All of us experience a unique and important period in our lives that we call childhood when we have an innate urge to understand the world, ourselves, and others. Our brains are ready and set to solve and understand the new problems and relationships and qualities that we encounter in our experience. For that reason, what we describe as True Play—play that is self-determined in an environment of love—is actually the deepest and most natural form of learning. Nothing could be more important to the lives of children than the joy, freedom, and growth that characterizes this kind of play.
—Ms. Cheng Xueqin, Anji Play Founder
What is Anji Play?
Anji Play is a comprehensive approach to early learning developed over the last 18 years in Anji County, China by Ms. Cheng Xueqin during her tenure as County Director of Pre-primary Education.
Anji Play is currently the comprehensive, full-day curriculum of 130 public schools in Anji, serving 14,000 children ages 3-6. It is also the basis for public pilot and demonstration programs in every county in Zhejiang Province, and every province in China.
Anji Play is also being piloted and demonstrated in programs in the United States, Europe, and Africa. Current Anji Play Pilot Partners include Contra Costa College Early Learning Center (California), Wu Yee Children’s Services (California), One City Early Learning Centers (Wisconsin), KidZCommunity (California), Madison Public Library (Wisconsin), Northern Onondaga Public Library (New York), The British International School Budapest (Hungary), El Mundo De Ninos (Wisconsin), and the AnjiTa Child Development Foundation (Tanzania), among other programs.
Anji Play is different from many other approaches to early education because it treats the child’s open-ended, self-determined True Play as the primary experience of learning, development, and growth. Self-determined, True Play takes place when the child follows their own interest and intentions in play.
Anji Play is an approach that values and protects the joys of a healthy, natural childhood in the 21st Century, and uses technology in the classroom in a way that supports children’s active engagement in their own learning.
As Ms. Cheng and her core team of principals and teachers first sought to understand the child's authentic experience of play, they began by stepping back. The first steps they took, the first steps that any adult should take when seeking to create the conditions for True Play, were "mouth shut, hands down, ears, eyes, and heart open to discover the child." This shift in our stance is the first step to recalibrating our relationship to the child’s learning.
Is play the best approach to learning?
The Anji Play approach is supported by a growing scientific consensus that self-determined, True Play is the best way for children to learn about the world, themselves, and others. This consensus includes doctors, educators, policy-makers, and scientists.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics:
Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development. It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them. Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers. As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges. Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills. When play is allowed to be child driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue. Ideally, much of play involves adults, but when play is controlled by adults, children acquiesce to adult rules and concerns and lose some of the benefits play offers them, particularly in developing creativity, leadership, and group skills In contrast to passive entertainment, play builds active, healthy bodies. In fact, it has been suggested that encouraging unstructured play may be an exceptional way to increase physical activity levels in children, which is one important strategy in the resolution of the obesity epidemic. Perhaps above all, play is a simple joy that is a cherished part of childhood.
[source: Pediatrics, January 2007, VOLUME 119 / ISSUE 1]
What do children do in an Anji Play program?
The child's primary daily experience is open-ended, self-determined True Play. This play takes place both indoors and outdoors, and is structured by materials, environments, routines, and teacher practices.
Children in Anji Play programs also reflect on their experiences daily by creating drawings of their play called “Play Stories,” and engaging in group discussions and reflections centered on photos and videos of their play called “Play Sharing.”
Play Stories and Play Sharing give children the opportunity to think and reflect about their play, and provide an opportunity for children to express their learning, views, and emotions. Through creating Play Stories and engaging in Play Sharing, children develop a strong metacognitive practice (“thinking about thinking”), critical thinking skills, process and organize their acquired knowledge of mathematical and scientific principles, as well build on their language and literacy abilities.
All classrooms in Anji Play programs have quiet spaces for reading filled with books, numerous smaller materials for indoor play, plants and small animals, notebooks for children to record natural phenomena and daily routines, and materials and spaces for art, including paint, clay, and collage.
Children in Anji Play programs are also encouraged to take the lead in developing self-sufficiency around activities like using the bathroom, washing and cleaning, changing clothes, eating, and other important aspects of daily life.
