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. 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 The activities of the children for a walk early age 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.