Play and Metamorphosis

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The world of early childhood education (ECE) is focused on child development and learning, but what do we mean by those terms?

One of the ways we can understand today’s ECE is to look at the way it describes the process of education. Pick up most any book in the field, and you will find “growth” charts of the milestones of development and the stages of skill acquisition. Parents follow these guides and can become obsessed with their child’s “performance” and worry that they may be “falling behind.”

In this way, what ECE communicates and development and learning ss a linear progression from small to big and from incapable to skillful. The problem with this way of looking at child development is that it is scientifically incorrect. The true picture of the early years is one of spurts and retreats, of stagnation and astonishment.

A metaphor for this characterization of ECE is to look at an acridid that has outgrown their skin and has to shed it to get bigger. There is no going back, and there is no change other that size. Children are not spiders.

Currently, there is a renewed interest in play-based learning. The notion that children learn through play is hundreds of years old. Since the industrial revolution, play has largely been supplanted by an education system that trains workers to fit into a production economy. The pushback on this pedagogical approach is being fueled primarily by new insights coming from studies in neuroscience and biological anthropology. The new understanding is that the infant comes not as a blank slate to be filled with knowledge, but more as a learning machine that is programmed to develop as the child interacts with the world.

In this new way of looking at ECE, rather than simply growing up, children are now seen as gaining entirely new capabilities that were nascent and are now manifest. Metaphorically, a child is like a tadpole who is transformed in the early years from a herbaceous swimming creature into a bipedal insectivore.

The presenters at recent the Play First Summit largely followed the play-based learning track with very powerful and unique perspectives. However, if you listened carefully, a new paradigm was being hinted at. Going beyond growth and transformation, one can see clues that there is the possibility of a true metamorphosis. What does this mean?

While the tadpole’s transformation is a type of metamorphosis, in this new metaphor, the child is more like a butterfly. Unlike the tadpole who retains much of their physical form a structure, the caterpillar digests itself and is literally turned in to a soup without form. Only a few highly organized cells remain intact that are the template for future butterflies.

Many of the speakers alluded to how children need to be nurtured to gain the resources and become butterflies, not just frogs. Trusting the child and their intrinsic drives to play was a consistent theme throughout the Summit. Deep listening and non-interference were also commonly sighted as essential.

The presenter that wrapped these ideas into a package that went beyond transformation to metamorphosis was that of Ms. Cheng. What she has created is a new “meta” level by which the Anji Play method transforms teaching, teachers, and educational institutions.

By allowing children to play freely, in the Anji method this is referred to as “true” play. Teachers are tasked with primarily observing and recording what happens. The observations set the stage for group discussion. This chrysalis phase of the program is truly amorphous, and there are no expectations about outcomes except to hear from the children about what they were thinking during their play. What problems were they trying to solve, and what did they learn.

So far, so good. But the change goes far beyond this new method of education. The process also changes teachers as they see how complex the children’s discoveries have been and the critical thinking that they have employed. In contrast, teaching children numbers and words pale in comparison to this “true” learning by “true” children.

With the Anji Play method, teachers become committed to this form of learning and will not disavow it for an academic approach. Administrators who insist on going backward find that they are confronted by incontrovertible evidence that the children are learning better and faster than in the old way. The Anji Play method revises the whole educational ecosystem.

What is also true of the Anji method is that everyone is joyful. This emotion does not mean there is no strife or difficulties but that these setbacks an integral part of the learning process for children, teachers, and administrators. Everyone is learning to take on challenges and succeed, and this brings about joy.

Most importantly, through Anji Play, children emerge as butterflies and take flight.


Kid’s Must Get What’s Inside – Out!

Anji white Board
Note the child documenting the play. You can see the drawing of the castle.

Photo True Play Foundation

As a student at San Francisco State University, I had the opportunity to study for three semesters with Sinclair Kirby Miller, who taught theories of communication. His seminal message was:

“We create, order, and project our world, moment by moment.

In the 57 years since I first heard this axiom, I have found it to be true on every level, from personal development to quantum physics.

A few years ago, I met Ms. Cheng Xueqin, the founder of Anji Play, and was bowled over by her vision and program. Since then, I have watched in total admiration as Anji Play has grown from a few schools to expand to all of China’s 34 provinces and administrative districts.

As a play systems designer, I have been most focused on the unique apparatus Ms. Cheng invented and the sorts of play the school’s environments support. Subsequently, one of my favorite people, Cas Holman, has refined the designs into a uniform system so that research and programming will be consistent across all schools.

Out of the corner of my eye, I was also drawn to what was happening in the classroom. The thing that has really impressed me is that Ms. Cheng has emphasized reflection. The program schedule that, following the outdoor play sessions, children gather to talk about what they did during play, what they were thinking, and what they learned. This strikes me the most profound addition to the lexicon of early childhood education. I know of no other educational philosophy that included this process specifically. Why is this important?