What is the Anji Play philosophy?
The Anji Play approach is based on a philosophy that an environment of love (one that provides trust, warmth, support, and safety) allows children to take developmentally appropriate risks. These risks (physical, emotional and intellectual) provide children with experiences of joy. This joy leads to the child’s deep engagement in their own learning and inquiry. The child’s daily reflection on these experiences creates lasting knowledge and builds the foundation for and an interest in future learning.
Is risky play dangerous?
Access to large, open-ended play materials and natural, minimally-structured environments means that children in Anji Play programs have the freedom to explore, create, and imagine. It also means that they take physical risks that we often do not see in traditional preschool programs.
Teacher’s in Anji Play programs are present and observe children, but they do not interfere unless it is truly necessary. For that reason, children in Anji Play programs may get bumps and scrapes and bruises, but as cutting-edge research tells us, the ability of children to self-select their level of risk leads to greater safety, and decreases the occurrence of major injuries.
Imposing too many restrictions on children’s outdoor risky play may be hampering their development, their health and well-being. A risk deprived child is more prone to problems such as obesity, mental health concerns, lack of independence, and a decrease in learning, perception and judgment skills, created when risk is removed from play and restrictions are too high.
[Source: Brussoni, et. al., International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, September 2012]
What do teachers do in Anji Play programs?
In Anji Play programs, teachers do not structure, guide or direct the activities or outcomes of the child’s experience during play. This means that you will not see Anji Play teachers actively lead a lesson or set out activities for the children.
You will see teachers encourage and support children who take risks, work with one another, find solutions, and go at their own pace.
You will see teachers provide emotional support for children and trust in the child’s capacities and abilities.
You will see teachers carefully and closely observe and record children’s actions, activities, interests, dilemmas, conflicts, experiments, and problem solving.
You will also see teachers facilitate opportunities for children to reflect on and explain their own experiences.
Above all else, teachers in Anji Play programs create the conditions for deep learning and safety through clear, consistent, and reasonable expectation and routines, and trust in the capacity of the child.
The teacher views the discovery of the child’s own insights and understandings as their primary professional motivation.
What is the Status of the Teacher?
In Anji Play programs, teachers create the conditions for the child to learn, grow, and develop. The teacher should be the world’s foremost expert on the abilities and experiences of the children in their care.
Anji Play schools and administrators provide and protect a foundation for the teacher to grow, and to be heard and seen. Teachers are part of open, reflective environments, where their questions, concerns, discoveries, and approaches are honored through the stance of the school, and through specific protocols, practices, and systems for professional growth and development.
The teacher is responsible for communicating their decisions and their understanding of children to parents, families, and the community. The teacher trusts in the ability of the child to discover the world, and the school and community must trust in the ability of the teacher to discover the child.
In Anji County, public early educators are paid salaries equivalent to primary school teachers. This is not a national or provincial standard. Teachers must be supported in their work through safe environments that support their growth and attend to their needs.
What is the role of technology in Anji Play programs?
Technology plays an important role in Anji Play programs. Every day, teachers observe their children engaged in play, and take photos and videos of that play on their smartphones. After play, teachers share those images and videos with their class on large monitors, and allow the children to lead a discussion about their experiences, insights, and problem solving.
Because the smartphone and the screen are tools for the teacher to understand the learning of the child and for the child to understand their own experience, children in Anji Play programs interact with technology in an active way, rather than in a passive way. In Anji Play programs, technology fulfills a role of respecting the active intelligence of the child, rather than functioning as a medium for the child’s passive engagement with content created by adults. In Anji Play programs, the child’s active experience of play is the most pedagogically important digital content.
How are parents involved in Anji Play programs?
Parent involvement in Anji Play programs takes many forms. Parent participation in the life of the school and classroom is central to the Anji Play educational ecology that connects families to schools and communities.
In Anji County, parent committees in every school organize activities, including time for parents to shadow teachers during school days, play observation and analysis classes and group discussions led by experienced parents and teachers, open days when all parents observe play and take part in play themselves, opportunities for parents to contribute ideas about the design of outdoor environments and materials, and chat groups for each classroom that connect parents and their children’s teachers, among many other forms of engagement and involvement.
