Traditional early childhood education in China currently faces both internal and external challenges changing family structures and increased influence of foreign ideas and values. The one child policy in the People’s Republic of China is altering the education of children in the younger group roles and child-rearing practices, raising concerns about the possible harmful effects of too much attention and pampering. As China becomes more open to outside contact and influence, traditional teaching comes into conflict with Western ideas about “developmentally appropriate practices” and goals of creativity, autonomy and critical thinking. Have these goals and practices, which are so prevalent in the United States today, influenced Chinese early childhood education?
In 1991, I had ample opportunity to explore such questions when I spent seven months teaching in China. I drew much of my information from observations of early childhood programs in Xi’An, where I taught at Xi’An Foreign Languages University. My conclusions are consistent with what I observed and heard in interviews with teachers, parents and teacher educators throughout China. I was able, however, to arrange more informal visits through Chinese friends and travel companions. Children enter elementary school at age 6. There are three types of early childhood program for children under 6: nurseries, kindergarten and pre-primary programs. Nurseries serve children under age 3.
Small group size and many caregivers assure prompt, abundant care. Since physical care and nurturing are the primary goals, the caregivers are trained as “nurses” rather than teachers. Programs for 2-year-olds are often combined with kindergartens. In China, the term “kindergarten” refers to full-day programs serving children from age 3 to age 6. The programs serve the twofold purpose of child care and educational preparation.
A variety of sources provide kindergarten programs – the government, government-licensed private individuals and neighborhood committees, and work units. Work units are government-operated comprehensive communities in which workers and their families work and reside, such as those organized around a college or factory. Children are generally grouped by age in kindergarten. Education replaces physical care as the primary emphasis in this program. Class size increases with age, ranging from 20 to 40 children.
Each group typically has two teachers and a nurse. Large, affluent centers also often have one or more doctor on the staff to care for sick or injured children. They also provide other health-related services, such as performing health screenings, giving immunizations and planning nutritious meals. An alternative type of early childhood program is the pre-primary classroom, which is a part of the elementary school. It is typically a half-day program serving children the year prior to 1st grade. Each class session focuses upon a particular curriculum area.
The emphasis upon academic work varies with the school and the age of the children. Academics are generally not given major emphasis until children reach age 5. The pre-primary classrooms associated with elementary schools stress academic goals more than do the kindergartens. Parents often want their children to begin academic work early, believing it will give these a head start in the competitive struggle for scholastic success-considered the major route to future opportunities. Singing and dancing occupy an important place in the curriculum.
Even 2-year-olds may participate in well-rehearsed public performances of song and dance routines. The following sections describe the physical environment, schedule, curriculum, teaching methods and discipline of the Chinese kindergarten centers, where most of my observations took place. A kindergarten often has several classroom buildings surrounding an enclosed courtyard. This courtyard serves as the playground and is used extensively between classroom lessons. The playground contains equipment for large motor activities, including slides, merry-go-rounds, climbers and swings.
Bright colors and dragon or elephant shapes provide added appeal. The ground cover is usually a sturdy brick or concrete, with no sand, grass or airs to soften falls. Each group of children has its own large classroom, plus a separate room with beds for afternoon naps. Several groups of children generally share toilet facilities and washrooms. Each group in the model school at the Xi’An Teachers College has a self-contained space, complete with classroom, sleeping room, toilet and washroom.
The younger children even have their own playground. The classrooms contrast sharply with a typical American preschool. The space is not organized into special interest areas and equipment is scarce or not easily accessible to children. American pre-schools are supplied with unit blocks, dramatic play centers, open shelves felled with art supplies, sand and water tables. In China, however, small tables and chairs for each child occupy much of the room. A large open space may be set aside at one end for group activities, such as dancing. The better-equipped centers may possess one shelf of toys and books available for children’s use during their free time.
Elaborate, artistic, teacher-made decorations and children’s work brighten up otherwise drab rooms. One artistically talented teacher painted large murals of children and animals in the hallways. Another placed a large, colorful clown on the wall as part of a weather wheel. The length of the school day reflects the needs of working parents. At the Xi’An Foreign Languages University, kindergarten children begin arriving around eight o’clock Class sessions alternate with free-play time. Learning social skills is also considered an important part of the curriculum, particularly for younger children. Along with respecting the teacher and obeying school rules, children team to help others and solve disagreements constructively.
One teacher expressed concern about a common problem, the shy child. She described her efforts to help these children feel comfortable and speak up more. Children seldom work independently or in small groups on self-selected tasks. Instead, the emphasis is upon teacher-directed, total group instruction. All children are expected to do the same thing at the same time. Even when using manipulatives, all children use the same kind at the same time.