Born ready to learn and interested in the world around them, deciding which early learning school will provide the best-fit for their children is an exciting, yet daunting experience every Hong Kong parent needs to make.
Aware that a child’s well-being, happiness and resilience can be profoundly affected by the quality of the early-learning they receive during these first years, Hong Kong parents of preschool children look for an early learning facility where their child will be safe and nurtured. With so many preschool and early learning options to choose from, parents are often confused by the different teaching philosophies, language offerings and teaching style. There is also the perpetual question of which curriculum such as the UK Early Years Foundation (EYFS) or the International Baccalaureate (IB) education programme, or another early learning programme will prepare their child for the move to primary school and beyond. Established in 2008 and updated in 2014, the UK Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) was introduced to provide a framework for early childhood educators to provide a holistic learning and monitor the progress of pre-primary school children.
Organised by Top Schools Hong Kong and staged at the Hebe Haven Yacht Club, the recent UK Early Years Foundation (EYFS) Sai Kung Community Education Event provided an opportunity for parents to ask questions and seek advice from principals and representatives from a diverse range of early learning schools located in the Sai Kung district and nearby areas that offer the EYFS. With the “which primary leading to secondary school comes after preschool” question at the forefront of many parent’s minds, especially the issue of which preschool guarantees smooth transition to an international primary school, principals and teachers pointed out the importance of choosing a preschool based on each child’s unique character, family circumstances and expected outcomes. Educators were also able to outline to parents how they incorporate interdisciplinary STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics and STEAM (science, technology, engineering mathematics and art), into their cohesive early learning programmes.
Brian Cooklin, Principal at the Nord Anglia International School (NAIS) in Hong Kong, recommends that, while parents should be involved and support their children’s education and development, they should also allow them to develop naturally. “As a parent I understand the pressure, hopes and aspirations many parents of young children feel,” notes Mr Cooklin. “But if parents allow themselves to over-think and over-plan they risk losing the enjoyment of watching their children develop in the present because they are focusing on the future,” notes Mr Cooklin who added the stress a lot of parents feel about their children’s early learning needs can be reduced by allowing their children to develop naturally. Highlighting the focus of the EYFS programme offered by the NAIS early leaning campuses located in Sai Kung and Tai Tam, Mr Cooklin says the play-based learning encourages children to be curious problem solvers, independent thinkers, socially aware and considerate towards others while being an active participant in their own journey of discovery. “The EYFS centres on the child as an individual and forms the foundation that allows children to improve on their reading and writing skills through their interests and understanding of the world around them,” explains Mr Cooklin.
Pointing out that the UK EYFS is one of several curriculums Hong Kong early learning schools offer, Ruth Benny, founder of Top Schools Hong Kong has noted an increase in the number of schools and parents that favour the EYFS. Ms Benny attributes the interest to the perceived structure the UK curriculum offers by setting out key areas of learning. She also believes the use of text books and a certain amount of quantitative testing of literacy, language, communication and emotional development in primary school resonates with schools and parents. “The EYFS framework and, later the Key Stages, give parents confidence,” notes Ms Benny. Commenting on the Sai Kung Community EYFS event, Ms Benny said Top Schools is evangelical about parents and their children meeting and engaging with preschool principals and teachers. At the Sai Kung EYFS event, participating schools set out sand-pits, fossil hunting, leaf tracing and quizzes for children to enjoy. Parents and principals agreed the relaxed atmosphere and spacious layout provided an ideal environment for engagement and for children to interact with their potential teachers. From experience, Ms Benny notes, once parents have spoken to preschool representatives and received answers to their questions, the relationship develops. “When something clicks, parents instinctively know their child will be happy in the school ,” explains Ms Benny.
