Singing, dancing and playing house, 3-year-old Chenchen is spending his most enjoyable time of the day with his mom.
The fun is not happening in their home but in an early education center in Muwa, a remote village hidden in the mountains of southwest China's Guizhou Province.
Only a few years ago, the chief pastime for children at Chenchen's age was sightseeing in a bamboo basket on someone's back while the adults did chores or ran errands.
"Many of the kids lacked adequate crawling skills, so they began to walk much later, which made them lag behind sensually, intellectually and socially," said Wang Bi, a mother who is also a nursery teacher at the center.
The "Village Early Education Center" program Chenchen is in -- an innovative effort to put even the poorest children in the most isolated villages through preschool -- is likely to make up for the shortfall and set him up for a brighter future.
Initiated by the China Development Research Foundation (CDRF), the program, which began in 2017 in Dayin Town, Guizhou Province, aims to enrich children's language skills and boost their socio-emotional development and school readiness through multiple activities and training.
According to Liu Bei, the project manager at CDRF, the first three years of life are a period of incredible growth in all areas of a baby's development.
"Adequate nutrition and stimulation of the parenting and education environment can lay a solid foundation for their whole life. For economically underdeveloped areas, intervention in early childhood development is also one of the most worthy investments," she said.
Highlighting that rural children often lag behind their city-born peers in language and social skills, Liu noted that such gaps can be narrowed through early parenting intervention in the form of "home visits."
Under the program, qualified women are trained and hired as home visitors to provide every child and his or her primary caregiver with one hour of early parenting instruction at home per week. The services are free of charge.
The difference these teachers make is striking. "Our survey shows that compared to their peers without intervention, kids in our program in Dayin scored 16 percentage points higher in the comprehensive test of children's development," said Liu Bei.
In 2021, the health bureau in Bijie City, which administers Dayin, further partnered with CDRF and built an early-childhood education center. Now most kids and their caregivers can come to the center to receive comprehensive guidance in babysitting. A playroom and a library are also available in the three-story building.
As of October, a total of 1,790 children had benefited from the program and 112 nursery teachers were trained, according to Liu Bei.
"Our instructors are very professional, some of them are from top-level universities such as Beijing Normal University and Southeast University," said Liu Bi.
According to Liu Bi, many of the kids are left-behind children and spend most of their time with their grandparents. They tend to speak later and are more introverted. But their social behavior, emotional expression, and self-regulation all greatly improved after attending the courses.
"This has given me a great sense of accomplishment and the best thing is, I don't have to leave my own child behind to get a job," said Liu Bi.