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The China Diaries

We first started to build relationships with Chinese Kindergartens in March 2015.  Since then, 8 of our staff have visited and worked in the Chinese kindergartens.  The region is Sheng Dong, which is the birth place of Confucius, who is a famous Chinese philosopher.  More recently, a new kindergarten has been opened beside the sea in Qingdao.  This is also the place where Tim Smit, creator of the Eden Project is opening a Chinese Eden Project.


Below is our thoughts and feelings as we make important cultural ties with our Chinese friends.

January 2017, Anjali Lockett

This was my second visit to China as part of the Redcliffe China Project, and I had an equally exciting, challenging and thought-provoking time.  This visit took me to Qingdao, a large city on the northern coast of China’s Shandong province.  This was the beginning of a new phase of the project, and I was excited to accompany Lily and Hazel to a brand new nursery and help them get settled in and support the staff as they began to welcome children. 


We were comfortably housed in a two bed apartment within about a 10-15 minute walk from the Nursery.  It was a little bit difficult to live at the beginning, having nothing to eat with, cook with, drink from or get fresh water from.  It took about two weeks to get properly up and running, but we tried to make it as homely as possible as soon as possible, and were greatly helped in this, by Ella our intrepid and highly skilled interpreter, who came to live with us.


Walking into the Nursery, it felt bright and welcoming.  The corridors were lined with plants and decorated in neutral colours.  However, we soon discovered that there were no children in attendance!  This remained the case well beyond my departure, giving us an immediate challenge as to how we should manage our time.  It was soon clear that we would be designing and delivering training to the growing team of staff every day.  This led to some quick thinking, and deep reflections as we tried to unpick our pedagogy and philosophy and present this in simple and understandable terms for our new colleagues.  We soon realised the importance of learning through doing, actively engaging the mind and body.  We came to a fresh realisation of how practical teaching is, learning as you go. Problem-solving new situations and taking your cues from the children, not an easy task, when there are no children!  We soon made friends and loved working with the staff, who were all so enthusiastic and receptive.  It was clear that there was a long way to go to truly understand our way of working with children, to getting to grips with how learning and play are symbiotic and to develop confidence to trust the child, but we all felt we were making positive first steps. 


We were lucky enough to be located near the beach, and so had the pleasure of taking all the staff out to the beach, developing opportunities to talk about what constitutes a ‘learning experience’, ecology and risk/benefit analysis.  All the staff were extremely excited to go to the beach and we made fascinating discoveries, including starfish, sea cucumbers and shrimp.


Throughout my time in China I also spent time with the senior leadership team, discussing our approaches to leadership and management as well as our ethos and values.  I was afforded the pleasure of creating a vision statement with the manager, which incorporated her passion for getting the children out of the building. 


In between our days at work, we managed to explore parts of the city, discovering our local supermarkets, and night food markets.  We attended a few night markets, savouring the late night hustle and bustle of traders and food stalls.  We challenged ourselves to try new foods, including snails, pigs ear, chicken feet, and lots of chilli!  I fell in love with the spicy hotspots and cumin infused flatbreads, which not only were delicious but provided much needed warmth in the cold evenings.


June 2016, Carole Keane

I was privileged to revisit China for a second time in June this year.  My previous visit had been in January with a colleague to facilitate the introduction of a play based curriculum into a Chinese kindergarten. In China, children commonly attend kindergarten from the ages of 3-6 years.  Over the course of 2 weeks in January on my first visit, Anjali and I had resourced 3 classrooms in two kindergartens (with the same owner). In the process we had visited various warehouses and shops and Anjali had mastered the art of haggling in Mandarin. I was responsible for the setting up the classroom for the younger children aged from 2 to 4 years and Anjali had focused on the classroom for children aged from 5 to 6 years. We had shared responsibility of the classroom in the second kindergarten.

In the Spring Jeanette our Associate Head and another colleague, Amie had visited the kindergarten and continued to support the Chinese practitioners in their journey of understanding around adopting a Western based play approach to the curriculum. Their focus was on the larger of the 2 kindergartens. They had added sourced resources and created a Forest area outdoors where children could explore within a natural environment. Two other teachers then made the journey to Shandong and developed outdoor boxes for the children and continued the work of supporting the Chinese practitioners’ understanding around play.

