The Power of Policy: Changing the Anji County Educational Ecology

Chen Weijun, Party Secretary for Huzhou Municipality, visits a kindergarten in Anji after announcing that 80,000 children ages 3–6 of Huzhou will soon have access to the Anji Play approach as the full-time curriculum of all of Huzhou’s public kindergarten programs.

In the summer of 2017, Ms. Cheng Xueqin, founder of Anji Play and Director of the Office of Pre-Primary Education, Anji County Department of Education, traveled to Beijing with the Director of the Anji County Department of Education to present her experience creating the Anji Play educational ecology at a meeting of the World Bank. Below is the translated text of the white paper presented to the World Bank.

This document is relevant to educational administrators and policy makers worldwide who are faced with the challenge of changing the status quo, marshaling support for early education and making true, lasting change in their communities. This document also provides insight into the heroic efforts of Ms. Cheng to identify stakeholders and interest groups in her community (locally, regionally and nationally) and leverage those interests to achieve universal access to high quality early education.

During Ms. Cheng’s tenure as Director of the Office of Pre-Primary Education (1999-present), she has personally authored all major policy innovations concerning early education developed in Anji County (policy innovations that have been adapted at the local, provincial and national level), including measures to reform the funding, management, expansion and planning of new and existing sites and policies regarding increased teacher pay.

Rural-Urban Integration: Universal, High-Quality “Anji Play” Sparking the Light of a Happy Childhood

Anji, located in the north of Zhejiang Province, is the birthplace of the national China Village of Beauty rural development model (1). Anji was established as a county in 185 C.E. Its history stretches across the last two millennia. Anji County takes its name from a line in the Book of Songs: “安且吉兮” (an qie ji xi): “beautiful and befitting.” Anji County covers 1,886 square kilometers, and is home to a registered population of 460,000 people. Anji is the first nationally recognized Ecological County (2), and the only county in China to be be honored by UN-HABITAT (3). A visit to Anji inspired President Xi Jinping to remark “blue water and green mountains are mountains of gold and mountains of silver,” the statement of an important national policy direction (4). Anji is recognized as a capital of bamboo production, a source of white tea, and a foremost producer of office chairs and bamboo flooring.

During the preceding years of rapid economic and environmental development in Anji County, Anji County Committee and Anji County People’s Government have placed a high-degree of importance on educational development. By including early education as an assessed standard in the China Village of Beauty development masterplan, by following a stated mission to “undertake early education that satisfies the people,” by highlighting a leading role for the government in this work, by adhering to equity of quality and access in the development process, by creating innovative platforms, and by developing major objectives, Anji County has created a structure for establishing early education programs based on the locally-developed “single township-single center, radial management by central administrative village” model, and a structure for early education management based on the “town-village integration” model, a significant driver behind the rapid, sustained and healthy development of county-wide early education.

The “Anji Play” educational philosophy can be described through five key principles: love, risk, joy, engagement and reflection. In the Anji Play approach, children are the masters of their play, and teachers provide play materials, create play environments, and guarantee the child’s time for play. Simultaneously, the teacher must possess the sensitive ability to decode the development that is behind each child’s play. The play that takes place in Anji kindergartens is distinct from the guided play of the past. Because the Anji Play approach places an emphasis on the self-determination of the child, it questions traditional views of early childhood pedagogy in China. In 2014, the report “Exploration and Practice Founded on the ‘Anji Play’ Model” was awarded the highest national honor for Achievement in Pre-k-12 Education by the Ministry of Education (5). Ms. Cheng Xueqin, a leader in Anji County Early Education, has been invited to the United States to present talks on the Anji Play experience at institutions including Columbia University, Mills College and Bank Street College of Education. Since 2015, over two hundred expert educators from more than twenty countries, including Italy, Germany, Canada, America, the United Kingdom, France, Switzerland and Bangladesh, have visited Anji to observe and research Anji Play. In June, 2016, One City Early Learning Centers in Madison, WI officially began to implement aspects of the Anji Play approach. The Madison Public Library and Sierra College of California have also begun to pilot the Anji Play approach. From May 23–24 of this year, China’s National Early Education Month and the Early Education Three Year Action Plan Deployment Meeting opened in Anji. Anji Play has earned high recognition from the worlds of domestic and foreign early education. It’s brand influence and cultural influence have grown.

