Part 1: The Day-to-Day Routine
Typing in “Kindergarten in China” in Google leads to countless articles about a recent abuse scandal at a kindergarten in Beijing. While this is a heartbreaking story that deserves media attention, it shouldn’t be the only story available. I’m going to break down the day-to-day routine at the kindergarten I work at to give another perspective on early-education in China.
But first, a little background information
China is known for it’s rigorous education system, so it may not surprise you that children can start kindergarten as early as 2.5 years old. Kindergarten is considered pre-school and is not part of China’s compulsory 9-year education system. Still, it is viewed as an essential part of a child’s education.
Private kindergartens can be very expensive, ranging from hundreds to thousands (USD) per month. China recently banned for-profit schools from teaching grades 1-9, making pre-school the best opportunity for kids to get a leg-up. There are also public kindergartens, but they aren’t spectacular and though much less expensive, there are still monthly enrollment fees. With 3 grade levels, and children not finishing until the age of 6, the cost of early education can be very steep.
I’m working at one of the more expensive private kindergartens in Haikou, and it’s evident in the classrooms. Each room has a piano, which all the teachers seem to know how to play, and an interactive smart board, a laptop, and projector.
My English classes are just a small fraction of the school day for my students. Some of whom are at the school from 7:30 am – 5:30 pm, with the actual school day going from 8 am – 4:30 pm. The day is set up like this to accommodate the parents work schedules. And to think, Canada only recently switched to full-day kindergarten.
Classes can be up to 35 students, but usually have two teachers, or a teacher and a teaching assistant. My classes have a Chinese teacher, a Chinese-English teacher, and a classroom assistant that helps with serving meals and keeping things clean. Students call the teacher by their first name, which is a strange concept to me. If it’s an older teacher, they call them “Ms. [first name]”.
All the Chinese kindergarten teachers I’ve met have been women. My principal told me that men don’t have the patience for it. I’m not 100% sure I do either, sometimes.
Morning Health Check
Everyday, every kid has their temperature taken by the school nurses while entering the property. If they have a fever then they’re sent home. The teachers also check the students throughout the day to make sure they’re not getting warm.
There’s no stopping kids from coming to school with a cold, though. There would be no students left. It seems like the students keep passing it around, not that this is unique to China. They don’t teach the kids to cover their mouths when they couch or sneeze, so pretty much anything you touch could be contaminated. Kindergarten teachers must have fantastic immune systems.
I had a cold for the entire first month here. I got better for a few weeks and I started to think that I built up an immunity to it, then it came around again with double the force. The virus seems to be evolving. Kids are vessels of disease.
The nurses also do rounds during the day to give out medication to students. Primarily traditional Chinese medicines. It seems they have a treatment for everything. Even when kids bump their head, they have some kind of topical ointment they apply.
Every morning begins with morning exercises. The activities have varied within the schools I’ve visited, but every school has had outdoor time first thing in the morning.
At my kindergarten, the students have a routine that they go through most mornings, which includes a choreographed dance, marching, and light aerobics. Two days per week they have a fitness instructor visit and he does a few choreographed dances with
the kids. They’re really fun, and i usually get just as into them as the kids do.
Classes also have scheduled outdoor time mid-morning, as well as a walk after lunch. Physical activity is encouraged, and kids get lots of time to just be kids and use up some energy. My school has a sand pit, a jungle gym, a padded jungle gym that has a ball pit and a trampoline, a small swimming pool, and lots of general sports equipment.
I haven’t seen this at any other school yet, but at my school Monday mornings always start with a flag-raising ceremony. The kids dress up in adorable ceremonial outfits and raise the flag while the anthem plays. Each week a different group of students participate. This is followed by everyone singing the school song:
Union Kindergarten, Union Kindergarten
From all over the world, we come to the Union Kindergarten
We are all good friends, you just look and see
How much fun we have together at the Union Kindergarten
With all the physical activity, the kids get quite sweaty. Not to mention that they all have double layers any time it drops below 25 C. Parents pack extra clothes each day so that the kids can change before nap time.
