From Montessori and Waldorf to Reggio Emilia and the International Baccalaureate, Hong Kong boasts a wide choice of pre-schooling possibilities to suit the development of young students.
Founded by paediatrician and psychiatrist Maria Montessori in 1907, the Montessori approach emphasises nature, creativity, and hands-on learning, with gentle guidance provided by the teachers. Children learn about other cultures, animals, and plants, in addition to reading, language, and mathematical skills.
Teachers – or “guides”, as they are called – take their lead from each child, allowing them to learn at their own pace. Montessori programmes encourage a child’s sense of independence and expect a high degree of parental involvement.
The Montessori curriculum focuses on five areas: practical life; sensory awareness education; language arts; mathematics, and cultural subjects such as geography, zoology, time, history, music, movement, science, and art. All disciplines tie together in complementary ways.
Toys and other developmentally-appropriate learning materials are laid out in the classroom, enabling a child to see what their choices are and then pick a task – known as “work” – according to their interests. Work options include books, puzzle games, art projects, toys that test spatial relations, and more. When they are finished, children put their work back on the shelves and move on to something else. The daily schedule allows time for them to play alone and in groups.
Guides work with children both as a group and one-on-one, but most of the interaction is among the children. In a Montessori school, teachers are not the only instructors. Older children often help younger ones learn how to master new skills. That is why each class has mixed ages. Casa classes are for children aged three to six.
Many pre-schools currently run a programme that includes Montessori elements. However, most of them are not pure, authentic Montessori. The two schools of note in Hong Kong are the International Montessori School – Pre-school and Primary. The only Montessori Primary Programme in Greater China accredited by the International Montessori Council, it has four locations across Hong Kong Island. Classes cater to children aged two to 12.
Meanwhile, Infinity Children’s School is the only full member school of the American Montessori Society. It has three locations across Kowloon, with classes catering to children aged one to six.
According to Rudolf Steiner, founder of the first Waldorf School, at the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1919, a person is made up of three elements: spirit, soul, and body. The aim is to stimulate and develop these three elements in young children by immersing them in nurturing surroundings. Children are encouraged to engage in creative free play and use all five senses to absorb and actively engage in life.
Waldorf early-childhood teachers create a comfortable, homelike environment that offers children plenty of opportunities to freely imitate what they see and to indulge in creative play.
Daily activities range from painting, colouring, singing, and reciting poems to modelling with beeswax, baking bread, building houses out of boxes, sheets, and boards, and dressing up and pretending to be parents, kings, and magicians.
The oral approach is used all through Waldorf education. Mastery of oral communication is seen as being integral to all learning. However, reading instruction, as such, is deferred. Writing evolves out of the children’s art, and their ability to read likewise evolves as a natural and, indeed, comparatively effortless stage of their mastery of language.
In Hong Kong there are two pre-schools – Garden House and Highgate House, and one early-stage primary – Forest House that offer the Waldorf programme.
The Reggio Emilia approach – which dates back to the 1940s – encourages exploration and focuses on the importance of community and self-expression. Open-ended and childled, students learn through art, projects, and activities that reflect their ideas and interests. There is no formal Reggio Emilia curriculum, teacher training, or credentialling, because Reggio Emilia is not a set method, but an educational theory and practice. For this reason, it is most common to find schools describing themselves as “Reggio-inspired”.
The child is seen as a protagonist, collaborator and communicator, while the curriculum is flexible, allowing the group of children in a class to guide their own learning. The teacher is a nurturer, guide and researcher. The parents are partners, with co-operation between home and school central to the philosophy.
Reggio schools in Hong Kong are: Blooming Buds, Eton House, and Mulberry Tree.
Early Years Foundation Stage
Also known as EYFS, Early Years Foundation Stage is the required curriculum for all schools and Ofsted-registered early years providers in England.
Four guiding principles should shape practice in early-years settings. These are that every child is a unique person, who is constantly learning and who can be resilient, capable, confident and self-assured; children learn to be strong and independent through positive relationships; they learn and develop well in enabling environments, in which their experiences respond to their individual needs and there is a strong partnership between practitioners and parents and/or carers; and that they develop and learn in different ways and at different rates. The framework covers the education and care of all children in early years provision, including children with special educational needs and disabilities.
The three primary areas covered are communication and language; physical development; and personal, social and emotional development. Secondary are an understanding of the world around them, and expressive arts and design.
The literacy requirements of five-year-olds include ready use of written language in their play and learning, a use of phonic knowledge to write simple regular words and make phonetically plausible attempts at more complex words, showing an understanding of how information can be found in non-fiction texts to answer questions about where, who, why and how, and beginning to form simple sentences, sometimes using punctuation. Similar requirement levels apply to numeracy.
EYFS schools in Hong Kong include Anfield, Mills International Preschool, Southside Kindergarten, Woodland Pre-Schools, and YMCA International Kindergarten.
International Baccalaureate – Primary Years Programme
The IBO is a non-profit educational foundation set up in 1968. Its IB programme was originally created to provide children of diplomats, businessmen abroad and international families with a standardised, internationally-recognised curriculum and diploma. The IBO’s mission is to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through inter-cultural understanding and respect. IB learning is inquiry-based, meaning that the focus is on how students learn rather than what they learn.
The Primary Years Programme (IBPYP) is used in pre-schools as it covers ages three-to-12. The focus is on skills, attitudes and concepts. The concept-based curriculum requires children to question, reason, analyse, think, produce and take action. Knowledge is used as a tool to reach understanding. Ultimately, it aims to develop the whole child, incorporate the best research practice from a range of national systems, and be relevant, engaging and challenging.
An essential part of the IB approach is the necessity for a second language.
The IBPYP is available at Parkview PIPS, Victoria and the ESF.
When choosing a pre-school, keep two key factors in mind. One is to make it personal. It is important to find a programme that is a good fit for your child. Carefully consider your child’s personality and learning style when investigating the options. Remember: you know your child best. Research the various types of programmes available and make the selection that best fits your child’s needs. The second factor is to remember the big picture: be strategic in choosing a preschool that best prepares your child for your preferred primary school or schools.
Originally published in Education Post, May 15, 2015