Published: 14:14, February 27, 2024 | Updated: 12:07, February 28, 2024
PDF View
A place where young people can shine
By Chen Bowen

One man's vision gives migrant children a chance to express and enjoy themselves, Chen Bowen reports in Haikou.

Children at Kindergarten Without Walls organize their own Children's Day party in 2021. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The Kindergarten Without Walls sounds like the ultimate dream for any child — no tuition, no rules, no barriers or enrollment requirements. Located in Binlianxincun, a crowded urban village in Haikou, capital of South China's Hainan province, it has been a companion space for children to learn and play since 2018.

Kindergarten Without Walls is a unique concept that deviates from the traditional model of education. Housed in a small general store, this unconventional "kindergarten" opens its doors for free to mainly migrant children and children in difficulty on Friday evenings and weekends, and offers a range of activities — from singing and dancing to painting, watching movies, reading books, and playing games.

The kindergarten is funded by its founder Tang Haoduo and private donors. The volunteers, including stay-at-home mothers and employees of State-owned enterprises, mostly contacted Tang after discovering the Kindergarten Without Walls' public WeChat account.

"Only on weekends do volunteers step in as teachers. They offer their time and expertise to the children, fostering a supportive community in Binlianxincun," says Tang. "We aim to forge a creative and caring community for children in the neighborhood."

Tang, 41, an art teacher at a public junior high school, has been involved in social art practice since 2018, and has addressed important issues such as domestic violence and children's mental health problems. He ran a chat club at the school and conducted an important but anonymous survey, which showed that domestic violence against children often takes the form of control "in the name of love" and verbal attacks that reflect the impact of social pressure.

READ MORE: Rural libraries open exciting chapter for children

The reason Tang decided to run the chat club was because he was a victim of domestic violence. He recalls that his father used physical violence against his mother and siblings. Growing up in a rural area, he considered himself a left-behind, migrant child at the time. "My life underwent constant change in the absence of my parents," he says.

Tang became a resident of Binlianxincun in October 2017. The urban village's mixed demographic of city workers and those from rural areas, along with its diversity of ages and family situations, prompted him to create an experimental space.

He rented a shop in 2017 at a cost of around 20,000 yuan (about $2,780) per year. He named it Quality Time Variety Store, meaning it's not just a grocery store, but a space that offers companionship and a sense of togetherness.

"As an artist, I used to focus on creating physical work such as sculptures and installations. But I gradually felt the pull toward a more participatory and action-oriented practice. This shift in my approach led me to envision a practical and sustainable space where I could not only create art, but also live and breathe creativity," Tang says.

The Quality Time Variety Store hosts Kindergarten Without Walls. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

His aspiration was to establish a space that is not just a short-term endeavor, but a long-term commitment to building a community of artistic expression and collaboration.

Tang sells an array of items ranging from sweet potato liquor, peanut oil and honey, to daily necessities and books. However, what sets the store apart are its vibrant and diverse events. From concerts and salons to independent film screenings, Tang has established a hub for community engagement, relaxation, and artistic expression. The store provides a space for residents and travelers to come together, converse, and even find temporary lodging.

About six months after the Quality Time Variety Store opened, a distressed child appeared one midnight in May 2018. Her disheveled appearance and clothes caked in dirt immediately caught Tang's attention.

He tried to reach out to her, but she was resistant and rude. The next day she returned to the store and asked for snacks. Tang established a connection with the girl, who is called Yueliang (Moon). As he got to know her, he learned about her troubled past, including being adopted at birth and not attending school.

Yueliang's resistance to school might have stemmed from her difficult childhood, making it challenging for any educational institution to accept her.

Tang decided to teach her basic reading and counting skills when she came to the store. "What I was most concerned about was if she continued to wander alone in the middle of the night, she might face potential danger," he says.

"I had approached Yueliang with sympathy, but as time passed, I began to realize that the girl's actions were often misunderstood by others. It dawned on me that perhaps they were a result of her unique perspective, her own inner world that is different from ours," Tang says.

Despite the initial confusion and concerns over Yueliang's behavior, it turned out that her intentions were often born of generosity. Her mother told Tang one day that the girl had taken 800 yuan from her. Later, they found out that she was actually taking the money to treat her friends to a dinner.

Realizing conventional education wouldn't work, Tang tailored an education program for Yueliang, as he discovered that she was talented at painting. "Yueliang is now 14 years old and I want to represent her work pro bono and support her until she reaches 18.Perhaps then she can use the money she has accumulated from her artworks for her adult life," Tang says.

Through the interaction with Yueliang and her friends, Tang became aware of the plight many children face in the neighborhood. He came to understand that they often felt misunderstood and were often overlooked by the adults in their lives.

