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K-State Today

February 9, 2012

Bronwyn Fees leads early childhood education study tour to China

Submitted by Jane P. Marshall

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 a study tour to examine early childhood development and education in southern China in January.

Food was not the purpose of the study tour. The primary goal 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.

But food, according to Fees, represents 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.

"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."

"Learning about the cultural differences in how we educated young children and how it occurs in China was an eye opening experience," said 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. Enrollments ranged between 300 to more than 1,000 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 offered residential services for the children.

K-State hosted the directors of the programs in October 2010 as part of an ongoing collaboration with South China Normal University and Zheng Fuming, professor of early childhood education. He and Cai Liman at South China Normal University College of Education Sciences hosted the study group. Fees and Zheng collaborate on research examining children's physical activity as part of the early childhood curriculum.

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 said.

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, according to Fees.

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, 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."

Marilyn Kaff, associate professor from the College of Education, was co-sponsor. Also on the tour was Dylan Beck, assistant professor of art who was interested in the creativity-based programs with resident artist teachers. 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.

"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."