How Did “Anji Play” Go Global?

Originally Published in China Education Daily, 26 October 2016, Section A1 Staff Reporter: Chang Jing

This is One City Early Learning Centers in Madison, Wisconsin. Four year old Max builds with unflagging enjoyment with simple wood blocks, alternating between horizontal and vertical, building higher and higher. He adds two wheels on top, a cross-beam spanning front and back, and then erects a long wooden plank in front. After thirty minutes an American tank takes vivid form.

In that moment, the joy of success is manifest on Max’s face. He shows a broad, beaming smile, and his mother, seeing the scene, hurries over and hugs Max from behind, moved to tears.

This sight was unexpected for Cheng Xueqin. She had witnessed countless families and children engaged in “Anji Play.” However, the expression of the mother in

front of her struck her as somewhat “exaggerated.” She moved towards them and spoke to the mother. “Ms. Cheng, I am so thankful that you have brought these toys and this joy to my son! In the two years since my husband died in a car accident, this is the first time I have seen Max smile like this,” the mother said.

“Anji Play” is shorthand for Anji Kindergarten Play Education. It is an entirely new educational practice developed through the reforms and research of Cheng Xueqin, Deputy Director, Office of Primary Education, Anji County Department of Education, Zhejiang Province, based on the educational ecology of Anji County, in which play is the primary form of education. In 15 years of profound experience, “Anji Play” has not only provided deep change and an entirely new perspective to the world of Chinese early education, but today it has also entered the world, and is currently influencing the development of global early education by bringing joy to children of diverse ethnicities in different countries.

What is “Anji Play”

The playfulness, authenticity and exp erience of true childhood inherent to natural play

“Anji Play” is an exceedingly common sounding name, but this kind of play, the kind of play that children like, is the activity that is most self-determined, most in accordance with their natures, and most capable of manifesting the essence of their childhoods,” Dr. Hua Aihua, Deputy Chair, China National Society of Early Childhood Education, Professor, East China Normal University, Department of Early Education, said during an interview with China Education Daily.

Dr. Hua has spent the last fifty years researching childhood play. Five years ago, when she first encountered “Anji Play,” “I was delighted to experience the state of play that I had been seeking in vain for so many years.”

What was this state of play? Dr. Hua recalled the scene of her fist time observing “Anji Play.”

At the time, she had come to observe outdoor, self-determined play at Anji County Municipal Kindergarten and Anji County Experimental Kindergarten, what she saw was a deserted, unprepared space.

Who would have imaged that when 9:00 AM arrived children would fly out of the school building and move from the areas surrounding the yard the materials that they wanted to play with ladders big and small, wood boards and blocks, tires, cubes and a multitude of other playthings, no teacher explaining the rules of play, no activities organized by the teacher, children independently forming into groups and entering into a variety of play contexts. In the play, no teacher directed children to do or not do anything.

“I was quickly drawn to the profound expressions of the children in this play. I quickly took up my my camera to capture their movements only to discover that I hadn’t charged the camera,” Dr. Hua sighed. The children really knew how to play, creating so many unimaginable ways of playing, “It allowed me to see the long forgotten playfulness, authenticity and experience of true childhood inherent to natural play”

In contrast to Dr. Hua’s rational analysis, the response of Chinese early education over the last few years to “Anji Play” has been feverish. Since 2005, innumerable principals, teachers and educational administrators have flooded Anji and have sought to learn and emulate “Anji Play.” For a moment, many kindergartens across the country lived under the shadow of “Anji.”

Those captivated by “Anji Play,” include educators and child psychologists from a range of countries and regions, who have traveled thousands of miles undaunted to this small county seat located in the North of China’s Zhejiang Province, in search of Anji’s secret to early education.

Dr. Chelsea Bailey, former director of the department of Early Childhood Education at New York University, engaged in early education research for over 20 years. During her first visit to Anji in July,

2014, she was deeply captivated: “This is true play. In this play you can see the child, and feel a joy that comes from within the child.”

Dr. Renate Zimmer, Professor in Movement and Sports Sciences at the University of Osnabrück and Head of the Institute of Early Childhood Education and Development of Lower Saxony. When she set foot in an Anji kindergarten in 2008, said delightedly, “This is the best kindergarten I have ever seen! So many children, and every person can find the thing they want to do. The teachers gravitate towards the children who are most in need of assistance.”

Dr. Kim Plunkett, Professor of Cognitive Science, Oxford University, specifically arranged to visit Anji, seeing the children playing he gasped in admiration, “Fantastic! The children are moon walking like Michael Jackson on those barrels.” He suggested his interest in establishing a base for research into childhood development in Anji.

The reporter has learned that in addition to the above mentioned countries, experts and kindergartens from Canada, England, Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, India, Nigeria, Korea and other countries have already become a part of or have expressed an interest in becoming part of “Anji Play.”

Why is “Anji Play” being welcomed by the world?

Attempting to solve the challenges facing the global development of early childhood education

So then what is “Anji Play” exactly, and why does it have a hope of becoming an international model for early education?

Jesse Coffino who plans, organizes and helps implement “Anji Play” outside of China explained to the reporter that growing income inequality and centuries of racism in America have had a negative impact on many children. “Children who live in poverty, who experience intergenerational trauma, and who live in environments of de facto segregation are being forced to learn, because people with decision making authority see this as a strategy to solve unequal outcomes.”