The kids here actually dress like kids, and not miniature adult fashionistas. They wear mix-matched colours, and wear the same outfits multiple times per week. They’re still wearing Christmas sweaters mid-January. It’s not unusual to see girls in tutus or princess dresses any day of the week. As long as they’re bundled up, no one’s judging.
I think there’s more pressure in Canada for parents to have their kids looking fashionable, when it really shouldn’t be a priority. They’re just kids. If they want to wear a princess dress over track pants, where’s the harm in that?
Meals at School
Once in from morning exercises the kids have breakfast. Breakfast, lunch, and an afternoon snack are all prepared at the school each day.
Breakfast is usually noodles or rice-porridge, a hard-boiled egg, and some kind of bun or roll. Except for the youngest age group, the kids are responsible for themselves when it come to meal time. The kids get their own chair and find a place at the tables, bring the food to the table, get the egg out of the shell, and mop up any spills.
For lunch, students will usually have rice, two-vegetables, a small portion of meat, and a soup. Once the kids have finished their rice, meat and veggies, they serve themselves soup. It can sometimes be a bit messy, and I’m constantly telling kids to be careful as they walk with liquids, but I think it’s great that they’re taught to be independent.
Occasionally for lunch we will have dumplings. The oldest grade level (4.5+) have the job of wrapping them before lunch. The filling and wrappers are brought to the classrooms in the morning and the kids do the assembly. I’m hoping they cook them on a very high temperature, because kids are gross. I don’t even want to know what’s in some of those dumplings.
The kids also grow vegetables, usually some kind of lettuce, which they cook in class and becomes part of a lunch. Each student plants a few seeds, watches their plants grown, then gets a turn cooking in a wok. They seem so young to be cooking, but as someone who never really learned how to cook, I think it’s fantastic. The kids love it, and they look adorable in their aprons and chef hats,
Afternoon Nap/ Break
After lunch, kids have a short walk outside and then it’s time for nap. They have stackable kid-sized beds which are spread out in the classroom. Each student has a designated bed, and their own blanket set which they take home once/month for washing.
The kids nap for 2 hours, while the teachers have a break. One adult stays in the classroom and either naps or just has some quiet time.
My school has dorms and apartments on the top floor of the 5=story building. The young, un-married Chinese teachers live together in dorm-style rooms, and the foreign teachers (just me at the moment) live in separate apartments. There are also empty dorms where other teachers and staff can nap during the afternoon break. It is very quiet on campus for those few hours!
Despite the youngest kids being only 2.5 years old, all the kids are potty trained. I have seen a few of the youngest wet the bed during nap time, or have the odd accident in class but for the most part they use the bathroom.
Every classroom has a bathroom, which has 3-4 of both toilets and urinals. Some schools have squat toilets, but the one I work at has kid-sized regular toilets. There are windows between the bathroom and the classroom, and there aren’t any dividers between the toilets; it’s all just one open room. The kids go in groups and I’ve even seen a few boys using the same urinal at the same time!
Kids are reminded to go to the bathroom almost every half-hour, so this must help a lot with the training. They are also free to go to the bathroom at any point during class without asking permission.
Before coming to China, I had never worked in a kindergarten or with young kids. Luckily, the kids are one of the easiest parts about living abroad. I spend more time just hanging out in classrooms and having fun with the kids than I do actually teaching. Not that the teaching is difficult; it’s still all just songs, games, and flashcards.
There are some days where I want to pull my hair out, but they’re not common. There are so many great kids that I adore. There’s little things that they do that can brighten my whole day. If they see me walking around the hallways they’ll call out my name from the opposite side of the school just so that I’ll wave at them. Or when I visit the young ones after nap, they all want me to help them put their tiny socks on.
Their English is limited, as is my Mandarin, so there’s very little we can talk about. This doesn’t stop them from telling me long stories, while I nod and smile. I’m really impressed with some of the kids’ non-verbal communication skills. A lot of the adults I talk to will just speak louder once they realize I don’t know Chinese, as if this will help my understanding. Some kids, on the other hand, will use more hand gestures or physically show me what they’re talking about. A few of them have even started tying to teach me some Mandarin words. They keep things interesting, that’s for sure.
For more on Kindergartens in China check out Kindergartens in China: Part 2 – celebrating holidays, field trips, safety, and more!