Feel free to reach out to me about pitches, tips, job opportunities or freelance commissions.

Hong Kong early development centre uses fun to help kids learn

Hong Kong early development centre uses fun to help kids learn

Originally published at the South China Morning Post on July 28, 2015.

With his face scrunched in concentration, the small boy quivered as he balanced on one foot, preparing to leap over a foam mat. After a sharp intake of breath, he jumps, makes it and is met with applause. It's a typical game of hopscotch - except for the fact that he is in an indoor studio, and the game is guided by a teacher.

Five-year-old Kyle Chan Ka-yau is taking part in a guided play session at Protege, a new early development centre in Wan Chai that aims to nurture young children's cognitive, sensory and motor abilities through interactive games and storytelling. Launched in June, the programme offers 45-minute sessions to children up to five years old that fall under three categories: storytelling, exploration and therapy.

Its sessions are built around storytelling and guided activities tailored to individual interests and needs.

"Kids like playing, they like games. And while they play, they learn," says Fion Lui Mei-yuk, founder of Protege. "Children like to be tested and they like competition, so we're creating an environment conducive to their learning style."

The programme is one of many early childhood ventures cropping up in the local education scene that strive to offer alternative learning opportunities for toddlers. In recent years, there's been a rising demand for more informal educational spaces that can help children build developmental skills that are not prioritised in more traditional classrooms.

Young Kyle's mother, Tina Chan Tin-wah, enrolled her son in the programme because she wanted to bolster his motor skills and his confidence. Born three months premature, Kyle is physically weaker than other children his age, and has a short attention span that makes it hard for him to focus, Chan says.

"I like that the classes can be one-on-one, and they're tailored for Kyle," she adds, explaining that for each session, Lui will design games that help Kyle work on specific skills such as concentration, strength and coordination. "You can't find these sorts of activities in kindergarten."

Chan has enrolled Kyle in other programmes in the past, but found their style of teaching too traditional and too focused on academics.

Doris Cheng Pui-wah, associate professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education's department of early childhood education, believes many parents in Hong Kong enrol their little ones into formalised institutions such as preschools and other academic programmes too early - a move that can be detrimental to the child's development.

"The parents think the earlier their children go into preschool, the more they will learn and the better they will be," says Cheng, who specialises in children's play and learning. "This is the kind of thinking for Hong Kong parents, but actually … it goes against developmental theories and studies on children."

Young children learn primarily through sensory perceptions, and it's important for them to take part in activities in informal settings that arouse their interests, Cheng says. Such activities shouldn't be results-driven, and teachers must allow room for children to have a say in what they are doing, she adds.

The spacious and well-lit premises of Protege is divided into two sections: a play area and a library. A large plastic tree festooned with handmade butterflies - fruits of an arts and crafts activity that teaches children about primary and secondary colours - brightens one corner. Using red, blue and yellow marker pens, children are asked to draw their own designs on filter paper before adding water, causing the colours to blend. They observe how the colours mix to form new ones, then fold and tie the paper to make butterflies.

In another exercise, children participate in a game where they have to throw and catch a bean bag using one hand - an activity that helps them develop their motor skills. And parents are encouraged to join the fun.

"This is a playground rather than a centre," Lui says. "I want kids to come in and think that they're playing - I want it to have that atmosphere."

A 15-year veteran in public relations business, she has worked with various clients in the education sector. But it was her volunteer work with the Child Development Centre and Benji's Centre, an organisation providing speech therapy to children and teenagers, that really gave her satisfaction.

"After I volunteered at Benji's Centre, I thought: I have a passion for this," says Lui, who holds a master's degree in counselling from Monash University.

She wanted to help children develop their intellectual curiosity. "Kids should have creativity, they should be able to play very happily. They can think outside the box."

During storytelling sessions, Lui typically asks the child to select a genre or particular book that he likes. And as she reads the book aloud, acting out all the parts, Lui will ask questions about the plot, encouraging the child to share his opinions.

For Chan, this type of interactive storytelling is crucial because it helps engage her son and instil a love for reading.

"I don't really know how to tell stories," Chan says. "Fion knows how to interpret the story and make it more attractive."

Although such guided play and storytelling sessions can be helpful, Cheng says it's always best for such skills to be developed in a natural environment, and for parents to spend time with their children and help them develop these abilities.

"Storytelling is a very good parent-child activity. It's a good chance for the parents to play with the children and build a relationship," she says. "If parents have time to take them out to a garden, or the beach, or an outing - it would be better than an institution."

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Learning is child's play

Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei arrives in Munich - and snaps a selfie

Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei arrives in Munich - and snaps a selfie

Life after solitary confinement: How education paved the way for Danny Murillo

Life after solitary confinement: How education paved the way for Danny Murillo