Mr. Ben Keeling, Principal at Shrewsbury International School Hong Kong, which will open in August this year in Tseung Kwan O, is another experienced early years educator who believes the UK EYFS offers a good balance of academic rigour, self-motivated learning and emotional development. Offering places to students aged three to 11 years old, Mr. Keeling explains how the EYFS framework fosters academic curiosity, critical thinking skills and builds confidence to develop strong relationships and the skills for life-long learning. Mr. Keeling suggests instead of parents setting out a planned education pathway, as children move through and beyond their early childhood experiences, it becomes easier for parents, teachers and children themselves to determine their strengths and interests, and therefore to identify the most appropriate progression into secondary education.
Thematic teaching and learning through play and are integrated at Leapfrog Kindergarten which is located inside the Sai Kung Country Park. “We have a lot of outdoor space where playing in the natural environment is a daily activity that allows children to learn about subjects ranging from science to art,” says Leapfrog kindergarten teacher, Jennifer Harbottle who also explains that Leapfrog follows the UK EYFS curriculum which has been modified to incorporate bi-lingual English and Mandarin lessons. Similarly, at SKIP Preschool, which celebrates its 30th anniversary in February, EYFS play-based learning is focused on allowing children to learn and be inspired by exploring the outdoors. “About eighty percent of our classes take place outdoors,” informs Louise Smelt, SKIP Preschool principal. “We really do offer a unique child-centred, rich learning environment, where children develop strong maths and literacy skills through a wide range of sensory activities,” adds Ms. Smelt.
Educators including Ms. Smelt put emphasis on how not only is play, a predominant feature of the EYFS, essential to early childhood development, extensive research shows that play is an integral to the development of fine and gross motor skills, language, emotional well-being, creativity, problem solving and learning ability. Hong Kong’s Department of Health recommends at least three hours of physical activities daily for pre-school children and at least one hour for primary school and older children. However, a combination of poor play environments, busy school schedules and an increase in structured activities mean that for many Hong Kong children the opportunities to play is limited.
For parents worried they may become “helicopter” or “tiger” parents by overburdening their children with extra-curriculum schedules, Jacqueline McNalty, founding principal at Malvern College Hong Kong Preschool recommends that parents choose an early learning or preschool that provides a balanced range of activities. “Early learning is a crucial time in a child’s life and sets the foundation for future education, so it is important that parents thoroughly investigate and research early learning options,” says Ms. McNalty who suggests parents consider choosing a early learning school that offers a holistic balance of academic, arts and sports, therefore reducing the need for a child to join unnecessary extra curricula activities. By limiting the number of extra curricula activities, Ms McNalty says whenever possible, parents can use the time to spend with their children. She says while evidence shows that good quality early years education has a large impact on children’s longer term outcomes, it is parents that have the most important influence on children’s early development.
As an advocate of EYFS, Mills International Preschool School Director, Deirdre McCloskey says the system provides a solid foundation that helps children progress successfully through the critical early years of school life. “Play is hugely beneficial for children under the age of six, which is one of the reasons we use the UK EYFS,” explains Ms. McCloskey. However, Ms McCloskey says while EYFS provides children with a broad range of knowledge and skills, Mills Preschool is conscious that every child is a unique child. “What works for one child may not work for another,” notes Ms McCloskey who believes the same concept needs to be applied by parents when choosing a preschool for their children. She advises parents to keep an open mind by talking to different schools and the parents of children attending schools that interest them. Importantly, she adds, parents should avoid mapping out a ridged preschool, primary and secondary education pathway. “Children develop quickly during the early years, so wait and see what interests them and what suits their personality before making important long-term education decisions,” recommends Ms McCloskey.
Kate McAlister, Co-Principal at Yew Chung International School Early Childhood Education Section is another firm believer in the EYFS, particularly for the play-based stimulus it inspires. “When children are provided with a safe, stimulating, play-based environment, their innate curiosity enables them to become engaged in their own learning,” Ms McAlister notes. “When we think about children learning, we should think about the joy of learning and not simply completing a check list of academic accomplishments,” adds Ms McAlister. She also sympathises with parents who feel the pressure to push their children to meet a certain level of achievement. “We work with parents and encourage them to take a step back so they can really think about what it is they want for their children,” says Ms McAlister who adds the overwhelming answer is always happiness and fulfilment.