The 21st Century Maria Montessori is Changing China, We Should All Be Paying Attention

I have been a dad for about a year now. I change diapers, scrape spinach off the walls, wash and dry onesies. My wife and I share the work of parenting, and I consider myself lucky to play such a big role in our daughter’s life. I am also the only parent outside of a rural county in China to view his child’s growth and development through the eyes of revolutionary educator Cheng Xueqin.

Disclosure: I have spent much of the last 15 years traveling between the United States and China and over the last year and a half I have been working closely with Cheng Xueqin, an administrator in charge of 130 public kindergartens in rural, Anji County, China to bring her ideas to educators and parents outside of China. I have been working with Dr. Chelsea Bailey, a long time friend, and together we have arranged speaking tours for Ms. Cheng in the United States at places like Mills College, Columbia Teacher’s College, MIT, RISD, Bank Street College of Education and the Stanford Bing Nursery School, interpreted for her and brought educators and experts from the U.S. to Anji. That being said, I am doing this because I am passionate about the experiences and opportunities I believe my daughter and all of the children of the world deserve. And in this process Ms. Cheng’s ground-breaking ideas have changed the way I understand and take part in our daughter’s development.

Ms. Cheng’s curriculum — the big open-ended physical materials she has designed and the sophisticated practices she has developed — brings love, risk, joy, engagement and reflection to the lives of 14,000 children between the ages of three and six in her care. She is a tireless advocate for what she calls “True Play,” self-determined play, what I have come to understand simply as deep engagement in the action of one’s own choosing, and in Anji this self-determined True Play takes place in an ecology that supports deep reflection and self-expression and connects children, families and the communities they occupy and create.

So in our NYC apartment my daughter and I play with ropes and buckets, heavy blocks and boxes full of receipts. I let her climb up our couch and on to the counter-top. I let her crawl through our apartment hallway and up the stairs. I let her go off on her own in the park leaves. I am always nearby, but I don’t interrupt her or push toys on her; I understand that she is actually a very good judge of her environment and the objects in it.

For the parent of an infant becoming a toddler, it’s a strategy that makes sense to me. Let a kid explore and she will learn about herself and the world. Let her take risks and she will try to overcome challenges. Give her time to think and reflect and she will express herself. My real responsibility in these moments is to watch her, to understand her and to learn.

Public education in China is a pressure-cooker of high-stakes testing and grueling homework. Parenting often focuses on forming the most academically competitive child. Sadly the same educational trauma is quickly becoming a reality for American students too. As Dr. Lee-Anne Gray notes, “[e]ducational Trauma begins with anxiety and pressure associated with standardized curricula and testing.”

But something very different has taken shape in Anji, where teachers, families and communities are changing the direction of Chinese education by trusting young children to take the reins of their own learning. As a result, Anji Play is a direct challenge to 100 years of Western orthodoxy about how young people learn.

On any given day in Anji County, children build bridges with ladders and planks. They run across oil drums and construct environments out of bricks and lumber and rope. Their teachers observe this risky, self-initiated play and use their smart phones to film the action.

After lunch the kids gather to watch videos of their play and talk about what they were doing. Later in the afternoon they draw what they did that day, often as complex storyboards, schematics and invented symbolic writing systems because that’s how they have chosen to describe their experience.

The deceptively simple ideas behind the Anji Play curriculum are the result of 15 years of development and experimentation at the grassroots level. And it comes at a time when parents like me in America, and around the world, are taking part in a heated debate about education and parenting. We want our kids to be prepared for the 21st century, but we remain tied to ideas from the turn of the last one.

For the last century Western theories of education have maintained that children develop in a linear fashion, advancing from one milestone to the next. They insist that the unsophisticated thinking of the child can be guided by experienced teachers towards the ideals of adult rationality and academic learning. Priorities become learning faster, learning more, directing kids to outcomes, managing behavior and avoiding the challenges of true risk.

However there is a growing body of research showing that babies and young children engage in highly sophisticated thinking. “Babies have many, many more neural connections being formed, many more synapses being formed, than we adults do,” UC Berkeley professor of psychology Alison Gopnik told Mother Jones. “So it’s as if early on, we have this brain that is really designed for learning, a brain that’s very flexible and plastic and responds a lot to experiences. And then later on, as we get older, we have a brain that’s more sort of a lean, mean machine, really designed to do things well, but not nearly as flexible, not nearly as good at learning something new.”

