Tale of how Little Oak grew tall
When Wang Gan returned to Beijing in 1999 with a PhD in anthropology from Yale, she never imagined that she would go on to launch a successful private kindergarten.
Then aged 31, she had an infant son, Dangdang, in tow. As he turned three, the boy began clamouring to attend kindergarten like all the other children in the neighbourhood. Wang spent weeks checking out potential nursery schools, but none came close to what she had in mind: a place that would rouse his curiosity and train him to think for himself.
'Many kindergartens still believe that teaching primary school material and piling kids with homework are the right things to do,' Wang says.
Rather than resign herself to the situation, Wang set up the Little Oak Children's House with 400,000 yuan (HK$492,000) in start-up capital. She began in a rented flat in 2001 with three teachers and six pupils, including her son.
'We see children as small trees with intrinsic potential, and adults are here to provide the right condition for them to grow,' she says.
Word spread through satisfied parents and before long, Wang was renting a second flat to house the swelling numbers. By 2004, they had outgrown the premises and moved to their current two-storey premises. There are now 180 children aged two to six years.
Pupils there are encouraged to share and to learn through play. To nurture an interest in numbers, for instance, teachers have designed a scoring system that assigns different points to foods that the children eat and they are asked to work out how many points they have gained at the end of the day. (Vegetable dishes usually have higher ratings.)
On a recent Friday afternoon, children bring in favourite toys from home and let classmates play with them as part of a regular sharing session. In one room, two youngsters play a magnetic board game while others build a house with Lego bricks.
Meanwhile, older children learn about how markets work. On the patio, teachers dressed in party hats and dresses are vendors, with pupils playing customers who buy crafts using Monopoly-style money.
Unlike most nurseries, these youngsters are not grouped by age.
'Most kids here are the only child in their family. We think it's important that they learn to play with children of different ages,' Wang says.
Families are increasingly endorsing her non-mainstream approach to learning. Little Oak offers 40 to 50 new spaces each year; but there are more than 200 children on the waiting list - despite the annual fee of 40,000 yuan, which is three to four times that at public kindergartens.
Jiang Hongmei says she enrolled her two daughters in Little Oak 'because the teachers have found a way to stimulate the kids' curiosity for learning. I believe that's very important.' She concedes Little Oak's relaxed pace meant her elder daughter was a little behind children from other kindergartens when she entered primary school. But the interest in learning that her daughter has acquired will enable her to catch up before long, she says.