The ability of a county without the apparent resource or economic advantages necessary to give birth to the Anji Play educational model can, in the main, be traced back to four factors:

One: Scientific Allocation of Resources Guarantees Universal, Equitable Access to Quality Early Education.

Anji County places a high-degree of importance on the development of early education, and treats early education as a matter of citizen well-being, and as a project of strategic importance. In response to the mountainous terrain and scattered population centers of Anji, Anji County drafted “Plan for Anji County Kindergarten Locations (2010–2020)” on the basis of the “one township-one center kindergarten” model, with specific requirements for the development of village teaching sites. In principle, this plan required the development of one teaching site in every village of 600 people or more, or in any service area covering a radius of 1.5 kilometers or more. There are now 103 rural teaching sites throughout the County (not including an additional 26 township-level central kindergartens). In 2015, with the issue of “Administrative Measures for Licensed Private Universal Kindergartens,” the County Department of Finance instituted a programs of rewards-in-place-of-subsidies to support licensed private universal kindergartens. Simultaneously, the County strengthened oversight of private universal kindergartens. Schools that do not meet integrated year-end assessment standards must implement comprehensive changes to guarantee compliance or face license removal, including the cancellation or return of any year-end rewards from the Department of Finance. The commitment of the County to universally accessible early education for the public good has led private universal kindergartens to develop in the direction of the public good and universal access.

There are 26 public kindergartens in Anji County (in addition to 103 rural, public kindergarten teaching sites), representing 92.3% of the kindergarten seats in the county. 98% of kindergarten-aged children in Anji enjoy full-time, low-cost, high-quality early education. 96.1% of kindergartens in Anji County are provincially-ranked, of which 80.8% meet provincial level one or level two standards (6). The 13,765 kindergarten-aged children of Anji all enjoy the right of play. The smallest site, Changshuo Neighborhood, Shiying Village Kindergarten, only serves four children, but its conditions are standard and complete. The environment of every kindergarten and village teaching site in the county manifests its local cultural characteristics, and successfully solves the contradiction that exists between educational resources and equity-balanced social development, creating a beneficial educational ecology. The county seeks to ensure that early education is “equal” and pursued “for the public good.”

Two: Increased Educational Investment Optimizes the Early Education Pedagogical Environment

First, strengthened, continuous policy-level support. Policy support begins by identifying the primary party responsible for investment. In 1999, Anji County issued “ Administrative Measures for Anji County Kindergartens,” which identified village-township-level governments as the primary party responsible for investment in village-township central kindergartens, and villager-self-governance organizations as the primary party responsible for investment in village-level teaching sites. These measures were put to providential use during the drive to meet China Village of Beauty development standards. In 2008, Anji County included kindergarten quality as a village assessment standard in the China Village of Beauty development master plan. The 2013 publication “Evaluation Measures for Anji County China Village of Beauty Model Villages,” once again included “village kindergartens of beauty” as a standard measure used to assess the highest level, model villages. This mobilized town and village administrative levels to invest in early education, and effectively promoted advances in school conditions. The 98 teaching sites throughout the county have achieved thorough standardization. Moreover, we have insisted on budgets with line-items, and that “investment is proportional.” Township offices of finance are responsible for investment in rural early education, and county offices of finance provide significant support, with early education expenditures included in both county and township budgets, expenditures that continue a positive trend of stable increases. County expenditure on early education in 2008 was ¥27,780,000 CNY (approx. $4,233,465 USD), and in 2014 had reached ¥64,050,000 CNY (approx. $9,760,743 USD) . Expenditure on early education as a percentage of all spending on education has also gradually increased year-over-year, in 2014 accounting for 9% of all county spending on education. According to statistics, since 2012, accumulated county, township and village-level public spending on early education capital projects has reached ¥500,000,000 CNY (approx. $76,196,280 USD), creating a network of high-quality, complete kindergarten environments.

Second, strengthened, continuous support for teachers. The depth of the advances made by the Anji Play approach can not be separated from the growth and development of a large teaching force. Strengthening and supporting teachers through the development of a variety of exchange and research activities and forums, and the creation of an online platform and professional development has led to a rise in teacher qualification among early educators in Anji. The numbers are very positive: currently more than 40% of Anji County kindergarten teachers are direct state employees (7). To create a stable early education teaching force, the Department of Education increased compensation for teachers who are not employed directly by the state. Currently, non-state employed teachers receive a compensation that is, on average, 80% of the compensation of directly state employed teachers.

