Liu Dan shows the mother of a boy how to interact with her son by reading storybooks at the early childhood development center in Huayan village, Ningshan. (Photo: Global Times)
Every week, 29-year-old Zheng Yan rides a scooter up a winding road to a mountain village to visit Tingting's home. Zheng is a teacher at an early childhood development center under the Parenting the Future Program in Ningshan county, Northwest China's Shaanxi Province.
Unlike other early learning programs, the one in Ningshan was launched by the county government in 2017, and teaches parents in the mountains how to parent children aged 6 months to 3, free of charge.
The program works as an important measure to stop intergenerational transmission of poverty in the poverty-stricken area, according to Cai Jianhua, Party chief of the Beijing-based National Health Commission Cadre Training Center.
"Without a favorable environment and positive intervention, children who were born and live in rural areas are prone to develop more slowly in terms of language, motor skills, cognition and social emotions, since reports show that a person's most important abilities, such as language and cognition, are formed in the first 1,000 days," Cai told the Global Times.
In his research, Cai's team found that children aged from 6 to 12 months who received positive intervention perform much better in terms of language and cognitive development compared with children of that age who don't receive it.
According to research led by Cai, 50 percent of children living in poverty-stricken areas in China face challenges in cognitive development, 52 percent of them are at risk in terms of language development, and these risks increase over time.
The result is closely related to how their parents feed them, parenting methods and depression. Studies show that only 13 percent of parents in these areas read to their children, and 23.5 percent of parents suffer from depression, according to Cai's research.
Located deep in the heart of the Qinling Mountains, a natural boundary between northern China and southern China, Ningshan is still on the list of China's national-level poverty-stricken counties. It now has 25 early childhood development centers and spots providing free training to parents in the mountains, covering all 11 of its administrative townships.
"Before the launch of the program, we conducted an investigation in all the villages in the county. The results were astonishing. Most stay-at-home children do not even say a single word to their grandparents the whole day," Li Mingjun, the person in charge of the program, told the Global Times, adding that "grandparents will let the children play in the mud as long as they don't disturb them when they're working in the field or doing chores."
Chen Zihao, 3, was so eager to jump into a pool full of plastic balls that he didn't even take his shoes off after rushing through the gates of an early childhood development center in Changping village of Ningshan's Taishanmiao township. Other children saw how much fun he was having and joined him, causing the place to erupt in laughter and screaming.
"We see these happy moments every day," Ma Yunxiang, a teacher at the center, told the Global Times.
The 80-square-meter center has two classrooms and an entertainment room. There are many lockers in the classrooms, each of them labelled with a number combination such as 1-36 or 3-45.
Zhou Bangguo, deputy director of Ningshan's education bureau, explained that the first number represents age, and the second number represents week. For example, a locker labelled 2-37 contains toys, storybooks and teaching appliances for 2-year-old children and parents who have come for the 37th week in a year.
At 10 in the morning, more parents came to the center with their children to attend classes or simply have fun. Huang Shilin, Chen's grandmother, took her shoes off before registering on a facial recognition device installed beside the gate and sanitized her hands.
The center has scheduled one class a week for 57 children aged up to 3 years old and their parents in the town. "They encourage us to bring children to play or read books here when we don't have a class scheduled, and we can borrow some books and toys to bring home," Huang told the Global Times.
At the same time, a mother of a 6-month-old boy was learning nursery rhymes from Ma.
"We guide parents to establish intimacy with children and develop their language, motor skills, cognition and emotions through games and group activities," Ma said. "For example, we guide parents and children to express love for each other by incorporating hugs and saying 'I love you' in the games."
"Most importantly, we help parents foster correct behavior, since parents' behavior is what influences children the most," noted Ma.
Ma said that they teach parents to show their children different emotions through stories and pictures, and guide children to express these emotions such as happiness and anger in the proper way.
Ma, 26, began to work in the center in 2017 after going through a strict screening and training process.
Despite the fact that at least one center or venue has been set up in each administrative townships, there are still many families who cannot guarantee they can attend class every week during the farming season. In those cases, teachers have to make visits to the family.
Most of the parents who have attended classes say they have seen an obvious and positive change both in themselves and in their children.
"My son became more curious about everything around him and would ask me many times a day, 'Mom, what's this?', while I started to teach him correct pronunciation," Zhao Wangli, mother of 2-year-old Lü Jiayu, told the Global Times.
Fan Yao, a teacher at another center in Taishanmiao township and mother of a 3-year-old boy, told the Global Times that they did not have many toys at home, and the boy was too shy to interact with others.
"When he first came to the center, he was too scared and cried a lot. But a few months later, he became much more active and natural in front of strangers," said Fan.
A number of teachers on the program, who are also local young mothers, shed tears when talking about the changes that they saw in their children, saying that such positive changes could never have happened without the program.
"We are actually trying to make parents more willing to learn more about their children and learn more about how to better raise them," Shu Min, vice executive secretary of the Hupan Modou Foundation, told the Global Times.
Under China's e-commerce giant Alibaba, Hupan Modou Foundation provides financial support for the program. The foundation was jointly established by 12 women members and aims to facilitate female and child development.
"A parent will influence a group of parents once he or she realizes the importance of early childhood development, and this group of parents will influence a community," Shu said.
"The program aims to remove the roots of poverty from the county," Shi Gongfu, director of Ningshan's education bureau, told the Global Times.
Ningshan is the first national-level poverty-stricken county in China that has waived all 15 years of tuition fees from kindergarten to high school, and the county also provides free education in vocational schools, according to Shi.
"With the implementation of the Parenting the Future program, Ningshan is now a county that provides 18 years of free education," Shi said proudly.
Cai speaks highly of the Parenting the Future program in Ningshan, saying that it "can work as a model for other regions since it is directed by the local government, and local employees are provided with a steady welfare to guarantee a stream of skilled teachers for the program."
Shu expects the program to bring people's attention to early childhood development in poverty-stricken areas, and make parents and guardians of children in rural areas aware of the significance of their influence on children and the country's future.
Cai told the Global Times that the children currently in the program will be adults by 2035, when China will basically realize socialist modernization, adding that it is his vision is to cultivate more outstanding talents for China's future development.