Less than a kindergarten, more than a kindergarten

FU Ning, Education Officer for UNICEF China, writes about how UNICEF’s early childhood development programme is educating parents and grandparents to create better opportunities for their children.

A volunteer teaches parents how to use household materials to stimulate children's motor development
A volunteer teaches parents how to use household materials to stimulate children’s motor development

Frankly speaking, I wasn’t totally surprised the first time I stepped into an UNICEF-supported early childhood development centre in Hunan province. Soft floor, colourful decor, cartoon paintings, toys and huge plastic building blocks…Except for a kiosk with the parenting portal jointly developed by UNICEF and the Ministry of Education, nothing is much different from an ordinary county day care centre in western China.

The thing that caught my eye was parents and grandparents playing together with children, not so common in most Chinese kindergartens. Parent engagement and education is the most important component and key success factor of the community-based early childhood development service model.

Not a lot of people know that 70% of brain development occurs by age of three and 90% by age of five. Health, nutrition, stimulation and emotional support are all critical at this early development stage to create a solid foundation for a child’s future success. Nutrition feeds the brain, stimulation sparks the neural connections, positive healthy interactions reduce the impact of illness, and protection buffers the brain from the negative impact of stress (UNICEF, Building Better Brains, 2015).


Unfortunately, many rural parents and grandparents in China still regard nurturing as simply providing just enough food and clothes and, unwittingly, put their children at a disadvantage in their earliest years of development. This is why UNICEF China and All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF), the largest women’s organisation in the world, with financial support from the IKEA Foundation, have stepped in. Together, they have set up 60 community-based early childhood development centres in disadvantaged rural and urban migration-affected areas in Hunan, Hubei and Hebei province. They are piloting a community-based early childhood development service model, targeted at both children and their caregivers.

Children playing at community early childhood development centre in Hunan province.
Children playing at community early childhood development centre in Hunan province.

A few times a week, parents and grandparents bring children to play with others in the centres and learn tips on positive parenting. These include child-rearing practices, improved nutrition and how to read and play with their young child at home. Volunteers who work in the centres help parents and caregivers identify any suspicious developmental delays in their children, provide referrals to nearby health facilities for check-ups, and advise on other services. In the future, the centres will set up connections with village clinics, social assistance services and other government services.

Chen Qiuli shared the same confusion as mine when she started working a volunteer in Ma Wang Dui community centre in Hunan province. It wasn’t easy. When I first joined the programme, I knew nothing about early childhood development for children aged zero to three. I tried to organise games like people did in kindergartens but neither children nor parents showed much interest. I felt sorry and useless at the time. Then the project sent me to national training workshops. Project experts also came to our city to provide on-site support and guidance. I learnt that I shouldn’t have used kindergarten methods on children aged zero to three. Parents, the centre and local community should work together to provide appropriate care for children, based on their specific needs. I also conduct household visits regularly to see if children experience any developmental difficulties and teach parents how to make toys and game pieces with household materials.”

A child, grandparent and volunteer making game pieces together in a community centre in Hunan
A child, grandparent and volunteer making game pieces together in a community centre in Hunan

Parents are children’s first teachers, and play as important a role as school teachers. Educating caregivers on scientific parenting is one of the key roles of volunteers like Qiuli in the early childhood development centres. Everyone loves their children. All they need is a change of mind-set and to be equipped with essential knowledge and skills so that they can provide their children with a supportive environment and a jumpstart to excel in schools and the future job market.

I know that in a few days another group of passionate co-workers from IKEA will visit UNICEF’s project sites in Hunan province. If anyone reading this post is lucky enough to be one of the team members, please focus on how the volunteers educate and support caregivers. Talk to the volunteer and accompany him or her on a household visit, if it can be arranged. Then you will understand that the service provided by the community centre is far beyond that of day care or kindergartens.