How a little love, risk and observation can go a long way

If you have had a chance to join one of our webinars, see Ms. Cheng Xueqin speak in person or have visited Anji County, China, then you have met me. I am also honored that so many of you have taken the time to read my piece here on Medium about my experience and understanding of the innovative approach to learning and development known as Anji Play.

I was lucky to begin working with Ms. Cheng (the brilliant educator behind Anji Play) and Dr. Chelsea Bailey nearly three years ago to share the Anji Play approach with educators, families and communities outside of China. We are excited that our efforts have deepened a conversation about the values of love, risk, joy, engagement and reflection in the lives of children, a conversation that is spreading as more and more science, experience and common sense prove the value of these principles in the learning and development of kids (and adults too, really).

Fortunately for me, I began working with these two amazing women (Ms. Cheng and Dr. Bailey) when my wife (another amazing woman) was seven months pregnant. As such, our parenting is deeply influenced by the principles and practice of Anji Play. Ms. Cheng and Dr. Bailey have watched our daughter grow.

Earlier this year I shared a short video of my daughter climbing down a set of stairs in a local park. Today I want to share this longer series of videos taken over the course of four months, because I want to make visible the connection that we have learned to see between love, risk, joy and engagement.

Love: space, time and self-pacing; my daughter’s knowledge that we are present but not interfering; the knowledge that we trust her ability but are close at hand; that if she needs to reach out a hand for help we are there; that if she tumbles we will be able to catch her (if necessary). When she has that physical and figurative space provided by the love of our presence and security, then she will take developmentally-appropriate risks (and yes, it feels like a risk for us too).

When she is able to test the limit of her abilities (physical, intellectual and emotional), she appears to experience great joy from these discoveries, accomplishments and the knowledge of her own ability (what Ms. Cheng calls “true joy”). In these moments, I would argue that she loves and appreciates us for allowing her to have these experiences, to discover these innate abilities. We certainly feel a deep sense of love and appreciation for her when we see that ability and joy and complexity of thought and action.

It is then only natural that she becomes deeply engaged in what she is doing (again, because she has the time and space and self-pacing of uninterrupted pursuit). As a result, we too become deeply engaged, almost entranced, in observation. We showed these videos to our daughter a few hours after taking them, and while she had limited vocabulary at the time, she showed a great interest in reviewing her experience. So it is not a stretch to imagine that reflection has also been a part of her experience, even at her young age. Watching these videos has certainly provided my wife and me with an opportunity to reflect and reach a deeper understanding of our daughter’s learning and development.

The first video was taken at 14 months, just before our daughter could walk. The second-to-last video was taken four months later. The last video nearly a year later (there was a long period of time when she just wasn’t that interested in stairs). We have hours and hours of video of her play: dramatic play, building with blocks, drawing, water play, etc., rich play full of risk and discovery. I am sharing these videos because I firmly believe that how we observe physical risk is an important test of how we measure our distance and adjust our physical and emotional stance as we observe: when should I get closer? What is the line between acceptable risk and danger? How much of what I am trying to communicate is a reflection of my expectations and is not derived from her natural pacing?

But more than anything, I want to share these videos with other parents because I know that if we can do it, you can too.

A note on safety: we have noticed that with the freedom to self-select and self-determine her level of risk, our daughter has become consciously cautious when taking risks. Because she is in charge of gauging the stability of her environment, the sturdiness of her footing and the level of potential danger of her decisions, she approaches all potentially risky situations with consideration and calculation. When we trust our kids, they trust us and they make decisions that seek to maintain that trust. As we have observed in Anji, most fundamentally children want to continue playing uninterruptedly. That intention is what shapes the contours of their play. Injury usually equals an end to play.