Around 8 per cent of rural children in China take college entrance exams, compared with 70 per cent of urban children. Reap officials believe this is due to a woeful lack of mental stimulation for rural youngsters between birth and the age of three. They say this is the crucial period for neurons to connect in the brain and set a path for a child’s mental ability later in life. “Around 92 per cent of neurons will have completed connecting by the age of three,” says Professor Shi Yaojiang, who heads Reap at the Centre for Experimental Economics in Education at Xi'an city’s Shaanxi Normal University. “This period is critical for early development. If parents don’t nurture their child’s brains during this time, then mental ability cannot be maintained. If you miss it, it’s irreversible.”
To combat all this, Reap, which was set up in conjunction with Stanford University in California, has founded seven education centres in China’s centrally located Shaanxi province. Caregivers bring toddlers there for weekly play and learning sessions with trainers such as Mr Li, and can use the facilities all week.
The sessions are meticulously planned, offering age-appropriate toys and materials to stimulate motion, cognitive skills, language and social abilities. They are all designed to help ensure a child's crucial mental development. “We don’t have toys at home, and my granddaughter just used to rip up books,” says Chen Huafen, a grandmother who comes to the centre with her grandchild. My granddaughter’s parents work away in Xi'an, so I take care of her,” Ms Chen adds. “At first I told them I didn’t know how to nurture a child, so they said: ‘Go to the education centre.’ Everything is good here. At home my granddaughter would just play in the dirt.”
The four-room education centre is a burst of life and colour in the sparse village, the streets of which are deathly quiet due to most residents working away in fields, or as migrant workers. The centre is small and basic, filled with new toys and picture books. A ball pit and plastic slide make a colourful centrepiece, and the cartoon-adorned walls and floors are padded to help boisterous toddlers avoid accidents. The children who come to the centre are happy and calm, occupied by the wealth of playthings on offer, the tinny squawk of push-button electronic toys drowning out sporadic, short-lived tantrums. Most of the children have no such items at home.
Reap has around 90 trainers who also make home visits to around 550 families living too far from the centres to travel to them. There are fewer than 20 centres at the moment, but there are plans to increase the number to 50 and pressure on the government to roll out the project nationwide.
Every six months Reap researchers compare mental ability test scores garnered from the Bayley Scales of Infant and Toddler Development between children who take part in the education course and those who don’t, and the results show the project is working. The group’s scores are maintained over time at an average of 97, and researchers have found that if children don’t take part in the course, their score declines to an average of 81. “And with a score of 81, you are not going to have the ability to graduate from high school,” claims Professor Shi.
Professor Shi has discussed the benefits of Reap with 27 National Health and Family Planning Commission officials from provinces across China in an attempt to see it spread throughout the country. Some have started setting up their own regional education centres. He hopes that the government will be enticed to fund a nationwide rollout by offering the prospect of a better-educated workforce: one more suited to China’s ongoing shift away from agriculture to urban industries.