Early Childhood Education in China

Article excerpt

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 family roles and child-rearing practices, raising concerns about the possible harmful effects of too much attention and pampering. A study of single child families in the Beijing area found that these "little emperors and princesses" were more egocentric, less persistent and less cooperative than children with siblings (Jiao, Guiping & Qicheng, 1986). How have these children adjusted to schools? Or have the schools changed to accommodate them?

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.

It is difficult to observe the ordinary functioning of a typical school in China because officially approved and arranged visits for foreigners are usually made to "model" programs and involve special arrangements and performances (Gentry, 1981; Shepherd, 1991). I was able, however, to arrange more informal visits through Chinese friends and travel companions. My most extensive experience was as an English language teacher in a Xi'An child care center, which was considered a typical rather than a model center. My role as a participant-observer allowed me to witness the center's normal functioning over a period of time and gain deeper understanding of the children through personal interaction.

Three Types of Early Childhood Programs

Children enter elementary school at age 6. There are three types of early childhood programs 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. About 20 percent of the 3- to 6-year-olds attend kindergarten (Zhong, 1989). The programs serve the twofold purpose of child care and educational preparation. The troublesome dichotomy between these two functions often found in the United States (Caldwell, 1990) is not an issue in China. There is no history of a dual development of one type of full-day program to provide care for children of working mothers and another type of half-day program to provide education for children of nonemployed mothers.

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. Government regulations in 1981 recommended three groupings: juniors (3-year-olds), middle (4-year-olds) and seniors (5-year-olds) (Cleverley, 1985). 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. …