(Go to and watch Check-in #6 to learn more about this process)

If you go back to Professor Miller’s axiom, you can see that the essence of what we are as humans is trying to make sense of what we experience, to find the patterns that we can perceive, and rely on, act on these as if they are “real.”  For example, neuroscientists will tell you that the eye and visual cortex are constantly constructing a model of reality. The quantum scientist will tell you that the chair doesn’t exist until you observe it. And yet, despite the FACT that the chair doesn’t really exist in any meaningful way except that we perceive it, we can sit in it, take pictures of it, and give it a 5-star rating.

This process of creating reality is the job of early childhood, and children spend the bulk of their time and all of their emerging senses in this endeavor. When Anji Play purposely brings children together in groups to bring about a consensus of the children’s shared reality, it produces that highly valued condition of integrating sensory and cognitive functioning with community validation. This process greatly accelerates the act of learning.

Can I prove this assertion? Nope, science is just now able to study this sort of meta-learning. I am encouraged that Anji Play seems eager to facilitate such studies. I will make another prediction. I am confident that it will be found that children who experience this process of communal reflection of play will be far more creative than their peers. Why?

As an artist, I can say from personal experience that creativity is the process of getting what’s on the inside to the outside. As we go through life, we have thousands of impressions, as Kirby Miller would say, moment by moment. Indeed, much of the first five years of life are a process of damping down stimulus and pruning neurons to construct our reality. This process is driven by instinctual drives over which the child has little control. We don’t teach children to jump in puddles so that they learn the principles of hydrodynamics and ingest mud, so they will enhance their gut biome. No, instinct does this and gives a chemical burst of pleasure to the brain to ensure this fun is repeated.

Mud is a big deal at Anji Play as it is in most play-based early childhood programs. The everyday process of reflecting on such play has the potential for the children to realize that playing in mud is fun. Such discussion offers the opportunity for them to ask why, since playing in mud makes no objective sense. Such a question can stick with a child for the rest of their lives, and it is just such profound questions that lead to creativity. As designers will tell you, asking the right question is 75% of the solution.

It is perfectly possible to go through childhood and never wonder why about much of anything. Still, the Anji Play process of communal reflection is a powerful tool for encouraging this sort of contemplation. It may be that the scientist who was studying the gut micro-biome had an ah-ha moment when she realized that the most likely way that the bacteria Mycobacterium Vaccae made it into the intestine was from ingested soil and that came about from mud play.



The Solution for Learning During a Pandemic … and After!

Coming together
By coming together, this will work!

A great way to start understanding the issues raised here is to first read Killing Ourselves With Kindness by Teacher Tom

Increasingly we hear we can’t go back to “normal” and that we need a radical change. We are also seeing educational leaders tearing their hair out trying to figure out how to bring students back to school with social distancing and older teachers who are high risk or younger teachers who are afraid to bring the virus home.

At the same time, we learn that many employers and workers are finding that their productivity at home is up and the lower expenses of office space and commuting make this a win-win. The other reality is that many mothers are experiencing a huge added burden of home-schooling and childcare while also trying to maintain their career or having to abandon it altogether.

While all this is going on, it is becoming increasingly clear that we are in for a multi-year deep economic downturn. Schools have to gear up for added security while facing a significant loss of tax revenue. Businesses, too, will feel the pinch and want to lower wages to keep afloat, meaning less household income for families. The government cannot make-up for all of this shortfall.

In a recent conversation with Tom Hodson, aka Teacher Tom, we talked extensively about the power of cooperatives. In my last post, I mentioned Teacher Tom’s Woodland as well as Takoma Park schools, which are both parent co-ops. Along with Anji Play in China, these schools represent what I believe are the ideal early learning environments. What they share is the creation of programs and spaces that are dynamically created in response to a deep understanding of the truth of play-based learning.

Thinking more about our conversation, I realized that Tom already sees the solution to educating children going forward. His passion for cooperatives is not misplaced as they have historically been one of the keys to economic recoveries for generations. Now is the time to make that the centerpiece of learning going forward. Here’s why.

Co-ops keep tuition costs affordable, which is essential. A secondary benefit, but not less important, is they are a way for parents to learn more about child development, how kids learn through play, and to manage without negative discipline. Ok, you say, co-ops are great, but they are few and far between. What makes them a model that will scale?

Here’s how this can work. The CDC has already suggested that one way to begin to adapt long-term to COVID is for families to create small cohorts who both share the risks and defend each other, and in this way, deal with the crippling effects of isolation. These neighborhood groups will increasingly help with children’s learning as well. We already see a big movement in this direction with families teaming up to pay teachers to educate their children.

Most schools will be forced to go to full-time distant learning as the safety measures they are putting in place will fail to adequately protect students or bring sufficient teachers back. This means a huge part of public education will be virtual while at the same time, many teachers will not be in classrooms. The picture that will emerge is a largely decentralized education system when most learning is at home, and school buildings sit largely empty. It would not be at all surprising to see many campuses converted to housing in the coming years.

What will be needed?

There are some significant gaps in this scenario that are predictable. As any teacher will tell you, kids are prodigious consumers of materials, and teachers spend an inordinate amount of time, often unpaid and out of pocket, to supply this appetite. Unlike the ageist pattern of current schools, we will also see mixed-age groups that exacerbate this issue. Finally, kids need to be outdoors, and most residential homes are ill-equipped to deal with active play and exploratory learning in the backyard.

