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.



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