An Open Letter to Journalists Covering Education in China and the United States
Dear Teller of Important Stories:
I am writing to bring to your attention changes in public early childhood education policy in China, and, in particular, changes that have unfolded in Anji County, Zhejiang Province over the last twenty years, under the leadership of educator Ms. Cheng Xueqin. As Sherry Cleary, Dean of Early Childhood Education Initiatives at the City University of New York notes, “to call [Cheng’s] work innovative seems small. She has taken her understanding of the nature and needs of young children and created a philosophy and practice that is both unique and extremely powerful.”
In the late 1990s China’s Ministry of Education decreed that play should be the central experience of children in public early education programs serving children ages 3–6. This policy did not provide specific guidance on what that play should look like. In response to this policy, Cheng, then Director of Pre-primary Education for Anji County, without knowledge of Western theory or practice, created a comprehensive approach based on stepping back, observing children, and providing children with opportunities to lead reflection on their own experiences. She created a network of 130 public programs in her county, serving 14,000 children, and freed children and teachers to learn and grow together. Now her approach, including the use of innovative large and open-ended materials and environments she has designed, is practiced in every province in China. In February 2021, China’s Ministry of Education announced that China-wide scaling of the Anji Play Approach is a national educational priority.
As academic pressure on young children increases in the United States, and as experts in the United States continue to center the adult in children’s experiences of play, Cheng’s approach provides a clear roadmap for entirely play-based learning in organized school systems, both large and small. As Bo Stjerne-Thomson, Global Head of Research at the LEGO Foundation notes, “[the Anji Play] approach embodies the true potential of how children learn through play, and in our comparative research, also a strong articulation of how children develop the social, emotional, physical, creative and cognitive competencies essential to become a lifelong learner with both the individual, ethical and social responsibilities of future citizens… [Cheng] has a unique ability to combine the practical reality of children’s learning with public policy and managerial support, and to integrate this into a curricula scalable not only in China, but across the world.”
Moreover, through pilot programs in the United States, Cheng’s philosophy and approach is gaining recognition as a corrective to years of inequities and injustices in early education. The core tenets of Anji Play are love, risk, joy, engagement and reflection as the basis for the child’s free, self-determined play. Consistent with the Abolitionist Teaching movement, Anji Play demands that the child’s joy be centered in environments of love, that the strengths and abilities of each child and community be the basis for understanding a child’s potential and growth. As Denisha Jones, Director of the Art of Teaching program at Sarah Lawrence College and editor of Black Lives Matter at School, notes, “The work of Ms. Cheng and her colleagues has ignited a global revolution to free children and teachers from the constraints imposed by traditional research methods in early childhood education to promote diverse perspectives and ways of knowing and teaching young children.”
There is a broad perception in the United States that China’s education system is focused on high-pressure academic instruction, and that any innovations are brought into China from the West. Cheng’s work in Anji County and its growing influence in China more broadly, are changing that dynamic. As Cheng’s play-based revolution is freeing children, families, and communities in China and the United States, the change is beginning to impact primary education in China as well. As Cas Holman, RISD-based designer of children’s play materials, explained to The New Yorker, “The ideal [of play-based education] is possible. In Anji, the future might be now.”
Thank you for your kind attention,
Jesse R. Coffino
Co-chair, True Play Foundation
“Anji Play is a global leader in preparing today’s children for life in tomorrow’s society.” -Dr. Mitch Resnick, LEGO Papert Professor of Early Learning, MIT.