The pottery workshop is a fun event held by Kindergarten Without Walls during the 2022 art festival. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

This motivated him to expand his work. In 2019, he turned the store into a community educational art project for children — Kindergarten Without Walls.

"'Without Walls' stands for breaking boundaries, and embracing freedom and openness. 'Kindergarten' refers to its somewhat lighthearted, childlike setting," Tang explains. "However, our kindergarten is not only for little kids, but also for high school students, ranging from 3 or 4 years old to 18 years old."

He believes that Kindergarten Without Walls has the potential to reach a global audience and create a borderless community online. "We can use the current space as a base to try online workshops, not limited by countries and regions, and embrace the world in the future," he says.

Tang began to study child psychology in 2018. To better help the children in his neighborhood, he has participated in online discussions with the Psychological Analysis Society in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, since 2019.

"Every counselor needs someone they trust to supervise and support them. Even though most of the time I just listen to the children, I'm still under a lot of pressure," he says.

At Kindergarten Without Walls, children have the opportunity to explore and experience the outside world. Every Friday night, the Quality Time Variety Store transforms into a movie hub, screening international blockbusters from Disney, Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli, as well as popular films from theaters. "We typically have 10 to 20 children from the neighborhood joining us for movie nights," Tang says.

Ke Youyou, 17, sometimes helps Tang to select and play movies. Her role as a volunteer from the neighborhood provides her with a unique insight into the inclusive and nurturing environment cultivated in the project. "All kinds of children can play in the kindergarten. It's inclusive, without cliques. It's very child-friendly. The absence of school rules and regulations fosters a sense of freedom and relaxation, which allows children to explore and learn," she says.

Tang and the volunteers invite friends from different backgrounds to share their insights with the children. They also organize flea markets in the neighborhood where the children can sell their paintings, old books and toys.

Kindergarten Without Walls started an art festival in 2022, inviting people from all over the country to take part. With around 100 participants so far, the festival has been held twice so far — for two days in November 2022, for two and a half days in August 2023 — and is scheduled to continue this year.

It has been held in vacant shops in the community, and neighbors such as grocery stores and barber shops are willing to provide space. The range of activities available, from woodworking and improvised drama to printmaking and pottery, offers a rich artistic experience for all involved, according to Tang.

Yueliang manages a stall at the flea market in 2021. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Kindergarten Without Walls also holds a "store manager for a day" weekly activity, which invites children from the neighborhood to take on the role of a manager. The "manager" is expected to organize a day of activities in the variety store, complete with games and sales of items like books, embroidery, and postcards.

Among the items sold are prints of spoken poems by the children. Inspired by the spontaneous storytelling of his fifth-grade daughter, Tang realized that children possess a natural ability for oral expression from as early as kindergarten. Unlike adults who follow logic, grammar, and precise vocabulary, children's descriptions often mirror the attributes of modern poetry, says Tang.

He takes time to record their daily musings and expressions, and has amassed a collection of more than 100 poems, 79 of which have been published, with 10 even being translated into English. Tang cuts woodblocks and prints the poems himself. He also uses them to make postcards.

Zhou Yan, curator and a PhD candidate in the field of interdisciplinary studies of cultural heritage, museum studies, contemporary art, and cross-cultural studies, at the University of Toronto, has been responsible for translating the children's poems.

She says that they are a beautiful reflection of the children's natural and unfiltered creativity. "It provides a window into their innermost feelings, preferences, and thoughts, allowing them to express a wide range of emotions, including sadness and dissatisfaction. Whether they're grappling with family issues or navigating the challenges of school, children's poetry serves as an authentic outlet for processing their experiences," she explains.

ALSO READ: Rural reading rooms a gift for future

With words and language that are naturally appropriate, the poetry captures their natural voices, and through their intuitive understanding, these young poets often incorporate elements such as repetition, imagery, and rhythm, infusing their work with a lyrical quality, according to Zhou.

She has her teenage daughter and niece review her translations, in terms of the grammar, word choice, and overall tone to ensure that they are natural and align with the authentic voice of a child.

As an art practice researcher, Zhou notes that the starting point of Kindergarten Without Walls is humble and down-to-earth. "Tang is an ordinary person whose neighborhood where the 'kindergarten' is located is not different from his own life," she says.

Zhou believes healing from personal trauma is not a solitary journey; rather, it is a collective effort that requires the support and involvement of a compassionate community. "The best part of Tang's project lies in the authentic, organic growth of the relationships between the children, families, neighbors, and the broader community," she says. "It is the spontaneous, beautiful things in people and the community that grow naturally given an opportunity, out of human need and concern," she says.

"The kindergarten is small in size, but like a plant, its roots are firmly embedded in the soil," she adds.

Contact the writer at