The founder and executive director of Hong Kong’s Children’s Discovery Museum on the importance of open-ended learning, moving from education to entrepreneurship, and why crying children are often her greatest reward
Imagine a traditional museum. It’s a place of calm and quiet, where visitors tiptoe around and are told not to touch the exhibits. Now, turn that notion on its head and consider the opposite—and that’s more like what you can expect from a children’s museum. “It’s very hands on and interactive. Everything is open-ended, so there’s no right or wrong way to play something. And while we call everything exhibits, we actually want the children to touch everything,” says Serena Fan, who founded Hong Kong’s first children’s museum, the Children’s Discovery Museum, which opened in 2018 as a space for children to experience learning through play.
“I personally think it’s very needed, because all parents want their children to play, but in Hong Kong, they lose sight of that sometimes. We want to showcase that learning through play can happen,” says Fan. “Just because your child is not sitting in a classroom, that doesn’t mean he or she is not learning.”
This focus from parents on pushing their children to learn through various forms of classroom teaching rather than through play is by no means particular to parents in Hong Kong.
“With research and parents becoming more and more educated, and people having less children, I think everyone is eager to give their child the best,” says Fan. “And it’s really explaining to them that yes, you should be giving your child the best, but don’t take it to the extremes. Children need space and time and to think for themselves and to play and to be bored. And I think sometimes parents forget that. So, I hope the Children’s Discovery Museum is a good reminder for them that when they are here, they will play.”
Hong Kong’s Children’s Discovery Museum first opened in a permanent space in North Point, before taking up a semi-nomadic existence during Covid with smaller pop-ups hosted in Tsuen Wan and Sai Wan Ho, before settling in August this year into a new permanent space. Its current location spans 5,500 square feet in Sai Wan Ho, and features many of the museum’s best-loved exhibits from former incarnations as well as some new ones. It is currently in soft opening phase, welcoming visitors by invitation only.
A diverse selection of exhibits is on offer, most of which are suitable for various ages allowing children different experiences with the same exhibits each time they visit. All are relatively low-tech. “There are so many pros to technology, but it’s a disadvantage for children. They don’t understand the physical components behind it. We’re very low-tech on purpose because research has shown that it’s good for children and their brain to have tactile experiences. I feel that more and more as technology advances, we can’t forget the fundamentals.”
In the museum, visitors will encounter a discovery zone, a building zone, and a Hong Kong transportation-themed area with lights to turn on and off and windows and doors to open and close. There’s a stage area for storytelling with costumes and props and places to learn about emotions and character archetypes depending on the visitor's age, as well as a puppet theatre and a green screen. A water play area features a water table and a new water wall. There’s also a creative space for drawing and painting, the latter directly onto the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook Shau Kei Wan Road. A miniature replica of the Tsing Yi bridge allows smaller kids to hone their walking skills, while a baby playpen is a place for very young children to crawl and explore.
With the new space, Fan really wants to establish the Children’s Discovery Museum so that people know what it is it, what the goal is and what the purpose is—to reach as many children as possible and illustrate the educational value of open-ended play.
It’s easier now Fan has something to show. When she first decided that Hong Kong needed a children’s museum, it was difficult for people to understand what she had in mind. Despite the fact that children’s museums have been around for well over 100 years, and there are well-established examples not only in the US but also, for example, in Osaka, Seoul, Taiwan and Bangkok, people in Hong Kong were not familiar with the concept. “And at the time, I wasn’t good at describing it,” says Fan. “But now, I just say, 'We’re not a traditional museum, we’re the opposite.' We’re also like a science museum but instead of being focused on science, we’re well-rounded.”
One day, Fan hopes for more: “The long-term vision is that Hong Kong should have its own standalone building for a children’s museum,” she says. But for now, she is focused on delivering the key message: if you want a child to learn, you must let them play.
How did you find going from education to being an entrepreneur?
I just did it, because I wanted to do it. It was doing, believing in yourself and having really good colleagues who also believe in what you want to do. And to just keep going, and be very open-minded and listen to others. The Children’s Museum is so unique that there was learning from lots of different places. We’re not a playhouse, or a playroom or a school, but you can take things from those places. We’re also customer service, so I started noticing how places with great customer service work. What do they do? And picking up those tiny things they do that make people really happy.
How have you found being a female entrepreneur?
I haven’t really noticed [a difference], perhaps because I’m not in the business world. I think it’s great because there are lots of opportunities for women supporting women and we can help each other.
What is most rewarding about your job?
When children are crying because they don’t want to leave! I feel bad for the parents, but to me it’s the greatest compliment. When a child runs out of the museum saying 'I love this place,' that’s why I do what I do.
What are you most proud of so far?
My team. I’m really proud of the culture we’ve built internally. I used to teach and I have a certain way of running meetings where I ask for feedback in a very open-ended way. And at first it was very scary for my team. But then they realised it was a space where they could speak up and say what’s on their mind and they could disagree with me. At the beginning it was hard. We would have meetings and everyone would sit in a circle and I would go around and everyone would have to say something. It was very painful because everyone would just sit there. But then after the meeting, different people would come up to me and say, 'Actually, I think this'. So I would just encourage them to bring it up at the meeting. And gradually the meetings started becoming more constructive and we would have debates about what’s best. I’m proud of that because I started the museum thinking I would be servicing children aged ten and under, but I’m realising that I’m making an impact on the youth, because my staff are mostly in their early twenties and in the summer I have interns. I believe in giving immediate feedback, so I like to think they’re getting a little bit of education that they didn’t get growing up.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
View unexpected obstacles as a challenge. Take a deep breath. Be angry, disappointed, frustrated or sad and perhaps even take a day or two to process what has happened, but the key is not to give up until all solutions have been explored. There is almost always a solution—you just might not see it right away, because you're caught up emotionally. Taking a step back helps to view things with a new perspective.
How have you achieved work-life balance?
At the beginning, I was sending emails at 1am. That’s not healthy. So I started saying, 'No, this is not the time to touch my emails'. And when you do that, new things and new realisations pop up. You can see things differently and you feel re-energised. So now I’m very big on going home and not checking my email. At first it was difficult, but now it’s okay. I’m not a doctor; no one is going to die. And it turns out that waiting one more day to fully process something can be very helpful.
What does women empowerment mean to you?
It’s having the self-confidence to do what you want to do given your circumstances and experience and to stand up for your rights, and to know what your rights are so you are able to say, 'Hey, this is my right and I’m going to go and do it'. That self-confidence is the most important thing. For me, I think I was always self-confident. When I’m very sure of a thing that I want to do, I will express it. I think being a classroom teacher, you have to have a degree of self-confidence because you’re in front of a group of children. But I think with time and experiences and challenges, you obviously grow too.
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