China has long sustained a reputation for its rigorous educational standards with hours of homework typically expected on a daily basis and strenuous testing practices. One administrator in a rural county, however, is attempting to change the current early education culture with an innovative curriculum that emphasizes freedom, self-confidence, exploration, and challenging one’s own abilities. Cheng Xueqin’s belief in the importance of play-based learning has earned her comparisons as a modern day Maria Montessori, and Cheng began applying these methods first in the 130 public schools that she oversees locally over the past fifteen years. Now, however, AnjiPlay curriculum is becoming part of a change in the educational winds. Cheng has received multiple national awards of merit, speaks on the value of AnjiPlay to national and international audiences, and last year met with the Ministry of Education to make AnjiPlay the basis for national guidelines for kindergarten play.
Central to the tenets of AnjiPlay is the idea of returning the right to play to children. Despite the fact that China’s early education standards explicitly indicate the importance of play, Cheng met up with quite a bit of resistance from local parents and grandparents when she began instituting what was the beginning of AnjiPlay basics. Some reported Cheng to her superiors, others refused to send their children to school. Eventually, what turned the tides in Cheng’s favor was a simple, yet effective tactic: she invited the families to observe their children playing at school. The families were amazed and impressed by how much learning was occurring during the play process.
In the video of AnjiPlay, it becomes evident that the children are adept at creating their own fun, using only basic materials such as oil drums, wood planks, or ladders. Given the opportunity to build (and then break down and build again) whatever they desire, dig, and get messy, the children learn problem-solving, appropriate risk-taking, confidence-building, and numerous other qualities that are not necessarily taught in traditional schools. Much of the learning takes place between the children during their typical two hours of outdoor play each day. They learn how to resolve conflicts, work together, encourage each other to challenge themselves, and create complex games and scenarios and how to maneuver them. This kid-centric approach is not to diminish the role of the teacher, however, and teachers who practice AnjiPlay are active participants in the learning and playing process. Now that the teachers are free from having to design a one-size-fits-all educational model for the 30 students in their classroom, they have the opportunity to observe and respond to the needs and strengths of the individual students as they play.
Cheng’s popularity and interest in AnjiPlay continue to grow as the approach garners supporters who have witnessed its positive effect on children’s development. AnjiPlay is based on trusting children and their innate abilities to grow and learn, and we hope that educators in the United States learn to incorporate this playful and powerful methodology in early childhood environments.
Images via AnjiPlay