HUACHI COUNTY (Gansu) - In an age of talking picture books and flashy toys, a sock puppet and a plastic bottle feel like poor substitutes for holding a toddler's attention.
But two-year-old Xu Qirui was spellbound by his new toy car, fashioned out of the bottle and with the puppet "driver" at the wheel, a new gift from a home educator who visits him every week.
"Can you pull the car in the opposite direction from auntie? Clever boy!" encouraged Ms Gu Qiaomei, 33, the educator.
As Qirui raced around his cave home in mountainous Qiaochuan township of Huachi county in Gansu - one of China's poorest provinces - Ms Gu taught his grandmother and primary caregiver Ren Hongnu, 46, how to turn the innocuous toy into sessions of directed play that would teach the toddler six concepts: go, stop, accelerate, slow down, far, and near.
"For instance you can ask him to pull faster, and slow down, and over time he will understand speed," said Ms Gu.
URBAN-RURAL GAP MAY PERPETUATE POVERTY
Qirui is one of 60 million "left-behind" children in China - young people who grow up in the care of illiterate grandparents in rural areas as their parents have left for the cities for better jobs there.
As China realises the importance of early childhood education in breaking the poverty cycle across generations, there is increasing attention given to bringing such education to children like Qirui who live in poverty-stricken, remote areas.
The age of 0-3 is when the brain undergoes critical neurodevelopment, said Mr Lu Mai, Secretary General of the China Development Research Foundation (CDRF), a public foundation.
"Since the 1990s, many studies have shown that this is a critical window, when the brain is in the process of growing, connecting and pruning neurons," he said. "Once the window closes, it never opens again."
While practices such as reading bedtime stories have become commonplace in the city, many older folk in the villages lack such knowledge, and the result is a rural child reaches kindergarten far behind his city peers.
As much as 40 per cent of children in Huachi, for instance, were found to have developmental issues, said Mr Lu.
"(Rural) parenting methods directly impact the development potential of a child, and solidifies the social gaps, passing poverty on to the next generation," he said.
A ROLE FOR NGOS IN EDUCATION
This is where Ms Gu, one of more than 300 home educators working under the CDRF, come in. For an hour each week, she visits nine children in the county, many of them living in remote mountain villages as far as 15km apart.
During these visits, she plays games, draws and sings with the toddlers, aged between six months and three years, and tracks their development in reports.
But a key part of her job is also teaching their caregivers better ways to interact with the children, she said.
"Some kids are more challenging: they fear strangers and keep to themselves as they seldom see anyone else besides their grandparents, who leave them to play by themselves or to watch TV," she said. "But after weeks of repeated visits most begin to open up."
The pilot programme in Huachi, started in 2015, saw early fruits just one year in: a mid-term survey conducted by Renmin University and experts from Shanghai's Maternal and Child Health Center showed that developmental risk was cut by half while family environments of most of the toddlers in the survey had improved, said Mr Lu.
The programme has since been expanded not just to the rest of Gansu, but also to parts of Guizhou, Xinjiang, Qinghai, some of China's poorest provinces.
CHINA'S SIZE MEANS IMPLEMENTATION NEEDS THOUGHT
But the CDRF programme was always likely to succeed: it was adapted from a pioneering early childhood programme in Jamaica which showed that those that participated earned, on average, 25 per cent more when they became adults than non-participants. The programme is endorsed by the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (Unicef).
Even with CDRF's expansion of its programme to other poverty-endemic areas, benefiting some 4,000 children today, the reach is small given that there are about 10 million children between the ages of 0 and 3 in areas of concentrated poverty.
Why then does China still lack a national-level early childhood intervention programme, relying instead on NGOs to meet this crucial part of its war against poverty?
Experts have pointed at China's numerous layers of bureaucracy as a hindrance to faster and more meaningful reforms. For instance, the National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Civil Affairs, National Women's Federation and Women's and Children's Working Committee are among the state agencies with a purview over different aspects of China's education system, each with their own priorities.
And China's sheer size and myriad regional differences make a national-level programme difficult to implement, said Mr Lu.
For instance, to maintain the current ratio of one home educator to 10 children would mean expanding the programme to at least one million educators, no small feat given different levels of education attainment across provinces, which may result in uneven results.
But Mr Lu said he was confident that China is on the right path, and moving towards implementing a comprehensive early childhood programme.
He noted that stronger basic infrastructure and other poverty alleviating measures that the government is putting in place improve the odds of success of programmes like CDRF's early childhood education in rural areas.
"It's a misconception that with just social programmes or basic institutional arrangements we can close the rich-poor gap," he said. "But with basic infrastructure such as good roads in place, public services such as education and health can play a more effective role in this fight."