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.
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