In Anji County, Zhejiang Province, China 14,000 children, ages 3 to 6, take part in a highly sophisticated curriculum of self-initiated, self-determined play, reflection and self-expression. Children build bridges with ladders and planks, run across oil drums and construct their environments with bricks and lumber and rope. Every day these same children watch videos of their play and discuss their discoveries and intentions and create complex drawings, schematics and symbolic writing systems. They attend public kindergartens filled with risk, love, joy, engagement and the deep participation of their families and communities. The approach is called Anji Play. The inventor is Ms. Cheng Xueqin.
Anji, China is a verdant, mist-shrouded rural county approximately three hours driving distance from megacity Shanghai. Once known only for its white tea, bamboo products, playing host to the wire-fight scenes in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and as the birthplace of ink painter Wu Changshuo, the name Anji has today become synonymous with innovative early childhood education practices in China.
Anji County is home to 130 public preschools and village teaching sites that serve 14,000 children ages 3-6. For many years the Anji approach to early childhood education was that of the majority of Chinese schools: get kids to sit quietly at their desks until they were ready to return to the care and supervision of their parents at the end of the day. But Ms. Cheng, whose position put her in charge of those 130 preschools, would soon change the status quo.
In 1989 China signed and became party to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 31 states, “...parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.” In 1996, in an effort to bring China's pre-k standards in line with the developed world, the Ministry of Education released “Standards for Kindergarten Education.” Article 5, section 25, subsection 6 of these standards states that kindergarten education should treat play as a “foundational activity to be included in every type of educational activity.”
When she received the new guidelines, the idea that play was fundamental to children's experience and learning deeply resonated with her, and she began to experiment with how to introduce play into classrooms where it was formerly absent. But as she began to experiment, she did not see the joyous discovery of young children at play in her classrooms. What she saw, she described as “false joy,” the play she observed she termed “false play.” Ms. Cheng observed joy being “ruthlessly stripped” from children in the service of adult ideas about how play should be directed to serve specific educational and developmental goals.
In an effort to understand why her students weren't playing and why her teachers and administrators were frustrated, that despite their best efforts, the children in their care were not truly happy, Ms. Cheng asked herself a basic question: “What are my deepest memories of play as a child?” And she also began to ask her teachers and administrators the same question. What she found was that their deepest memories of play were defined by risk, self-determination, and that their meaningful play took place on a grand scale where big, hard to handle materials became tools and building blocks of imagination and cooperation. And Ms. Cheng said to herself, “if the children in our care have this one unique moment of childhood in their lives, why are we stripping away the joy and discovery that is so essential to it?”
So she began to experiment. She began to introduce large, minimally structured materials, and open-ended, minimally-structured environments. She told her teachers to back off and watch, to observe what the kids were doing. And as months turned into years, as she designed and refined the materials and environments in her schools and the protocols for observation and reflection that her teachers engaged in with their students on a daily basis, she made further observations.
When children engage in “True Play,” she noticed, they are realizing specific intentions. Most simply put, they intend to have fun. But when given the space, freedom, materials and importantly time, these play intentions manifest themselves in high degrees of complexity. So with 10 minutes and a climbing structure, a child might climb up and down and maybe jump. But with two hours and a range of open-ended materials, children will organize and create highly complex structures and rules to govern their use. Moreover they will seek to eliminate those factors that stifle their play intentions. They will solve conflicts, remove danger and create order because it makes their play more fun. They will seek to understand what they are doing and they will ask for help if they need it. Time is crucial here. Originally, Ms. Cheng allocated 1 hour of outdoor play time for her students in the morning, but this gradually expanded two 2 hours as she realized that greater time led to greater complexity, that when children have the time to complete their intentions they stay highly focused and engaged in their projects.
Ms. Cheng also observed the difficulty her teachers faced when trying to assess the developmental level of one child in order to provide specific activities and materials that addressed that child at her specific developmental level. When she multiplied that number by 30, she immediately understood the impossibility of designing developmentally appropriate activities for an entire classroom of kids. Instead, she found that when kids are given the freedom of self-determined, risky play and open-ended materials, they will challenge themselves at their own developmental level.
The teacher’s frustrating task of measuring and designing is eliminated when activities no longer need be geared to the base-line of developmental appropriateness because the children challenge themselves. This gives teachers the freedom to observe, understand and support the children in their care. It also frequently leads teachers to a deep admiration for the abilities of their students. Admiration, joy, trust, participation and understanding are ingredients for a relationship of love between child and teacher, the foundation of the bonds of attachment that support a child’s emotional, social and brain growth.
Teachers have an important role in the learning and discovery that takes place in the kindergartens of Anji. But they are not guides, they do not structure play towards specific goals, and they do not view children as unsophisticated thinkers that need to be directed towards achievement. Teachers in Anji observe and take part in play, but they do not intervene. They understand that children choose to resolve their own conflicts, manage and regulate their own risk and develop rules and order to get the most fun out of their play. They trust children.
The teachers and parents of Anji also understand that the most effective learning, whether it is social, emotional, STEM or otherwise, takes place when a child owns her own experiences and discoveries. But it wasn't always so. The parents of Anji were dead set against play in their schools. They protested vociferously about time being wasted that could better be used in study, and about the dangers of risk and dirtiness. They wrote letters, they reported Ms. Cheng to high-level officials and they refused to send their kids to school. In response Ms. Cheng had copies of China's national guidelines for childhood development printed, bound and sent to every household in the county. She asked the parents and grandparents of her students to bring these guidelines to school and observe their children and grandchildren at play. The discovery that their four years olds were possessed of such high levels of bravery, compassion and intelligence brought many of the parents to tears. Overnight, once resistant parents had become adamant supporters and took on the role of training incoming parents on the skills of observation and documentation.
In 2014 Ms. Cheng received the highest honor awarded for early childhood education in China. She received this award from the President of China. In the 15 years that she has been working to refine her approach, thousands of teachers and administrators from across China have visited her schools to learn from her successes. Elementary school teachers in Anji are finding that the children entering their classrooms are highly engaged, that they have concrete, first-hand experiences that support the abstract concepts they are expected to learn and that they are adept at cooperation, self-initiated learning and that they are highly creative.
When we consider what we want our babies and toddlers and kids to be in a few years time, is it stationary test-takers, adept receivers of standardized knowledge? Or do we want compassionate, joyous, engaged, creative and curious citizens? As foreign as it might seem, this approach, Anji Play, is founded on deeply-rooted trust in our children. It is, at its core, a movement of love, risk, joy, engagement and reflection. We owe it to our children, to ourselves, to our societies and to the world to embrace these core principles. They are non-denominational, they are not based on wild theories and conjecture, they are not culturally specific. They are fundamental and powerful. The time has come for a movement of 21st century early childhood education.