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November 24, 2009

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On 'genius' track, little time for fun

ALL work and little play is the norm for most children in China, where stiff competition for future jobs and ambitious parents mean long hours in the company of school books, not friends.

There is no shortage of wealthy Beijing parents these days willing to stump tens of thousands of yuan for elite educational institutions to give their offspring an academic head-start.

"Children have so much pressure to do well. There is a Chinese idiom: ?Every parent wants their son to be a dragon and daughter to be a phoenix,'" said Li Hongyan, who runs the 68,000 yuan (US$9,960) a year MEG Bilingual International Kindergarten.

But between math, language and other so-called enrichment classes, there is often little time for play, which children's rights groups say is essential for healthy development.

Through play, children learn how to socialize, communicate and share as well as solve conflicts -- skills that can't be taught from a book, said Kirsten Di Martino, chief of Child Protection at UNICEF China.

But for parents who pour all their hopes and ambitions into just one son or daughter and know they will face a highly competitive society, those skills may be too abstract.

In the experimental class for the gifted and talented children at Beijing's No. 8 High School, which churns out "geniuses," students are used to a seven-day school week.

Most Chinese students start high school at 16, but each year a few dozen nine to 10 year-olds are put on a fast-track to university with a speeded-up curriculum.

They get to university up to seven years ahead of normal students. In return, many children said they usually have just 30 minutes of play time a week.

Ten-year-old Wang Shaohan is already thinking about college.

"There are pluses and minuses. The negative side is that when we get into university we are not mature like others," Wang said. "The plus side is that I can get ahead. My mother said the best time in life is college life. It's not a bad thing to start early."


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