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It's test time for tiny tots

ONCE upon a time, extracurricular classes for preschoolers were for enrichment and fun. Now they are serious business, the first step in their school career on the way to a "successful" life.

Kiddies aged 4 to 6 take graded tests that their parents hope will sway admissions officers in the best kindergartens and first grades. Parents treasure the certificates and display them in applications. March and April are the months for school enrollment.

Children are rushing around taking tests in English, Chinese calligraphy, painting, Chinese chess, Latin dance, ballet and many other subjects.

Taking extracurricular classes is not an official requirement for admission to public or private schools, but everybody knows that they are taken into consideration.

"More than 80 percent of the children in my class take at least one extracurricular lesson," says Tang Xiaoting, a teacher from Lianpu Kindergarten in Minhang District. Of 22 students in one class, 18 take after-school classes.

Every day when school is out, the front gate area is filled with people giving out glossy leaflets and brochures for classes that are supposed to help children get ahead in school - and so everybody seems to believe - in life.

"You have to fight your way out through the crowds," teacher Tang says.

Chinese schools are famously test-oriented and now preschoolers are joining the ranks of nervous test-takers.

"Everyone is taking extracurricular lessons. If my child doesn't do so, she will be left behind," says Wang Yan.

Her nine-year-old daughter Wang Xiuwen started learning English at the age of 2, drawing at 5 and piano at 6.

"We think it's very useful and a must. We don't want our child to fall behind and lose the race at the starting line," the mother says.

Don't lose the race at the starting line is a popular saying among parents justifying all the extra work piled onto children.

Her daughter, who is now in Grade 3, now holds a three-star children's certificate for oral English, and a level-four piano certificate for children. This year she will take the piano test for level 6.

"We find the English lessons at an early age foster a good language sense," mother Wang says. "It's obvious that she can recite more English words in a shorter time than her classmates."

The girl is the class monitor and always among the top three in her class.

"We asked her if she wanted to learn these skills and she said yes. We also told her that she couldn't quit halfway and she said okay."

So far the girl has performed well, but the mother admits there were times when her daughter "begged" to be able to play for a while before practicing piano.

Wang Xiuwen spends about one hour practicing piano and another hour painting every day. On Tuesday she has a one-hour piano lesson and on weekends, she attends a three-hour English lesson and a sketching class.

The mother says she would do her very best to create a "preferential environment" for her daughter. One of her friends didn't send her son to any extracurricular classes before entering school because the family wanted him to have more freedom and fun in his childhood. They regretted it.

"After he got into primary school, the boy's academic performance was very poor because the teacher had skipped the basic knowledge, assuming all the students had learned the information in preschool classes," she says. "My friend rushed to put the boy into extracurricular classes, but it was a little late.

Sixty-year-old Lu Xinmin is a retired weiqi or go (Chinese chess) teacher who has been teaching children for more than 20 years. Before retirement he taught around 200 kids in Dongfang Kindergarten in the Pudong New Area. He recently started an extracurricular class in his community.

"Go can sharpen the mind and deepen the thinking pattern, that's why parents send their children to learn," Lu says.

Children's go ability is ranked in 10 levels - and each has a certificate.

"Frankly speaking, the level certificate means nothing. It is more of an encouragement for children and it lets the parents show off," he says.

Unlike most other parents, Li Junhua, who was an English major, doesn't send her six-year-old son to any extra classes.

"I teach him English myself at home in a more casual say," she says. Li says in English the name of a toy or an animal on a TV program and the boy repeats after her.

She once asked her son if he wanted to attend English classes and he wasn't interested. "I respected him," she says. "For him, English is for fun, not a certificate."

Han Xiaoyu, a professor of preschool education at Beijing Normal University, suggests that parents should take it easy and not push their children too much.

"Growth is a long process and parents should know how to help their children spend their time and energy wisely," says Han. "If you push too hard at the beginning and the child overexerts himself or herself, then there won't be enough energy for learning in the final leg.

"It's good to encourage hobbies and interests at an early age, but don't overdo it," she says. "Too much competitive training puts burdens on children; this can make them hate school and kill their desire to learn."

He says educators and the public in general should be very concerned about this trend toward test-taking among small children.

"Certificates and credentials should not be linked with evaluation for school enrollment," she says.


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