Little Seed runs at full speed from the school's playground to the principal's office. 'Starfish, I want my soya milk,' the six-and-a-half-year-old, also known as Mok Ying-dick, shouts as he enters the room. Starfish opens the refrigerator and pulls out a bottle of soya milk. 'I want two bottles,' Little Seed says. Starfish, also known as principal Yip Chung-sing, replies: 'You won't be able to finish two bottles and the one you can't finish will turn sour easily.' Learning a lesson in conservation, Little Seed nods, takes the one bottle and returns at full speed to the playground. The conversation takes place at the Gaia School in Tuen Mun, the only primary school in Hong Kong with a curriculum specifically aimed at teaching children about basic human traits, such as being happy, honest, confident and independent, instead of how to excel in exams. The curriculum of the school, whose Chinese name means School of Nature, encourages its 42 students to learn from nature. It teaches that a simple and minimal lifestyle is the only way of saving the planet. Everyone at the school is encouraged to adopt names from nature. Eight former rural school teachers with a love of nature founded the Gaia Society in 1993 and three years later they mapped out a 10-year plan for starting a school. In keeping with its teachings, the school does not have air conditioning, only vegetarian food is served at lunch and awards are made on the basis of being helpful and making progress, rather than purely on academic achievement. 'Doing well academically is only part of our life,' says Yip, an activist-turned-educator. 'Education is about a person's growth, which includes their communication skills, their problem-solving ability and their self-confidence. So by being able to grow up happily and healthily, and able to do well in these aspects, students can survive in whatever circumstances they are thrown into.' The eight teachers opened their dream school in 2007 with a 10-year lease on a vacant campus. They had a licence to run a private school, HK$500,000 cash and 14 pupils. Three years after opening, Gaia School had its first graduates, nine students who moved to mainstream secondary schools this year, most choosing second and third-tier schools. 'They are doing fine in their new schools,' Yip said. The practice of adopting names from nature reminded everyone that a human being was only a part of nature, he said. The practice extends to parents who are encouraged to get involved with the school. Mothers volunteer to take turns preparing lunches for the entire school and they teach elective courses. They have also formed a book club. The philosophy aims to strengthen parent-child relationships and create bonds between parents. It also fosters a green way of life. Clear Cloud, whose son has been at Gaia for two years, learned from the school that using detergent can be avoided. She now uses fruit peel to wipe grease off dishes before washing them with water. 'When we use minimal oil in cooking, the dishes are pretty easy to clean,' she said. Two Star, a mother who is a former kindergarten teacher, said: 'The school becomes a platform where like-minded parents meet and share their experiences and build bonds. Our values are very different from those in the mainstream. As the parents bond, we become a community, and this is important for us and our kids because we practise what we believe in.' Another school with a curriculum stressing the development of a student's full potential and individuality is the HKICC Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity, a senior secondary school in Kowloon City But, unlike Gaia, the School of Creativity is under the Education Bureau's direct subsidy scheme. It stresses minimum pressure on tests and examinations and centres on respecting students' rights and potential. The school's theatre and exhibition hall are venues where pupils run multimedia shows, concerts and drama. School founder Ada Wong Ying-kay explains the difference between other schools in the city and her school and Gaia School. 'They are running a one-size-fits-all model,' she says. 'For us, every student is unique and we take care of the uniqueness. Designing the curriculum is easy. All sorts of possibilities are available in our school. The most difficult part is how to strike a balance between the practice of our beliefs and students' results in public exams. 'We also want them to be able to enjoy university education in Hong Kong or overseas.' But she said a pluralist society needed schools running on different curriculums. Over the years, educators in East Asia, including Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, have experimented with so-called specialist schools. At one senior secondary school in Taiwan pupils are taught Chinese language, poetry and cooking through learning how to make dishes that appear in classic Chinese literature. 'Taiwan, which allows home schooling, is doing very well on diversifying its school type,' said Leila Chan, who writes on alternative education. She said making home schooling legal meant educators had the flexibility to run an alternative school even with a limited budget. For Chan, the existence of varied educational institutions is related to the maturity of a society. She thinks Hong Kong still lags behind its Asian counterparts in choice. At Gaia School, democracy and equality prevail. 'We are running on democratic values in that everyone is equal in this place,' principal Yip said, explaining why a Primary Two student is allowed to run into his office and address him directly. That principle of equality also means the school does not have a permanent principal. The job is rotated among the teachers. Yip took it on at the start of the academic year. Democratic practice means the principal is responsible for the school's administration. Consensus is needed on direction and policies. Yip, aka Starfish, said: 'We are now interested in running a secondary school. We don't want to do this because we need a place for our students after their graduation. We have full confidence with their ability in facing the future. 'The school we want to set up is for those who cannot stand education in mainstream schools. As long as we have enough teachers, we can open one. In a city of excess, it is difficult to ask people to give us money but people are always willing to donate all sorts of things to us.'