Tucked away in a quiet corner of Sai Kung town is a hidden gem – Sai Kung Montessori School; a charming kindergarten that provides a lucky group of children with a genuine, heartfelt, 100-per cent Montessori education.
Now in its second year, Sai Kung Montessori was started by Melody Foerster. Originally from Canada, Melody was first introduced to the concept of Montessori 12 years ago through a friend who was a Montessori teacher. Having studied neurophysiology in university, majoring in the evolution of the nervous system, Melody became interested in early childhood development and became completely sold on the philosophy behind a Montessori education. Openly in awe of the work of Montessori creator Dr Maria Montessori, and with a deeper respect and understanding of the philosophy that her degree leant her (and not wanting to work in a lab), becoming a Montessori teacher was the perfect fit.
“Montessori education is groundbreaking because it is the only method of education based on scientific observations of the child,” enthuses Melody.
During her nine years teaching Montessori, Melody has worked in Beijing, Hangzhou and at another Hong Kong-based Montessori school, before deciding to set up her own kindergarten with Sai Kung Montessori, which today we have the pleasure of visiting.
As the children arrive for the afternoon class, each one walks through the door with a beaming smile and a helmet (scooting or riding a bike to school is the best way to travel!). The children hang up their bags and coats, take off their shoes and happily wander off to explore the classroom and take on a task. There is no rushing them. No telling them where they need to go. “When taking off their shoes they can spend five, 10 or 15 minutes because everyone is learning individually, they don’t have to rush off,” explains Melody. “The class has a sense of unlimited time, because you want quality of interaction; the focus is on quality and not quantity.” I’m reminded of the quote by Dr Montessori that appears on the school’s website: “the essence of independence is to be able to do something for one’s self. Adults work to finish a task, but the child works in order to grow.”
The school offers a morning session for children age 2.5 years to around 5.5 years, and a separate afternoon session catering to children age 3.5 to 6 years. Children work in three-hour cycles, which are completely uninterrupted.
“In a Montessori classroom children make work choices for themselves. They choose whether to work by themselves or with a friend. They do a variety of activities; so a 4.5 year old may be practicing their penmanship while another child is slicing apples for a snack.” The curriculum is diverse and provides the child with “keys”, which they can use to unlock the world around them. “The children work with grace and courtesy and learn how to peacefully and respectfully work alongside each other,” Melody shares.
In a Montessori classroom the teacher is discreet and, ideally, you won’t really notice them as they make themselves available to the pupils. Each child has their own individual lesson plan and the teacher gives one-on-one or small group lessons to various children throughout the day.
“It is important to me that parents know Montessori has a structured curriculum. There is a tremendous amount of freedom with regards to how the child moves through that curriculum, but there are developmental and academic milestones that are observed.”
At Sai Kung Montessori there are two Association Montessori International (AMI) English language-lead teachers, of which Melody is one, and two Mandarin-speaking teaching assistants.
AMI was created by Dr Maria Montessori in 1929 to train teachers, and to monitor publications and Montessori materials. AMI accreditation is incredibly difficult to achieve, and the association does not license in Asia. Melody aims for Sai Kung Montessori to be the first AMI-accredited school in Hong Kong.
Much of the material used at Sai Kung Montessori is from highly regarded Nienhuis Montessori, which was founded in 1929 by Albert Nienhuis, who collaborated with Maria Montessori to create products that reflected her vision of education. As the centre of a Montessori classroom is the quality of the material, it needs to be the best quality possible for the students, and Melody has honoured this wherever possible. It may be small with just one classroom, but Sai Kung Montessori is equipped with everything a child could possibly need in order to get the most from a Montessori education. And the centre’s glass wall allows them to see the world outside the classroom, and makes the space bright and airy.
But why Sai Kung, I ask Melody? “Our location makes us special. There’s a lot of non-urban time, so much outdoor time – that’s not restricted to playgrounds.”
During their time at school the children plant seeds and harvest fruit, which they grow in the courtyard in front of the school; the cherry tomatoes often forming part of the children’s snack (which they can eat whenever they choose). Rather than seeing Sai Kung’s other kindergartens as competition, Melody sees them as a positive. She says, “I feel like we all have a similar ethos, so it was a good place to have a tiny kindergarten.”
The location and size also helps the school achieve its intimate, community spirit, which is just what Melody wants.“I want parents to feel that we really have their child’s best interests at heart. Schools in Asia are big business and, sadly, the student often comes last.” “A key part of the school’s ethos is community,” Melody says.
She continues, “With the afternoon class, the whole group goes to the park with their parents after school on a Friday. The morning class does a lot together, too; sometimes they go fishing or camping together. If that’s not your thing, you don’t have to participate, but it’s there.”
Melody doesn’t interview children before offering a place, she does ask parents to attend an information session, though, to be sure that they understand what a Montessori education is. “It’s not so much ‘are you a good match for us’, but ‘are we a good choice for you’”, she explains. Traditionally with Montessori, if a child leaves during the year that spot is kept open, as Melody wants to be sure that the school can meet the educational goals of the parents and the child. Sixty per cent of the parents at the school are teachers, which would seem a big ‘thumbs up’ for the work Melody and Sai Kung Montessori are doing.
Montessori children tend to excel in language and maths, but they are also known for being peacekeepers on the playground and helpers in the class because they’re used to helping younger students. Observing the children learn, which they definitely consider more as play, they are engaged and happy, and it’s easy to see how they progress well. But what next for Sai Kung Montessori; does Melody plan to expand? Melody hopes to move into primary years education and also to expand with a toddler class. She is in discussions with the Education Bureau for a new area, so watch this space!
This article appeared in Playtimes Spring Issue 2019.