My second visit to the kindergarten in June followed on from their work.  It was wonderful to meet the staff members I had met and worked with during my original visit in January. It was also great to see the resources that Anjali and I had originally sourced and introduced were still there and further resources had been added to enrichen the indoor provision. The outdoor provision was now well on the way to being established and the trees that Jeanette had sourced and planted had created an area that children and adults were beginning to utilise.  Additionally there was a large blackboard, sandpit, boxes for arranging upon which resources could also be arranged and placed and a set of bunk beds with a detachable ladder. We worked hard to convince the practitioners and the manager of the setting that children would benefit from accessing the outdoors in all weathers.

On my first visit in January the children and their key people had made embryonic visits to the classrooms. Now in June each class was used to visiting the ‘English classrooms’ at least once a week. Most classes have a Master teacher and an assistant or in the case of the classes with the younger children there are 2 assistants.

In January Anjali and I had modelled setting up the resources to engage children but things had moved on and the teachers by June were now doing this for themselves.  The children in June were still as eager as they had been in January to come into the classrooms to play and explore and now many of the adults seemed more confident of their role within this process. The practitioners since January had made a huge leap from the way they traditionally more formally teach the children to participating and understanding in our play approach. The approach of the Chinese teachers to early years teaching (like ours) is shaped culturally and socially. Between January and June Chinese members of staff had made massive strides in the shift in provision from a Chinese approach to our Western play based ethos. In some ways there seemed an imbalance between our developing understanding of the Chinese way of doing things and the rapid journey the Chinese practitioners had been encouraged to make in adopting a new approach. The idea of a Chinese approach and a Western approach is of course is an over simplification as the approach of the practitioners from Redcliffe mirrored that in our setting whereas the approach of the Chinese staff reflected the ethos of their kindergarten. Additionally people are individuals who have themselves been shaped by their own experiences of society and community, hold their own ideas, possess different strengths and are at different points in their own professional journeys. This complexity is also a challenge.

On both of my visits in January and in June the role of the interpreter was crucial in supporting the dialogue between the English and the Chinese practitioners. Without their skill the process of supporting the introduction of a play based approach would not have developed. It is frustrating not to be able to understand children’s comments during play to truly elicit a child’s meaning and to need the interpreter to decipher any words or to relay any questions one might have about a child’s play or thinking. However with a skilled interpreter the frustration is eased and a new 3 way dialogue of sorts is established that promotes shared meaning and understanding and enables children to have their needs and thinking met, supported and even extended. One of the best moments of my June visit built upon an observation of children exploring hair nets (we found these in a storage cupboard). The children were playing with the playdough, pretending to make food and wearing the hair nets. The nursery is fortunate enough to have a bakery on site (which baked the most delicious bread and cakes). I asked the interpreter if it would be possible to take the children along to the bakery. She seemed a little unconvinced about my rationale for this but went off to ask the bakers permission. The baker was brilliant and not only agreed but involved the children in all the different processes – making batter, dolloping it onto baking trays  and allowing children to have the biscuits they had made after they cooled , once removed from the oven. The children then returned to the classroom and immediately re-enacted their experience with the playdough and at the water tray.

Other fantastic moments occurred during the CPD sessions we facilitated in June for the Chinese teachers. Hazel, my colleague, a passionate advocate for nature effectively led hands on exploring mini beasts sessions in the forest area as well as at the local park. Following on from my departure Hazel and another colleague supported the Chinese teachers in taking their classes to the park to support children’s outdoor exploration and learning.

By the time I left at the end of my second visit, the teachers were effectively documenting children’s learning and linking observations to the areas of learning from the Chinese curriculum. They had begun to think more about enabling their children to experience at first hand the outdoors and the natural world. They had also begun to think in terms of next steps for children’s learning. We  (British practitioners) had also moved further along in our understanding of the Chinese perspective in terms of early years and children’s learning.


11th April – 6th May 2016, Amie Lawrence

When we arrived in Linyi there were two English style classrooms on the fourth floor of the kindergarten that Anjali and Carole had previously set up. Originally there was an idea that each class within the kindergarten would have at least one lesson in the English class each week. Whilst we were, it differed slightly, where several classes had more than one lesson in the classes and occasionally the older children had a lesson in with the younger classroom which was great.

