Oi speaks to Thao Nguyen, Juliette Nguyen Khanh and Fang Zhang, the women behind Kinder Academy Preschool, about why nature, arts and a multicultural environment are important in education
Tell us how you three met and then decided to open Kinder Academy Preschool (KA).
Thao: I never thought I would have my own school, it was a dream. I worked at a kindergarten, so I knew how difficult it would be to open one, but then I met Fang. At the time, the school where we worked together in HCMC had many problems and we thought those problems could be solved, however, we were very disappointed. I wanted to give up and go back to Hanoi but Fang encouraged and persuaded me to set up a new school with her—I did it only for Fang. Yet, the more we did the more passionate we became.
Soon after that, I met Juliette and when I shared my idea she was interested and immediately set up a plan to work together. People who believed in our project are more important. We wanted to create something not the same as others. We tried to understand the requirements of both the children and parents. In our school, we expect the children to be happy here, we wanted to give the quality to children, not only by appearance, facilities and toys, but by giving children the space to express themselves in every possible mean, this is most important. We wanted to be a small school to ensure quality and affordable price accessible to most people.
You three come from different backgrounds and cultures, how have these difference helped and challenged the school?
Thao: Yes, the most interesting thing for the school is that we have multicultural backgrounds. It helps us manage the school through flexibility and supports our concept of a multicultural education. We not only take care the children’s requirements but also the family, teachers and staff. Of course, it’s always challenging—there can be a “cultural conflict”—but we try to find a balanced solution suitable for all cultural backgrounds.
For example, Kinder Academy is a school of arts. But when a child goes back home with color smudges on their clothes, the school gets complaints on this issue from their parents. Instead of giving an individual answer, we strive to give holistic solutions and everybody is happy, teachers and students included.
KA uses the Reggio Emilia & STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) approach, can you tell us why you chose these methods?
Thao: It’s all about educating a child in the 21st century, and then nurturing them for the next generations. Educators today explain the 4 C’s of 21st century skills (Creativity, Collaboration, Communication, Critical thinking), which supports children to become successful adults. It means a child should have critical thinking, selfawareness and should understand their place in the world.
As educators, we research different methods, and we formularized the following: Reggio Emilia is an emergent curriculum based on children’s interests and creative expression of their learning. Process is more important than result. STEM is a discovery integrated in learning across science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Both of those methods encourage children to discover and learn through projects.
The knowledge comes from practical life such as playing with natural materials (sand, water, wire, soil, clay, etc.). They connect children with real life, nature and the community around them.
- Children express their interest and learn through drawing, writing, reading, calculating, constructing and performing
- Scientific inquiry, early literacy, and maths opportunities naturally fall into place around the children’s investigations
- Clay, wire, wood and recycled materials help children to express what they know.
So, at Kinder Academy, we firstly provide a friendly and multi-cultured community. Secondly, we provide them the opportunity to explore different natural materials to do art and science experiments. We follow the children’s interests and ideas until it become meaningful products. Lastly, we support the learning progress of each child through observations, documentations and conversations with parents.
KA is purposely kept small, why?
Thao: We chose to operate a small-scale, family-styled school. We want to genuinely care for every single child at our school as part of a family, that’s why we design classrooms only for 8–13 children. With smaller classes, our teachers are able to give enough time and pay sufficient attention to each child.
Juliette, you developed a gardening curriculum at KA, why do you think engaging and learning about nature is so important for a child’s education and development?
Juliette: Today, most people live in cities, and urbanization grants less space and little access to greenery for free play. Peoples are more sedentary, and time for nature is often replaced by screens, which are more attractive. Many studies show that lack of exposure to nature may have negative effects on children. Nature and free play are indispensable to the good development of children and to help them grow in many ways (for example, improve their self-esteem and self-confidence as well as their motor development and fine motor skills, develop creativity and imagination, learn self-awareness and empathy). Also it introduces them to respect for the environment and be accountable. For all these reasons, we think “playing with nature” is very important for it to be incorporated into our curriculum.
Fang, you have a Master of Arts from Oslo University, how did you work that into KA’s curriculum?
Fang: My Master of Arts focused on the history of language, that knowledge is very useful to help parents understand the characteristics of children learning foreign languages. Some of the parents are worried that their child only knows Vietnamese, they usually ask how a child can speak well and fluently both in the mother tongue and English, and not mix two languages together. The most important thing to explain to parents is that small children have a huge ability to learn languages at a young age. They soak up language and absorb it in ways that adult learners find much more difficult. It is true that they may go through periods of mixing up words from each language or seeming to have problems separating out the grammatical rules of each, however, this is a natural process and something parents don’t need to worry.
Juliette: From high school, I was very interested in art, artistic trends of the 20th century in general, and the Support-Surface movement in particular. At Kinder Academy, we show children how artists work and we test techniques together, so children can learn many ways to practice art and express themselves.
For example, last month we learned about Jackson Pollock and his style of drip, or pour painting, which is a style of “action painting.” We applied that technique to represent stars of the universe, which were the thematic unit for the month.
Tell us about your teachers and students.
Thao: Our school has both local and foreign children. They speak with teachers in English, and use either Vietnamese or English to talk with each other. We are very happy to see that our children are able to express their opinions with confidence in different languages. We have teachers from South Africa, Denmark, India, America, Japan, Philippines, New Zealand, Australia and Vietnam.
We also give our teachers professional supports because our school has certain training programs for teachers to refresh and update their knowledge. For example, a specialist from New Zealand is regularly invited to give trainings on Reggio Emilia and child behavior management; another specialist in Australia gives mindfulness yoga training. And we also have specialists giving training on phonics and natural arts.
Kinder Academy Preschool is located at 47/11/09 Quoc Huong in District 2. Visit Facebook for more info.
IMAGES BY NGOC TRAN