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College of Human Ecology

Students on China study tour learn to appreciate, understand cultural differences in early childhood education

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The test was in the chicken feet and students passed with honor, according to Bronwyn Fees, associate professor in family studies and human services who lead the study tour to examine early childhood development and education in Southern China in January.

While food was not the purpose of the study tour, Fees said that it represented an important facet of the Chinese culture. The significance of customs and ingredients was not lost on students, many of whom had never been overseas.

Students and faculty visited nine kindergarden programs in south China.

“Food was artistically presented, a point of pride in that region. We were offered many dishes – up to 21 different ones in a single meal -- served in the middle of the table on a Lazy Susan. The meals were leisurely to allow conversation and camaraderie,” she said. “Foods were typical of the two areas we visited –Zhuhai and Guangzhou.”

Guangzhou is known for excellent food and has been called the birthplace of Cantonese cuisine.

“The students learned to eat with chopsticks and tasted all the food served, including the cultural delicacy of chicken feet,” Fees said. “We had the opportunity to observe extensive preparations for the Chinese New Year including decorations and the lion and dragon dances performed by the very young children and teachers.”

The professor said the primary goal of the tour was for students to appreciate and understand the cultural differences, and to respect the process of early childhood education in the Chinese culture.

“Our students will become professional educators, and work very closely with parents to meet the expectations of both parents and programs. Not all of those parents will share the same cultural background,” she said.

“Learning about the cultural differences in how we educated young children and how it occurs in China was an eye opening experience,” observed Reagan Proctor, senior in early childhood education and one of seven students enrolled in the 3-credit hour study.

“There are so many things we can do different, or better, to help our children succeed. The amount of physical activity, their use of recycled materials and their general attitude towards children were all wonderful examples to follow in my future classroom,” he said.

The group visited nine different kindergarten programs, including one international school, government schools and private schools. K-State hosted the directors of these programs in October 2010 as part of an ongoing collaboration with South China Normal University and Dr. Zheng, Fuming, professor of early childhood education.

Guangzhou, also known as Canton, is the third largest city in China.

Enrollments ranged between 300 to more than 1000 children between 2 and 6-years-of-age in one kindergarten program, a stark contrast to a typical early childhood center-based program in the States. Several of the programs offered residential services for the children.

"It was amazing to see children so young be completely silent while working on a piece of art or see a performance done by a group of children as young as 2 and notice how totally focused they were," said Michelle Stork, senior in early childhood education.

Fees said the students, both graduate and undergraduate in the Colleges of Human Ecology and Education, kept daily journals of their experiences and participated in nightly discussions that clearly showed both personal and professional growth.

Students observed how teachers intensely engaged with the children and how happy the children appeared. They were amazed at the creativity demonstrated by the very young children in their artwork and that several of the programs had a professional artist on staff, Fees reported.

“I was truly inspired by the enthusiastic attitudes the teachers displayed towards teaching and their involvement with every child they instruct,” said Lauren Hower, a junior in early childhood education.

They also noted the extensive use of recycled materials throughout from exercise equipment to creative expression. Children engaged in moderate to vigorous physical activity outside for about two hours each day. Since 2000 the Chinese government has directed a more child-centered approach to education carefully balanced with teacher direction, this includes educational services for children with special needs.

The K-State students also said they felt humbled by their inability to speak more than one language. Many people they met spoke at least two languages, and often several additional dialects. In China children learn English during kindergarten.

At South China Normal University, the K-State students gave presentations to early childhood education students and teachers. When Kansas and Chinese students gathered in small groups “they could have talked for hours,” said Fees, “but the building had to close for the night.”

“The students became aware and appreciative of how other cultures prepare their children to be successful,” Fees said. “Similar to the States, the curriculum in the programs we visited is designed to prepare children for the next step – school – and reflect the hopes and expectations of the culture for their children. The students see that now.”

Anna Wiehe, a graduate student in education, said that visiting the preschools gave her a fresh perspective and some alternate approaches to art education and the fostering of creativity.

“One thing that stuck out to me was how they really value and put forth a lot of effort to create an aesthetically pleasing learning environment for their students,” she added. “I have traveled quite a bit but in none of my travels exceeded my expectations quite as much as China. I was so impressed with the hospitality of our hosts from South China Normal University. They made us feel incredibly welcome.”

Marilyn Kaff, associate professor from the College of Education, was co-sponsor. Also on the tour was Dylan Beck, assistant professor in art who was interested in the creativity-based programs with resident artist teachers. At K-State his creative research deals with land-use practices, urban development and architecture and he wanted to observe how the Chinese society deals with these issues.

The group was hosted by Drs. Zheng, Fuming and Cai, Liman at SCNU, College of Education Sciences. Fees and Zheng collaborate on research examining children’s physical activity as part of the early childhood curriculum.

“Visiting nine programs kept us really busy but it gave me many ideas that I cannot wait to implement when I graduate and have a classroom of my own,” said Neely Michaelis, a junior in early childhood education. “Overall it was a wonderful trip and I would recommend studying abroad to any K-State student.”

Prepared by Human Ecology communications


This article was posted on Thursday, February 9, 2012, and is filed under College News, Family Studies & Human Services.