The power of play for little learners

Playgroup at Woodland Pre-Schools in Hong Kong is a programme designed for children aged 18 months to two years – and it’s an important transitional stage that leads to unaccompanied classes beyond the age of two. DAN HICKS tells us more about it and Woodland’s play-based inquiry learning approach.

About Dan’s Role at Woodland

Expat life isn’t new to Dan, who was born in Rhode Island in the US but grew up in Dublin, Ireland and Manchester, England. He and his now wife moved out to Hong Kong in 2014. Dan began teaching at the Mid-Levels campus of Woodland Pre-Schools around five years ago, but now works in a different capacity.

“I’m the Education Lead,” he says, “which on a practical level means that I develop and communicate Woodland’s pedagogy. But it’s also a role that I feel gives me a responsibility to introduce early years education practices that help make society a better place. Early years educators are important for the future of society – we can’t teach our children the same way we were taught when we were in school.”

playgroup at Woodland Pre-school Hong Kong
Play-based inquiry is the foundation of Playgroup at Woodland Pre-Schools in Hong Kong

That’s why, during his time in the role, Dan has helped implement some innovative enhancements to the curriculum, including the play-based inquiry approach. It’s an approach that encourages children to leave their comfort zones and be curious about uncertainty – something that helps both adults and children continue to learn.

While play-based inquiry is followed across all Woodland classes, it would be fair to say that it is the very foundation of the Playgroup stage, which is designed for children between the age of 18 months and two years.

Where Playgroup sits on the preschool pathway at Woodland

Accompanied Classes

  • Rollers (6 months to 12 months) Children at this young age are discovering the world through their senses – everything is new and exciting, every taste, smell, sight, sound and touch. The Rollers programme is designed to enhance these natural tendencies.
  • Wrigglers (12 months to 18 months) At this time, toddlers are becoming mobile and using their first words to explain their understanding of the world, so the Wrigglers programme emphasises language and gross physical movement through play, repetition and fun.
  • Playgroup (18 months to 2 years)

Unaccompanied Classes

  • Stepping Stones (2 years to 3 years) The Stepping Stones curriculum encourages children to learn alongside others, explore their emotions, build friendships and create memories; it also taps into their growing control of their physical selves (“a moving child is a learning child”).
  • Pre-School (2 years 8 months to 6 years) By this stage, children have become more independent, seeking more control over their learning. Pre-School at Woodland guides them to build deeper, broader and richer understandings of their ideas.
  • Prep for Primary (5+ years) Prep for Primary supports the development of reading, writing and maths skills, enhanced by digital technology that’s used to investigate global issues, scientific challenges and personal projects. (Woodland Pre-Schools supports safe practices when using technology.)

Play-based inquiry - Woodland Playgroup

Independence and agency

“The Playgroup stage is a time in their lives when children’s self-esteem and character continue to grow as they make independent choices,” says Dan. “They learn to take greater risks and they build confidence.”

This is what Woodland refers to as “child agency” – or the power children have to make their own decisions and take charge of their own lives.

“In a nutshell, child agency is voice, choice and ownership,” says Dan. “It’s an important concept, as it helps children develop their sense of self-efficacy, autonomy and independence.”

To this end, classrooms at Woodland Pre-Schools are intentionally set up in a way that caters to children’s interests, and the curriculum is child-led.

“Playgroup is a great way to help children develop their sense of agency,” adds Dan. “It allows them to explore their environment, make choices and exercise their autonomy, all while knowing their caregiver is nearby to provide a secure base to explore.”

A day at Playgroup at Woodland Pre-Schools Hong Kong

The following are some of the activities children engage in at Playgroup at Woodland:

  • Art & Sensory
  • Playtime
  • Developmental Play
  • Circle Time
  • Snack Time
  • Music and Movement
  • Story Time
  • Mandarin
  • Protective Behaviours Programme

The Mandarin component involves 30 minutes of immersive language in each class. A Mandarin Specialist leads a portion of the class in small group settings, and teaches skills that line up with the children’s classroom experiences and learning where possible.

Playgroup to Pre-School

It serves another important purpose, too, in preparing children for the next step in their Woodland journey.

“Playgroup carefully balances the children’s choices and guides and prepares them for unaccompanied classes,” says Dan. “The foundations of play, classroom routines and rituals that are in place at Playgroup help to gently foster their next steps in Pre-School.”

These might be small, incremental steps in a much longer education journey, but for Dan their importance can’t be understated.

“Overall, I think if you’re working in an early years environment, you can create a huge impact on children and the future of society,” he adds. “I honestly believe that many of the issues facing the world today can be addressed and solved by a great early years education for everyone.”

Upcoming Open Days

Woodland Pre-Schools is once again holding regular Open Days and Open Afternoons at its campuses, including a few in March: Mid-Levels (4 March), Pokfulam (10 March), Happy Valley (10 March) and Sai Kung (16 March). See the website for details.

You can also visit to register for a private school tour of a Woodland campus.

2526 9478 |

This article first appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.

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