I have seen the future of early childhood education and it is Anji Play. Phenomenal learning takes place in Anji—cognitive, social, emotional, creative, scientific—because pressure and conflict have been replaced by love and support. We have known a long time that children learn best when they are fully engaged with their teachers, their peers, and their environment. They learn best when they feel joy rather than fear or boredom. All of these things are evident in every aspect of Anji Play, all day long, to a degree I have not seen anywhere else.
—Dr. Larry Cohen, author Playful Parenting
How does the Anji Play approach prepare children to enter primary school?
Children who take part in the Anji Play curriculum, and other programs that honor the child’s right to True Play, are prepared on many levels for the challenges of primary school and the demands of life in the 21st century.
Children who are actively engaged in complex physical and social problem solving, who have access to a variety of rich and supportive materials and environments, and who enjoy frequent opportunities to document and reflect on their experiences and learning, will realize their potential for intellectual, cognitive, physical, and social development.
Critical thinking, self-regulation, collaboration, persistence, and a love of learning are typical characteristics of children in Anji Play programs. Moreover, children in Anji Play programs engage in experiences on a daily basis that allow them to excel in the areas of mathematics, science, engineering, creative expression, and literacy.
How can I learn more and get involved?
We provide frequent updates on our official Facebook page, through Twitter, and on Instagram. Additionally, we offer regular webinars and workshops for educators, parents, and advocates that provide introductions to the philosophy and practice of Anji Play
We also hope that you will join our mailing list and tell us more about your interest in Anji Play. Our quarterly newsletter provides updates on our activities and opportunities to learn, share, and stay involved. We love talking to schools, libraries and community organizations, and encourage you to share information about Anji Play with these organizations in your community.
Most importantly, we hope that you will commit yourself to providing your child with extensive time to engage in self-determined play:
Step back, observe, do not interfere or guide your child in play.
Let your child take appropriate risks in a safe environment.
Allow them to solve their own conflicts.
Document their play through pictures and videos, and then wait for your child to finish their play before asking them what they’ve done.
Show your child that their experience of play is important and valuable.
Laughter and joy pervade every school in Anji as children painted walls and rocks outside, worked together to create play environments and had the support of teachers who were onlookers- they 'put their hands down and stepped back' so that the play world belongs to the children. And belong to them it does! Why is this exciting to see? Because the children are filled with confidence and trust, trust in themselves, in the adults and their peers. They have initiative and creativity, problem solving and collaboration, ideas and the carrying out of ideas. THIS is the basis of building caring, strong human beings. And it is equally the base for learning. In every bit of play, they are learning- about themselves, others, math, science, language and literacy, thinking and getting along. It was simply amazing!
—Dr. Tovah Klein, author How Toddlers Thrive
Articles on the power of play and Risk
Childhood researcher says kids need more bruises and scrapes, Calgary Herald, May 11, 2015
Early academic training brings long-term harm, Psychology Today, May 5, 2015
Hey kids! Go outside, already, WBUR, March 26, 2015
How a little love, risk and observation can go a long way, Medium, March 17, 2017
How to raise a creative child. Step one: back off, The New York Times, January 30, 2016
In defense of play, The Atlantic, August 12, 2016
Kindergarten today: less play, more academics, Ed Week, February 9, 2016
Our misguided effort to close the achievement gap is creating a new inequality: The ‘play’ gap, The Washington Post, August 23, 2016
Rethinking ‘ultra-safe’ playgrounds: Why it’s time to bring back ‘thrill-provoking’ equipment for kids, The Washington Post, November 29, 2015
Study: Too Many Structured Activities May Hinder Children's Executive Functioning, Education Week, July 2, 2014
The overprotected kid, The Atlantic, April 2015
Why kids deserve a preschool that lets them play, The Washington Post, August 18, 2017
Why young kids need less class time — and more play time — at school, The Washington Post, August 21, 2015
5 ways to let a little more risk into your child’s day (and why that’s a good thing), The Washington Post, January 16, 2015