The Politics of True Play

On Wednesday March 11, the library hosted a guest lecture by Cheng Xueqin, regional director of early childhood education in Anji, a county in China’s Zhejiang province. Ms. Cheng presented on her work and experience in developing Anji Play, a play-driven curriculum for preschool- and kindergarten-aged children that she and a group of Anji school leaders implemented over the course of 14 years in 128 schools. Ms. Cheng presented in Chinese, with Jesse Coffino acting as interpreter for English-speaking attendees.

Ms. Cheng centered her talk around a premise that important aspects of early childhood learning are unlocked when children get to decide what to play, whom to play with, and how to go about their play, and that self-determined play, or “true play,” is therefore a natural right of young children. She used her observations from  developing and implementing Anji Play as the supporting framework for these ideas, walking us through Anji Play’s major iterations and pointing out contrasts between early and current iterations. In its earliest stages, Anji Play was an effort to implement the national-level guidelines for play-inclusive early childhood education that were released in 1998. Ms. Cheng and her colleagues observed in the early years of Anji Play that a teacher-determined play model did not mitigate many of the issues seen in no-play classrooms, leading them to consider the importance of self-determination in play. In Anji Play’s current implementation, children have at least two hours of free play every day. Play environments are outdoors with minimal structuring, and simple tools made of natural materials (ie, ropes, light bamboo ladders, basic clay pots) are provided as toys, instead of objects sold and marketed as toys. During play time, teachers observe, document, and act as parallel participants. Ms. Cheng’s associates noted that Anji Play was entirely developed without influence from Western educational philosophy, though the program’s tenets and the methods used to develop it share resemblances with those of major figures in Western education, such as Montessori and Froebel. Ms. Cheng also spoke in depth about the process that she and her colleagues underwent to gain parent support for the program, and I felt that this was where much of the politics promised in the event’s title turned out to be. During Anji Play’s development, many parents viewed play as an indulgence unrelated to learning; eventually, a parent outreach program was implemented to educate parents about the value of play in learning and to gain their support.

Throughout her talk, Ms. Cheng continually returned to the idea that self-determined play, as a major key to early childhood learning, is a natural right of all children. She described the process of developing Anji Play not as “giving” children this right, but as “returning” it to them. I found myself viscerally drawn to the idea of self-determined play as a universal right of all young children, and not as a hallmark of an “alternative” education. How might classrooms in the US and around the world change if autonomous play-based learning was widely recognized as a right of all young children?