The Hong Kong parents opting out of the kindergarten rat race
Parents should resist the temptation to push their children to cram in as much knowledge as they can, and kindergartens should foster an eagerness to learn, educators say
All parents want to give their children the best education possible, but how far should that commitment go? Should they be starting the child in nursery school aged two or even younger in the hope of getting them into the right kindergarten? And how do you define "right", anyway?
While the general consensus is that children should be picking up language and number skills once they enter the formal education system, there are different views on what should be taking place in the preschool years.
Doris Cheng Pui-wah, director of the Centre of Childhood Research and Innovation at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, says parents should realise that they, not the schools, have the primary role in educating their children.
"The school is the partner that works with the parents, and is not the answer to everything," she says. "There are more important things that young children should learn from their parents, like how to interact with the environment and people around them, build a healthy sense of self and establish friendships with others. These are more important in this stage of development."
Ideally, parents should seek to spend as much time with their young children as possible, particularly when they are aged three or younger. However, if both parents work, many children are left to the care of grandparents or a helper.
"The most important factor is establishing a solid base so that the child feels nurtured and protected," Cheng says.
"In cases where there is no such stability at home, where the child may be passed among multiple caretakers due to circumstances, it may not be a bad idea to consider putting the child into a day-care centre."
However, whether it is pre-nursery classes or kindergarten, Cheng says parents should resist the temptation to push their children to cram in as much knowledge as they can in the shortest time. She calls the belief that "success is determined at the starting line" a fallacy, and says that kindergartens that yield to the pressure to chart children's progress in a quantitative way - for example, by the number of Chinese characters or English words they can memorise, and how far they can count - are just as guilty.
Instead, they should promote an eagerness to learn and explore, curiosity, a love for being with people and the ability to evaluate themselves. "Parents and kindergartens need to be on the same page on what is important for the child as an individual, and how to achieve it," she says.
Education consultant and former school inspector David Coles could not be more against over-scheduling.
After the government began subsidising preschool through a voucher system, many parents sent their children to one kindergarten in the morning and to another the afternoon. And then they pushed ballet, music or sports lessons on them.
"That is very intensive and destructive because it is overload," Coles says. "The notion of doing things for the sake of doing them, the pressure and the rigid timetables take the enjoyment factor out of the question."
After decades working at primary schools and as a school inspector in Hong Kong and Britain, Coles has seen first-hand how learning styles established during preschool years can have a lasting impact on a child. He says children should be respected as individuals, and their learning should be directed by their curiosity and facilitated by teachers and parents.
Such child-directed learning tends to be more commonly practised in international kindergartens than local nursery schools. Still, when it comes to teaching Chinese characters, for example, Coles recognises that learning by rote is better because of the way characters are structured.
The trick, he says, is getting the balance right between the things that stretch the children's minds and what they like to do. The main goal is encouraging them to ask questions.
"Kids are resilient," he says. "Unless they are in a very, very severe and dispiriting kind of environment, it is difficult to break a child's curiosity."
Esther Chu Tak-ching, who has two sons, aged three and eight, is one parent who rejects the idea of drilling youngsters to academic success.
Instead, she got together with a few like-minded parents several years ago and set up a non-profit play group, Go Kids, to home-school their toddlers.
A social worker with the St Stephen's Society, Chu has spent 20 years exploring different ways to stimulate interest in learning among teenagers who struggle academically and have dropped out of school because of drug addiction and other problems.
This experience made her determined to provide an environment where her younger children can develop a love for learning and an ability to think for themselves. Using space at a rehabilitation facility in Sha Tin, they organise regular sessions of singing, storytelling and, more importantly, free play for children.
"Life is too short to make decisions based on fear, like the fear of not fitting in, of not being successful," Chu says.
"There are very few kindergartens in Hong Kong that provide the environment I'm looking for, and that's why I decided to home-school my children."
To her surprise, their non-profit playgroup has become a success. It now has more than 3,200 followers on its Facebook page, and as many as 100 families travel from all over Hong Kong to participate in their activities and seminars.
Her elder son now attends an international school, and some of his friends go to mainstream primary schools. All are adapting well to the formal educational system despite not having gone to kindergarten because they had developed a robust sense of self before reaching school age.
"I think people are drawn to our play group because they want an alternative to being part of a highly competitive, performance-driven culture," Chu says. "They are tired of being told what they should do with their children and just want to enjoy being parents.
"I'm not against kindergartens, but it should be the parents who decide what is the best for their children instead of just keeping up with peer pressure. I'm just an everyday mum without any teaching qualifications. If I can do it, so can you."