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  Early Childhood Education in China

By JoAn Vaughan
Teacher, Child Study & Teacher Education Dept.
Stephens College, Columbia, Missouri

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 arts 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 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. 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 non-employed 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.

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. Comparable to U.S. public kindergartens, these classes usually place greater emphasis upon academics and use teaching methods similar to those of the Chinese elementary classrooms.


The nationally prescribed curriculum includes language, math, art, music, physical education and general knowledge, which is a combination of science and social studies (Spodek, 1988). Each class session focuses upon a particular curriculum area. In the language classes, children learn to read and write simple Chinese characters, plus pinyin (the phonetic romanization of Chinese). In math classes, they learn number concepts, numeral recognition and addition; manipulatives are frequently incorporated into the lessons.

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. The competitive and selective entry procedures to "key" and many better neighborhood schools heighten this perceived need for an early start (Hawkins & Stites, 1991). Key schools are highly selective schools designed for academically superior students.

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.

Physical Environment

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. A few trees, bushes and flowers do, however, beautify the environment. Children are generally free to choose their own activities, with little teacher-directed activities or even supervision.

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. Children's work varied greatly and included such items as mobiles, math papers, crayon drawings and paper foldings.

Typical Daily Schedule

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. The length and number of these classes increase as children grow older, varying from six 15-minute sessions per week for the youngest to fourteen 35-minute sessions for the oldest (Lystad, 1987). Following a hot, nutritious lunch, children take a long nap, eat a snack and then have free play time. Families, often grandparents, pick up the children after work at about five or six o'clock. Instead of riding home in the family car, these children either walk to their nearby homes or ride on the back of the family bike.

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.

Teaching Methods

While much of the curriculum content is similar to a typical American program, the teaching methods are quite different from the "developmentally-appropriate practices' advocated by early childhood educators in the United States (NAEYC, 1986). 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. For example, in a typical art lesson the teacher demonstrates how to fold and twist tissue paper into butterflies. She then gives guidance to those children doing it incorrectly before proceeding to the next step of pasting the butterfly onto paper and drawing antennae. Drawing lessons often consist of children copying an object drawn by the teacher.

Even when using manipulatives, all children use the same kind at the same time. For example, one class of children might play independently with Legos, each child using just a few pieces, while in another room each child plays with a tiny portion of Playdough. The importance of the whole group instructional approach appears to outweigh the limitations of minimal supplies. Even such practices as going to the bathroom are often done in a group, with the explanation that "It's good for children to learn to regulate their bodies and attune their rhythms to those of their classmates" (Tobin, Wu & Davidson, 1989, 105).

I was surprised at the independence and lack of peer interaction in these group activities. Since China has a socialist ideology, I expected more lessons to use co-operative interactions and teamwork, in order to emphasize group rather than individual achievement. The encouragement of group rather than individual goals was evident, however, in the emphasis on teaching children altruistic and nurturing behaviors. Children helped one another with dressing and often gave up a prized toy to a playmate with no prodding by the teacher.

All children are expected to proceed at the same pace. The child is responsible for keeping up and poor performance is usually attributed to "not working hard enough." The solution is to admonish the child to work more diligently.

The teaching method and the available materials limit opportunities for creative expression or pursuit of individual interests. Ample materials necessary for open-ended, unstructured exploration are seldom available. Sand and water play, blocks and woodworking equipment are rare. Art supplies are typically used for teacher-directed, rather than child-initiated activities.

Guidance and Discipline

What is considered acceptable school behavior? During group activities, children are expected to give their complete attention to the teacher and participate fully. Talking or playing with other children is not allowed during this time. Respect for the teacher and prompt, unquestioning obedience are expected. During free-play time, however, noisy and active social interactions are quite acceptable. Teachers encourage harmonious peer relationships, in which children respect the rights of others and help each other.

I was impressed with how well the children meet these expectations. They generally appear to be orderly, attentive, hard-working and eager to please the teacher. I saw very few incidents of peer conflict or inattentive or disruptive behavior during group activities, and no cases of disrespect or lack of prompt obedience to the teacher's requests.

