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Kindergartens creatively transformed in rural China

By Cheng Lu in Guiyang Xinhua | China Daily | Updated: 2018-06-25 09:24
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Playtime for 24 preschoolers in Yelang Village Kindergarten is different from most. Liu Fen - unlike traditional teachers who tend to dominate the class - gives more freedom to her students, letting them do what they want. She observes and records their behavior, rather than constantly telling them to calm down.

The 28-year-old is the only teacher at the kindergarten in Tongren, Guizhou province.

Born in a remote village in Guizhou, Liu didn't attend kindergarten herself when she was a child. "There was no kindergarten in my village. The nearest primary school required a two-hour hike through the mountains. For fun, we played hide-and-seek and made figurines out of mud," she recalled.

Becoming a qualified kindergarten teacher was once her biggest challenge. In 2016, however, China's Ministry of Education and UNICEF launched a five-year project to improve the quality of rural preschool education in landlocked Guizhou.

The ongoing project aims to benefit nearly 10,000 preschoolers across 100 rural kindergartens in Guiyang, Zunyi and Tongren, as well as in the Qiandongnan Miao and Dong autonomous prefecture.

Chen Xuefeng, child development and education specialist with UNICEF, said that under the project, early childhood education experts regularly offer on-site training and support for rural teachers.

In addition, educational resource centers have been set up in Tongren, enabling village kindergartens to share books and teaching materials. For example, Gaolouping Central Kindergarten has built a resource center to share educational resources, including 4,000-plus books and other teaching materials, with four nearby village kindergartens. Teachers also organize monthly teaching and research activities.

Yelang Village Kindergarten, which opened in 2014, is among 25 pilot kindergartens in Tongren. Under the guidance of experts, the school has created a child-friendly environment. For example, it set up corners for different purposes, such as reading, playing with blocks and art, and it displays student artwork on the walls. It also made a wall using discarded tires for students to climb, and fashioned toys from bamboo.

Along with the unique kindergarten environment, the teacher has also altered previous educational methods. Liu learned how important early childhood education is in a person's development, and how her work is "not all about teaching knowledge but about fostering children's interests and contributing to their all-around development and well-being".

"I tell stories compiled by experts of the ministry and UNICEF to improve children's linguistic skills and mathematical and social competence, and help older kids prepare for primary school," Liu said. Previously, children sat in orderly rows and listened as she read textbooks.

The class is no longer dominated solely by the teacher. Most of the time, kids are free to choose a corner and learn by themselves.

"I only get involved when they are in danger or want me to play with them," she said.

In 2013, Tongren launched a village kindergarten program. Instead of building new kindergartens, many unused primary and middle school classrooms and villagers' affairs committee offices were renovated to cater to the needs of children.

By the end of 2017, there were more than 1,600 village kindergartens in Tongren. Seven of the 10 districts and counties under its jurisdiction have been designated as poverty stricken areas.

Before the Yelang kindergarten was set up, there was only one kindergarten in Gaolouping township. Nearby residents had to ride motorbikes to take their kids to the crowded central kindergarten or spend up to 200 yuan ($31) a month for a chartered shuttle bus. If a child's parents left home for work in a bigger city, children often just stayed at home with their grandparents.

"The village-level kindergartens have provided an education for around 50,000 kids in rural areas of Tongren," said Zhang Chunhua, director of the Tongren's preschool education office.

More than 87 percent of children between 3 and 6 in rural areas of Tongren attend kindergarten now. In 2013, that figure was only 45 percent.

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