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Life Lessons

Despite its acclaimed educational approach and reputation, a groundbreaking preschool for migrant workers’ children in Beijing remains trapped by status and financial dilemmas

By Li Jing Updated Jul.1

Sihuan Playgroup holds outdoor activities every week

Every morning at 9 am, children flock to a small courtyard house in an old alley in downtown Beijing – their kindergarten. Unlike the child-friendly facilities of standard kindergartens, Sihuan Playgroup in Dabanjie Hutong in the city’s central Xicheng District looks a bit shabby, decorated only with handcrafted ornaments. But for preschoolers between 3 and 6 from migrant worker families, who cannot enroll in public schools or afford private kindergartens, this childcare center registered as an NGO, is a haven. “If it wasn’t for this playgroup, I might not have had a happy childhood,” said Nini, who is now attending junior high in nearby Hebei Province, where she comes from.  

On April 7, Sihuan Playgroup celebrated its 18th anniversary. Parents and grandparents put on skits and performances with the children. “This year there weren’t as many as usual because of the pandemic. We used to get many graduates and their parents returning for the reunion. Some even traveled a long way from their hometowns,” said Zhang Yixue, one of the teachers. 

Looking back, Zhang Yan, founder of Sihuan Playgroup and a retired professor of early education at Beijing Normal University, said she did not expect the playgroup would last 18 years considering the challenges it has faced. Offering a unique teaching approach, the school not only offers a place for children who struggle to get into kindergartens as they are not from Beijing, it also enrolls local children who have more choices, since with a Beijing residency permit, they can access local services such as schools and hospitals. But even now, the preschool is still not officially recognized as a kindergarten or education institution, and constantly battles financial difficulties. “We can only wait and see, one step at a time,” Zhang Yan told NewsChina. 

For the Children 
Shen Lamei, who came to Beijing from Anhui Province in 2004, said her eldest son managed to get into a public kindergarten in 2013. But by 2018, when her second son reached preschool age, conditions for non-Beijing resident permit holders to be enrolled in public school were tightened. The cost of a private kindergarten, around 4,000 yuan (US$612) a month, was too much for the family, who makes their living from a small store. A neighbor suggested Sihuan Playgroup, which accepted children for free. “It’s not like other kindergartens and my son likes it,” Shen told NewsChina.  

The non-profit organization originated from field research Zhang Yan carried out in 2004, when she was a college professor focused on community education. When Zhang learned from a student that many children whose parents worked in an innercity Beijing wet market did not go to preschool, she went to see for herself.  

At the market, she discovered over 80 preschoolers, most of whom were not in formal childcare. They were the children of vegetable vendors, whose lives revolved around the market.  

Like Shen, some parents tried to enroll their kids, but many public kindergartens require work, residence and social security certificates to prove they are entitled to the service, which low-income migrant workers have difficulty providing. Their unsociable hours – rising early to go to wholesale markets for stock – meant they had difficulty with the extra chore of taking their children to and from school.  

Zhang decided to set up a childcare center near the market, which would also allow her to explore methods of informal preschool education in China. She thought a preschool playgroup would work, a kind of less formal method that started in the UK in the 1960s which has become an important part of education in Europe and the US. Preschool playgroups are mainly financed, managed and led by parents, who take turns as the teacher.  

On April 7, 2004, Zhang Yan and her students took the children to a nearby courtyard which belonged to the market and held their first activity. The courtyard, which the market provided for free, became their school for the next six years.  

Over time, the playgroup’s reputation attracted other parents, even those with Beijing residency documents, who felt their children could not enroll or be accepted at mainstream preschools. These include children with physical impairments or children on the autism spectrum.  

Zhang and her graduate students have been exploring teaching methods suitable for migrant children at Sihuan Playgroup. She encourages her students to work as volunteers, where they would summarize activities and write teaching journals, as well as write research papers related to the playgroup.  

The teaching methods are based in theory and are suited to the practical situation of vendors. They stress the importance of good manners, rural culture and using everyday resources in teaching, instead of copying academic teaching methods for urban children. Zhang emphasized reading, oral and social skills they might lack otherwise.  

