Since it first opened in Chung Hom Kok over 50 years ago, Hong Kong International School (HKIS) has had premises dotted across the map of the city. This August, as part of the latest phase of development, it welcomed young pupils at its new lower primary campus in Repulse Bay.
When HKIS was debating what to do first as it set out to upgrade and modernise facilities, it didn’t take long to reach a general consensus.
“Deciding to work on the early childhood building first made a clear statement to the Hong Kong community that we believe very strongly in the importance of educating young children,” says lower primary principal Maya Nelson, who has headed the section for children from Reception 1 to Grade 2 over the past decade.
Six years ago, discussions began in earnest about the investment and aesthetics needed to create a campus tailor-made for young children. That meant looking beyond the architectural framework and thinking in detail about how youngsters would move around and arranging spaces so they could engage and interact in ways that nurture curiosity and creativity.
One example is the Rainbow Stairs, which run from the ground floor up seven flights. Throughout the day, sunlight hits the stairs at different angles, giving different effects and colours.
“We want children to turn the corner and see something interesting that will make them wonder,” Nelson says. “There’s a reason behind everything we try to do.”
A place like home
The first sight greeting any visitor to the new campus is an enormous mosaic wall. It is the result of a collaboration between nearly 800 pupils in the lower primary division and the school’s artist-in-residence Francesco Lietti. The first step was to create a somewhat playful rendition of Hong Kong’s skyline, with motley shapes and colours, and a section of that painting was later made into a 9.4m long mosaic.
“Every child was involved in the painting. We want them to come in and have a little something that says ‘this is my building’,” Nelson says.
The school’s management team also worked with landscape and play architects to make sure the children can stay in touch with nature in the city’s concrete jungle. Therefore, every classroom has a door that leads outside, and soft natural light fills much of the indoor area. “People feel very comfortable and children love being here,” Nelson says.
Play a big part
Since learning through play is an important aspect of early childhood education, the planners took due note of this when preparing the blueprints for the new campus. In addition, in November 2016, the HKIS Kaleidoscope Fund was established to support the upkeep of child-centred infrastructure including the library, playgrounds and sports facilities.
“We don’t believe children just come in to sit at their desk and do their work,” Nelson says. “Rather, we believe that one of the best methods to engage children in their learning is through play. That has to be a foundation for the academic programme.”
To this end, the school environment is designed to encourage play, with a covered playground on every classroom level and a “lucky climber”, a sculpture-like installation where children can use disc swings and cruise in mini scooters during break times.
In the classroom
The school offers an American-based curriculum blended with multi-cultural elements.
“We don’t just look at one aspect of a child’s development,” Nelson says. “We look at each child’s overall abilities and social-emotional skills. We also want to prepare them with the resilience to succeed in whatever they want to do in life.”
The school’s core belief is that all children need to develop certain key constructs – language, motor, cognitive and thinking, and social-emotional skills – when they are very young. Along with this, HKIS uses the literacy programme of Columbia University’s Teachers College, which includes reading and writing workshops.
“We want to instil in children the belief that they are readers and writers, that their curiosity in the world is important,” Nelson says. “If we put the right habits in place when they’re young, it will stand to them throughout their school years.”
To back that up, the school library boasts a collection of 25,000 works, including picture books, fiction and even parenting guides. There is also an extensive digital library which has audio books, e-books and other online resources.
“When they’re very young, children need to read the text on paper, to move from page to page, because that helps them visualise the story they’re reading in their head,” Nelson says. “They first learn how to decode texts, then how to comprehend. We have to recognise how this works. If they love certain topics, even the most reluctant readers will then become engaged.”
She adds that another way to improve children’s language abilities is to encourage them to talk, using their mother tongue if necessary to assist linguistic development.
With more research available on how children learn, there is a fuller appreciation of how kids come to understand themselves and the world around them. The school applies those principles in helping youngsters build self-confidence and develop social skills.
In other respects, the school’s introductory maths programme has been modified to teach the basics of conceptual thinking.
“It’s not just numbers or sums, which is what many kids in Asia do,” Nelson says. “We want them to think beyond that.”
When it comes to other academic subjects, she notes that Hong Kong parents have a reputation for focusing on marks and test results, reflecting how they were brought up. Aware of the reasons – and the ambitions behind them – HKIS nevertheless aims to help parents appreciate what is best for the child and how education is changing.
As a mother of two, Nelson understands the viewpoints of a parent and an educator.
“I remember the trials and tribulations you go through as a parent,” she says. “You read all these books and think, ‘it’s easy, I can do this’, but none of it ever is. When you’re working and your children are having meltdowns and screaming for dinner, it’s just not easy to simply follow a to-do schedule on the refrigerator door. As a parent, you always make the best decision at the time. And, as an educator, I have to remember that every child is special in their own way.”
“My daughter spoke full sentences at nine months, and at eleven months she could walk across the room,” she said. “My son, a few years younger than my daughter, did not speak his first words until he was two years old.”
Besides “mama”, “go-go” for their dog and “la-la” for their helper, the first words that came out of the 24-month-old was “internal combustion engine”.
“Children are fascinating. Get it right and the rest will come, which is why it’s really important for us to provide as near as possible the best settings for young children.”
Before taking the helm at HKIS, Nelson had worked with children who had learning disabilities and developmental delays. Along the way, she was also student services director at the Taipei American School, assisting pupils from primary up to Grade 12. Her experience dealing with counselors, psychologists and special education teachers has been an important part of her career.
“I learned there are very different perceptions,” she says. “I had the honour of being able to watch children grow over time, and to see what they need.”
In parallel, she became more interested in research about neurology, brain development, and how that affects learning.
“I became very passionate about how children learn to read, the best approaches to take, and why some children experience difficulties in one area and not in others,” she says.
Leaving Taiwan wasn’t easy, especially for her then four-year-old son, but the chance of a move to HKIS was too good to turn down.
“The stars aligned and we took the step,” Nelson says. “It was a great opportunity to acquire another skill set, but most importantly, as a mother, I wanted my children to go to this school.”