Hong Kong children free play
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Too much schoolwork and safety fears deprive Hong Kong kids of free play

By Wing Chan & Vivienne Tsang

Like many nine-year-olds, Martina Lau Yuet-yiu likes to run around. After a morning of lessons, she would love to scamper about in recess. But that, according to her teachers, is “naughty behaviour” that could result in someone getting hurt.

When Martina was in Primary One she was twice caught jumping by prefects. Jumping, like running, is forbidden and students who violate the no-running rule are punished by being made to stand during all the four recesses every day for a month. Martina is upset by what she thinks are the “unreasonable” rules and says every child deserves to play freely. “Everyone has the right to enjoy freedom. But why don’t we have freedom in school?” she asks.

Martina Lau Yuet-yiu questions why she cannot run at school.
Martina Lau Yuet-yiu questions why she cannot run at school.

Such rules are widespread. Leung Siu-tong, honorary chairman of the Hong Kong Aided Primary School Heads Association, told Varsity around 80 per cent of its members’ schools “do not encourage students to run” during recess. He added that some 90 per cent of members’ schools encourage students to pursue passive activities such as reading and chatting in recess.

The prohibitive rules may come as a surprise to older people who remember chasing classmates and running around schoolyards. Yet they are just one aspect of an educational culture in Hong Kong that seemingly marginalises free play, which experts say is vital to children’s development.

Regina Ng Man-kin, the principal of Our Lady’s Primary School, has been teaching for 25 years. Ng remembers the no-running rule was implemented in the mid-1990s after the intake of students increased. Across the territory, schools became more crowded as morning and afternoon classes were merged after the government introduced whole day primary schooling, starting in 1993.

School administrators are not the only ones concerned about safety in crowded playgrounds during recess. Ng says that over the years, parents have become more anxious about their children’s safety. She puts this down to smaller family size – parents who have only one or two children tend to be more worried about them falling down or getting dirty while playing. Ng thinks the outbreak of SARS in 2003 exacerbated parental anxiety. She notes that unlike children from previous generations, who were used to rough-and-tumble play, some of today’s children do not know how to break a fall.

“I think it’s a pity that children do not even know how to fall. In the past, we just broke our arms or legs as we would use our hands to push on the ground,” Ng says, “Now, kids break their noses when they fall.”

Ng says many contemporary parents behave like “monster parents” who will complain or even sue the school if their children are even slightly injured. To avoid trouble, she has no choice but to institute more rules.

She acknowledges children’s need to play freely but struggles to implement her own teaching philosophy due to education policies that focus on academic performance and pressure from parents. However, she has tried to push some boundaries by taking 20 senior form students on a school trip to a beach in Tai O. The aim was to build team spirit and give them a first-hand experience of nature as a few of them had never touched sand before.

Ng was worried parents might be concerned about kids getting injured or drowning while playing on the beach. She was relieved that some parents took the risk. The activity was a great success. On the day, students dug for clams and fished. Their parents were happy to see the children learn about nature.

While Ng has tried to address the issue of children’s play in her own way, the Hong Kong Committee for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has run several campaigns to promote the right to play over the past decade. Sofia Fung So-ha, education assistant manager of UNICEF Hong Kong, says there has been more discussion of children’s right to play after it launched its “Reclaiming Childhood” promotional video in 2013.

Fung says the essence of the right to play is free play, defined as unstructured play initiated by children and independent of adult direction. She says the excessive focus on educational achievements and programmed leisure time are two of the main obstacles to children’s enjoyment of free play.

Students from RTC Gaia School pedal around during recess.
Students from RTC Gaia School pedal around during recess.

A survey conducted by UNICEF Young Envoys in 2014 found that over 70 per cent of primary and secondary students still get less than an hour of free play a day, excluding electronic games and extra-curricular activities.

The Education Bureau insists it does take play seriously. In a written reply, a spokesman said the bureau encouraged good home-school partnerships to ensure sufficient time for primary students to play. He said play was an indispensable tool for facilitating children’s learning and for promoting children’s physical and mental development. The bureau also advocated “Learning through Play” in its kindergarten curriculum guide.

However, the bureau’s sample timetable for primary schools includes just 30 minutes for recess. This falls far short of school psychologist Louise Bensen’s recommendation of 90 minutes of play during school time. It also overlooks the fact that learning through play is just a better way to learn – it is not play.