Sihuan Playgroup mixes different ages, so older children can help the younger ones. It adopts the Montessori method, an education philosophy that aims for self-motivated growth and nurtures children’s natural desire for knowledge. The method, pioneered by Italian physician Maria Montessori at the turn of the 20th century, stresses collaborative play and encourages children to develop their own interests.  

Every day they start with reading and exercise, followed by Montessori activities where teachers offer guidance as students maintain autonomy.  

The children do a lot of outdoor activities, mostly in nearby parks. “Children from this school are healthy and outgoing. Several of them can run three kilometers with me along the lake,” said Tang Haifeng, a physical education teacher from Beijing Normal University who volunteers at the playgroup.  

Parents are hands-on at Sihuan Playgroup, where they join reading clubs and lessons and take turns to be on duty. 

Giving Agency
Zhang Yan said they want to give agency to the parents, not hand them solutions on a plate. “There’s no savior. We’re not a savior either. They need to be their own saviors,” Zhang said.  

Parents initially had trouble accepting this approach. Many have to stand at their market stall all day long, leaving them little extra time and energy to teach. So volunteers would go to their stalls after school to discuss their children and family situation. The volunteers sometimes helped watch the stalls to free them up. Gradually, these parents, who previously were only focused on their livelihoods, paid more attention to their children’s education. They kept journals and engaged with other parents. Those who stood out were selected as honorary presidents of the school.  

“In creating the playgroup, equal partnerships in which all involved can dialogue is the first step. The parent committee has been critical to playgroup from the beginning,” Zhang Yan said.  

Zhang Yixue, one of the parent-teachers, told NewsChina that the group has helped enlighten many parents about education. “When children graduate from the school, so do the parents,” she said.  

He Xiang, who sells seasonings at a food market, was president of Sihuan Playgroup for four years. He wrote a lot of parenting journals, once detailing how he resisted the urge to scold his son after he spilled an entire bag of peanuts, a show of respect and patience. Parents were developing new strengths, just as Zhang Yan and her students intended.  

Approaching retirement in 2011, 60-yearold Zhang Yan, enrolled her last cohort of graduate students at her university, a major source of playgroup volunteers. Since then, it has been more important to recruit teachers from among the parents.  

Ding Fengyun, whose daughter Nini attended the playgroup, was the second parent-teacher. After she had children, she worked part time as a housekeeper. At first, she was not confident. But Zhang Yan encouraged her, organizing weekly classes for volunteers and teachers where they could discuss problems and make lesson plans. During her eight years at the playgroup, Ding earned a bachelor’s degree and her preschool teaching certificate. In 2021, she moved away and left the playgroup. She now directs a private childcare center.  

The playgroup has trained eight parent-teachers, three of whom are still working there full time. They write articles about the children’s progress for a Japanese website on early child education. The website started publishing the articles over 10 years ago and pays them US$20,000 every year.  

Liu Xiangying, professor of comparative education at Fukuyama City University in Japan, has visited Sihuan Playgroup many times with her students. She feels that while encouraging parents to be teachers might be the only choice for the playgroup, they are as good as, or even better than, teachers with professional training because they embody the essence of preschool education – “they care for the children.���  

Even if they attend preschool in Beijing, most children of migrant workers who do not have a Beijing residency permit eventually return to their hometowns for education, since they can only take examinations, including for university entrance, in the place they are registered, which is usually where they were born. But for Sihuan’s students, their experience has far-reaching influence on their lives.  

Nini, who is now in her second year of middle school, talks of happy times at the playgroup that made her feel positive about school in general. The president sold herbs and spices, while the writer of their school song sold steamed buns. The students, though of different ages, formed close bonds. She is not intimidated by teachers or going to school. She remembers the playgroup would assign a story every day for bedtime reading. Her parents were too busy to read to her, so she read by herself and gradually developed a reading habit.  

