Admit it. When do you get your best ideas? When you’re sitting slaving at your desk or when you’re off doing something different, playing a sport, hiking or just going for a leisurely walk. It’s the essence of this leisure time that makes for the best in learning for a Hong Kong preschool.
On the surface, this “playtime” is the antithesis of work but it’s often when you’re at your most creative and most enquiring. Forward-thinking companies in Silicon Valley have realised this; Google, for instance, encourages workers to spend one day a week on a personal project; Gore and Associates (Gore-Tex manufacturers) promotes regular “dabble time”.
This realisation that play is essential to human development and learning is at the core of the curriculum of the latest pre-school opening in Hong Kong, EtonHouse.
EtonHouse opened its first school in 1995 in Singapore. The idea came almost by chance when Singaporean founder Mrs Ng Gim Choo moved to London for a couple of years with her husband’s job.
“My daughter was four when we relocated and I enrolled her at Pembridge Hall School,” she explains. “She was so happy going to school and absolutely loved it. It was only when I became a parent volunteer that I realised she was so happy because she was learning through play. When we came back to Singapore, the schools were such a pressure cooker so I decided to bring the British model I had witnessed to Asia.
“It was difficult at first as parents in Asia didn’t understand the concept of paying money for their children to play but we brought the best of East and West and soon they realised EtonHouse children were confident, happy and enquiring.”
The learning through play approach is now adopted by most schools across the world but what is different at Hong Kong preschool EtonHouse is that they don’t concentrate on a single curriculum; instead they combine various international practices into their own “inquire, think, learn” approach to teaching. The company has a research team that travels extensively to ensure that every detail of an EtonHouse school and curriculum is meticulously thought through.
This first branded Hong Kong preschool, EtonHouse International Preschool is located at Tai Tam on the island’s South Side, will adopt the Reggio Emilia approach to early years teaching. Developed post-war in Northern Italy, the Reggio Emilia approach to educational philosophy is now considered worldwide to be one of the most innovative and inspiring ways to engage young children.
The method considers a child to be a strong, capable individual able to be involved in his or her own learning, and driven by curiosity and imagination. The approach fosters playful sharing of ideas – no rote learning or enforced rules and regulations here. Instead, children are allowed to laugh, dream, explore and discover, making a great addition to the newest Hong Kong preschool.
At EtonHouse International Preschool in Tai Tam, the physical design is key too. Classrooms are flooded with light and the feeling of bringing the outside in is enhanced by the neutral furnishings and colours designed not to be a distraction. Reggio Emilia encourages the use of natural materials so you’ll find very little that is plastic or fake here. Twigs from a tree hang from the ceiling; seedpods and pine cones cover a table, ready to be examined by children armed with magnifying glasses; sandpits are filled with miniature dinosaurs; and when the play all gets a bit too much there’s a quiet reading corner in every room.
One of the questions the EtonHouse team hears a lot is, “But what about the learning?” The school’s response is that while adults think of play as what we do when we’re not at work, play is in fact the “work” of childhood, and natural play in early years is incredibly important to brain development.
That said, the team at EtonHouse is aware that literacy and numeracy must be a focus and that parents want evidence that their children are learning something in Hong Kong preschools. To this end, each child has a portfolio where work is displayed, parents receive a bi-weekly newsletter with details of the current curriculum topics and methods of teaching, and there is continuous assessment.
The method of teaching Mandarin is also slightly different to other schools. Although there is a Mandarin speaking teacher in every classroom, as well as a degree-qualified teacher and diploma-qualified assistant, EtonHouse does not call itself a bilingual school. There aren’t regular language “classes” as such; rather it’s a continuous dialogue in two languages. When children interact with the Mandarin teacher, they speak in Chinese; when they speak with the core teacher, it’s in English. This way, Mandarin becomes a part of the child’s everyday world.
Nearly two decades on from the opening of the first EtonHouse, Mrs Ng Gim Choo’s daughter is now studying at Yale, and the one school that she was the inspiration for has blossomed into a family of 70 schools in nine Asian countries.
EtonHouse International PreSchool,102, 1/F Redhill Plaza, 3 Red Hill Road. Tai Tam, 2353 5223.