Kavitha Rao

Freelance journalist, author & trainer

Child's Play: A Serious Science
South China Morning Post, July 2001
How to pick the right playgroup for your child

“I would never pay what I am paying for my kids’ playgroups back home in Canada,” says Agnes Kindrachuk, a Canadian expatriate and mother of two. “Back home, I would just let them play in the yard, but here in Hong Kong parents feel so guilty that their kids are cooped up that we have no option but to join organised playgroups.” Many parents in Hong Kong with toddlers too young for pre-school but too old to be amused at home face the same dilemma. With small flat and single-child families becoming more common, parents are turning to a host of playgroups and play programmes.

Still, many mothers remain confused about how to play with their toddlers, given the bewildering number of options available. Structured play is one popular option. This is often designed to help children achieve developmental milestones through specially designed activities, such as tossing balls, going through tunnels, climbing and music. Mothers can expect large brightly coloured padded rooms, trained teachers, classes divided by age groups, and prices ranging from HK$ 150-180 for a one hour class. “We are not a playgroup,” says Michelle Patterson, general manager of Toddler Kindy Gymbaroo, an Australian play programme with more than 60 centres in the region. “ We are a developmental programme aimed at helping children learn about their bodies and develop their motor skills, which in turn improves their confidence and self-esteem.”

“Many local parents know the importance of playing with their children, but have no idea of where to begin, so we teach them how, and encourage them to leave their traditional parent image behind,” says Catherine Wong Sit-Kin, owner of Gymboree, a 20 year old play programme with over 420 centres worldwide.

“These classes are expensive, but I think you get what you pay for,” says the mother of an 11-month-old who attends Toddler Kindy Gymbaroo. “ My son’s motor skills and co-ordination are so much better after he began at a structured playgroup. I prefer structured play because the instructors are trained and know the techniques of child development. I would never know how to flip a kid upside down, for instance.” But structured play may not work for every toddler or parent. “My child likes to do her own thing,” says one mother of an 18-month old girl. “But I feel guilty because she is not doing what the other toddlers are doing. I prefer free play because there is not so much pressure on the children to perform.” “Some toddlers take a little longer than others to take to our programme, but once they do they pick up fast,” counters Gymbaroo’s Ms Paterson, “We find that nearly all children learn well through routine and repetition.”

Still, not everyone agrees that toddlers need to be taught to play. “Learning through play is the most effective way of learning, but we believe that if you impose structure on children, you are not doing them any favours. Open play teaches children how to make choices and be independent,” says Jenny Kende, chairwoman of the Pre-school Playgroups association, a voluntary non profit organisation run by volunteer parents.

The PPA has six playgroups all over Hong Kong offering play sessions mostly geared towards open play, with a minimum of structure or instruction. Toys, crafts, books, sand and water play are provided. Rates begin at HK$ 50 for a two-hour session, plus annual membership of HK$ 320 per family. Agrees Grace (name changed) the mother of a one year old boy,“I think open play is more value for money because there are a range of activities, and with the two hour sessions my son has more time to do whatever he wants.”

For mothers who wince at the expensive prices of many play programmes, several churches in Hong Kong also offer playgroups centred around open play at reasonable prices, averaging HK$ 60 per two hour play session. But, since these are non-profit organisations, don’t expect pristine premises, brand new toys or much instruction from the teacher. “Our main aim is to promote interaction between parents and kids, and also to promote interaction between parents,” says Kathy Pierrepoint of the Methodist Church, which runs a playgroup for parents and toddlers. “At the toddler stage, I think free play is very important, since they don’t like being told what to do.”

Many mothers seem to find a combination of structured and open play suits their children. Emma, a mother of 18 month old Lauren, echoes what many mothers of newly independent toddlers feel, “I prefer open play because she does not sit still for more than 20 minutes. She did structured play for a while, and it worked for the first few months, but I think we are getting much more out of open play now that she is older and has more interests.” “I think toddlers benefit from both open play and structured play,” says Professor Lau Sing, director of Baptist University’s Child development Centre. “It all depends on the personality of the toddler; some prefer to play by themselves; others like to play with their peers. The important thing is that the instructor should be sensitive to the different personalities of toddlers.”

