Volunteers play with left-behind children at a community-based early childhood development (ECD) center in in Wangjiaping village, Hubei province, Nov 11, 2016. [Photo/Xinhua]
The mountains of Hubei in Central China are gloomy and cold in early winter. Lu Hongfei, 28, arrives at a community service center in Wangjiaping village after walking with her 3-year-old daughter for half an hour.
In a small activity room, eight children and their parents sit together. The youngest is just a toddler. Books and toys are stacked in one corner.
Since 2012, with UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund) China assistance, the All-China Women's Federation (ACWF) has been setting up community-based early childhood development (ECD) centers in poor rural areas affected by urban migration in Hubei, Hunan, Hebei, Shanxi, Guizhou and Xinjiang. Wangjiaping Village, in Wufeng County, is a pilot center. UNICEF has supplied it with books, toys, desks, chairs, kiosks with child-care information, and outdoor facilities for children.
Children in Wangjiaping can play in the ECD center five days a week. Parents can engage in play with them under the guidance of volunteers. Regular visits by ECD experts also teach parents better ways to raise their children.
Lu Hongfei and her daughter are at the ECD center for the first time. For seven years, she and her husband have run a store selling electronic products in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, East China. She brought her elder daughter back to their hometown last month and gave birth to her second daughter.
"A one-year early education program costs hundreds or even thousands in Hangzhou, and we can't afford it," Lu says. "I never thought the toys and picture books here would be the same as those in the city - and free too. Rural children can have the same opportunity as children in the cities."
Wufeng County, in the Wuling Mountain area, is one of China's contiguous poor areas with an annual per-capita income of less than 8,000 yuan (about ,100 dollars). About 85 percent of the county's 200,000 people are from the Tujia ethnic minority.
"Over 80 percent of the children in the village are left-behind children. They are raised by the older generation who believes children only need to be fed and dressed," says Tan Langui, director of the Women's Federation in the village. "Many children are either shy and withdrawn or unruly and rude when they first come to the ECD center. However, as they come more often and are taught by the teachers, they gradually learn how to get along with peers and adults as well as how to read and play with them."
Half of China's 16 million newborns each year are born in rural areas, says Zhao Qi, education officer at UNICEF China. "Early childhood development encompasses physical, social, emotional, cognitive thinking and language progression.
"An old Chinese saying goes 'childhood predicts future'. From a scientific point of view, the brain develops rapidly in the first few years. Good nutrition, early stimulation, vaccination, and a secure and caring environment can facilitate the development of a child's brain and help reach their full potential." Zhao says.
Yang Rubing is one month shy of 3 years old. She brings each visitor a wooden stool and gives them oranges without being told to, and then stays quietly by her grandmother. But when ECD volunteer Wang Haiyan enters her home, she rushes into her arms.
Rubing's parents are migrant workers, living away from home. In fine weather, her grandparents take Rubing to the ECD center in the village on their motorcycle. This fills her with happiness.