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East Asia Child Science Exchange Program :Discussion of the Transition from Kindergarten to Elementary School

Study Conducted in Mainland China during the 1990s

During 1990 to 1994, UNICEF and the Ministry of Education of China (the Former National Education Committee) conducted a collaborative research project titled "Study on the Transition from Kindergarten to Elementary School." In this project, 2,189 children of 88 educational institutions in eight provinces were surveyed and 16 elementary schools and kindergartens conducted educational experimental programs over five consecutive years. At the time, 21 million to 25 million children went to school every year in mainland China, and 60 percent of them received early childhood education for more than 1 year.

The Project aimed "to discover universal and regular problems with the transition from kindergarten to elementary school in urban and rural areas of our country; to develop effective educational policies through educational experiment programs; to provide the educational administration division with verification of the formulation of policies; and to have educational institutions provide logical explanation and specific advice for improvement of the field, the renovation of parents' educational values, and the realization of educational method."

In mainland China of that time, children's experiences prior to entrance to elementary school differed significantly due to unequal opportunity to enter kindergarten (preschool classes) as well as the diversity of educational institutions for young children. At the same time, preschool education and elementary school education in mainland China are two completely different educational processes. There is an extremely big difference in learning and lifestyle between these two educational institutions. Preschools provide education that mainly focuses on play, while elementary schools provide lessons and manage students through strict teaching and time schedules. This difference creates a gap in the transition from kindergarten to elementary school. Obviously, the bigger the gap, the more serious are the problems of maladjustment among children.

The Project surveyed 1,127 older children of 44 kindergartens and 1,127 first graders of 4 elementary schools, regarding family structure, physical condition, literacy, and social adaptivity. A field study was also conducted. As a result, children's maladjustment to learning was manifested in their abilities, but not in their knowledge or skills.

In addition, the Study showed significant positive correlation among literacy, math, and social adaptivity. It proved that the problems of children's social maladjustment somewhat affected their adaptivity in learning. Therefore, both children's adaptivity in learning and in society must be improved in order to solve problems regarding the transition from preschool to elementary school.

The result highlighted that children's autonomy was a particularly prominent factor that affected children's adaptivity in learning and in society. In other words, there is a strong correlation between whether or not the child can make independent efforts to learn and their preparation for and adjustment to elementary school. Therefore, greater emphasis is needed on fostering children's autonomy.

Based on the survey results mentioned above, the educational experiment of the Project set two tasks for the transition from preschool education to elementary school education. As for preschool education, preparatory education especially for adaptivity in learning and in society must be provided in the proper way. For elementary school education, orientation must be provided and the starting level of education should be lowered to the point where education for young children and elementary school children overlaps.

Both the process and the result of the experiment revealed the following. The roles of teachers are to follow children's development and guide children to learn voluntarily under the education and supervision provided by teachers. Education should be changed from achievement-oriented to focusing on the development of children's sociality. Teachers should emphasize fostering children's abilities as well as pass on knowledge to children. Specifically, the teaching style during the transitional stage should be changed from cramming to providing classes that incorporate play. Various learning styles through club activities should be arranged. Teachers combine dynamic and static activities and encourage children to use their hands and brain to do the activities. Teachers should also emphasize the importance of education at home during this kind of transition time.

Influence of the Study in the 1990s on Curriculum reform in Kindergarten and Elementary School

The study was conducted as a joint research project of UNICEF and the Ministry of Education of China. It has affected the philosophy and practice of educational institutions, particularly the curriculum reform of kindergartens (including preschool classes) and of elementary schools, through a process of formulating and implementing education policies. It was found that a set of regulations, provisions, and policies formulated by the Ministry of Education from the mid-1990s have played a guiding role in the curriculum reform of kindergartens and elementary schools, and the result of this study coincided with those in various fields. The details are as follows.

(1) In terms of education philosophy, teachers are requested to focus on children's development and subjective activities.

Since the Reform and Open-Door Policy was implemented during the last century, Mainland China has started emphasizing the concept of "child development" in the education reform of junior high schools, elementary schools, and kindergartens. Governmental supervisory authority in education started advocating a philosophy that makes child development the basis for reform. The idea is to be directly linked with teachers' awareness and activities through teacher education and education practice.

For instance, in the "regulations concerning kindergarten business" issued in 1996, the Ministry of Education clearly defined that kindergarten education must: "follow the developmental mechanisms of children's mind and body; be suitable for the age of children; focus on individual differences; be provided through different approaches depending on the children; and guide children to develop their personalities soundly." Kindergarten "should provide play-based education through various activities." "Educational activities of kindergarten should set goals and plans to guide children to act independently and energetically. Multidimensional educational processes must be implemented." Listening to the government's policy and the mainstream public opinion after 10 years of publicity and education, they oppose kindergarten education for older children or preschool classes becoming like elementary school education, and emphasize the importance of children's self-motivated exploration and learning.