Third, strengthened, continuous support for improving play conditions. Kindergartens face a series of challenges, including limited space for play and a limited range of play materials. These factors have affected local implementation of the Ministry of Education’s “Early Learning and Development Guideline for Children Aged 3–6.” In response, the development and use of outdoor play spaces were increased. Through the development and use of the resource of unused outdoor space, the problem of overcrowded indoor spaces preventing the development of play was effectively solved. The development and use of play materials was similarly strengthened. Anji bamboo, timber and other local resources became low-cost play materials, endowed with high levels of engagement and challenge. These materials developed into more than 150 distinct materials that embody a design process native to the Anji Play approach, and that address a lack of materials. Since in 2010, through township subsidies, the Anji Department of Education has made grants totaling more than ¥25,000,000 CNY (approx. $3,809,814 USD) to complete the renovation of all kindergarten playgrounds in the county and to make partial allocations and update of play materials.

Three: Updating Educational Concepts Leads to a Holistic Increase in the Quality of Early Education

In the past, traditional concepts of early education emphasized “learning.” This attitude greatly constrained the child’s right to self-determined play and constrained the child’s innate abilities. It also resulted in the loss of the experience of a happy childhood. In the process of advancing educational reform, we have recognized that “undirected, unrestrained and unfettered play stimulates child creativity.” For that reason, in the process of the development of the Anji Play approach, directed play was eliminated, and freedom in play became a cause for advocacy. This realized the goal of stimulating the child’s creative response.

In the context of traditional viewpoints, this type of play education did not initially meet with the approval of parents and teachers. For that reason, two tracks were pursued. The first track addressed the need to improve the teacher’s understanding of educational concepts and of uninterrupted play. Over the past eight years, activities, meetings, research, forums, debates and experience-sharing events organized around the concept of “sparking the life of the child through self-determined play” have provided teachers with expert theoretical support and guidance. In response to the issue of the appearance “false play” in teacher practice, through undirected play practice, observation and experience, teachers learn to differentiate between “false play” and “true play.” Through repeated comparison and experience, teachers discover the significant learning potential of the child, and consciously make a transition from a pedagogy of child management to an understanding and appreciation of children’s behavior. The second track is the practice of improving family understanding of educational concepts and strengthening partnerships between families and schools. By opening up play to all children, and by developing parent-in-residence, parent training and other family-school engagement models, parents, through their direct contact with play experience the educational value of play. Through the influence of this environment, as more and more parents accept this educational approach, they also provide a significant affirmation of the value of play in the development of the child.

Over fifteen years of unflagging effort, Anji County early educators have strode past the stumbling block of “undirected play” that early education in China continues to confront. The early educators of Anji County through real, hands-on work, have created the peerless Anji Play model, which is not limited in scope to a single neighborhood, research project or experiment, but which is instead a practice adopted evenly throughout the county, from large township central kindergartens, to rural village teaching sites.

Today, in the kindergartens of Anji, you will not find extravagant renovations, or big, fancy toys. They do not use standardized kindergarten workbooks. What you will find is children engaged in free exploration of the natural environment, and play materials that are drawn from life, minimally-structured, moveable, and allow for the unlimited complexity. Anji Play has created confidence, innovation and leadership.

Four: Joining Forces to Gather Collective Strength Drives the Full Implementation of Anji Play

First, create an effective mechanism for the advancement of Anji Play. Research into the practice of Anji Play has been made a focal point of Anji County’s Early Education Three Year Action Plan, and a ¥2,000,000 CNY (approx. $304,785 USD) budget earmarked for this project. Second, create an effective mechanism for the implementation of Anji Play. The Anji Department of Education through resource coordination, followed national guidelines to create a mechanism for curriculum implementation, supervision and assessment and teacher training based on the concept that “play is the fundamental activity [of the child at school].” This has propelled development and universal acceptance of play in county kindergartens. Additionally, at the level of the County Department of Education, research has been initiated into kindergarten-primary transition. Third, create a holistic mechanism that is responsive to innovation at all points in the ecosystem. The analysis and organization of practical and research-based outcomes has provided kindergartens throughout the county with points of reference as they implement the Anji Play approach. Lab schools, which are points of reference that affect county-wide use and implementation of the approach, allow for simultaneous practice and reflection, the initiation of wide-ranging action research in the context of a research-based practice frame and the implementation of the Anji Play approach in kindergartens at every level.

