Free play or group teaching? The rise of Chinese kindergartens

Research in focus

There is now huge demand for kindergarten education in China, with up to 60% of Chinese children currently accessing 150,420 kindergartens. (Hu, Leong & Li, 2015 p.4).

These kindergartens mainly serve affluent families in urban areas, while lower socioeconomic communities are serviced by poorer quality, private services.

To improve equity in access, the Chinese government has begun a program of providing children with at least one year of quality early childhood education (ECE) by 2020 (Hu, et al., 2015, p.4).

The policy question is how should these ECEC programs be delivered to such a large population of Chinese children?

Western theories of early childhood education, like the  NAEYC’s Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP) statement, focus on the delivery of child-initiated play.

In the Western context, ‘play is an important vehicle for developing self-regulation as well as for promoting, language, cognition, and social competence’ (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009, p.14).

While Western theories have been influential in China,  Chinese programs are predominately ‘teacher – centred, with strong emphasis on mastery of knowledge, obeying authority and utilising highly structured activities’ (Hu, et al., p.5). This is not only efficient, but also reflects Chinese culture:

“Chinese traditional and cultural standards support the use of teacher-led whole group teaching instead of child-initiated play.” (Hu, Vong, Chen &Li, 2014; Tobin et al., 2009).

Some literature also shows that group teaching – if well designed and implemented –   can offer some advantages including: ‘instructional efficiency in fostering a sense of community and belonging, even for young children ages three to six (Nikolakaki, 2012; Steven & Lee, 1995; Zhu, 2007).

So what is best for Chinese children’s development?

Hu, Ieong and Li have researched the validity of free play and group teaching, in relation to Chinese children’s development, through an observational study of 178 Chinese kindergarten classrooms in Zhejiang Province.

One of the finding suggests that whole-group teaching is the most efficient approach to early childhood education in a Chinese context, and does have a relationship with improved cognitive gains for children.

But are restrictions on play desirable for the child?

To read more, view the Australasian Journal of Early Childhood (AJEC) Vol 40 No.1, available on ECA’s shop. To subscribe to future editions of AJEC click here.



Copple, C., & Bredekamp, S. (2009). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Hu, B., Ieong, S., & Li. (2015) Why is group teaching so important to Chinese children’s development? Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 40(1), 4-12.

Hu, B., Vong, K., Chen, Y., & Li, K. (2014). Expert practitioners’views about the Chinese Early Childhood Programme Rating Scale(CECPRS). European Journal of Early Childhood Education. doi:


Nikolakaki, M. (2012). Building a society of solidarity through critical pedagogy: Group teaching as a social and democratic tool. Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies (JCEPS), 10(2), 392–417.

Stevenson, H. W., & Lee, S. (1995). The East Asian version of whole class teaching. Educational Policy, 9(2), 152–168.

Tobin, J. (2005). Quality in early childhood education: An anthropologist’s perspective. Early Education and Development, 16(4), 421–434.

Tobin, J., Hsueh, Y., & Karasawa, M. (2009). Preschool in three cultures revisited: China, Japan, and the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Zhu, J. X. (2007). To teach or not: On the value of group teaching in Chinese kindergartens [in Chinese]. Early Childhood Education, (9), 4–6.


Chris Steel'
Chris Steel BA, LLB (ANU) is Policy and Research Manager at Early Childhood Australia. Before coming to ECA, Chris worked as a policy adviser on early childhood and youth to the Australian Government and ACT Government covering the implementation of the National Quality Agenda and Government Child Care Assistance. Chris is currently a Director on the Board of YMCA Canberra.

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