Playing for keeps: are playgroups and nursery classes necessary?
Are playgroups and nursery classes essential for children, and how do parents find the perfect match?
Is “playgroup” a dirty word for parents in Hong Kong? Playgroups have been criticised in the mainstream media, and on social media, for putting too much pressure on young children. The criticisms are set within the bigger narrative of “let children be children”, an idea which is itself a response to our highly competitive education system, and its “portfolio culture”. So, what role should playgroups play in a child’s development?
Play is an essential aspect of a child’s life. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, it contributes to social, emotional, cognitive and physical development and improves social skills, communication and problem-solving abilities. Play also gives parents a great opportunity to bond with their children.
A playgroup is supposed to be a group of young children, along with their parents or carers, coming together for structured or open-ended play. It’s not necessary for them to be organised by private or public institutions, but, parents frequently send their children to these organised playgroups for a fee.
There are many socio-economic reasons for the popularity of fee-charging playgroups. Firstly, over 50 per cent of Hong Kong families have both parents working outside of the home. According to 2014 Census and Statistics Department figures, 53.7 per cent of married women in Hong Kong participate in the workforce. So child-minding duties are usually carried out by grandparents or domestic helpers during the week, due to the shortage of day-care centres.
As such, fee-charging playgroups provide working parents with the assurance that their children are in a secure communal environment. The proliferation of fee-paying playgroups offers a convenient paper trail of the child’s activities, and also highlights a cultural issue in which the education system rewards the quantification of a child’s development.
Kindergartens often require children to participate in individual and group interviews, for which playgroups provide excellent preparation. It is also common to be asked to submit a record of the child’s academic and extracurricular activities at the kindergarten during applications for primary school places. This is especially true for fee-paying schools, and top-tier government-subsidised schools, which have a quota of discretionary school places open to students from all catchment areas.
Enrolling children in a playgroup, whether organised by parents or a private provider, offers a platform for children and parents to interact with their peers in a dynamic and enriching way. Below are some topics to consider when choosing a playgroup for your children.
Your role as a parent
Reflect on the time you spend with your child, the carers you hire when you are away and the resources available to you in the community.
A playgroup is just one useful tool for you and your children to utilise. Take this into account when you choose a playgroup, and never feel you must “measure up” to what other parents are doing.
Your child’s developmental stage
Be aware of your child’s social, cognitive, sensory, and motor skill development. For example, babies prefer solitary play, while children aged between two and three tend to participate in parallel play alongside each other before they are ready for group play.
Your child’s preferences
Choose a playgroup that is a good match for your child. For example, artistic playgroups that involve a lot of sitting may not be a perfect fit for a toddler with high energy. Instead, they may find games involving bodily movement, jumping, running, dancing, and kicking more appealing.
Teaching style and goals
Pay attention to the methods of the instructor. Does it complement or contradict the way you educate your child? And, does it fit into the bigger picture of what you want for your child? For example, if you are planning to enrol your child in a Chinese-medium kindergarten, and there is very little exposure to the language at home, it may be a good idea to enrol him or her in a Cantonese playgroup on a regular basis.
While there is not necessarily a dichotomy between play and academic learning, it is important to prioritise the play element in a playgroup session because of the child’s developmental needs. It is also important for the playgroup to keep the children engaged in a variety of activities.
If possible, participate in a trial playgroup with the child before signing up, and don’t take any red flags that you may notice lightly. Is the venue safe and hygienic? Do you and your child feel welcome? Are the facilitators willing to address your concerns? There are different types of playgroups – some run by families, some by non-profit-making organisations, and some by private institutions. Some kindergartens also provide playgroups, but enrolment in those playgroups do not necessary give priority in subsequent kindergarten applications.
Types of playgroups
One of the most commonly used playgroup formats is multiple-intelligence play, which involves singing, reading, games, arts and crafts, educational toys, and free play. Some playgroups may run this with a linguistic slant, using Cantonese, Mandarin, English, Japanese, Spanish, French, or other languages as the medium of instruction. While attending these playgroups may not be enough to make your child fluent in the language, it helps increase awareness of the many different languages of the world and how they are used. Messy play has become increasingly popular in Hong Kong. It encourages children to engage all of their senses. Children are granted much freedom and are encouraged to manipulate the materials for different results. There is no right or wrong in the process of exploration, as it is not a means to producing something in particular. For busy parents who want to organise home-based playgroups but lack the time, home-schooling consultancy services tailor-make lesson plans and materials for children based on their interests, developmental stage, and home environment.
Playgroups with bodily or kinaesthetic themes such as yoga, swimming, gymnastics, dance, and football are an exciting way for babies and toddlers to explore what their young bodies are capable of. Musical playgroups which also involve dance and movement are structured to help children experiment with the basic elements of music; such as fast and slow, loud and soft, etc. It also gives them the chance to experiment with musical instruments.
Naturalistic playgroups encourage children to explore, appreciate and care for the environment. The playgroups usually involve outdoor activities where children observe different features of nature, while the indoor activities usually involve natural objects of various shapes, textures, colours, patterns and smells. Finally, there are the controversial kindergarten interview preparation courses. Many doubt, with good reason, the usefulness of playgroups that specifically focus on interview results, as they are unabashedly results-oriented rather than child-oriented. Moreover, it is hard to assess the veracity of claims about the knowledge of kindergarten interviews made by the service providers. Ultimately, the choice of playgroup comes down to what parents perceive to be most important for their children.