Results

Currently 13,319 children ages 3–6 in Anji County enjoy the right to play. Children who live in remote, mountain areas of the County, those served by rural village teaching sites where the children may only number in the single digits, enjoy high quality early education.

Two: Successful Construction of the “Anji Play” early educational model.

Open-ended play environments, the return of the right of play to children and the supporting role of the teacher have created the important conditions for social cohesion, and represent a break from the limitations of traditional pedagogy. This approach takes the child from the false reality of the classroom to the true experience of play, and ensures the child’s right to free, self-determined, imaginative, creative, joyful play. It protects the child’s continuous exploration of the unknown, and leads to the greatest realization of individual potential. It promotes the rich, individual development of the whole child, and it decisively end to the academicization of early childhood education.

Three: Effectively Solves the County-wide Problem of Promoting Play

“Play as the fundamental activity” is an important, leading concept in early education reform in China. To make self-determined play accessible to all children in the County, both urban and rural, is a meaningful achievement. Our practice proves that it is possible to truly return the right of play to every child, regardless of urban or rural divides, regardless of advanced or outdated facilities, and regardless of the strength of teacher qualifications.

Four: Anji Play Promotes Every Aspect of Healthy Development

Self-determined play sparks the life of the child. In self-determined play, the child’s powers of imagination, self-regulation, problem solving, socialization and cooperation and self-control are all fully developed. Self-determined play allows the teacher to master observation and play analysis, to learn how to engage and support children in play, and to slowly master how to transform the resources that come from play into pedagogical resources, realizing a significant advancement in the professional expertise of the teacher. Self-determined play allows parents to believe in the value of play, liberating them from utilitarian views of education, and allowing them to accept and positively support children in true, free self-determined play.

Translated from the original Chinese by Jesse Robert Coffino

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(1) Translator’s note: during the Sixth Plenary Session of the 15th Central Committee Congress (October, 2005), the Chinese Communist Party outlined a specific need for economic development, quality of life improvement and protection of local culture in China’s rural areas. In response to this call for action at the local level, Anji County developed a first-in-the-nation masterplan (published in 2008) for assessing economic development and quality of life in the villages and townships within Anji County. Based on clearly stated assessment criteria, the villages and townships of Anji competed for recognition and monetary awards from the County government. This successful set of standards and policies became a national standard for the China Village of Beauty rural development model. See: http://www.baike.com/wiki/美丽乡村

Translator’s commentary: Ms. Cheng Xueqin, Director of the Office of Pre-Primary Education, Anji County Department of Education, saw that competition between villages and townships in Anji for recognition and awards under the Anji China Village of Beauty masterplan would be intense. Because a multitude of factors would be assessed in order to rank each village and township, Ms. Cheng realized that a fraction of a point of a difference would distinguish first place, second place, third place and other recognized entrants, representing magnitudes of difference in the amount of monetary award. By including kindergarten quality in the masterplan assessment standard, and further making kindergarten quality a large share of the overall assessment of educational quality, she insured that localities would invest significantly in creating high quality kindergarten facilities.

(2) See: https://baike.baidu.com/item/国家级生态县

(3) See: http://mirror.unhabitat.org/content.asp?catid=827&typeid=24&cid=12404

(4) See: https://baike.baidu.com/item/绿水青山就是金山银山/18349519

(5) See: http://www.ajedu.com/Article_Print.asp?ArticleID=91086

(6) Translator’s note: In China, all public schools can be ranked at the local, provincial and national level. Ratings are based on a consideration of a range factors including quality of facilities, education level of teachers, etc.

(7) Translator’s note: Teachers (including kindergarten teachers) hired by public schools generally fall into two categories 编制内 bianzhi nei and 编制外 bianzhi wai. Teachers who are bianzhi nei have their salaries and benefits paid directly by the state, whereas teachers that are bianzhi wai receive their salaries and benefits from the school and county department of education where they work.

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