year for half-day classes, to more than HK$120,000 for full-day classes.
Private kindergartens charge between HK$18,600 and HK$82,100 yearly for half-day schools, and between HK$22,300 and HK$93,600 for full-time services, according to Yuen.
Non-profit kindergartens, which operate under the pre-primary education voucher scheme, charge HK$10,000 to HK$24,000 for half-day classes, and HK$16,400 to HK$48,000 for full-day classes.
The government launched the voucher scheme in the 2007-08 school year to provide a school fee subsidy of HK$16,000 per year to allow parents to put their children through any of the 750 kindergartens that have joined the scheme.
To be eligible for the voucher scheme, preschools have to be non-profit and charge no more than HK$24,000 a year for half-day school, and HK$48,000 yearly for full-time services.
But parents still have to top up fees if they are more than HK$16,000 a year. Yuen started studying the voucher scheme in 2007 and led a recent study that found 22 per cent of poorer parents could not afford to educate preschool children.
Nearly half of poorer parents surveyed said school fees made up more than 11 per cent of their family expenses. The evidence was based on focus groups and questionnaire responses of 1,694 kindergarten parents whose children studied at 44 local kindergartens.
The problem, Yuen says, has led to continued education inequity, with parents of higher social-economic status being able to afford better schools.
'The higher the socio-economic status, the more choices the interviewees have by choosing schools in other districts. But poor families can't do this. This will further expand the poverty gap,' she said.
Her study also reflected other inadequacies in preschools run under the voucher scheme. Sixty per cent of respondents were very concerned about the lack of outdoor activity space, while indoor space concerned 54 per cent, and the provision of special needs service was also considered inadequate (35 per cent).
In February, members of the education sector signed a petition at HKIEd demanding the government abolish its 'problematic' voucher fund scheme and fully subsidise early childhood education to improve preschool education quality.
Cheng advises parents to research individual preschools by browsing their websites, or talking to children who previously studied there to find out more about the school. They can also visit the Education Bureau's website to read their Quality Assurance Inspection reports of each school.
Most importantly, parents should visit schools and talk to principals and teachers to find out their education ideologies.
'Find out how they see children's outdoor play,' Cheng said. 'Do they view books as leisure reading or textbooks? And what are their ways of building children's self-confidence?'