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 17 years in Anji County, China, by Ms. Cheng Xueqin, County Superintendent of Public Early Education.
Anji Play is currently the full-time, full-day curriculum for 130 public schools in Anji, serving 14,000 children ages 3-6.
Anji Play is also being piloted in programs in the United States and China. Our current Pilot Partners include Contra Costa College Early Learning Center (California), Wu Yee Children’s Services (California), One City Early Learning Centers (Wisconsin) and Madison Public Library (Wisconsin).
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."
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 kids do in an Anji Play school?
In addition to their daily experiences of open-ended, self-determined True Play, children in Anji Play schools 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 strong metacognitive (thinking about thinking) and critical thinking skills, develop their knowledge of mathematical and scientific principles as well as expand their language and literacy abilities.
All classrooms in Anji Play schools 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 crafts.
Children in Anji Play schools are also encouraged to take the lead in developing self-sufficiency around activities like using the bathroom, washing and cleaning, 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 warmth, support and care between teachers and children, between children and between teachers) 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 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 schools 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 schools are present and observe children, but they do not interfere unless it is truly necessary. For that reason, children in Anji Play schools 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 Schools?
In an Anji Play school, 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 teachers actively lead a lesson or set out activities for the children. You will see teachers encouraging and supporting children to take risks, work with one another, find solutions and go at their own pace. You will see teachers providing emotional support for children and having confidence in their capacities and abilities. You will see teachers carefully and closely observing and documenting children’s actions, activities, interests, dilemmas, conflicts, experiments and problem solving. You will also see teachers facilitating opportunities for children to reflect on and explain their own experiences. Above all else, teachers create conditions for deep learning and safety, and view the discovery of the child’s ability as their primary professional motivation.
What is the role of technology in Anji Play Schools?
Technology plays an important role in Anji Play schools. 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 a vehicle for the teacher to understand the learning of the child, for the child to understand their own experience and a tool that values the child’s active experience of play as the most important digital content, children in Anji Play schools interact with technology in an active, rather than passive way. In Anji Play schools, 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.
How are parents involved in Anji Play Schools?
Parent involvement in Anji Play schools takes many forms. It is central to the Anji Play educational ecology that connects families and schools. 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, 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 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 that provide introductions to Anji Play for educators and parents. More information on upcoming webinars can be found here. 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 Pilot Partners, and parents in the Madison, Wisconsin area can learn more about the Madison Public Library Anji Play drop-in program here. 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