Back in July, I posted Kid’s Must Get What’s Inside – Out, where we discussed the innate drive for self-expression. As an artist, I’d like to share more thoughts about the relationship between art and play.
Back in the days when I was teaching preschool, after setting up the paint area, I had a common practice of standing near the easels and watch the children paint. One of the reasons I stopped painting myself was that the kids were often much better at it than I was. While the kids humbled me, the trouble was that they would keep on adding more and more until the paper was just a scrubbed mess. We would frequently chat as the children worked, and I would ask them what they saw emerging, and the answers would be something like “there is a red bird flying.” Occasionally I would ask if I could save the painting at that stage to give to their parents and give them a new sheet. Generally, they consented and later were excited to share the “completed” painting when they were picked up to go home. These experiences, and my work, taught me that what makes an artist is essentially they not know when to stop.
Think about it. We say that children are playing. But we don’t say a painter is “arting.” Why not? This is a cultural bias that considers art a product rather than like play, a process. Throughout history, painting and sculpture were used to create a cultural and public record of a person, god, or event. It is only with the advent of modern art, and more specifically with Dadaism and Existentialism that the notion of artistic self-expression has become the accepted purview of art.
There is a point at which children begin to know when their drawing is “all done.” Typically, you can ask the child-artist about what they have created, and you will get the story behind the image. These narratives will often be quite complex. The ability to complete a work of art comes about when children have developed the cognitive skills to create a mental model of reality. I ask, is this achievement not the highest purpose of education?
The curriculum at Anji Play is the only formal educational system I know of that was realized the monumental achievement of this developmental accomplishment and established a process to reinforce and foster its growth. Part of the genius of the Anji Play approach is this is done in a group process with an emerging communal narrative where children collaborate and extrapolate their playful discovery process. We strive for this cooperative process in teams where ideas are synergistic and result in an outcome that is greater than the whole, and yet it is also the property of the individuals.
As a play system creator, I have always felt that what I build is the armature, the framework, the stage, for the artistic event of children at play. While being creative is fun, the real joy comes from simply watching how the children go far beyond what I imagined they would do.
As I have come to know the playwork of Tom Hobson, Penny Wilson, and Suzanne Axelsson, I recognize that these folks are artists of the highest caliber. They set the stage and provide the props for true art and true play, in which the emerging self-expression of children, both individually and collectively, can flower.
One of the most important messages of this series is that play is not a product; it’s a process. Let’s illustrate this with a backyard project that is great fun and will last over several seasons. Not only is this an inexpensive project, but it will allow children to discover ecological principles in a very direct and memorable fashion.
“Play is not a product; it’s a process.”
This project starts with straw bales. I’m using the term “straw” rather than “hay” because straw is generally the byproduct of gain production and has very few weed plants contained in it. Whereas hay is just field cuttings that can contain things like thistles. Wheat straw is common and best for this project. Rice straw decomposes very slowly, and the bales are not as durable, so it is less desirable.
For most of my life, I have been blessed with living in an agricultural area where trips to feed stores in my truck were weekly. Now that I live in town and regretfully no longer have my truck, I’ve begun to appreciate that straw bales may not be so easy to acquire. That said, rental pickups are inexpensive, and what could be more fun than a trip to the countryside to get a load of straw? Basic straw-bales range in sizes, from small “two-string” ones 18 in wide, by either 14 or 16 in high, and 32 to 48 in long. Three-string “commercial bales” are 21 in wide, by 16 in high, by 3 to 4 ft long. The small sizes are around 40 pounds, and the larger is about 60 pounds for regular wheat straw. You can get as many as 15 bales on a pickup, and that is more than you probably will want, but I always end up not getting more when I could.
If you are going to get more than 4 bales, you probably should invest in a pair of hay hooks for under $20. These hooks will come in handy for your pirate costume next Halloween.
Some commercial straw bales are wire tied, which are very durable. The rope tied bales may fall apart with rough handling, so it is good to use tie-down straps when moving them. These will also be easier to grip that the ties already on the bales. You can get a set of three 12 ft ties for under $40. You may want these anyway to time down your load.
I hope you are getting the picture of what your children will experiencing so far. A drive to the country, visiting a feed store, and all the organic smells and cool tools. Did I mention baby chickens? Yes, you can get bales delivered and offloaded. But that’s not the point. This excursion is the sort of experience they will never get in school and, unless you live in the countryside, they may never get at all.
Before you make this outing, it is a great idea to do some planning. How much space can you devote to this project? Where will it go? How do you want to stack up the bales to make a fort? These are all great questions and, depending on the age of your kids, they should come up with the answers. They can make maps of the yard, use Legos to model the fort. The object is for you to do as little as possible. Note: these bales will eventually get wet, and when they do, they will weigh a lot more so keep them dry as long as possible to maximize the ability to move them around. Don’t stop at just the bales. Add a tarp, some planks, flexible tubes, some lengths of PVC pipe.