It was interesting to see first-hand what the similarities and differences were in the Early Years curriculum, teaching style and daily routine of a nursery school here and in China. The Chinese Early Years Curriculum is similar in some areas to the Early Years Foundation Stage Curriculum; the areas of learning in the Chinese Curriculum are:

Scientific: Mathematics/ Science Investigation

Language: Reading & Writing/ Listening & Expressing

Being Healthy: Physically & Mentally/Sports/Habits of Living

Society: Communication/Ability to Live

Art: Expressive & Creative/ Feeling & Appreciation


Life in a Chinese Classroom

The children began arriving from 7am although the majority arrived at 8am. The teachers would stand outside the gates in parallel lines to welcome the children as they arrived. When the weather is fine, loud music is played through outdoor speakers, the children stand in the front area of the nursery behind their teacher and they perform a dance routine. There are three teachers that then stand on the steps to guide them in to the nursery.

The children have breakfast in their classrooms (often cake and a boiled egg) and then begin their lessons. The morning English lessons in the English classrooms are scheduled for 9:10 – 10:00 and 10:10-11:00. The children then break from their classes to go to the bathroom and wash their hands before lunch is served in their classrooms at 11:15. After lunch the wooden beds that are stacked at the side of the classrooms are put out, each child has their own bed and bedding which they take home at the weekend to be washed. All of the children sleep during this time even the six year olds. At approximately 14:00 loud music is played through speakers in each classroom signalling that it is time to wake up. The English afternoon lessons are from 14:30-15:20. After this time the children return to their own classrooms for another meal. All the food is freshly prepared and cooked on the premises; there is a large kitchen on the ground floor and a bakery on the fourth floor. There is also a shed in the garden where four women prepare vegetables and delicious wontons.

Our Role

Whilst Jeanette and I were at the kindergarten our main area of focus was on developing the outdoor spaces.

The outdoor classroom

We converted a waste area at the side of the Nursery into a useable outside space; there were two sandpits in the area which are now in the defined area used as part of the outdoor classroom. We placed a 4x2m blackboard, on one of the walls, we bought wheelbarrows, water butts, ladders, metal buckets, metal watering cans, a large selection (100) of three different size balls and a pump for the outdoor space. Jeanette found an old bunk bed which had been stored in the garage which we also added to the area. The bunk bed provided the opportunity for problem solving and negotiation, as well as giving the children the opportunity to see things from a different perspective.

We supported some of the teachers to gain confidence and to feel comfortable in allowing children to climb up or down, onto or off of the bunk bed independently. They were particularly nervous about the younger children doing this. I discussed with them that children like to set themselves challenges and are capable in undertaking their own management of risk. This was demonstrated by a child who tried to climb up but didn’t manage it, later she returned to the challenge and tried again, eventually she succeeded. Other children asked for help, I encouraged them to climb down themselves with minimal support, asking them to think about where to place their feet etc. We limited the number of children that were on the top of the bunk bed at any one time, this also provided a great learning opportunity, for teachers and children in problem solving, allowing the children to develop their own problem solving skills and enabling teachers to understand the capabilities of their children better. On one of these occasions there were three children already on the top of the bunkbed, one of the girls on the ground who wanted to be on the top of the bunkbed suggested that they play ‘rock, paper, scissors’. If she won the child who lost would get down and she would win a place on the top of the bunk. This worked really well and was played by several different children in the same class during the lesson. It was also interesting to note how some games are universal such as ‘rock paper scissors’,

We added clip boards and pens to the area, along with resources that we had brought over from England such as balloon silk which has been used to screen different areas and also used for dressing up. Chalks, white boards and pens that we introduced were well used for mark making. I observed several children using the white boards to practice writing letters and words. One morning the children were bringing me white boards to show me sums that they had written on them and then worked out, they then wanted me to write sums on them. I noted that one girl was confident in working out the ever increasingly challenging sums that I had set her, so I decided to challenge her further by writing out an addition sum in which the numbers would total over 100. Ella our interpreter said that this would be too difficult, but I said we need to give her time to see if she could work it out independently. The girl went off and sat down for a few minutes, some other children joined her and they tried to help work out the sum. Eventually after about 5 minutes the girl brought me her white board having correctly worked out the sum. I asked the teacher if they had been recently working on additions that total over 100, she said they hadn’t and was surprised that the girl had worked it out. This demonstrated how children have an innate desire to learn and be challenged to move their learning forward. The children during this session were all exploring different areas, which encompassed all areas of the curriculum, according to their individual interests. It is so important for teachers to be able to recognise this and be able to think about the next steps for the children as individuals in order to support and move their learning forward.