Hong Kong being the competitive society that it is, there are also parents who want playgroups to give their children a head start in Hong Kong’s competitive society. Language skills and preparing toddlers for pre-schools are seen as especially important. “The majority of our children are Chinese. Many Chinese people now want to send their kids to international schools, and they want their toddlers to learn English from an early age.” says Alison Pope, manager of Baby Buddies, a playgroup for toddlers for 1 to 2, and the Letterland Child Care Centre. Toddlers at Baby Buddies are automatically given places at Letterland, a pre-school for children aged two to six, which follows the Letterland phonics system of teaching literacy skills. “I think my toddler is learning more social skills and making more friends than she would in a free-play playgroup. I didn’t join this playgroup to get her into a pre-school, but since she likes this system, I now want her to go on to Letterland, and eventually to an international school,” says Swee Lynn Chong, whose 22-month-old daughter Kyra attends Baby Buddies. 

Also aiming at being a “one stop learning shop” is the newly launched “My First Club" which calls itself a “technology driven learning haven.” “Hong Kong is an international city,” says founder Clara Li Yik-Kay. “Chinese parents want to retain their Chinese culture and at the same time keep ahead with today’s world. That’s where we come in. We have language immersion (English and Putonghua) from the age of 20 months. We also incorporate teaching through computers and multimedia presentations so that we can stimulate toddlers in different ways and prepare them to use computers as a tool.” Among its other courses, “My First Club” also offers an intensive “Ready for school” summer camp designed to prepare children aged from 24 to 36 months for pre-school.

Says satisfied father Alan Chan Chi-Yeung, father of three-year-old Kevin who attends “My First Club” playgroup as well as their Putonghua classes, “I want my son to learn from multimedia as well as books. I also want my son to be bilingual, and I prefer to have everything under one roof.”

But is there such a thing as too much learning? Yes, say the experts, and Hong Kong parents may already have reached that threshold. “Sometimes the intellectual aspect of playgroups is overemphasised in Hong Kong, “ says Professor Lau Sing, “Parents need to remember that a toddler is always learning, even if they are playing by themselves. Too much intentional teaching may be stifling to the child.” “If children are forced to read and write too early they lose out on other activities. Children should not be learning to read and write below the age of three. Hong Kong kids are overstressed because of the overeagerness of their parents,” believes PPA chairwoman Jenny Kende. Still, argues parent Alan Chan, "You have to be realistic. When everyone else is exposing their kids to so many opportunities, you don’t want your child to be left behind.” “I don’t believe there’s any such thing as overlearning; it’s the way you learn,” says Clara Li.

As for how many children should be in a class, experts say this depends on the type of class and the space provided, but more than 15 toddlers in a room can be a strain on everyone. Most educators agree that teachers of toddlers should keep supervision as minimal as possible to encourage creativity and independence.

Some parents also believe that expensive playgroups and trained teachers are not always the best ones. “So many playgroups are nothing more than expensive babysitting centres. Don’t judge a play program by its price” says Kende. Agrees Professor Lau, “Many teachers, even if they are trained, are not parents and may not be sensitive to the different needs and personalities of toddlers. Sometimes the parent knows best.”

It is also a good idea for parents to keep a close watch on their child. Toddlers who like to play by themselves and are loners should not be forced to join others. “At this age, toddlers benefit simply by playing alongside other toddlers, not necessarily with them,” believes Jenny Kende. “A lot of new mothers feel compelled to enrol their child into a lot of activities, but if your toddler doesn’t like those activities, don’t force them. You have to watch your child and not compare him or her to the other kids,” cautions Agnes Kindrachuk.

Ultimately, play should be fun. “That’s obvious enough, but something that many parents are apt to overlook in their eagerness to make their children learn,” says Gymboree’s Catherine Wong. “Parents should let the child get amusement and enjoyment in whatever form they prefer.” “ If children are allowed to explore their environment, they will learn just as fast,” ends Professor Lau. “It is just as important to take your kids to the park as to playgroups.”