Much to my initial dismay, during the last few months of my time here in China I’ve been assigned two public Kindergartens in the city to give drama and movement lessons to and let me tell you, they are nothing like our kindergartens in the West.
I couldn’t really say if they’re better or worse, but they’re very different.
Here’s an account of a day in the life of one of these kids.
Morning begins as the kids individually arrive to their classrooms and deposit their things into their locker. Each child is assigned a letter between A and Z that they keep throughout the year, it’s the child’s responsibility to remember their personal letter as it has a big effect on their day right from the beginning, it shows them which locker belongs to them.
Later on in the day when they transition outside or between rooms they’ll line up in alphabetical order also, so they’ll need to remember their letter and the letters that should be in front and behind them.
Once a child has arrived they are given a cup of tea and a biscuit, they then choose a table to eat it at. They must remember where they’ve chosen to eat because they must eat again at the same spot for lunch.
If it’s a Monday the Class heads into the courtyard.
The couple hundred roughly 5 year old kids stand in the central courtyard and sing the national anthem together as one preselected class raises China’s flag on the flagpole. It’s of course exactly what you’d expect from a school in China. Once that’s done the kids all go inside.
If it’s not a Monday the kids will still go outside, but to dance together to one of about five songs that they all know the choreography for. (The repetition has a memory boosting effect).
Once inside the kids drink tea or water again.
The kids drink either water, milk or tea at many predetermined times at various points every day.
They then choose an exercise to do, there are many toys and games that are designed to advance something in the mind be it math, science, fine motor skills or several other things, they do this for maybe an hour.
Following game time they have lessons.
Lessons cover topics like how to be a good person, treating others respectfully, obeying authority, listening, things like that.
They also have English and drama lessons (foreign teachers) and time to read and politely chat and play with their friends.
They eat in a formal setting where are they are to stay quiet and use utensils like chopsticks and spoons. They’re given vegetables, fruit, rice, soup and meat.
What almost made me pass out the first time I saw it was that they’re given whole grapes, whole shrimp and pork and fish without the bones removed. These kids are incredible at not choking to death.
In the afternoon they get outside game time and free reading time. They’ll also do another dance with other classes all together.
That generally sums up their day.
I’m not saying the kids don’t misbehave, and some of them are total nightmares of course. But it’s a really structured day, and the kids know their schedule and what’s expected of them.
The feel of the kindergarten is just different, it feels very structured and orderly. Kids aren’t ever somewhere random, and there’s no improvisation to the play time or anything else. The structure is designed to boost the kids memory and feeling of responsibility and organisation skills very early in life. Ultimately they’re being prepared for primary school which is a very rigorous life of intense study and discipline.
I teach drama classes on Sunday afternoons and all the kids in my class take lessons 7 days a week. A lot of them come to my class from an English class, then leave my lesson to go to a math class.
Kids study very hard and have trouble answering questions that I ask kids back home, questions about movies, games or how they blew a Saturday.
The teachers that I ask about it are proud of the differences between Chinese schools and Western ones. They see no problem with it, in fact they’re proud. The ones I work with are sure that Chinese kids will grow up to lead China into being the world superpower.
The teachers do make one point that I share, there’s a lot of kids here in Shanghai. If the kindergarten let the kids be wild it would be anarchy with the amount that they have.
With this knowledge I let kids be a little more wild in my drama classes, sneak a little rebel into them. (Don’t tell China)