Rural community-based early childhood development services foster promising start in life

2024-06-02 19:06:57

BEIJING, June 1 (Xinhua) -- Shortly after breakfast, Wang Guilin and her toddler son, Kaikai, embarked on their familiar 10-minute stroll to their favorite spot in the village, looking forward to some shared moments of fun and exploration.

Nestled along the southern bank of the Yangtze River in Yichang, central China's Hubei Province, Aijia Village was experiencing the best time of the year. The expansive river shimmered beneath the warm sun, bringing a refreshing breeze to the verdant hillsides alive with the cheerful chirping of birds.

The Community Based Family Support (CBFS) center, located in the heart of the village, infused even more vibrancy to the spring day with the joyful noise of children echoing from its doors. When Wang and Kaikai arrived there, they found the colorfully decorated activity room already bustling with small kids, accompanied by a parent or grandparent, engaged in games under the guidance of volunteers.

A volunteer picked up a small paper toy from the desk. "What color is this?" She asked loudly, "What color is the grass?"

"Green!" several young voices exclaimed excitedly, giving the correct answer.

After the games, the crowd gathered around another volunteer who began reading picture books for them. Most of the children were enchanted by her lively narration, while some of the little ones amused themselves by crawling around on the cushioned floor. Two-year-old Kaikai ran to a small slide at the corner of the room, climbed up and descended. No adults stopped the kids from doing what they wanted.

Cute scenes like this occur daily in the CBFS center, which opens its doors for six and a half hours during the day and allows participants to come and go as they please.

The CBFS center is the result of a project jointly launched by the All-China Women's Federation (ACWF) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in 2013, which aims to promote scientific parenting support for families with children aged 0-6.

Named "Love at the Beginning," the project establishes centers primarily in rural and underdeveloped communities, particularly those with a large number of migrant and left-behind children. It offers free activity space and services, including parent-child activities, family classes and home visits.

As one of the earliest project sites, the CBFS Center in Aijia Village has benefited over 2,000 children from the local area over the past decade.

Wang said that her nine-year-old daughter also grew up here. "She always enjoyed coming here to read picture books with volunteers, and this made her fall in love with reading. She now reads a lot."

Zhao Qi, an education officer at the UNICEF China office, highlighted that the early years, especially from 0 to 3 years old, are crucial for rapid brain development and plasticity, and the family and community environment play pivotal roles in stimulating this development. "As an old Chinese saying goes, 'One's personality traits can be observed at the age of three.' We hope to raise awareness among parents and caregivers about the importance of early childhood development," Zhao said.

With a population of over 1,600, Aijia Village sees many young parents migrating for work opportunities, leaving children cared for by their grandparents. Wang has noticed that the elderly in the village are usually able to embrace advanced child-rearing concepts after spending some time at the center.

"In the past, they might only care about whether the children were well-fed, clothed, or sick. Now, they also spend time playing games and reading books with the kids," Wang said.

Lectures are regularly held at the center, through which Wang has learned a lot about children's dietary nutrition and psychological health. During some festivals such as the Mid-Autumn, themed celebrations are held here for families.

Most of the volunteers at CBFS Centers are permanent residents of the local community and have experience raising children. They receive a monthly stipend and must undergo training by expert teams before starting work.

Thirty-eight-year-old Ai Cui'e is the longest-serving volunteer at the Aijia Village center. When she first joined ten years ago, she had been a mother for nearly a year. Through training, she learned and practiced, transforming not only into a "parenting expert" but also into the shared "Mommy Ai" for the children in the village.

After completing her morning routine at the CBFS Center, "Mommy Ai" arrived at the home of four-year-old Qin Lingsen with a backpack full of toys and picture books for a home visit. They chose to play a tabletop game similar to "Whac-A-Mole." The little boy, who has been attending the CBFS Center for two years, displayed a strong competitive spirit but understood the importance of respecting rules and opponents.

Zhang Hui, the child's mother, has noticed a significant improvement in her son's focus and consideration for others over the past two years. "He has learned how to make more friends," she said.

"Mommy Ai" feels that the children in the village have generally become more outgoing. "In the past, most of our children here were relatively introverted and shy. Now, they will greet you from afar and are willing to communicate with you."

Sensing the positive changes brought about by the project to the children, Aijia Village specifically built a new building for the CBFS Center a few years ago. They also transformed a large green space outside the activity room into an outdoor children's playground.

Adopting the service model of the "Love at the Beginning" project, Yichang City replicated multiple early childhood development facilities, jointly operated by communities and non-profit organizations.

One of them is located in the Jinxiu community of Xiling District, home to over 6,800 people, with a majority being empty-nest elderly and left-behind children. The replicated facility offers three types of early childhood development courses tailored to different age groups.

Community resident Zhang Maohua brings his two-year-old daughter here four times a week. He said its proximity to home, professional service, safety and reliability have significantly reduced his family's child-rearing burdens.

Since Zhang's parents tended to spoil their granddaughter, he sought assistance from volunteers to communicate with them. "Now our child-rearing philosophy has been unified, and our family is more harmonious," he said.

The teachers here are also volunteers. Zhang Lihua, head of the non-profit organization managing the facility, said that after becoming volunteers here, some women, who had quit their jobs due to childbirth, gradually fell in love with this profession and persisted, thus rediscovering their value in the workplace.

So far, "Love at the Beginning" has expanded to 251 project sites in 13 provincial-level regions across China, serving over 135,000 children and 143,000 caregivers cumulatively.

The project's success is closely linked to China's increasing emphasis on this area. The Outline for the Development of Chinese Children (2021-2030), issued by the State Council, proposes promoting early childhood development services in rural areas, communities, and households, and exploring and promoting early development service models suitable for children in rural remote areas and those in difficult circumstances.

The China National Children's Center (CNCC), affiliated with the ACWF, serves as the national-level management office for the project. Wang Ying, deputy head of the CNCC's early childhood development office, said that the project's experience and practices also provide suggestions and bases for policy formulation.

For instance, she said, provinces like Hunan and Hubei, where the earliest project sites were established, have included early childhood development services in policy documents such as family education plans and children's development plans in recent years.

From the perspective of Zhao, the UNICEF officer, the success of the "Love at the Beginning" project ultimately comes back to the word "love."

"Child-rearing doesn't have to be perfect. As long as each caregiver prioritizes the child's well-being and ensures they feel companionship and love, the child's potential can be further expanded," she said.

Social Media