(2) Reform of preschool curriculum and early elementary school program
Since the preschool curriculum was regulated altogether by the government, the reform was implemented so that each kindergarten could decide its own curriculum. The curriculum has been changed from traditional subjects such as "language," "physical education" "music," "fine arts," "general knowledge," and "mathematics" to five major subjects including "language," "science," "social studies," "art," and "health education." Integration and overlap among these subjects were also encouraged. "Ethics for living" has been included in the early elementary school curriculum. Children's life experience was given importance and incorporated into the preschool curriculum.

(3) Emphasis on play and focus on social adaptivity such as affect and attitude
Play is emphasized in kindergarten and preschool classes. The essence of play has also been incorporated into the subject "ethics for living" in the elementary school curriculum. Teachers are expected to provide younger schoolchildren with education in the same way as in kindergarten (i.e., play-based general education). During the class, teachers should focus on the development of children's social affect and attitude. In doing so, children are able to adjust to elementary school, and this will also have a favorable influence on young children's life development.

A Different Viewpoint on "The Transition from Kindergarten to Elementary School"

The results of "The Study on the Transition from Kindergarten to Elementary School" conducted during the 1990s played a role in promoting the education reform of preschools, elementary schools, and junior high schools at that time. At the same time, it was considered to be in opposition to the educational philosophy of the day that underestimated children's ability and social affect due to an exclusive devotion to academic performances. It also played a guiding role in solving the problems with the transition from kindergarten to elementary school through education practice.

Ten years have passed since then, and China is facing changes in social culture and its economic situation. The social interests at stake and problems that must be solved have also changed.

The Reform and Open-Door Policy began to be implemented in mainland China more than 10 years ago, and economic development was expected to be hastened. The awareness of and need for the reform increased in fields related to the planned economy. Western educational philosophy and practice were introduced to the field of education. Educators were discontent with the status quo, and their need and enthusiasm for the reform were strong.

Amid the megatrend of economic reform during the past 20 years, the Chinese government paid much attention to efficiency as well as a solution for backwardness. However, it ignored the stability of social structures and the balanced social relationships. One example was the use of the slogan "enrich some people first.". Likewise, the government made a commitment to create a "high-quality kindergarten as a model school" under their education reform, and this school became representative of the reform. Based on this past record and "The Study on the Transition from Kindergarten to Elementary School" conducted 10 years ago, the aims now are to focus on the question how the transition can be carried out smoothly through the implementation of the Project and to establish model kindergartens and schools for all other kindergartens and schools.

Recently, however, the economic reform in mainland China has made strides to a certain degree. The problems of economic disparity in society and resource inequality have attracted public attention. In mainland China, 25% of children cannot receive one year of pre-school education prior to elementary school and 50% cannot receive three years of preschool education. Chinese government aims to create a "balanced society," and problems with education should be the first issue to be solved. An important index of a "balanced society" is the guarantee of a right to education to all citizens.

More than 10 years ago when not all citizens had equal opportunity to receive an education, the idea that "some people should be allowed to receive high-quality education first so that they can make great achievements first" was understandable. However, the time has come to think about balanced development and changing the reality of unequal education. Therefore, we should think about why it needs to be done and what we should do for the transition from kindergarten to elementary school, rather than doing it better.

In my view, we should provide children, who have a little or no chance of receiving preschool education, with the qualities of "learning adaptivity" and "social adaptivity" rather than "play." I do not think the emphasis on children's life experience and promoting self-motivated exploration are good ways to solve the problem of the transition from kindergarten to elementary school, because some educational institutions have teachers with poor skills, a low teacher-student ratio and fewer educational resources. The problem of the transition from kindergarten to elementary school is not simple enough to be solved by formulating policies or strategies based on the results of single study or by one great idea or measure.

The Influence of Various Factors on the Transition from Kindergarten to Elementary School

On the other hand, the issue of the transition to elementary school is not the problem that can be solved by improving only children's learning adaptivity and social adaptivity. The factors that affect the transition from kindergarten to elementary school differ according to the particular children and time.

For instance, I have experience analyzing educational materials, particularly Chinese language textbooks for early elementary school children in some provinces. The content in the first semester and for the first graders is very difficult and taught at high speed. Unless children prepare for adapting to such conditions before they enter elementary school, they are at risk of having difficulty catching up with classes and losing confidence.

In addition, elementary school teachers' ways of teaching classes and interacting with children are different from those of kindergarten, so are the school management method and daily schedule. There could lead to a sense of frustration among quite a number of children, particularly among those with a strong personality.


To solve the problem of the transition from kindergarten to elementary school is a practical issue related to politics. In order to solve such a problem, we should judge and act based on "effectiveness," not on philosophy supremacy. In reality, there is not one specific solution. We must "respond to the situation flexibly in accordance with the time, place, and condition." The only criterion that verifies the consequence is practice.

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