Dr. Hua’s observations of developments in American early education confirm the analysis of Jesse Coffino. “The condition I observed in America in 2005 was that rich kids went to pre-k to ‘play’ and poor kids went to pre-k for ‘instruction .’”

For that reason, many American educators are seeking a high-quality educational concept that seeks to address the educational inequalities that exist in America.

When Dr. Bailey and other experts visit Anji, they see the developmental level of children engaged in “Anj Play” and their reactions have been exclamatory. They visit town kindergartens and village teaching points to observe and research how “Anji Play” promotes learning and development and are moved and inspired by what they see. In the economically underdeveloped rural Chinese kindergartens, early childhood teachers lack high levels of education and the majority of the children belong to the unique

Chinese phenomenon of the “left-behind child.” As a result of these kindergartens, not only are children achieving high levels of development in play, but this has attracted a high level of interest from foreign experts, who are attempting to study, and introduce “Anji Play.”

“Our response to a large migrant and left-behind child population in our villages, is to allow every child to enjoy equal, universal and universally beneficial, quality early education.” Cheng Xueqin said that this is the root cause of the generation of “Anji Play.”

At the beginning of this year, at the 30th Annual Conference of the WestEd Program for Infant and Toddler Care, on the invitation of the event, Cheng Xueqin and President of internationally recognized Reggio Children and Reggio Children Loris Malaguzzi Centre Foundation, Professor Carla Rinaldi took the stage together for a dialogue and exchanged with American early educators, “Anji Play” addressing the real issues of children in bad circumstances, and a concept of respect and development of children, elicited a strong reaction.

One City Early Learning Center, as the first pilot site for “Anji Play” in America with a total initial investment of $2 million, the school occupies a site of 1243 square feet, it is designed to enroll 110 children. The CEO of One City, Kaleem Caire, plans to open 12 “Anji Play” schools in the next five years, with a goal of enrolling 1,100 low-income children.

In America, libraries and local governments are bringing “Anji Play” to areas for interaction in the library, the development of the ecosystem on a city level, will broaden the implications of “Anji Play” itself.

The secret of “Anji Play” going global.

Return the right of play to children, respect the order and value of self-determined learning

Valuing the play of children is not a new concept. Two hundred years ago it was recognized and affirmed. As a result the unavoidable reality is that adults have always anticipated using so-called “instruction” in the place of “learning” inherent in and arising from the child.

This was once also a difficulty in the development of Anji early education — the teacher’s painstakingly maintained classroom was for strictly teaching children to accept elementary level knowledge, but the teachers daily activities cutting and pasting collages, singing and dancing tired them to death, the children not only were not happy, but the learning outcomes were not as had been hoped, the relationship between the child and teacher was contradictory and full of conflict.

“There must be a problem somewhere,” Cheng Xueqin said. She, through a large amount of visiting with teachers, parents, came to an important conclusion: play is the form of learning most prefered by children and it is the primary form of activity from which children obtain development and growth.

As a result, they discarded unified, prescribed syllabi, turning the role of “teach” in teacher to that of researcher of the child, and develop and produce richly local play materials. This reform, made them finally discover the important secret of the self-determined development that children obtain in play.

China National Society of Early Childhood Education President, Nanjing Normal University Professor Dr. Yu Yongping said while being interviewed by the reporter, “Only by truly taking the stance of the child, can you truly appreciate the meaning of play. “Anji Play” satisfies the innate needs of the child, open, self-determined and rich environments realize the development of the child.”

Dr. Bailey has in all visited Anji five times spending months in her investigations. She particularly identifies with the spirit of engagement, risk, joy, reflection and love in “Anji Play,” believes that this can allow children to gain self-determined development, learn how to solve problems themselves, a spirit needed by all the children of the world.

Regarding how to adapt and study the methods of Anji, Dr. Bailey believes that educators, parents and government leaders should provide their clear understanding of “Anji Play,” and take part in the work of research into spirit of “Anji Play” so that Americans can understand why they should adapt and how they should scale “Anji Play.” “We must do this by approaching all of our relationships with respect; with our hearts, minds, ears and eyes open and ready to listen and learn; with an attitude of collaboration and problem solving. It is necessary to work closely with communities to understand, implement, and assess a model of “Anji Play” that is both true to Ms. Cheng’s vision and resonant with the lives of families, children and the larger cultural context.”

In these encounters and exchanges how will Anji protect its progress and value? “If, through its encounter and communion with other world cultures, “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?” Cheng Xueqin stated.

Dr. Yu assesses “Anji Play” as “presenting a self-confident Chinese early education, a kind of confidence that derives from a recognition of the patterns of child development, from a genuine interest in the child and the child’s need for mastery, and from an understanding of the child’s spiritual world.”

Education is not race specific, it has no nationality. The history of Chinese early education spans more than one hundred years. In that time, we have always looked to countries outside of China to learn, and have built our curricula based on their view of education and their system of values to educate our own children. The emergence of “Anji Play” has allowed us to view Chinese early education with hope and confidence because it brings the same joy to children throughout the world.

(Translated from the original Chinese by Jesse Robert Coffino)

CEO, Anji Education, Inc. and Chair, True Play Foundation. East Bay California based educator, author, translator and interpreter of Chinese, and dad.