The Forest Area

This area when we arrived was just a waste land behind the Kindergarten which was not used by the children as it was full of rubbish. Jeanette designed the space to become a forest area for the children. The waste land was cleared and 20 fir trees planted, each class was assigned a tree to look after (their class name is on the tree trunk), it’s was encouraging to see the children enthusiastically watering their designated tree. Wooden logs were added to the area to create a log circle. On my last day I was with the children in the outdoor classroom and could hear children in the forest area, I went round to see what was going on. It was great to see a class of older children all engaged in hunting for bugs, they had trowels, magnifying glasses and reference books.

The Chinese Teachers

The teaching style varied greatly from the English classrooms to the Chinese classroom, and this was a potentially difficult transition for our Chinese colleagues. Things that come naturally to someone who has been working in and English nursery for years had to be explored and discussed with the team. We talked about how a teacher interacts with a child in this space, getting down to the child’s level or moving around between different groups of children. There was a lot for our colleagues to get to grips with, transitioning from everyone learning the same thing to lots of different learning happening at the same time. This was a journey for many of the teachers in China, how do you engage, challenge and move all children on in all areas at the same time, working from the child’s interests rather than from the adult’s perspective. It must have been quite a challenge for some of the teachers to begin to understand a very different approach to teaching, however, the feedback from the teachers has been very positive, one said that she loves bringing her class to the English classrooms as they are all so engaged and happy.

Parents Meeting 29th April 2016

I was invited to attend a parent’s meeting which was held in a hotel, parents from Mrs Wang’s three kindergartens in Linyi were invited to attend, with the expectation that they would attend and they did - there were hundreds of parents! We observed a traditional style ‘Confucius Class’. The children, dressed in traditional style, sat in rows of chairs on the stage whilst the teacher taught them. The focus was on perseverance and persistence, with the message that if at first you don’t succeed try, try and try again. Following this lesson we watched children in traditional dress from one of the other kindergartens perform a Kung Fu dance routine, which was incredible.

Mrs Xu then addressed the audience, following her speech she said there are rules which parents must follow. The rules were projected onto the screen, the parents and Mrs Xu together read the rules aloud:

  • From now on encourage and praise children
  • Take action to positively influence children
  • Listen carefully to children, listening is the best form of communication
  • Respect our children
  • Be physically equal – get down to their level
  • Be friends and accompany children to feel our care
  • Control our emotions in front of children, discuss any issues when calm
  • Try and create a harmonious environment
  • Give children the freedom to be what they want – they don’t belong to us
  • If we do good things our children will do too

I had an amazing time in Linyi, everyone was so welcoming and friendly and I learned so much about Chinese culture and way of life so much more so than if I had just visited as a tourist. I have felt incredibly privileged in being asked to impart some of my knowledge and understanding of the English child led early years curriculum to the Chinese teachers and support them in implementing this ethos further into their practice and would welcome the opportunity to return!


September 2015

At the beginning of September,  Jeanette and Elizabeth were fortunate enough to be invited to China to visit two nurseries in the Stengdong region.  The principle and owner of the nurseries wanted to know more about English forest school and outdoor learning.

Elizabeth writes: China is one of the largest growing economical countries in the world.  It has the third largest land space and the highest population in the world.  It has a very different culture but is much more westernised than I thought it would be. Thirty to forty years ago very few Chinese had new cars; most of the very large middle class now own very new expensive cars.  In 1977 because of the population boom in China (a quarter of the population of the world is Chinese) the government, at the time declared that all Chinese couples could only have one baby.  As predicted the population expansion has slowed down and in 2013 the government adjusted the policy to two babies, along with this new `baby boom` expansion and the growing economy, where both parents need to go to work, there has been a huge demand for pre-school , nursery care and education.


