Building learning castles in the neediest of places

Thanks to Zhao Qi, we get not only a great physical description of the early childhood development center at Zhongshujie, but more importantly, the joyful spirit that imbues it. The iWitness visitors from South Korea will surely enjoy their interactions with the princes and princesses of these “learning castles”! – Sumaira Chowdhury, Partnership Manager at UNICEF

Building learning castles in the neediest of places

By Zhao Qi, Education Officer at UNICEF China

Narrow alleyways were leading me through shabby residential buildings to a shantytown in the centre of Yichang City in Hubei Province. We were determined to reach all children in need, to bring not only some joy to their lives but stimulation, now considered imperative to a child’s development.

The people in Zhongshujie community, where a third of residents are migrants, had little to offer. But they had found a room on the floor above a police office where they would set up an early childhood development (ECD) centre through our UNICEF programme. It was not an ideal location because many caregivers in the community are senior citizens who would struggle to carry their grandchildren up the stairs. With help from the local All-China Women’s Federation, we managed a swap. The police moved upstairs and the ECD centre took over the ground floor space. In what was an amazing sign of positive things to come, the community members painted a colourful castle on the exterior wall of the building.

On my next visit to Zhongshujie, several months later, I found the centre swarming with parents, grandparents and children. It was early in the morning and I watched as several volunteers helped expand children’s imagination through book reading, music sessions and games. The giggles and shrieks were their own medley of more and more mental doors opening in these young minds.

Comparison photos of Zhongshujie community ECD centre taken in January 2014 (left) and in August 2014 (right) Photo: ©UNICEF/China/2014/Zhao Qi
Comparison photos of Zhongshujie community ECD centre taken in January 2014 and below the changes. Photo: ©UNICEF/China/2014/Zhao Qi
ECD centre taken in August 2014. Photo: ©UNICEF/China/2014/Zhao Qi
ECD centre taken in August 2014. Photo: ©UNICEF/China/2014/Zhao Qi

Xiao Zeng – one mother who takes her three-year-old son, Qiaoqiao, to the centre each day – invited me to their home. It was a small, tattered room with old furniture and stained walls. She and her husband migrated to Yichang City from Fujian Province five years before. They have two boys, the other now two years older than Qiaoqiao. Even though the community ECD centre opened to residents for no fee, Xiao Zeng did not inquire about participating. She presumed her family was not eligible because they did not have the local household registration permit or hukou. A community official later came to her and made it clear that every child in the community is welcome in the ECD centre. After dropping off her elder son at kindergarten, she and Qiaoqiao run to the centre. She says it makes them feel included in the community.

She also has learned how to play with her children at home. It is a comment I often hear.

Xiao Zeng and her 3-year-old son play at home Photo: ©UNICEF/China/2015/Yang Jingjie
Xiao Zeng and her 3-year-old son play at home Photo: ©UNICEF/China/2015/Yang Jingjie

ECD is about the ‘whole child’ and addresses their physical, social, emotional, cognitive thinking and language progression. It has a far-reaching impact on a child’s life, determining their cognitive, emotional and social development, their capacity to learn and their growth. But the benefits are not only for individual children and their families. There are also economic and social returns to society as a whole.

In China, about 16 million babies are born every year, of whom 61 per cent live in rural areas. The vast majority of Chinese children start their lives in an environment with tremendous resource constraints. Up to 2011, only 62 per cent of children aged three to six in China had access to early education, with the enrolment rate in rural areas 30 per cent lower than in urban areas. To reverse this inequality, the Chinese government released its ‘Opinions about Preschool Education’ in November 2010. This outlined the vision to provide universal preschool education to children aged three to six. Following the new policy, the Government of China has been also stepping up its funding support to boost early education programmes in China’s poorer western regions.

In contrast, there has been much less government recognition of, or commitment to, ECD services for children aged up to three years. There are few affordable or available services or guidance on care for the youngest children.

Xiao Zeng’s story reassures us of the difference we can make by directing the resources to the communities most in need.

The UNICEF ECD programme, which helped open the centre in Xiao Zeng’s community, is funded by the IKEA Foundation’s Soft Toys for Education campaign. It aims to give every child the best start in life through equitable access to good-quality services. It targets children aged up to three years, and their families, in resource-poor communities. The 40 pilot sites that UNICEF and the All-China Women’s Federation have established with IKEA Foundation’s financial support are spread across Hubei, Hunan and Hebei provinces, where there are many children affected by migration. Through the programme, ECD centres located within communities were refurbished to be child-friendly and were fully operational by August 2014.

At the ECD centre in Aijia village in Hubei Province, a national expert demonstrates to caregivers how to play with young children. Photo: ©UNICEF/China/2015/Xia Yong
At the ECD centre in Aijia village in Hubei Province, a national expert demonstrates to caregivers how to play with young children. Photo: ©UNICEF/China/2015/Xia Yong

To maximise the reach to needy families, who cannot afford to send their children to privately-run early child learning centres, the sites were carefully chosen. Some of the communities selected by local counterparts were relatively well-off and didn’t meet the programme’s requirements. Additional work took place to find the most disadvantaged communities.

By the end of September 2015, more than 2,000 children aged up to three years, and their families, were benefiting from the ECD programme. Even more promising is the fact that the Hubei provincial government has replicated the model in 10 additional communities. The Furong district government in Changsha, the capital city of Hunan, is also planning to replicate this model to cover all 66 communities in the district over the next few years. It has committed more than 1 million RMB annually for the expansion.

We need government at all levels now to open their imaginations and see that by investing in ‘learning castles’ for young children, everyone’s future can change.

Zhao Qi is Education Officer at UNICEF China.