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.