Last year, I led a People to People Ambassador Program delegation of 26 early childhood educators to China. In this country with a 13,000-year-old civilization and a population of more than 1.2 billion people of 56 different nationalities, early childhood education is receiving increasing attention. Recent legislative measures have moved toward regulating the quality of and access to preschool programs.

Nationally, 43.8% of children ages three to six are in preschool programs--although this number varies from urban to rural areas, where enrollment is much less and where 80% of the population live. (To meet this challenge, teachers take the programs to the parents in schools, shopping centers, parks, and fields. There are also "wagon classes" for nomadic families.) Though China's approach to early childhood education differs significantly from our Western philosophies, I saw several interesting and wonderful programs both in large cities and more rural areas.

Three Fascinating Centers

At the entrance of the Beijing Normal University Experimental Kindergarten building, for instance, a beautifully chalk-colored daily schedule had been posted for the parents to see. Outside, in the play yard, there was a magnificent covered sand pit. While 30 children played there, others played a group game while wearing paper cat faces they had created. The three- to five-year-olds spend an hour outdoors in the morning and again in the afternoon.

Indoors, I saw well-equipped classrooms. There were some Montessori materials and children's books (many in English). Most children remain at the program all day and eat three meals at school. Tuition is $46 a month in addition to an annual $1,250 contribution. The government pays the teachers' and administrators' salaries while tuition covers facility and equipment costs.

The delightful Xiangheyuan Community Day Care Center, a neighborhood center in "old Beijing," was first financed 40 years ago by the government. Today parents pay about $37 to enter the program and then $31 a month for tuition. Many of the 160 students, aged 11/2 to six years, were learning to speak English. In each class of 20 to 30 children, one caregiver was in charge of "daily life experiences," while two others served as teachers. Most lessons (games, songs, outdoor play) were teacher-initiated in large groups that worked together.

Children at the Shaanxi Provincial Normal University Kindergarten were also learning English. As elsewhere in Chinese preschools, bright health and story posters and paintings covered the halls to educate children as they went to the bathroom or waited quietly in line.

I found it interesting that Chinese educators express concerns similar to those we have in the United States: inadequate funding, limited access to preschool programs for all children, and so on. During my visit, I was pleased to see the emphasis on the role of parents in children's education and surprised at the prevalence of young English speakers. I believe the openness of China's early childhood educators to change and innovation will help them move into the 21 st century.