China is known for its centuries-long devotion to education, its veneration of scholar aristocrats, Confucius' minutely detailed objectives for education as a pathway to a full life, not to mention the nation-wide Imperial civil service examinations through which low-born but clever people could make their way into powerful administrative positions.
This history goes a long way to explain the seriousness with which Chinese people take their children's education, and this cultural group is often criticised for going to extreme lengths to supplement education with intensive and rigid 'hot housing' tutoring.
But stereotypes can be very misleading, and China's rich cultural background provides an unparalleled depth of experience in education, across well over a thousand years.
Anji Kindergarten Play Education is one of the most innovative and successful philosophies of play-based, child-led early learning, it is game changing in terms of child engagement and educational equity, and it was developed in China.
Anji Play is based on five core principles of Love, Joy, Risk, Engagement, and Reflection, all within the fundamental guiding practice of 'True Play' as the child's primary experience of learning.
Founder of Anji Play, and Director of Anji County's Office of Pre-Primary Education Cheng Xueqin says the Anji approach strives to create an 'ecology of learning' in which respect for the child liberates the day's activities from prescriptive top-down agendas, leading to happier, more engaged and more resilient learners.
The curriculum prioritises unstructured, child-directed play, with minimal intervention by educators, within an open environment stocked with basic, open-ended materials.
In an article published in the Childhood Education Journal early this year, on the Anji Play Ecology of Early Learning, Jesse Coffino and early childhood expert Chelsea Bailey outline the program developed by Ms Cheng:
- Love means an environment and relationships of respect and security - which allow children to take risks, physically, emotionally and intellectually.
- Risk is "the basis for true problem solving and deep learning" in play, which results in joy.
- Joy is "the measure of the experience of the child" while engaged in play.
- Engagement in their own inquiries and activities results from the joy experienced in play.
- Reflection is the final step, "the way that experience becomes knowledge," as children gain lasting insight from their experience and build a foundation for lifelong learning.
Cheng Xueqin defines 'True Play' as "deep and uninterrupted engagement in the activity of one's own choice… characterised by observable experiences of risk, joy and deep engagement – the deepest manifestation of learning, growth and development."
Anji Play's international spokesperson Jesse Coffino explains that close-ended or limited play may entertain children, but is not enough to allow meaningful creation: "With two hours and a range of open-ended materials, children will organise and create highly complex physical structures that allow them to engage in physical and mental risk, and develop rules to govern their use."
Anji Play has been rolled out in 130 public kindergartens in Anji County, in China's Zhejiang province, since it was developed in 2001, and has attracted the attention of thousands of early childhood educators - many of whom were surprised to find such a liberated early childhood environment in a country known for discipline and precision.
"I just walked into that centre in Anji and thought, 'I just entered early childhood heaven, Oh my god!'" said veteran play-based learning advocate Marie Randazzo, from the University of Chicago Lab schools. "I had to come to China to find this? It was wonderful!"
Cheng Xueqin said she was inspired to develop the Anji Play curriculum by the 'left behind children' in China's remote villages — children whose parents were forced to travel to the city to find work. Under-resourced rural preschools were struggling to provide meaningful programs for these children, leading to a growing disparity in advantage between urban and rural populations.
"Our response to a large migrant and left-behind child population in our villages," she said in an interview, "is to allow every child to enjoy equal, universal — and universally beneficial — quality early education."
Between 1999 and 2009, Ms Cheng increased the number of preschools from four to 130, vastly improving the prospects for the county's rural children, but at the start of the process, she was concerned at what she observed inside the schools. The structured games and activities created reactions of what she describes as 'false joy', stripping the capacity of experimentation and 'true joy' from the children by limiting their agency.
Over time, drawing on her own most joyful memories of play as a child, she created a method that delivered all the responsibility for the learning program to the children themselves, and found that this simple concept had miraculous results.
She created purpose built physical environments for her program, enlisting the help of architects and designers, as well as simple, easily transferable equipment and play materials.
The materials used in Anji play environments are simple and inexpensive, not only because Ms Cheng believes this is best for imaginative play, but because her program was designed to level the 'playing field' between wealthy and poor children. She turned the traditional model of a scrupulously ordered classroom and detailed syllabus on its head in a revolutionary move that acknowledged play as the truest, most effective form of learning for small children.
In an Anji play kindergarten children are provided with at least two hours of completely unstructured play time outside every day, regardless of the weather. They are allowed unrestricted access to materials such as bamboo poles, clay pots, ladders, ropes and large construction blocks made of natural materials, as well as over sized pipes, barrels or tyres to clamber over.
Anji Play teachers do not interfere with the children's' play but they do closely observe each child. As well as self-determination for children, 'reflection' on the play itself is key to the Anji Play philosophy.
"Reflection is the way that experience becomes knowledge," Ms Cheng explains. Although technology is notably absent from the play materials provided to the children, it does play an important role in the teachers' roles of observation and evaluation. Teachers are encouraged to discuss what happened in play with the children, in order to better understand their interests and natures, and to help them deepen the learning they set in motion themselves.
One of the biggest challenges to implementing an Anji Play system is to retrain teachers in a completely different role to what they are used to, says Anji Play spokesperson Jesse Coffino.
Teachers who have learned to instruct and program must learn to step back and withhold judgement – a dramatic shift in the power dynamic of the role — saving their analysis for later 'reflection' sessions.
However, after some time using the program, many teachers report that they felt 'refreshed,' according to a chapter on the Anji Play curriculum in the Handbook of International Perspectives on Early Childhood Education, with fewer cases of burnout and teacher attrition.
Anji Play runs a comprehensive education and outreach program, hosting many early childhood experts from overseas every year. Despite the growing interest in Anji Play internationally, no early childhood services in New Zealand have officially signed up as pilot schools.
"If, through its encounter and communion with other world cultures," Cheng Xueqin told one interviewer, "Anji Play is capable of absorbing the essence of these cultures and evolves into a more complete, systematic, harmonious, active, developing and symbiotic curriculum — how could that not be a good thing?"
The 2nd International True Play Conference: TruePlay2020, will be held at Memorial Union, University of Wisconsin-Madison from July 10 to 12, 2020.