WANGYUAN — It's Wednesday morning and two-and-a-half-year-old Mengjie is accompanied to nursery school by her grandmother. Along with a dozen other young children, the toddler is welcomed at the daycare center in Wangyuan village, in one of China's poorest areas in inland Shaanxi province.

Decorated with cartoons on the walls and equipped with soft cushions, as well as various toys and slides, the bright and colorful nursery is filled with laughter. Li Bo, a family planning official from the nearby town, is here this day to teach the parents and grandparents the latest ideas about how to lead a child to play.

"Look at this, Bao-Bao, the little bear wants to be friends with you!", Li guides Mengjie to play with the teddy bear, explaining to her grandma that this helps teach the child to shake or nod her head.

Launched last June, "Nurturing the Future" is an experimental project in early childhood development intervention, jointly run by China's National Health and Family Planning Commission and the REAP, the Rural Education Action Plan. It is co-organized by Shaanxi Normal University, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, as well as Stanford University in California.

Six participating nursery schools have been set up in this dirt poor region in central China, where half of the labor force are migrant workers and per capita annual income is 6,223 RMB ($960).

While in China's booming coastal areas various private pre-school agencies offer all sorts of courses for urban children, there are more than 40 million rural toddlers who very often do not receive quality care, either because they are left with their grandparents while their parents work in the cities, or the parents simply have no knowledge of how to help their child develop.

Early years count

Luo Renfu, who oversees the tutorial material of the Nurturing the Future project draws a curve in the air, as he explains how gaps begin early. "Despite geographical differences, all young children's development level is the same until they are six months old," says Luo. "Rural children's cognitive development deviates gradually from the average national level by primary school age. By the time they enter their teens, nearly one third of rural children will be drop-outs."

Looking to the future in Hangzhou — Photo: Lawrence Wang

The result of this curve came from a series of REAP studies using the Bayley Scales of Infant and Toddler Development, considered the best quantifying tools in testing infant development. In order to clarify the key factors which affect rural and urban children's development, the studies backtracked and compared their secondary as well as primary education and nutritional conditions. Eventually they came to the conclusion that critical action would have to start at a preschool age in order to have the most impact on children's later performance. 

It is the first time studies about the relationship between parenting behavior and toddlers' development have been conducted in China's impoverished rural counties. Yue Ai, a senior researcher and lecturer from Shaanxi Normal University, pointed out that REAP studies in various places have more or less come to the same conclusion.

A doomed future?

What worries the researchers is that these rural children fall behind so early, and have trouble ever catching up. Zhang Linxiu, researcher at the Chinese Academy of Science, says China's changing economy requires people who are well-equipped and flexible to enter the workforce. "The problem is that the future job market will no longer be the same as the current one. People who would have farmed in the past have trouble competing in the cities."

Luo Renfu says the urgency can be blamed on China's extraordinarily rapid development. What took the West more than 100 years to evolve into, as a society, took China only a couple of decades. At best, the former rural generation is able to either work as farmers or on assembly lines. But counting on cheap rural labor to boost China's economic development isn't going to be sustainable.

To upgrade Chinese industries China needs highly skilled labor and more creative talent. Scott Rozelle, a Senior Fellow of Stanford University and the co-director of the REAP program, notes that in the 1960s and 1970s, "the world's factories" were South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Mexico.

"But by the 1980s and 1990s, as wages soared, the unskilled garment workers became highly skilled workers for computers, the service industry or other sectors. In Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, almost all workers have at least a senior high school degree," Rozelle adds. "This high-quality workforce guarantees these countries their industrial upgrade capability. Meanwhile, in Mexico, only 40% of the rural population received senior high school education and the majority of its labor force drops out of school at the junior high school stage."

A survey conducted by Rozelle in Shaanxi province's automobile service shops showed that 90% of the vocational school graduates didn't have access to the Internet. "So we have to ask what this low-skilled labor force will be doing in 20 years time," he said.

Lowest intervention cost

As multiple international studies demonstrate, intervening in children's development during the first 1,000 days after their birth will produce the best effect at the lowest cost.

Kids playing in Guizhou in southwestern China — Photo: Philippe Semanaz

Luo Renfu pointed out that brain cells develop fastest between birth and age three. Before the age of two, neuron synapses are establishing connections at a rate of 700 per second. A baby without stimulation won't develop this function. Meanwhile learning after three years old is still based on this early training. The more training the child has the quicker the brain transmits information. Thus, along with adequate nutrition, positive stimulation from the outside world is the most essential factor.

Unfortunately most rural families lack this knowledge. According to the REAP studies, out of the 1,442 toddlers sampled, aged 18 to 30 months, only 12.6% of parents or grandparents read a book to them the day before the study was carried out.

And out of the 100 villages in five poor provinces where REAP conducted its study, only 39% have kindergartens — and none possess any nursery facilities suitable for the toddlers to play. Meanwhile 98% of families do not provide their babies with a safe, healthy and independent space conducive for their development.

Inter-generational parenting is another problem. Some 20% of infants under 12 months old are already taken care of by their grandparents whereas the number soars to around 60% between 24 to 30 months old.

Too many grandparents regard child care as being just about feeding and clothing and protecting kids from danger. One common question is: "Why should I talk to the baby if he can't speak yet anyway?"

Government's role

The six nursery schools launched in Shaanxi province by the Nurturing the Future essentially converted the villages' idle primary school classrooms or Communist Party activity centers into early childhood development centers.

In its design, the REAP project aims to combine various models of intervention to be effective. For instance, door-to-door household visits and intervention is necessary in impoverished and remote mountainous or desert regions, whereas in villages or townships, where population is more concentrated, nurseries can be set up.

But once the programs are extended to a larger scale they obviously require massive amounts of manpower and material resources. Relying on NGOs will be unrealistic.

According to REAP's data, advanced countries invest much more on early stage human capital development — 1.4% of Norway's GDP, for example. This figure is a mere 0.2% in China, far lower than the average of advanced countries, and even trails some South American countries such as Argentina and Brazil, which spend 0.5 % of their GDP for this objective. And though China's education budget accounted in 2013 for 4.3% of its national GDP, there is no specific expenditure destined for infant development.

"Even if we use just a small fraction of the energy we use to control China's population in raising the demographic quality, China will see a brighter future", concludes Shi Yaojiang.

*Xu Heqian and Wang Su also contributed to this report.