November 23, 2009 / 9:18 AM / 10 years ago

Playtime a luxury for competitive Chinese kids

BEIJING (Reuters Life!) - All work and little play is the norm for most children in China, where stiff competition for future jobs and ambitious parents mean long hours in the company of school books, not friends.

Sichuan earthquake survivors play outside their temporary classroom at an Earthquake Relief Hope School in Yongxing town of Mianyang, Sichuan Province May 8, 2009. REUTERS/Jason Lee

China’s one-child policy has contributed to putting enormous pressure on children to succeed, and there is no shortage of wealthy Beijing parents these days willing to stump tens of thousands of yuan for elite educational institutions to give their offspring an academic head-start.

“Children have so much pressure to do well. There is a Chinese idiom: ‘Every parent wants their boy to be a dragon and daughter to be a phoenix’,” said Li Hongyan, who runs the 68,000 yuan ($9,960) a year MEG Bilingual International kindergarten.

But between maths, language and other so-called enrichment classes, there is often little time for play, which children’s rights groups say is essential for healthy development.

Last Friday marked Universal Children’s Day, which aims to promote the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, established 20 years ago to protect the fundamental rights of all children — including the right to play.

“This is what we usually call the ‘forgotten right,’ because of course adults think the right to play is perhaps a luxury. They don’t realize that this is actually a necessity,” said Kirsten Di Martino, Chief of Child Protection at UNICEF China.

Through play, children learn how to socialize, communicate and share as well as solve conflicts — skills that can’t be taught from a book, she said.

But for parents who pour all their hopes and ambitions into just one son or daughter, and know they will face a highly competitive society, those skills may be too abstract.

Introduced in the late 1970s to ease strain on the country’s limited resources, the one-child policy forbids most urbanites from having two children, although there is more leeway for ethnic minorities and rural parents whose first child is a girl.


In the Experimental Class for the Gifted and Talented Children at Beijing’s No. 8 High School, which churns out “geniuses,” students are used to a seven-day school week.

Most Chinese students start high school at 16 but each year a few dozen 9 to 10 year-olds are put on a fast-track to university with a speeded up curriculum, the director of the class said.

Each year thousands of parents put their children through rigorous exams to get onto the program. The last few candidates even have to live with teachers for a few weeks until a panel of judges makes their final vote.

Those selected get to university up to seven years ahead of normal students. In return, many children in the class said they usually have just 30 minutes of play time a week.

Ten-year-old Wang Shaohan is already thinking about college.

“There are pluses and minuses. The negative side is that when we get into university we are not mature like others,” Wang said.

“The plus side is that I can get ahead. My mother said the best time in life is college life so she wants me in early. It’s not a bad thing to start early.”

Wang’s mother is not worried about the pressure.

“I think all children are different. This way of studying simply suits my child well. I haven’t thought about other things. It’s a good thing as long as it suits my child,” she said.

And when asked about the right to play, most children simply shook heads and asked what it was.

Writing by Emma Graham-Harrison, editing by Miral Fahmy

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