The notion of delaying learning the alphabet or arithmetic until a child is seven years old defies convention. Most families would recoil at such a proposal, thinking it could put their youngster at a disadvantage when other pre-schoolers are learning multiplication or picking up a third language. Yet it struck a chord with Bian Yu Bui-yan when she took part in a four-day workshop on the Waldorf education system.
Her son, Mitchell Law Chung-hon, was just four at the time but she was already having doubts about what she was putting him through. Like many parents, Yu had packed the boy's schedule with activities in addition to kindergarten. "I made him learn piano, phonics, Putonghua, swimming and so on. I thought it was good for him."
That is, until she noticed young Mitchell didn't seem to have a mind of his own. "The activities and classes occupied all his time. He didn't know what to think and just kept asking me what he had to do next."
The workshop convinced Yu that she was taking the wrong path; she immediately stopped all her son's classes and enrolled him instead in Garden House, one of two local kindergartens following the Waldorf system.
Now that Mitchell has completed preschool, Yu and her husband, businessman Victor Law Chi-hung, are investing in their own primary school so that their son can continue learning under the Waldorf system, first developed by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s.
Worries that the emphasis on grades and tests in mainstream education may be hurting youngsters' overall development and happiness, a small but growing number of parents have sought alternative kindergartens for their children. Of late, a few, such as the Laws, have gone so far as to set up their own schools, where character-building, creativity and civic responsibility are prized as much as academic learning. One of these is Gaia School, an alternative primary school in Tuen Mun set up by nature-loving teachers in 2007, which has since added a kindergarten and plans to start a secondary section in 2015. Executive councillor Bernard Chan and his wife Yeo Peck Leng also established a modest school in North Point two years ago, devoting considerable time to nurturing children's life skills while offering a US curriculum for grades one to 12.
To learn about how Waldorf schools work, Yu and her husband visited the Ci-Xin Waldorf School in Taiwan to observe classes in action and talk to teachers. And if they can find a suitable site, the Laws will open the Yeuk Sau Primary School in September with between 20 and 40 students in each class.
Until then, Yu is giving lessons modelled on Waldorf principles to Mitchell at home.
"There are no Waldorf primary schools in the city," she says. "Most parents cannot but enrol their children in mainstream schools after their children leave Garden House. So we decided to set up a Waldorf school ourselves and applied to the Education Bureau two years ago."
They hope to secure premises close to nature, perhaps a village school that was closed because of falling student numbers, Law says. He estimates it will take about HK$6 million just to get the school started in the first year.
"It will cost about HK$5 million to renovate the site and another HK$1 million to employ staff and for miscellaneous stuff. I am willing to keep running for at least three years," says Law.
Early childhood development advocate and teacher Cannie Bennett, who co-founded the Highgate House kindergarten with group of parents about 20 years ago, is a pioneer of the Waldorf-Steiner system. She was instrumental in Highgate's switch to Waldorf teachings in 2002 and went on to set up Garden House in Clear Water Bay four years ago.
Bennett says the two kindergartens design their curriculum in line with Steiner's philosophy, which roughly differentiates a youngster's development into three stages until he reaches the age of 21.
The first seven years are considered the stage for physical development when a child should learn through his body, Bennett says, so they teach them through tasks like slicing fruit and sewing.
"For example, we ask children to set a table for 20 students and two teachers, with each one having a set of cutlery, snacks and place mat. They have to do calculations when completing the task. Instead of learning through a maths book, they learn the concepts unconsciously through action. Memorising vocabularies should not happen in this stage."
So a typical day for the 130 pupils at Garden House involves plenty of physical fun, making use of the big sandpit in the school grounds and a farm just five minutes' bus ride away.
"There're no exams, homework and ranking. Boys and girls are different in their pace of development. There's no point comparing them," Bennett says. "Ranking at such a young age adversely affects the child's confidence and makes parents stressful," Bennett says.
Elaborating on the Waldorf approach, she says it doesn't matter if children do not know their alphabet by the time they leave kindergarten. "A child being force-fed knowledge at this stage will develop stress and health problems like eczema."
This seems unlikely to get much credence in Hong Kong, when most families are intent on getting their children into elite schools and universities. Nevertheless, Bennett and a group of Garden House parents are also in the process of setting up a Waldorf primary section, and three sites in Tseung Kwan O are being considered for new school, which they hope to open in September.
At the primary level, she says, they will adopt a "spiral curriculum" in which subjects are linked in a series of lesson blocks lasting several weeks, to help children understand that knowledge is interconnected.
"The phase from seven to 14 is when children learn best through feelings. Telling stories can help children identify with the characters ... For example, if we want to teach them about Egypt, we will tell stories about how the Egyptians live and their history. After several days, we will introduce to them Egyptian music and dance while reinforcing their knowledge."
Former teacher and news presenter Ralph Yau Chun-ming is another parent who started a school out of disenchantment with the local education system. A co-founder of Infinity Children's School in Kowloon Tong, which is modelled on Montessori principles, Yau says he got the idea for a school after his wife conceived in 2002.
"I taught in mainstream schools in the '90s before I joined TVB. Teaching and learning are one-dimensional in local schools and most of the knowledge taught is text-based. The children learn just for the sake of exams instead of wanting to know about the world," he says.
Yau took time off to study Montessori methods in Beijing and in the US and opened the school in 2006. Developed by Italian educator Maria Montessori, the approach emphasises freedom, independence and teaching through tools, and using concrete objects to introduce abstract concepts.
"Learning is an experience that engages all the senses," Yau says. So rather than use textbooks to teach Chinese, for example, they get toddlers to cut out a Chinese character with scissors and use their fingers to trace the strokes on sand paper. And to learn about biological concepts, teachers will first take pupils on nature excursions to see plants in actual habitats.
That's all very well but classes at Infinity can seem alarmingly freewheeling compared to conventional kindergartens.
"We don't divide lessons into periods for different subjects like mainstream schools. The children decide what they want to learn for the day. If a child comes in wanting to learn about maths, he will go to a corner and play with cube and pyramid shapes for logic analysis. If a child comes in wanting to draw, it's okay, too. If a child engages in same type of activity for several weeks, the teachers will guide him to do other stuff."
In the same spirit, youngsters are given some latitude if they seem inattentive for a few days. "The child might be upset over something at home. If he's like that for a week, we will talk to the parents," Yau says.
Schools such as Gaia and Yeuk Sau present parents with more choices even if they serve a minority, says Esther Ho Sui-chu, a professor in the department of educational administration and policy of Chinese University.
"The government should give more policy support to those offering alternative schooling," says Chu, who is conducting a study on how two batches of Gaia School students adapt in mainstream secondary schools.
"The ideal situation is for an alternative school to operate on a through-train basis, with classes running from pre-school all the way up to secondary levels, like in Taiwan. Otherwise, a curious student eager to ask questions might find it hard to resist conformist forces after he joins the mainstream system."
If Yau has his way, his five-year-old daughter, who now attends Infinity, won't be battling the exam mill to maintain an inquiring mind. He, too, plans to start a primary section for his school. "I am not advocating absolute freedom, with no discipline and just play," he says.
"I just want to give children space to develop a real love for knowledge. Once their curiosity is aroused, they will study of their own accord."