Bensen, who is a member of the International Play Association, says free play is beneficial to children’s physical, intellectual, social and emotional development. Yet it has been disappearing worldwide since the arrival of electronic toys 20 to 30 years ago. She recalls a boy in her nursery class who did not know what to do with some creative toys and paint because none of the items were battery operated.

When parents are afraid that free play will lead to injury or academic failure, what takes over is adult-directed play where parents always want to teach and correct. Bensen says parents fail to see there is a difference between this and free play.

In the former, young children will look to parents and carers for guidance. They want to make sure they play “correctly” as they want to please the adults.

Free play is different, it allows children to decide what to do and through this they learn social skills. Bensen explains playing in a group is voluntary and children have to abide by the rules they themselves have created, otherwise the play will stop.

“If you really watch it, it’s not as chaotic as we think it is. Children create their own rules. There are rules to play. A lot of times adults don’t get it,” she says.

Parents also tend to discourage or overlook the risk-taking element of play which allows children to learn how to cope with emotions such as anxiety and nervousness. For instance, children can learn to overcome fear and nervousness by swinging high, jumping off from a high place and running too fast.

Bensen says falling down or getting hurt is an inevitable experience and process through which children learn about making choices and weighing options like how fast to run or how high to swing.

“Even a broken bone is not a big deal. It heals…There are very few injuries that happen to children that are life-threatening,” she says.

Katherine Lam Suet-ying agrees. Her three-year-old son Ethan Chen Chit-yu studies in the playgroup at RTC Gaia School. He gets to wear his own clothes, run barefoot as fast as he likes and roll in the sand in the school playground.

Katherine Lam Suet-ying plays with her sons.
Katherine Lam Suet-ying plays with her sons.

Instead of being a waste of time, Lam thinks play encourages children to learn proactively. She accompanies her son to school every day and finds the older children are always asking her to teach them words through storytelling.

“Playing a lot makes them have a strong desire to learn. I think it is very important because it [education] goes a long way.”

Lam turned to the Gaia School after sending Ethan to a conventional kindergarten when he was two. There, the children’s time was strictly controlled. Even when Ethan was given fifteen minutes of play, he would have to spend three of those minutes carrying out tasks such as packing up, queuing up and washing his hands. She believes such strict rules restrict children’s creativity whereas she wants Ethan to grow up to be an independent thinker who does not just follow the crowd.

“I am also one of the victims growing up under Hong Kong’s education system… I never thought about where my passion lies when I was small.”

Despite the easier curriculum and abundance of time to play, the school’s founding principal says students have little trouble adapting to mainstream schools later on. Zhiqiu, or Autumn (all staff at the school go by names taken from nature) says his graduates often have better social skills than other children.

With tuition fees of HK$49,000 a year, the Gaia School is too expensive for many families and even for those who can afford it, its model represents a risky leap of faith. But that is not to say that some do not try to incorporate more free play into their children’s lives.

Vanessa Lui Lai-lei, a full-time mother of five-year-old twins, cherishes her children’s playtime. She knows the twins will have less time to play after entering primary school next year, so she plays outdoors with them whenever she can and reserves Sundays for them to play all day.

Vanessa Lui Lai-lei’s twins climb on a monkey bar.
Vanessa Lui Lai-lei’s twins climb on a monkey bar.

“If [children] do not play before entering primary school, they then have no time to play,” Lui says.

Among her peers, Lui is a little unusual. She says many of her friends with preschool children have already reduced playtime due to anxieties about primary school admissions. The belief that getting into a prestigious primary school will translate into a higher chance of entering university drives parents to arrange learning activities for their children from morning till night.

Lui says the education system, which encourages intense competition, bears the biggest responsibility for robbing children of their right to play. “The current education system runs counter to our perception of play.”

She criticises schools’ focus on academic training and achievement to boost their rankings, pointing to the Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA), which gauges primary three students’ basic competences in Chinese, English and mathematics as an example. Although the Education Bureau says it does not use the TSA to rank schools, some teachers have questioned if this is really the case and many schools still drill children on the tests.

Lui is not alone. In recent months, tens of thousands of parents have called on the government to scrap the TSA tests and more than 31,000 have joined a Facebook group called the Homework Slaves Liberation Movement. Lui believes the education system needs to keep up with the times and focus more on student development. She calls for a review of government policies and hopes young teachers can bring fresh insights into the system. If schools continue to focus on competing for rankings, they will further sacrifice children’s playtime to boost their academic results.

“Students will only become nerds with high grades, but not truly smart and intelligent kids,” she says.

Edited by Kanis Leung