We spent the weekend checking out a couple of play centers for our daughter – one, a local branch of an international mega-corporation, and the other, a smaller, homegrown operation.
Saturday morning we hit up the first play center for a trial session. Based in the US, this “Walmart of early learning centers” boasts hundreds of locations around the world, a NASDAQ listing and a patented approach to “developing the cognitive, physical and social skills of children as they play.”
We were placed in the “Level 3” class with tots ranging from 10 to 16 months. The hour-long class was bilingual – one of the center’s selling points – and indeed, the two instructors interchanged English and Chinese in rapid-fire succession* as they led the 20-plus kids and parents class in a series of games and exercises designed to teach kids to develop their upper body strength, walking, balance, grasping ability and bonding with their parents. It was all pretty straightforward, albeit polished with an oh-so-American corporate marketing veneer**. The kids responded well, and even our typically timid daughter warmed up to the games after a few minutes.
The next day we took our daughter to the smaller play center just a few minutes walk from our house. Like its larger competitor, the place was doing bustling business, but the class was notably smaller (about five families – mostly moms and/or ayis and their tots – in attendance) and was conducted exclusively in Chinese. As with the previous day, it took our daughter a few terrified moments to get into it, but she managed to relax and seemed to enjoy herself as the instructor led the group in a series of similarly designed songs and games.
The question remains, however, as to whether or not we will actually enroll in either of these play centers. The price of the former works out to be around RMB 16,000 plus for a two-year enrollment (roughly RMB 168 a session), or RMB 1,000 plus (RMB 268) for four a week commitment. The latter – a far cheaper option – works out to be a about RMB 7,800 if we sign up for a half year membership, with no limit on class attendance.
Thus far the latter seems a far more economic (not to mention, viable) option – but the cost of both underscores my general impression of early learning play centers: Unless you have the time and means to take your kid almost every day of the week (which we do not) – in other words, if you have the means to expose your toddler to a constant and consistent systematic influx of cognitive, physical and linguistic*** stimulation – it seems that going to these classes once a week for that much dough is not really worth it.
There’s certainly no harm in these “pay to play” centers, and perhaps there really is some long-term net benefit****.
But as for me (and my ever-depleting pocketbook), I am obliged think twice with pre-school and/or kindergarten tuition fees looming on the horizon.
*Whether such sporadic exposure to English really makes a difference in the developing mind of a toddler is anyone’s guess, but it seemed the net effect was mostly to indulge the expectations of the parents (all of whom, aside from ourselves, were exclusively middle class Chinese).
** Particularly with the bits featuring Gymbo the Clown® and the strictly enforced rule of no filming or pictures (not even for Grandma back in the States), presumably to prevent industrial espionage.
***Attending a Chinese early learning center might make sense, for instance, if you have a non-Chinese speaking household and want your kid to be exposed to Chinese early.
****At least for parents who are eager to demonstrate to themselves that they are getting a “leg up” on the “competition” by starting them out early.