Daniel Tam, Mitchell Tam and Sean Wat are restlessly waiting for class. And no wonder - for the class that the five-year- olds are eagerly looking forward to involves no textbooks or worksheets. Rather, the teaching aids here are everyday objects such as clippers and rubber bands.
Sitting around the table, the three attentively watch every move made by their big friend-cum-teacher Stuart Palm, who simply has "magic power" in his eyes. They waste no time in starting their "lesson," fumbling along on the way to a cheerful shouted-out "High five!" with Palm and each other when they succeed.
They are playing, for sure, but they are also learning. For a child, playing and learning are not necessarily as opposed as the imagined tension between devils and angels.
"In the end, the idea is to be able to perform in front of a group, to present and impress people," says Palm, a trained magician from New York imparting some of the less risky tricks of his trade to his charges at Smarticle Creative Learning Centre.
Its founder, Carolyn Chow, believes that creativity plays a vital role in a child's growth. For the Smarticle concept, the mother of two - aged two and five - drew from her own experiences, as well as those of her friends.
Rather than submerging them in school subjects and classes, children should be encouraged to explore other horizons and the key to doing this is to develop a knack for creativity, Chow feels.
Based on this belief and pinning her hopes on like-minded parents, she launched Smarticle in April, with structured programs that aim to foster creativity in children. And magic is one of these programs.
"Our education system is very focused on academics and textbooks. Very often you see people in Hong Kong or in Asia get high grades and start money-making careers," Chow says. "But they seldom have the chance to explore or experience life based on ideas beyond those taught in school."
She hopes that what she has started will give parents another option to add to the well-being of their children.
A survey by the Evangelical Lutheran Church Social Service at the end of last year found that games and enough sleep are absolute luxuries for the overstretched kids of Hong Kong.
Of the 850 respondents who were attending primary schools, 65 percent said their rest came in under the nine- hour international recommendation. And what deprives them of their sleep?
Mostly it is homework and more homework.
Almost 70 percent said their homework swells well beyond that assigned by the teacher, with the rest coming from cram schools or exercise books foisted upon them by bookstore- browsing parents.
Half of them reported less than one hour of games time a day.
But the perception of parents is quite the opposite, with the majority of the 450 surveyed believing that enough play time is granted.
The two extremes sound like an unbridgeable gulf in a competitive education system such as Hong Kong's.
Daniel's mother, Tam, says she tried cram schools for her son, but later pulled him out as it was a burden that should not be shouldered by a five-year old. She opted for the magic class instead because she wanted her son to be happy, while at the same time develop "presentation skills and self-confidence when performing at school, which is what I wish for him to learn."
Classes at Smarticle start from HK$250.
It is the third class, and Palm is training them to be agile with their fingers to do tricks with the clippers and the rubber bands. The children learn the tricks but want to know more, with Mitchell pressing: "Tell me the secret!"
Students can expect something new in each class. And at the end of the 10-class course will be a magic show, with the kids taking the stage to perform tricks before parents and friends. "Creativity is when you deal with something in a way other people don't and you are not sure what will happen. I hope they can come up with something of their own. I want them to feel it is theirs - the magic trick," Palm says.
Magic is more than just skills, it also builds character. The difficult part is be to teach children that "it is okay to fail," he says.
"In Hong Kong, there seems to be a very big focus on 'Don't fail.' But I like to teach them that you will fail. Especially in magic, you'll have to fail in order to get better," says Palm, who stresses that messing up is a critical part of learning and brews creativity.
Smarticle also offers courses such as Math Monkey, a franchised program developed in the United States that motivates children to learn mathematics, a Lego program that enhances concentration and patience, as well as a "Little Readers" class that instills a love of reading.
"Kids need to have that sense of exploring beyond what is taught in school, because there are a lot of opportunities out there," Chow says.
"We gain knowledge from school, but we need imagination to make use of that knowledge."