Giving children control over their learning
The new Avendale International Kindergarten’s Reggio Emilia-inspired philosophy makes youngsters the co-creators of their education, using their senses to express themselves in an environment that is both guide and teacher
Hong Kong parents are changing their perception of early education and are seeking play-based learning classes for their children – something many new international kindergartens aim to provide. “We want the children to be co-creators of their learning. That is an important part of our philosophy,” says David Shirley, principal of the newly opened Avendale International Kindergarten which runs a curriculum inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach.
Reggio Emilia believes that children must have some control over their learning. They should learn by using their senses, and be encouraged to express themselves. “It’s a child-centred approach – a play-based approach in which the curriculum merges with the children’s interests,” Shirley says. “We take those interests and adapt the curriculum through our observations to cater to the children’s needs.”
Shirley has lived in Hong Kong for 12 years and was previously head of primary, and then the acting head of school, at the Australian International School. He is emphatic that play-based learning is not a chaotic free-for-all, but instead a structured process.
“Our curriculum is emergent, so we take note of the interests of the children. But we also use source materials like the Hong Kong Kindergarten Education Curriculum Guide and the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) curriculum, which is standard in the UK. People sometimes mistakenly think that a Reggio approach has no curriculum. But you need to have a really good knowledge of curriculum documents – if you don’t know the source documents, it becomes a challenge.”
With 11,000 square feet, the Parkside campus has a common area with climbing facilities, an interactive wall and an open play area. A darkened sensory room encourages children to experiment with their senses.
“One of the best things about going into this new facility is that it’s purpose-built for our pedagogy,” Shirley says. “Quite often, you have the structure of the school first and you have to transform the pedagogy. This time we were able to start with it. We were able to create the landscape to suit our philosophy, and that’s something very special.”
The natural light, meanwhile, permeates the space. “The use of light and space captivates the children. We’ve been running summer programmes and playgroups, and we’ve noticed how children are captivated as soon as they walk in,” Shirley says. “They have a sense of wonderment – they love our playground as it’s so inviting. There’s a feeling of space here that is hard to find in Hong Kong. There is a lot of glass and a lot of mirrors, so that children can see the flow of the landscape. It encourages them to go and explore.”
“We are always trying to find space, and use space, to aid the educational journey of the child,” Shirley adds. “That is very important to us. We try to ensure that the space complements their learning journey. We believe that the environment becomes a guide or a teacher for the child, as they are motivated by their learning spaces.”
Shirley says nature is all around on campus, even indoors. “We are trying to bring the outdoors inside. Children have the opportunity for sand play, or they can use the rooms to explore science and nature.”
Learning by experience is a key tenet of the Reggio Emilia approach, and children can do just that in the sensory room, where they can explore colours, shapes and light. “We have lots of little light boxes, so children can explore the little things, like the leaves, that they find, or little pine cones – things they might not have seen before. We want them to explore the idea of touching,” Shirley says.
Sensory experiences are important for a child’s development. he adds. “When children are using all their senses, they are engaging their memory, their sight, and their smell. It helps motor development and engenders an appreciation of colour and the outside world.”
The Parkside campus will host up to eight pre-nursery and kindergarten classes in nine classrooms. There will be a maximum of 20 children in each kindergarten class, and each class will have two teachers – one fluent in English, the other in Mandarin. There will also be playgroups for children from nine months to two years old.
The UK and Hong Kong sources denote an international and local approach, Shirley says. “We are using these documents as a source because we think it’s important to give children an international context, but we also realise the importance of our local environment in Hong Kong. It’s important to know where you come from. It gives children the idea that they are living in a very special place, and they are very lucky to be living in such a wonderful city.”
Avendale will involve parents in some classes and keep them informed about their child’s progress, says Shirley – a father of four – who adds that they won’t be “overwhelmed” with information. Parents will be encouraged to meet teachers whenever they feel it necessary, as the learning process is seen as a collaboration between teachers, parents and pupils. “Parents need to be welcomed,” Shirley says. “We all have the child’s interest at heart.”