Every parent hopes to give their child the best possible start in life. Choosing a kindergarten can be daunting, especially for first-time parents unsure of what vital elements and standards to look for. Karen Ferris Cole, founder and director of Sunshine House Kindergartens, set up the first Sunshine House school in Discovery Bay 19 years ago after moving to Hong Kong from Northern Ireland. There are now five other Sunshine House kindergartens in Tai Tam, The Peak, Tung Chung, Pok Fu Lam and Chi Fu and they cater for 750 children. Ms Cole says that choosing a kindergarten is a major decision for a parent. 'This stage of a child's life can affect the rest of their life. Early childhood development really shapes a person.' She says that parents should compile a list of practical questions before calling a prospective school to find out its policies, fees, holidays and parental involvement. The next step should be to view the school. 'You can sense the atmosphere very quickly. Mothers have great instincts and first impressions last. It's important to find out about the child's routine and timetable for the day. Will they be challenged enough by this routine or will they be idle for a portion of the day? What kind of activities will go on throughout the day? Is there an open-door policy for parents? 'Hygiene is also an important element. Do teachers wear plastic gloves when serving food?' She suggests parents should examine the body language of teachers to see if they are speaking to the children at their level or just hovering over them. 'Are the kids interacting or just listening?' She also advises checking the qualifications of the teachers and the teachers' assistants in addition to the teacher-to-pupil ratio which, according to the Education Bureau, should be around one to 15. 'Look at the facilities, including the classrooms, toilets and the amount of outdoor space available to the school.' Speaking to other parents is a great way to gauge what a place is like. Jenny Loden has a daughter attending Sunshine House. Sydney Loden is two years and 10 months old and has been going to Sunshine house since she was 18 months. 'The deciding factor for us in choosing Sunshine House was that the children genuinely seemed happy. We wanted an environment for our daughter where she could learn and be challenged, but also one that was fun and upbeat. We basically saw Sunshine House as providing her with a place to learn that allowed her to be her age and enjoy it without any unnecessary pressure.' And when Sydney is asked what her favourite thing about her kindergarten is, she says it is her teachers. Natasha Fox is mother to Harriet (five) and Izabella (3?) and she looked at a couple of kindergartens when the family arrived in Hong Kong three years ago. 'I chose Sunshine House as I loved the friendly warm feeling from the place,' Ms Fox says. 'My eldest child Harriet has attended since the age of three and the way she has developed is amazing. Her social skills are very well balanced and she has a lovely confidence.' Five-year-old Harriet is also an advocate of her kindergarten. 'If I did not go to Sunshine House I would miss all my school friends,' she says, while younger sister Izabella adds, 'I love playing with the toys and my friends.' Think International Kindergarten has campuses in Kowloon Tong, Ma On Shan, Laguna City and Mei Foo. The school can take 350 children from 16 months to six years who are taught through English using the Hong Kong curriculum. Principal Mimi Choy was involved in setting up the school 15 years ago and has worked there since. 'Kindergarten is not about academic study but about learning social skills, developing cognitive skills and learning discipline. Parents should shy away from kindergartens that offer a primary school-type curriculum. Music, art and learning to play with different materials are very important. Look at the art on the wall and see if it's the children's work or the teachers,' Ms Choy says. She says the difference between local and international kindergartens is that with local schools, parents are invited to come in on special days, but at other times they will need an appointment, whereas with international schools parents are usually free to come and observe when they like, making it a more open-door policy. A spokesman for the Education Bureau says that when parents are considering a school for their child they should check if the kindergarten employs professionally trained teachers who are approachable, patient and caring. He says there are no major differences between local and international kindergartens. 'While the medium of instruction may differ, all pre-primary institutions should develop children's learning abilities and potential through informal learning. Children's abilities should be developed through play activities that are inspiring and fun,' the spokesman says. Places are not hard to come by at international kindergartens because Hong Kong is such a transient place and families move in and out of the city all the time. There is more demand on the local schools where most children will join at two or even younger and stay until they are six. Children attending international primary schools will leave kindergarten at age five. Ms Choy says: 'When people move to Hong Kong they see that everyone is sending their children to kindergarten, so they send them earlier than they normally would because they don't want them to be at a disadvantage when they go into primary school, even though the curriculum starts at the very basic level in primary.'