Aware of the significance of companionship for children, He Xiang returned with his children to his hometown in Hunan Province in 2014, even though they could have stayed with their grandparents. In 2016, He returned to Beijing to attend the Sihuan Playgroup’s 12th anniversary. “The days in the playgroup have influenced parents and children for life,” He said. 

Parents, students and former students celebrate Sihuan Playgroup’s 18th anniversary, Beijing, April 7

Struggling to Survive 
By 2018, Sihuan Playgroup had enrolled more than 31,200 children, with 6,240 university students volunteering and nearly 100 researching the playgroup. Its educational approaches have been increasingly welcomed. In 2012, Beijing’s education authorities entrusted Sihuan Playgroup to train nearly 100 volunteers and teachers for informal childcare centers on the city’s rural fringes. In 2016, the Asia-Pacific Regional Network for Early Childhood (ARNEC) named the playgroup as an innovator in preschool education among developing countries, the only one from China.  

Despite its reputation, the playgroup has been struggling to survive for years.  

At first, the playgroup remained at the Sihuan Market courtyard from which it took its name. However, it had to close every time Beijing held big events or public activities. In 2010, the playgroup experienced its longest closure after a series of campus safety incidents triggered a large-scale safety check. The subdistrict office required the market to strengthen safety regulations. Since the playgroup was not registered, the market was no longer willing to risk supporting it, and took the space back in May 2010.  

Volunteers and parents kept searching for a new space. A year later, they found the current location in Dabanjie Hutong, which they rent for 6,800 yuan (US$1,040) a month in six-month chunks. The expense came as a blow to the playgroup, whose only fees had been printing class materials and transport for volunteers, all of which Zhang Yan’s research grant covered.  

The parents started to contribute 150 yuan (US$23) each month for rent, and a language training institution offered them 50,000 yuan (US$7,645). Today, parents contribute 800 yuan (US$122), as rent and prices continue to rise.  

The playgroup’s closure from 2010 to 2011 made volunteers realize the importance of identity. Ma Nan, a student of Zhang Yan and volunteer, said the playgroup was unable to register as a commercial entity in 2008, because the market refused to provide them with a deed to the property. In Dabanjie Hutong, even though the landlord provided the deed, they ran into other documentation issues. The playgroup tried to register as an NGO, but was also unsuccessful.  

In 2014 things started to improve after Li Yuanxiang, who worked with NGOs, joined the playgroup. In 2016, Sihuan Playgroup eventually registered as an NGO – a community service center that could host parent-child activities. Li, now the legal representative for the playgroup, said there was a brief window in 2016 when registration policies suddenly relaxed before tightening up again.  

“To be honest, the whole thing was accidental. If we missed that chance, we’d never have got it,” Li told NewsChina.  

In September 2014, the market where Sihuan Playgroup started was demolished as part of a citywide campaign to move wholesale markets to the outskirts. The playgroup lost some students. Meanwhile, the rent kept rising.  

At present, the playgroup’s daily expenses are covered by Zhang’s research grant, fees she and volunteers receive from books and articles and occasional donations. But lately, donations from enterprises have dried up since the playgroup had to suspend its programs because of the pandemic.  

Because it operates in a residential area, the playgroup is very careful to stay in the good graces of surrounding neighbors. Tang Haifeng told NewsChina that the teachers visit their neighbors every year with gifts. Parents fetch their children between 12 and 2 pm to avoid disturbing the elderly residents’ afternoon naps.  

By the end of 2020, there were 6.4 million children left behind in rural areas by parents who had to move to urban areas for work. A few years ago, Zhang Yan said she dreamed the Sihuan Playgroup model would spread – mothers could return to villages to start their own kindergartens and migrant worker families could organize playgroups in cities. But Zhang Yan is fully aware of the challenges.  

“We can only take one step at a time and see. Education is not isolated. It is closely related to the economy, population and policies,” she said.  

Tang hopes there will be more places like Sihuan Playgroup that allow children to stay with their parents in cities. “Even though migrant children face a lot of difficulties, their situation will be far better than the ones left behind,” Tang said.