Don’t be a Wet Bale
You should get several months of play before the bales get soggy. If you put them on pallets and trap them, you will get more use, but eventually, they will get too funky to be fun. So, what’s next? Strawbale gardens!
The idea of planting into straw bales is an increasingly popular way to create temporary garden beds, and there is lots of information online to guide you in this process. The first crop can be any of your regular vegetables. Many gardeners can get a whole season and multiple crops out of the bales. After multiple crops, the bales will get pretty fragile and hard to plant in. But wait, there’s more. You can grow mushrooms in them. You can gather up the used straw and put it into a bucket or one of the new fabric planters and raise potatoes.
Finally, you will have gotten to the point that what is left over is suitable only for compost and garden mulch, both of which are terrific resources and learning opportunities. Did I mention vermiculture? That’s the scientific name for growing worms. Adding a microscope function to your smartphone will allow the kids to take a deep look into the rich life that has taken root in those once-pristine straw bales.
This is a multi-year adventure for less than a few hundred bucks. The learning, skills, and memories acquired will last a lifetime. Who says that a pandemic has to lead to learning loss?
Many credit Simon Nicholson with developing the theory of loose parts. While this is true historically, as a practical matter, children and teachers have been the real pioneers of loose part play. Over the past couple of decades, programs that support child development have created very systematic approaches to loose parts. I suspect that if I did a comprehensive search of the literature, all this knowledge is written down somewhere, but in my five decades of work in this area, I haven’t run across such a compilation. It is easier for me and, hopefully, more accessible for you for me to write up what I have observed. Before I launch into that exposition, it is appropriate for me to explain why this is an important exercise at this time.
As the Fairy Dust is settling around the Play First Summit and the 75,000 participants begin to process what we witnessed, it is impossible not to conclude that educators have begun to embrace child-directed play as an essential component of early childhood education. It follows that the primary means to that learning is an environment that is largely comprised of loose parts. The next step is to develop a pedagogy for this curriculum.
Generally, I start any analysis by looking for the intention. Be it a poem, a building, or a politician, examining what the intention is behind a made object or action is foundational. When it comes to loose parts, that intention is or should be, to maximize the child’s control. I say “should be”, because all too often the child’s control is compromised by other considerations. Be they cost, convenience, learning outcome, or other overriding consideration, it is important to identify the underlying intention in creating a sound and true pedagogy.
We should also recognize that as early childhood educators, we have been provisioning early childhood education environments for at least the past two centuries and, therefore, have amassed and tested a wellspring of solutions. This means that creating a loose part pedagogy is more like anthropology than creativity—lets’ start by categorizing what we have been doing all these years.
Natural Loose Parts
Without a doubt, natural materials are the earliest loose parts. Sand, water, leaves, sticks, flowers, and dirt are materials that children love and are foundational. While it is easy to say that these sorts of resources are important for early childhood development, we tend to think that their value is, well, natural. However, with our modern understanding of neuroscience, we have another and deeper takeaway. Natural materials provide what Bernie DeKoven, our dear late, Dr. Fun, called complexification. While this term has a specific meaning in mathematics, in Bernie’s use, the term when applied to something playable its meaning connotes increasingly complex layers and branches. His concept was almost like fractals, but rather than ever smaller repetitions of the same shape, play has ever-deepening layers of discovery and engagement. Complexification is one reason the “nature play” movement has so much appeal and sustainability, and why educators try to include as much of nature as we can. The challenge is that other than rocks, nature tends to be fragile, high maintenance, and space intensive. Since ECE tends to be chronically and perniciously under-resourced, we find including nature in our programs challenging. To combat this challenge, as professionals, we need to tie the inclusion of natural loose part play to the child development benefits natural materials provide. The key benefit is complexification and how it is essential to the development of a complex brain.
Combinatorial Loose Parts
What neuroscience tells us is that children’s play is often counterfactual. We can see this in the classroom when children struggle with how some ideas fit together when others don’t. This is the sort of deep learning that is hard to explain to parents or policymakers but is extremely important in children’s cognitive development. The point here we intend to provide great materials, but too often, we balk at adding them because of the time that is required to round up all the loose stuff at cleanup time. Again, this goes back to administrative priorities, lack of resources, and scheduling pressure that can take priority over maximizing learning.
