Jiaqi plays Cuju, ancient Chinese football, with her classmates every week, but when she met David Beckham at her kindergarten, the five-year-old only saw the British football icon as an “interesting foreigner” to play with, which is exactly what Beckham was hoping for.
“Play” was the theme of Beckham’s recent visit to Xianghuaqiao Kindergarten in Shanghai, one of the seven kindergartens where the United Nations Children’s Fund piloted a new project using play to benefit preschool children between the ages of 3 and 6.
“It’s so important that we allow time and space for children to have the chance to just be a kid, to be creative, explore and for them to spend time with their friends,” Beckham told Xinhua in an interview during the visit last month, also his first official visit to China as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.
Located in Qingpu, one of the suburbs of Shanghai, most of the children attending Xianghuaqiao Kindergarten are from migrant families, meaning they have to adapt to new friends, a new dialect and a whole new environment.
According to a UNICEF atlas, it is estimated that over 240 million Chinese people had migrated domestically up to 2017. In 2015, nearly 69 million children were left behind by one or both parents who have migrated, over 34 million children had migrated nationwide, and one out of every five children in China’s urban areas was a migrant child.
“It’s a big change for a young child to face,” Beckham said, while he was impressed by “so much energy” the children there showed him.
Under UNICEF’s “Play for Resilience” project, the kindergarten offers different forms of play and reading activities to strengthen children’s confidence, social skills and resilience, which are considered important for all children, including children who have migrated and children left behind.
Beckham played with building blocks, drew pictures and talked with Jiaqi and her classmates about their lives, saying it was “amazing to see” that all of the children he met looked “so happy and comfortable.”
“Their confidence, creativity and imaginations really shine through even with the stress that their families may face,” he said.
“UNICEF is working with the Chinese government to support these early learning programs, and I can see what a big difference it makes to a child’s happiness.”
As a father of four, Beckham has been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for the past 14 years. In 2015, he launched the 7 Fund with UNICEF, under which a number of efforts have been made to help children across the globe.
“I have traveled to meet children all over the world affected by malnutrition, violence or health issues. I think when you’ve met children suffering in the ways as I’ve seen, you can’t help but be moved to help,” he said.
Being proud of “the life-changing ways the 7 Fund is supporting children,” the former England captain said there is still much more to do to create a better world for the next generation and provide children with safe homes and schools, nutritious food, places to play and explore and good healthcare.
“It’s why I started the 7 Fund — to do more,” Beckham said.
Paying the visit to China in the year that marks 40 years of partnership between UNICEF and the Chinese government, the UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador would like to call on more people in the country to join him in making more efforts for the children.
“I would say to anyone reading that they can join me and UNICEF to support us in continuing this really important work,” Beckham said. “Anyone can join me and become a friend of UNICEF China.”
“I want to continue to use my voice and platform to draw attention to and change the lives of children all over the globe.”