This is where co-op preschools and other parent participation programs can help as they have a wealth of experience dealing with these issues with limited resources. As I mentioned to Tom, school-based adventure play has a well-established list of play materials. This is a good start. But it is also true that these small cohorts will have a difficult time having the capacity to gather these materials efficiently. Especially given that, unlike a school, their need is relatively short-term and constantly changing as their children grow.

The solution to this requirement is to turn again to the co-op model. There are already co-op scrap stores that bring together great materials that you can purchase by the pound. There are all sorts of buying cooperatives that are hugely successful and long-lasting like REI and ACE hardware.

Forming a Play-Based Learning Cooperative is an effective way to address these predictable needs. It is also the case that a successful cooperative generally is also an advocate for its members. This is generally in the form of marketing, but it is also common for a co-op to be both a powerful advocate and lobbyist.

By coming together, this will work!


Democratizing Playgrounds

Photo True Play Foundation
Photo True Play Foundation

I’ve been reading Tom Hobsons’ Teacher Tom’s Second Book. In the chapter titled Rabble Rousing, the talks about democracy and play, as he does in a number of his writings. I was particularly struck by his depiction of the children, citizens in his narrative, when they get tired of being led and begin to get restless. In his wisdom, he has found it is better the let these rabble rousing citizens free to pursue their play-based learning or face a general revolt later.

That got me thinking about democratizing playspaces. Today’s traditional playgrounds are, let’s face it, authoritarian. They are top-down, inflexible environments that demand that young citizens play in proscribed ways. While we are beginning to see a few notable exceptions, today’s playgrounds are as similar as McDonald’s and about as appetizing and nourishing.

As a veteran of ten decades of play systems design, I can attest that children’s input is the last priority of play equipment manufacturers. Lord knows I’ve tried with all sorts of model making sessions. What I get from these sessions are ideas for themes like castles and spaceships or unrealistic concepts like ski jumps into swimming pools. For me, the saddest drawings are those of the playgrounds they already know. The fact is that we do not have a good method to learn what kids like. Well, that’s not quite true.

In 1996 China signed the U.N Convention on the Rights of the Child. Rather than give lip service to this declaration, as did most other countries, China took action in the form of new standards for kindergarten education. Ms. Cheng Xueqin was charged with implementing this program. To read a detailed account of this process, see Anji Play History.

What is extraordinary in this case, is that Ms. Cheng had to develop the program without a model to draw from. Instead, she has invented the children’s play settings out of whole cloth, combining her recollections of what was fun for her as a child and a keen eye on what engaged the children. Lately her apparatus has been refined and standardized by Cas Holmaa of Rigamagig fame. What you see in the exceptional AnjiPlay Kindergarten today is the result of this rigorous and open-ended process.

We can debate if such an experiment with a different inventor in a different culture would produce the same results. I expect that there would be both differences and a lot of similarities. But regardless of a possible lack of universality, I am also confident that similar lovingly crafted environments would be equally engaging and beneficial for children. This process of adult inspiration and observation is the tool by which play settings and apparatus should be created.

Child’s Play as a Norm

Unfortunately, I have not been able to visit Anji County. But I have been observing its growth from my meeting with Ms. Cheng on her first trip to California. What I have been able to glean from photos from schools and visitors, is the universality of the play patterns. One could put this phenomenon down to kids just being kids, and to a great extent, I think this is true. But in my virtual observations of Anji Play and Teacher Tom’s Woodland and Takoma Park Cooperative Schools, as well as my own experience creating playspaces, is that there are ways that the children use spaces and as furnishings that endure over months, and years. I have visited play sites, where the same play and games have persisted over decades. I’ve seen the same unique, site-specific games played on the first schoolyard playground I did in the ’70s that are still played today when nothing of the original site remains, including the school building itself.

Norms are the other essential aspect of democratizing playspaces. This child-up, instead of a top-down form of playspace creation, allows for the formation of norms and institutions.

This is why so many of us look on in horror as the norms of our civil society that we cherish are violated. In our heart of hearts, we recognize these enduring traditions as the foundation of how we relate to each other and the deep connection those norms have to our past and our future.

Robert Fulghum, in his seminal book, All Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, had it right. It is through play in the early years that we learn to be citizens in a democratic society. Our current crisis in the economy and dealing with the pandemic can be attributed to these critical early years having been so under-resourced and the cost of supporting young children falling so heavily families.

It’s time for some Rabble Rousing!

A Tool for Play-Based Learning


Screen Shot 2020-07-01 at 10.36.40 AMCAAEYC 2020 – Master the Art of Play

This is a virtual presentation I did this week that introduces my concept of using environmentally triggers to support spontaneous play. That’s an academic way of saying, kids do what their brain development demands. I welcome your questions and comments. If I get some interest in this post, I will post a second presentation that goes much deeper into the neuroscience and developmental biology.

Here is a checklist for the concept:

Play Patterns and Triggers 2-10