Goodbye bow tie, hello mud pit: a seismic shift in nursery care

In Hong Kong, this is how my son dressed to attend nursery:

Bow tie nursery _

On chilly days, Mr. Big Shot layered a on a lemon yellow sweater vest.

This was his mandatory uniform for non-gym days. On gym days he wore shorts that reached his arm pits, paired with a white polo shirt and white sports shoes. Yes, he was part of a tiny army of three-year-old Hongkongers dressed as retired Floridians.

The school, in ultra-dense Hong Kong, didn’t have a scrap of outdoor space, so the children did coordinated exercises beneath artificial trees and air-con vents.

Other than serving cake for snack every other day, the school was strict about health. Each morning I was required to take my son’s temperature and note it in a log book. Because of the ongoing fear of SARS-like contagious diseases, as an additional precaution, a staff member also took his temperature at the school door. In keeping with Asian indoor hygiene standards, the children changed from outdoor to indoor shoes. Further, after a spot check from the health authority, the children were additionally required to store their outdoor shoes in special boxes to limit the cross-contamination of the outdoors with the indoors.

Public health boxes ticked, after an initial greeting and brief free-play, the children sat in a tidy, quiet circle to learn more about the topic of the week. The children were always orderly; their ability to sit still and listen was epic. Most of the children attended the school in order to improve their English to a standard at which they could attend a local international school. I sent my son in the hope of improving his Chinese by sleuth as the school also gave lessons in Cantonese and Mandarin.

At snack time the amahs (school maids, always older Cantonese ladies) brought in biscuits and fruit while the children sat at small tables with their hands in their laps. All together they said thank you and sang a snack time song before touching the food. The children cleared their own plates for the amahs to take away and wash in the cleaning cupboard.

My son’s teachers enjoyed him and he was happy at his Hong Kong nursery.

From Bow Ties to Mud Pits

My son now attends the bilingual Dutch-English section of a Dutch nursery. After the first day, he asked if they were speaking Chinese. He now understand that they are speaking Dutch.

The change in language, however, is the smallest cultural shift as he has been transported to another world of nursery life. A world of no uniforms, no negativity, free play, messy play and flexible itineraries. The Cloud Cuckcoo Land of The Lego Movie universe.

The first day I asked, “Does your school have guidelines about when children should be kept home sick?” They said, “Oh, it all depends on how the child feels. If he has a cold and a fever, but is happy, then he can come to school.”

There is not a hierarchy of teachers (instructing) and amahs (cleaning up). The teachers do all of the clothes changes and washing up in the classroom. One of his favorite teachers is a man who at pick-up time is often happily washing the dishes from their snack mess while making jokes with the children.

They go outdoors whenever they can, rain or shine. Outside the children ride an assortment of odd industrial bikes with multiple seats intended to teach cooperation. They can freely climb in the school’s hedges, pick berries from the shrubs and dig with colorful spades in the three tremendous sand pits. On very special rainy days, the teachers set up a mud area, where children catch rain from roof gutters and funnel it into a muddy corner of the garden for squishing and digging.

Not actually his nursery, but it could just as well be: lots of self-exploration, sand and water.

Not actually his Dutch nursery, but it could just as well be: lots of self-exploration, sand and water (at a Dutch park).

I haven’t seen any cake at the school. Everything they feed the children is organic. The children make their own sandwiches at lunchtime and they have peanut butter if they like (there isn’t the smallest whisper of a nut-free policy).

Out of all four family members, our son has undertaken the biggest cultural shift in his everyday life.

He is completely unfazed and utterly happy.

24 responses to “Goodbye bow tie, hello mud pit: a seismic shift in nursery care

  1. Brilliant. Sometimes we could all use a bit of that nursery-school confidence, that “I can roll with anything”. I didn’t have it till much, much later in life…

  2. I heard about this post from a husband who is obviously feeling a little wistful for his mud pie days. I have to say the Dutch system would go down better with P – our schools aren’t quite so formal as the Hong Kong system you’re describing (the bow ties, for example) but I see echoes of a lot of what you say. I get the feeling a lot of the kids there follow our son around just to see if the world really does end if you e.g. touch a stick.

  3. I don’t know, but I think the Dutch way of kindergarden is better than the HKs version…especially in terms of developing personality in children and self exploration…

    hoped u enjoyed your N.A. (or US) summer

    • I’ll agree that his current school is more in line with how I envision nursery school care should work. We’re both delighted with the change.

      Summer in the US was lovely. Just what I needed before starting over in a new place again.

  4. Personally, I think kids are meant to play outside in the mud and smear peanut butter on their clothes and faces and not on bread. Remind me to tell you about the time when I made a mud pie and tried to bake it in the oven (when I could hardly reach the dials).

  5. Brilliant, Jen, I love the detail in your writing. What a contrast, huh? We managed to find a learn-through-play preschool in HK when mine were little. There was one little boy who’d come for the morning session and then Grandma would arrive to feed him and change him in to his wool trousers and jacket for afternoons at local kindy. I never saw him complain or resist. Good Hong Kong boy!

    • Henry is easy-going and was happy in his bow tie, but if we had stayed in Hong Kong I was planning to switch him to the nursery section of his sister’s international school so he could live a little!

  6. Pingback: Friday Links Sept 26th - Charlotte Steggz·

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