The research of Gopnik and other experts in the field of childhood development show that babies and young children engage in genius-like thinking: seeing the multitude possibilities of everything they encounter, and then making novel, creative use of them. As babies explore and understand their environments they create complex causal maps: if I hit the drum with a stick this is the sound it makes; if I pull the doggy’s hair this is how doggy responds; if I stack a sandbag on a plank on a barrel I can walk across it without it wobbling.

As adults we see the world defined and categorized: a chair is a chair, a pencil is a pencil, 1+1=2. But for little kids, these objects and concepts do not have fixed meaning; they can be anything. The joy of play is figuring out their qualities and uses and the possible relationships between them. So when we force our categories and definitions on kids, when we struggle to get them to think like adults, we are robbing them of a crucial moment for building their minds.

So how did Anji Play come into being? Why was an administrator tasked with overseeing the day-to-day details of 130 kindergartens inspired to re-write the history of early childhood education in China? To understand the birth of Anji Play, we have to look at policy.

In 1989 China signed and became party to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 31 states, “…parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.” In 1996, in an effort to bring China’s pre-k standards in line with the developed world, the Ministry of Education released “Standards for Kindergarten Education.” Article 5, section 25, subsection 6 of these standards states that kindergarten education should treat play as “foundational…to be included in every type of educational activity.” These guidelines were formalized and issued to Chinese kindergartens in 2001.

Ms. Cheng is not, by Chinese standards, a high-ranking official, but her job as superintendent of Anji’s kindergartens, which she began in 1999, means that she is responsible for what happens in every one of her 130 schools (schools that she built through her efforts that brought the total number of public kindergartens in Anji County from 4 to 130 in the 10 years from 1999-2009). When she received the new guidelines in 2001, the idea that play was fundamental to children’s experience and learning deeply resonated with her, and she began to experiment with how to introduce play into classrooms where it was formerly absent.

But as she began to experiment with thematic, teacher designed play, she did not see the joyous discovery of young children. What she saw, she described as “false joy,” the play she observed she termed “false play.” Ms. Cheng observed joy being “ruthlessly stripped” from children in the service of adult ideas about how play should be directed to serve specific educational and developmental goals.

In an effort to understand why her students weren’t truly playing and why her teachers and administrators were frustrated, that despite their best efforts, the children in their care were not truly happy, Ms. Cheng asked herself a basic question: “What are my deepest memories of play as a child?” And she also began to ask her teachers and administrators the same question. What she found was that their deepest memories of play were defined by risk, self-determination, and that their meaningful play took place on a grand scale where big, hard to handle materials became, literally and figuratively, tools and building blocks of imagination and cooperation.

And Ms. Cheng said to herself, “if the children in our care have this one unique moment of childhood in their lives, why are we stripping away the joy and discovery that is so essential to it?” So she began to experiment. She began to introduce large, minimally structured materials like ladders and planks and oil drums, and open-ended, minimally-structured environments. She told her teachers to back off and watch, to observe what the kids were doing. And as months turned into years, as she designed and refined the materials and environments in her schools and the protocols for observation and reflection that her teachers engaged in with their students on a daily basis, she made further observations.

When children engage in “true play,” she observed that they are realizing specific intentions. Most simply put, they intend to have fun. But when given the space, freedom, materials and importantly time, these play intentions manifest themselves in high degrees of complexity. So with 10 minutes and a climbing structure, a child might climb up and down and maybe jump. But with two hours and a range of open-ended materials, children will organize and create highly complex physical structures that allow them to engage in physical and mental risk, and develop rules to govern their use.

Moreover they will seek to eliminate those factors that stifle their play intentions. They will solve conflicts, remove danger and create order because it makes their play more fun. They will seek to understand what they are doing and they will ask for help if they need it. Time is crucial here. Originally, Ms. Cheng allocated one hour of outdoor play time for her students in the morning, but this gradually expanded to two hours as she realized that greater time led to greater complexity, that when children have the time to complete their intentions they stay highly focused and engaged in their projects.