The nurseries we visited were privately owned and had very affordable fees.  The nurseries were very well organised and managed with a principle (owner) over the two nurseries and a layer of management, as well as an accountant, caretaker, cleaners and a cook.  One nursery had over 600 children and the other 300 children.

The food is cooked on the premises and the children are given three hot meals a day.  As we were shown around the nurseries it was clear to see that there were very little resources and the rooms looked very bare, except for tables and chairs.  It was particularly upsetting for us to see two year olds in a bare room just sitting on chairs looking up at us.  The children did not go outside every day.  The only equipment outside of one of the nurseries was a very large climbing frame and a small climbing frame at the second nursery as well as a plastic climbing frame.  There was a very large mound, this had trees and grass.  The leaders had put a pond there but they said they did not know how to maintain it.  Unfortunately it dried up and the fish died.  The children never went out on trips and many were there for ten to twelve hours a day.  The children of course were lovely and we received lots of drawings from them as presents, which are up in our office at Redcliffe


The staff wear uniforms, pink and white for the `teachers` who work with the children and a very smart black and cream dress for the manager/leaders.  The teachers who work with the children are between 18-22 years of age.  The older staff over thirty years are strictly management and have no qualifications in childcare or education, but oversee the curriculum. The principle has no qualifications in childcare and education but started the business when she needed care for her children.  At 35 Mrs Wang, the owner and principle is a successful business woman who wants to expand her business to Beijing and Shanghai.  She wants to learn about teaching young children.  She says she is realising that parents want more and they want high quality early years provision for their children.


The Chinese are very respectful and we were honoured to be the guests of Mrs Wang and her head person, Mrs Chow.  It is so much nicer to see a country not as a tourist.  We were in a part of China that does not see many tourists from other countries and therefore we experienced a little of what the real China is like.

Both Mrs Wang and I want to continue visits to each other’s nurseries and hopefully they can influence the shengdong nurseries in a positive way that is culturally connected and enriching for the children.  


Jeanette and Elizabeth talked about Redcliffe Nursery School and the English nursery school movement to over 1000 parents at a very glitzy parents evening.  They did a power point presentation showing Redcliffe nursery in context within an urban city.  They talked about active learning, showing examples of natural open-ended resources that our children had used in creative and imaginative ways.  The role that our adults play was explained and how they observe, analyse and assess children’s learning-planning from their interests. They also included the emphasis that is placed on outdoor learning and that our children participate in a forest experience.  Initial response from the parents was very positive, saying that they had not thought about this approach, but would like to know and learn more

March 2015 - 1st Visit

Jeanette and Carole visited China in March 2015 as part of a Professional Development programme for nurseries in China.  As an international programme, the emphasis was on sharing good practice and building international relationships.  Redcliffe hope to host Chinese early years professionals in Bristol at some stage in the future, with a view to delivering bespoke training in the forest school experience.  It is hoped that there will be more opportunities in the future for other Bristol Early Years practitioners to get involved and share their UK experience of Early Years education.  They found  the  delegates keen  and  enthusiastic  to  hear  about  our  approach  towards  early  education  in  England.  They  asked  questions  about  how  things  happened  practically  and  were  keen  to  hear  about  methods  that  produced  positive  results.  Health  and  safety  was  high  in  their  concerns;  they  wanted  to  know  how  we  had  got  over  some  of  the  barriers  and  difficulties.  There  was  considerable  enthusiasm  and  positive  participation  throughout  the  whole  day.  Some  of  the  delegates  really  seemed  to  understand  some  of  the  processes  and  were  keen  to  adapt  some  of  our  suggestions.  There  was  a  particular  enthusiasm  for  the  way  that  the  children’s  learning  and  progress  is  documented  e.g.  Learning  Diaries,  with  many  questions  and  queries  as  to  how  this  particular  process  was  achieved.  The  food  project  was  something  that  they  really  wanted  to  know  more  about.  They  showed  a  lot  of  interest  in  Forest  School,  but  there  would  be  a  lot  of  work  to  do  with  their  immediate  outdoor  space  before  this  could  be  implemented.