Chen Jia Jia: Spreading Laughter, One Village at a Time

Story written by Laura Johnsson

On a muggy afternoon, Jia Jia, a two-and-a-half-year-old girl, stands between her mother’s legs and opens her mouth as wide as possible to get a hearty bite of the cold white peach that she so preciously holds in her two hands. Each bite drips more sweet juice on the floor than the last.  Engrossed in this delicious, sticky mess, Jia Jia looks up from her hands and gazes with pride at her mother, Li Jiao, who embraced Jia Jia’s younger brother, Jia Heng. Six days a week, the two children attend their local parenting center in Songba village with their mother and grandmother. “When we leave for the parenting center each morning,” Li Jiao says, “the kids skip ahead, practically pulling our arms off. Even though I am the center manager, they are always the first ones there!”

Li Jiao was selected to be the manager for the parenting center in 2016. During opening hours, Li Jiao greets each family with eagerness as they pour through the cramped door and into the room. Pink, yellow, and blue spongy mats stretch from wall to wall, transforming the previously grey room into a soft, safe environment. Children squeal with laughter and curiosity as they roll around doing summersaults, race each other on the green horses, and turn each shiny page of a book. The center is simply overflowing with enthusiasm from active children and with vibrant from different colors and textures. Here, toddlers learn the joy of physical and intellectual play.

A three year old girl, who was just exploring the depths of the ball pit in her light orange shirt and shorts, scampers over to Li Jiao with a brand new book in hand, eager to crack it open and read.  Even though she is not old enough to read the words on the page, Li Jiao still sits with her and uses the pictures on the page to tell a story. Joint interactions like these, where the child and the adult engage in an activity together, spark development in creativity, imagination, and language. By Li Jiao modeling crucial and constructive adult-child interactions, other primary caretakers are easily inspired. Li Jiao takes her job as role model seriously: “Many grandparents do not buy books for their children,” she tells me. “I hope to show them that buying books and telling stories is important.” She has a dream not only for her own children but also for the children of other local families. 

Back in the reading corner, Jia Jia’s grandmother nestles herself around her granddaughter to start a book. The two sit together pointing at illustrations of white rabbits prancing between tall blades of grass. Jia Jia’s lips are nearly invisible as she focuses her attention on observing and turning each page. When they finish, Jia Jia looks up from the book with sparkling eyes and tells her grandmother, “it’s my turn now!”. She then begins to recite the story in her own words, pausing every so often to test her grandmother’s recollection of their created tale.  
 
After an action-packed day at the parenting center diving through the ball pit and stacking red and yellow blocks into a tower, Jia Jia comes home and wants more. Now that she knows the spectacular feelings of reading and playing, she is restless. In her soft pink, cotton, summer dress, Jia Jia bounces at her mother and grandmother’s sides inviting them to come play restaurant with her and her younger brother. They each giggle and follow Jia Jia into the home play room to join in on Jia Jia’s favorite game. Li Jiao makes a point to say that her daughter never demonstrated creativity or passion like this before going to the parenting center. Playing restaurant has now become a family favorite pastime returning from the center in the afternoon. Additionally, while Jia Jia was previously shy around other children her age, she now beams with delight as she plays with building blocks and stuffed animals with her new friends. Time and again, this behavior contrasts that of children in villages without parenting centers. Here, they are imaginative. They are expressive. They are energetic. They are hungry for more.