Ms. Cheng also observed the difficulty her teachers faced when trying to assess the developmental level of one child in order to provide specific activities and materials that addressed that child at her specific developmental level. When she multiplied that number by 30, she immediately understood the impossibility of designing developmentally appropriate activities for an entire classroom of kids. Instead, she found that when kids are given the freedom of self-determined, risky play and open-ended materials, they will challenge themselves at their own developmental level.

The teacher’s frustrating task of measuring and designing is eliminated when activities no longer need be geared to the base-line of developmental appropriateness because the children challenge themselves. This gives teachers the freedom to observe, understand and support the children in their care. It also frequently leads teachers to a deep admiration for the abilities of their students. Admiration, joy, trust, participation and understanding are ingredients for a relationship of love between child and teacher, the foundation of the bonds of attachment that support a child’s emotional, social and brain growth.

When I have brought American educators to Anji as a conference organizer, and when I have interpreted for Ms. Cheng during lectures she has delivered to educators in America, the Americans see the elaborate physical structures built by four year olds and ask “do the teachers leave these structures up at the end of the day?” The implication is that these masterpieces of youthful creativity and ingenuity are too beautiful to be toppled. The answer is simple, usually the kids take them down themselves. They have completed their intention and might very well build it with more refinement and complexity the next day, maybe they won’t. But in the minds of the children, there is no necessity in leaving these structures in place. These physical manifestations of creativity happen every morning.

Teachers have an important role in the learning and discovery that takes place in the kindergartens of Anji. But they are not guides, they do not structure play towards specific goals, and they do not view children as unsophisticated thinkers that need to be directed towards achievement. Teachers in Anji observe and take part in play, but they do not intervene. They understand that children choose to resolve their own conflicts, manage and regulate their own risk and develop rules and order to get the most fun out of their play. They trust children.

The teachers and parents of Anji also understand that the most effective learning, whether it is physical, social, emotional, STEM or otherwise, takes place when a child owns her own experiences and discoveries by coming to them herself, not through an approach that envisions particular desirable outcomes. But it wasn’t always so.

The parents of Anji were dead set against play in their schools. They protested vociferously about time being wasted that could better be used in study, and about the dangers of risk and dirtiness. They wrote letters, they reported Ms. Cheng to high-level officials and they refused to send their kids to school. In response Ms. Cheng had copies of China’s national guidelines for childhood development printed, bound and sent to every household in the county.

She asked the parents and grandparents of her students to bring these guidelines to school and observe their children and grandchildren at play. The discovery that their four years olds were possessed of such high levels of bravery, compassion and intelligence brought many of the parents to tears. Overnight, once resistant parents had become adamant supporters and took on the role of training incoming parents on the skills of observation and documentation.

In 2014 Ms. Cheng received the highest honor awarded for early childhood education in China. She received this award from the President of China. In the 15 years that she has been working to refine her approach, thousands of teachers and administrators from across China have visited her schools to learn from her successes.

Elementary school teachers in Anji are finding that the children entering their classrooms are highly engaged, that they have concrete, first-hand experiences that support the abstract concepts they are expected to learn and that they are adept at cooperation, self-initiated learning and that they are highly creative.

Late last year the Ministry of Education held a meeting in Anji to make Anji Play the center of its new national guidelines for kindergarten play materials. A few months ago Ms. Cheng addressed national and provincial educational leaders in Beijing about the principles of Anji Play. At the end of her presentation, the Minister of Education expressed resounding support for Ms. Cheng’s work.

When we consider what we want our babies and toddlers and kids to be in a few years time, is it stationary test-takers, adept receivers of standardized knowledge? Or do we want compassionate, joyous, engaged, creative and curious citizens? The answer should be simple. As foreign as it might seem, this approach, Anji Play, is founded on deeply-rooted trust in our children. It is, at its core, a movement of love, risk, joy, engagement and reflection.

We owe it to our children, to ourselves, to our societies and to the world to embrace these core principles. They are non-denominational, they are not based on wild theories and conjecture, they are not culturally specific. They are fundamental and powerful. It is time for a movement of 21st century early childhood education. We should all be paying attention to Ms. Cheng and the kids, teachers, families and communities of Anji, China.

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