When Yale law professor and mother of two Amy Chua released her parenting memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother last year, she triggered a lively debate about cultural differences in parenting norms. The book suggested that a tough, demanding, academically focussed parenting style was a sure-fire way to create superstar children.
Despite critics and research pointing out the harm that can be caused by piling on the pressure too young, in Hong Kong, a society where success is most often measured by academic achievement, tiger parenting continues and seems to be affecting younger and younger children. Across Hong Kong, preschoolers are following packed schedules of preschool and kindergarten, tutoring, music lessons and even interview training to ensure they gain a place at a prestigious pre-school.
Joyce Chang, a former marketing and communications professional for fashion brands including Fendi and Joyce Boutique is one of a growing breed of Hong Kong parents happy to be classed as “supportive” rather than “tiger”. She laments the fact that children have little opportunity to enjoy their young years.
“I’ve always been interested in early childhood learning and when I became a mum myself I took a sabbatical and started doing a lot of research. Many parents concentrate on academic learning from early on, which is understandably important, but I learnt and now feel strongly that you need to focus on building the foundations correctly first,” explains Joyce. “I’m convinced there is a window of opportunity between one and six years of age when specific skills can be nurtured and developed that aid and in fact improve academic learning at school age. This is a crucial time to develop a child’s sensory and tactile skills, and how they interact socially. It’s completely different to the typical mind-set of trying to get a ‘head start’ by learning how to read and write as early as possible.”
When her first son Jay was born (he’s now almost three), Joyce enrolled him in classes at learning centres and playgroups across the city. Although she and Jay gained numerous skills and fun memories, Joyce didn’t find a place that had everything under one roof, particularly in addressing the needs of both parent and child. She also found most environments didn’t encourage interaction or friendship, something many new parents crave. It was when she was pregnant with son number two that Joyce decided to combine her experience as a mother, her economics degree and her marketing and communications background to launch SPRING.
“It’s a learning centre but not in the academic sense,” says Joyce. “The purpose is to help optimise a child’s learning potential by adopting a holistic approach. Core fundamentals such as the development of a child’s brain, sensory systems, physical competence and nutritional needs are all addressed through a range of programmes. On top of this, we’re trying to foster a community – a place where people can come for advice and friendship.”
To turn her Hong Kong preschool vision into a reality, Joyce called upon experts from the world of design and branding to create the look of the centre, and from the fields of education, occupational therapy and child psychology to develop SPRING’s programmes.
“I deliberately didn’t work with a designer of childhood environments,” admits Joyce. “I wanted something totally original that was both fun for children and interesting for parents and inspiring for our educators.”
The resulting Hong Kong preschool, created by award-winning Hong Kong-based designer Joey Ho, is bright, fresh and unique. It’s a 9,000-square-foot world of slides, reading pods, Alice in Wonderland-sized doors for the little people and larger, more conventional ones for parents. Fun aside, there’s a practical side to the design. Sliding walls make the rooms work either for small or large groups. There’s a fully functioning kitchen where children as young as 18 months learn about the tastes, smells and textures of food, and how to make healthy choices. And there are smaller consultation rooms where parents can book an appointment with a visiting child psychologist to discuss anything from separation anxiety to temper tantrums.
Above all, this isn’t your usual messy, chaotic playgroup environment. There’s no plastic in sight, the colours are neutral and muted with subtle use of glass and wood, the lines are curved and clean and everything is bright and modern but not clinical. The success of the design has been recognised not just by visitors to SPRING but also by the design community, featuring on the cover of Interior Design China magazine and winning an Interior Design Best of Year Award (BOY) in New York.
SPRING isn’t just a pretty face. The six learning programmes that Joyce has introduced remain true to the Hong Kong preschool centre’s philosophy. They include the Sensory@SPRING programmes, developed in consultation with The Matilda’s consultant occupational therapist Ann Bridgewater, and KindyROO@SPRING, a franchised programme from Australia designed to develop gross and fine motor skills, coordination, body awareness and rhythm.
For Joyce, the change of career from the world of fashion to childhood education has been rewarding but challenging. “SPRING was my vision but it wasn’t my knowledge,” she admits. “It only came to fruition through the collaborative efforts of a passionate team of early childhood educators, specialists, nutritionists and therapists who work tirelessly to make every child’s experience here positive and enlightening.”
SPRING is at 3/F Centre Point, 181-185 Gloucester Road, Wanchai. 3465 5000 | firstname.lastname@example.org