Some of the guidance and discipline methods differ from standard practices in the United States. A widely used technique is public correction and criticism, not just for misbehavior but also for poor performance. Children who are not doing well or have made a mistake are commonly singled out in public. One teacher removed two young girls from a group practicing a dance, asking them to sit down and watch the others because they were "not trying hard enough." In a pre-primary class where children completed a phonetics task on the chalkboard, the teacher required those who had made a mistake to stand up and acknowledge their error.

Teachers do not appear concerned about any possible psychological harm resulting from these practices, such as lowered self-esteem. Rather, they believe such corrections will help the child work harder so as to avoid future mistakes. The threat of a public reprimand and "loss of face" appears to be a strong, pervasive influence upon children's behavior. The importance of "face" has a long history in Chinese culture. Loss of face results from public embarrassment and failure to meet group expectations. The child learns early to keep the approval of the social group, for loss of face is a reflection upon the whole family (Hu, 1944).

Positive reinforcement for good behavior is also used extensively. Teachers praise and recognize children who are doing well, often pointing out "the best ones" in class. Children receive rewards, such as red stars, for helping another child, answering questions in class or doing well on written work.

Effect of One Child Policy

Does a difficult transition occur for the only child who goes from being the center of attention at home to being part of a large group expected to obey and conform? Both parents and teachers told me that children may experience a difficult time at first, crying and wanting to go home, but usually they accept the situation and quickly adjust to school routines. Teachers try to comfort and distract such children by interesting them in new toys. Teachers seldom have a problem getting new children to participate in group activities. As one teacher stated, "when they see all the others participating, they do not want to be different." The schools assume that these only children will adapt to the traditional school expectations and, in most cases, this adjustment appears to occur without undue stress or rebellion.

The one child policy has, however, affected the schools in another way. It has strengthened the emphasis upon education for young children and the families' strong involvement and investment in their only child. Teachers report that not only are parents very interested in their child's school success, but they are also very quick to criticize teachers if they feel their child has been treated unfairly or too harshly.


Early childhood education programs in the People's Republic of China differ significantly from those in the United States, particularly in teaching methods. Both its socialist ideals and Confucian traditions may help explain the persistence of the whole group, teacher-directed emphasis, rather than the use of individual choices and creative self-expression. This emphasis may be changing, however, as a current reform movement works to foster more creativity and autonomy (Spodek, 1989).

My experiences in China confirm the view that the Chinese greatly love and value their children, regarding them as family and national resources. In spite of limited resources, they make major investments in their children and the education system. Through these investments, they effectively provide an early childhood education system that fosters obedient, hardworking children.


Caldwell, B. (1990). `'Educare": A new professional identity. Dimensions, 18, 3-6.

Cleverley, J. (1985). The schooling of China. Sydney, Australia: George Allen & Unwin Australia Pte. Ltd.

Gentry, J. (1981). Early childhood education in the People's Republic of China. Childhood Education, 58, 92-96.

Hawkins, J., & Stites, R. (l99l). Strengthening the future's foundation: Elementary education reform in the People's Republic of China. The Elementary School Journal, 92, 41-60.

Hu, H. (1944). The Chinese concept of "face." American Anthropologists, 46, 45-64.

Jiao, S., Guiping, J., & Qicheng, J. (l986). Comparative study of behavioral qualities of only children and sibling children. Child Development, 57, 357-361.

Lystad, M. (1987). Children of China: A commentary. Children Today, 16, 20-22.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. (1986). Position statement on developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children from birth to age eight. Young Children, 41(6), 3-19.

Shepherd, G. (1991). A Glimpse of kindergarten-Chinese style. Young Children, 47(1),11-15.

Spodek, B. (1988). Conceptualizing today's kindergarten curriculum. Elementary School Journal, 89, 203-211.

Spodek, 8. (1989). Preparation of early childhood teachers in the People's Republic of China. Childhood Education, 65, 268-273.

Tobin, J., Wu, D., & Davidson, D. (1989). Preschool in three cultures: Japan, China, and the United States. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Zhong, S. (1989). Young children's care and education in the People's Republic of China. In P. Olmsted & D Weikart (Eds.), How nations serve young children: Profiles of child care and education in fourteen countries. Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Press.

See also:

Chen, J. Q., & Goldsmith, L. T. (1991). Social and behavioral characteristics of Chinese only children: A review of research. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 5, 127-139.

Document Use/Copyright

© 1993 Association for Childhood Education International.

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