Overseas study tours for preschoolers: China’s latest parenting trend

Chinese parents are sending young children abroad to the US and other destinations for kindergarten programmes that can last months

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 July, 2017, 9:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 July, 2017, 4:15pm

Zhang Feiyu may not even be five years old, but he is getting to learn about the world this year via an activity increasingly being experienced by preschoolers: an overseas study tour.

A few days ago, the Shanghai youngster flew for more than 15 hours with his mother and younger sister to his aunt’s US home in Austin, Texas.

The boy, who is still two months from celebrating his fifth birthday, will attend a local kindergarten in the Texas capital for a couple of months to “broaden his horizons”.

“I want him to go out and see the world… I wonder how he will play with others in an English-speaking environment,” said his mother, Jamie Chen.

Under Chen’s plan, Feiyu will join a kindergarten class near the home of his mother’s sister from August to December, while his mother and her toddler daughter enjoy an exotic holiday.

In a growing trend, one catching on quickly in the US as hundreds of thousands of Chinese students flock to study overseas each year, kids Feiyu’s age are making short-term study tours abroad.

“More and more preschoolers, or kids aged between three and six, have taken part in overseas study tours in the past year, while international kindergartens expand and more bilingual courses are introduced during the kindergarten period [in mainland China],” said Zhang Jie, director of study tour business at leading Chinese tour agency Ctrip.

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Those kids make up about 10 per cent of consumers who have booked overseas study tours on Ctrip this summer, said Zhang.

This figure marks a considerable rise from the past year. According to a recent report by travel agent Tuniu.com, preschoolers accounted for 6 per cent of Chinese students who went on study tours in the same period a year ago.

The US is the most popular destination, followed by Britain, according to the report. The typical price range for such a tour is between 20,000 and 30,000 yuan (US$2,940 and US$4,410) per person, it said.

In reality, however, prices can differ sharply, depending on the destination. For a one-week tour to Chiang Mai in Thailand, a child and parent spent roughly 6,000 yuan for kindergarten and hotel. In a 13-day tour to Reunion, a French island on the Indian Ocean, a package of 37,800 yuan will cover everything for either a child or an adult.

There are two types of tours in this segment of the travel market, according to Ctrip. One is summer camps organised by professional groups mainly in the US, Britain and Singapore, which sometimes combine with visits to places of cultural interest or lectures by education experts. The other is overseas kindergartens which kids can join for short periods as transfer students, with the US, Britain, Australia and New Zealand being the most popular destinations.

Maggie Xiao, a Shanghai housewife with two daughters, said she decided to take her eldest girl, Xie Lele, to a US camp last summer after a friend did it.

“I happened to have plans to travel in the US, and I thought having Lele go to a local summer camp would be a great plus,” Xiao said.

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“Her father and I have decided to let her study abroad when she’s older, so we wanted her to experience what it’s like in advance.”

Lele, who is six years old and attends Montessori School of Shanghai, joined a three-week summer camp in July last year.

The girl went to camp between 8am and 9am and left at 3pm after a day of art-, science- and outdoors-themed activities.

The mother said she liked the camp because it was “very American” – she saw only three Asian faces on campus among the 100 students who were there. Lele also liked it, because it was “a lot of fun”.

Xiao said the camp experience was worthwhile despite its high cost – US$400 a week – because her daughter felt great there.

“I was happy to see that she was totally comfortable in this new environment,” Xiao said.

In addition to helping their child get ready for a future education with an eye-opening experience, young mainland parents are using the tours as an opportunity for quality family time, Ctrip’s Zhang said.

“Chinese parents are attaching greater importance to parent-child relations and learning to create high-quality time together with their kids, driving up the demand for parent-child travelling,” Zhang said.

EF Education First, an English-language training organisation, said it sensed the demand and has responded with new study tour programmes this summer that target younger children.

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There is a two-week parent-child tour for kids between five and nine. Two routes are offered: Australia and Singapore.

In these tours, children practice English with teachers who are native English speakers, while parents visit famous schools, learn about investment and immigration policies, participate in wine tastings or play golf, according to a statement from EF Education First.

Despite offerings by large organisations like EF Education First and Ctrip, most of the business occurs through smaller agents, usually mothers who run public accounts on WeChat, China’s most popular social media platform.

Deng Jing, who offers art activities for children via her “Mamimofa” WeChat account and hosts related shows on two Shanghai children’s television channels, said she has organised art-themed summer and winter camps in Japan and Europe for the past couple of years.

The tour groups were usually kept small – a dozen families at most –, and the kids were given art activities such as working with ceramics or colour drawing with local school kids.

“This year we are going to Reunion (the French island in the Indian Ocean). Our youngest student is aged five… Even parents of two-year-olds have called to consult about our tours,” Deng said.

However, the new opportunities aren’t attractive to all industry players.

Why Chinese parents are sending their children abroad to study at a younger age

Andrew Chen, chief learning officer of WholeRen Education, a consultancy for Chinese students in the US, said the industry is still in a preliminary stage and generating small revenue due to high costs, especially in targeting consumers.

The company has studied opportunities in this segment of the market, but it has adopted a wait-and-see approach because it is difficult to meet the demands of parents of young children in providing accommodation and making local travel arrangements, he said.

“So for the time being we choose to give suggestions and charge a consultancy fee for consumers of this type, instead of arranging the tours for them and bearing the responsibility.”

Xiao, the Shanghai housewife, said her eldest daughter asked if she could go to camp again this summer.

“We’re thinking about the UK, but maybe we’ll go after a year or two when my little girl gets older,” she said, referring to her second daughter who is three years old.