The mountains of Hubei in central China are gloomy and cold in early winter. Lu Hongfei, 28, arrives at a community service center in Wangjiaping village after walking with her 3-year-old daughter for half an hour.
In a small activity room, eight children and their parents sit together. The youngest is just a toddler. Books and toys are stacked in one corner.
Since 2012, with UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund) China assistance, the All-China Women's Federation (ACWF) has been setting up community-based early childhood development (ECD) centers in poor rural areas affected by urban migration in Hubei, Hunan, Hebei, Shanxi, Guizhou and Xinjiang. Wangjiaping Village, in Wufeng County, is a pilot center. UNICEF has supplied it with books, toys, desks, chairs, kiosks with child-care information, and outdoor facilities for children.
Children in Wangjiaping can play in the ECD center five days a week. Parents can engage in play with them under the guidance of volunteers. Regular visits by ECD experts also teach parents better ways to raise their children.
Lu Hongfei and her daughter are at the ECD center for the first time. For seven years, she and her husband have run a store selling electronic products in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, east China. She brought her elder daughter back to their hometown last month and gave birth to her second daughter.
"A one-year early education program costs hundreds or even thousands in Hangzhou, and we can't afford it," Lu says. "I never thought the toys and picture books here would be the same as those in the city - and free too. Rural children can have the same opportunity as children in the cities."
Wufeng County, in the Wuling Mountain area, is one of China's contiguous poor areas with an annual per-capita income of less than 8,000 yuan (about 1,100 U.S. dollars). About 85 percent of the county's 200,000 people are from the Tujia ethnic minority.
"Over 80 percent of the children in the village are left-behind children. They are raised by the older generation who believes children only need to be fed and dressed," says Tan Langui, director of the Women's Federation in the village. "Many children are either shy and withdrawn or unruly and rude when they first come to the ECD center. However, as they come more often and are taught by the teachers, they gradually learn how to get along with peers and adults as well as how to read and play with them."
Half of China's 16 million newborns each year are born in rural areas, says Zhao Qi, education officer at UNICEF China. "Early childhood development encompasses physical, social, emotional, cognitive thinking and language progression.
"An old Chinese saying goes 'childhood predicts future'. From a scientific point of view, the brain develops rapidly in the first few years. Good nutrition, early stimulation, vaccination, and a secure and caring environment can facilitate the development of a child's brain and help reach their full potential." Zhao says.
Yang Rubing is one month shy of 3 years old. She brings each visitor a wooden stool and gives them oranges without being told to, and then stays quietly by her grandmother. But when ECD volunteer Wang Haiyan enters her home, she rushes into her arms.
Rubing's parents are migrant workers, living away from home. In fine weather, her grandparents take Rubing to the ECD center in the village on their motorcycle. This fills her with happiness.
Rubing's grandma Xiang Jiayan says she first heard of ECD during volunteer campaigns. "In the past, I only worried whether the pigs had been fed and the tea leaves picked. Now I also think of doing some reading with my granddaughter."
Two years ago, Wang Haiyan quit her job in a foreign trade company in Shenzhen, where she earned 100,000 yuan (about 14,500 U.S. dollars) a year. She was trained in the UNICEF-ACWF joint project to become an ECD volunteer in Wangjiaping Village. Her new salary is just 1,500 yuan (about 210 U.S. dollars) a month.
She walks 40 minutes on mountain road to the ECD center, where she welcomes children, sorts toys and books, and organizes parent-child activities every week.
"It's difficult to fix the problem if a child fails to develop properly at early childhood. I hope parents in rural areas can see the benefits of early education for children," says Wang.
Lingbao Village, in the suburbs of Hubei's Yichang City, is home to another pilot ECD center. Since 2014, the center has given 73 children under 3 years and their families ECD support.
Liao Xinyi was born in August 2014, the same time Lingbao's ECD center was established. Xinyi's mother, Lian Lanlan, has been taking her to the service center every week to listen to music, read books, and play with other children since she was just a few months old.
Xinyi is lively and cheerful. She can sing the English alphabet song and loves watching Peppa Pig cartoons. "We used to go to the center three times a week. Now the place is under renovation so we haven't been there for a while," Lian says. "Whenever Xinyi walks past the center, she says, 'I miss my teachers and friends'."
Lingbao is renovating and refurnishing the center. Village head Wang Kangjun says that the village has invested 300,000 yuan (about 43,700 U.S. dollars) in expanding it. The activity room has been expanded from an area of 20 square meters to 400 square meters, so all the village children will be able to enjoy it with their parents. The building materials are environment-friendly, and the construction work is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year.
"The ECD pilot project also drives improvement of infrastructure in the village," says Wang Kangjun. "To encourage villagers to bring their children to the center, the government invested 15 million yuan (about 2.18 million U.S. dollars) last year in a new paved road and planting trees."
The project has also changed the lives of the volunteers. Yang Rong was the first ECD volunteer in Lingbao Village. With a qualification in advertising design, she used to work in the village council and had no knowledge of how to mix with children.
"When I attended the UNICEF training, there was a simulation task requiring me to manage children at play. I was so nervous I could barely speak. My hand, which was holding the book, was trembling and the entire scene went out of control," Yang recalls. "All I could do was to read through the manual provided by UNICEF again and again. I gradually managed to master the techniques of getting along with children, and started to enjoy the work."
Yang's volunteer work won support from people in the village. Last month she was elected by an overwhelming majority as a member of the People's Congress in the district as a representative of Lingbao Village.
This year, 26 new pilot sites have been added to UNICEF's Early Child Development Community and Family Support Program. By 2020, it will support 146 ECD centers.
"We hope the Early Child Development Service Program can be replicated and developed in a sustainable manner," says Zhao Qi, education officer of UNICEF China. "The model and experience gained from these pilot projects provide a basis for the government to develop and implement policies. They will improve childhood for more children and families."