The point here we intend to provide great materials, but too often, we balk at adding them because of the time that is required to round up all the loose stuff at cleanup time. Again, this goes back to administrative priorities, lack of resources, and scheduling pressure that can take priority over maximizing learning. The emblematic combinatorial play is a dollhouse as it brings together all the avatars and furnishings of domestic life. Block play can also be considered combinatorial, but in many programs, blocks are restricted to specific areas, and no other props are available; and such block play is just construction play. The same can be said of jigsaw puzzles, which are simple pattern recognition exercises. Returning to the issue of intention, one can quickly see that in each of these examples, child control is limited. Only when loose parts are not constrained to functional silos, do we achieve a deep level of complexification.
Educational Loose Parts
The appeal of educational loose parts is schools can readily answer the question, “what are children learning”? Perhaps the greatest practitioner of educational loose parts was Maria Montessori. Everything in her environment has specific learning embedded in its design. She intentionally used the child’s curiosity as a motivation to discover a fundamental concept she considered important. While one can make a case that this method is beneficial, it is important to note that it is the antithesis of nature-based loose part play. There are no deeper layers to the Montessori apparatus. Once a child has learned what the apparatus has to offer, children find the devices do not lend themselves to combinatorial play. Fortunately, most Montessori programs are not exclusively devoted to this narrow approach if only because kids soon master the content and need more. The lesson here is that materials with specific learning outcomes are not in themselves bad; it is just that they are very limited in meeting the demands of whole-child education.
Junk Loose Parts
Adventure Playgrounds have been around since the 1940s. In their way, preschools have embraced this concept almost as long. The play yard in which I had my practicum 50 years ago was of this type, with cable spools, doors, and tarps. Over the years, ECE has developed an informal inventory of found objects that are useful, such as tires, barrels, boxes, etc. The play yards at Anji Play are one of the best examples of including these well-suited objects. Teacher Tom’s Woodland Park and the Takoma Park Cooperatives also make good use of these materials. Indeed, in Tom Hobson’s Second Book, he extols the value of junk because its very worthlessness allows children to imbue the objects with a new identity. This repurposing is another form or counterfactual thinking. In his book, Tom elevates found objects from junk collected that no one wants, to objects that offer an opportunity for deep learning experiences. Tom embodies the sort of work we need to do as ECE professionals. In our daily interaction with children, we observe learning in situ and thus, over time, come to value the environment as the “third teacher.” We know this teacher may look strange and perhaps a bit dangerous to outsiders. But for those of us who know her, she is beautiful, and we must continue to allow her to evolve without interference or shame.
Active Loose Parts
In my experience, the type of loose parts that, if too often an afterthought in our choice of materials, are loose parts that support active play. Sure, we all have trikes and may call it done, but the skill development of trike riding is so low as to be dismissible. Scooters are far more beneficial motorically. The paucity of active play loose parts is widespread. For example, many programs I visit have no balls, which may be due to the fear of thrown objects, but the ability to catch is a rite of passage for children. The coordination of eye-tracking and combined with gross motor movement is one of the essential physical skills and are pivotal for such things as reading and dodging cars. A few other examples include a hula hoop, which is s such an evocative object for movement. A few 2x4s will be used for balance, wide board for a slide, ropes for swings. As a play systems designer, I cringe at the climbers attached to most commercial apparatus that offer only walking-gate type of movement, feet straight ahead hands to the side. For gosh sakes, we are primates! It is fairly easy to get downed trees from landscape maintenance companies or park departments that have many limbs that offer complex movement challenges.
The preceding is a start on a Pedagogy for Loose Parts or Child-Based learning since this is also true. This topic can and should become an online manual with all the associated links to Pinterest pages, references, and examples. Since America has come to realize the essential role of ECE in the economy, we will need a whole new generation of ECE teachers. While students may be trained in what to buy to equip their classrooms and yards, we expect that they will not also be given much background into the deep developmental value of junk. It is unlikely that, unless we create it, they will encounter a comprehensive manual that ties best practices to the emerging neuroscience in a systematic, constantly updated, and accessible format.
In this introduction, I’ve given the idea of a Loose Part Pedagogy a push. Let’s have some fun filling in the pages.
If you have tried to buy a backyard pool, trampoline, bike, or swing set over the last couple of months, you know that this sort of stuff is scarce as hen’s teeth. While annoying, we’re going to turn this disappointment into a win for you by coming up with fun solutions that are better and cheaper than anything you would have purchased.
In part one of this series, I said we wouldn’t start the proposed projects as equipment, but we will with developmental benefits. From that point of view,t his project is about proprioception. This is the sense of our position in space that we get from our muscles and joints. Here’s a good introduction to this concept explained. You already know about how much kids love to play with this sense from jumpy houses and trampolines. You could rent a trampoline or inflatable, but that is a short-term answer. Our goal is in this project to give you solutions for everyday use over the long-term.
Fun with Inner Tubes
The experience we are looking for is physical impact, like jumping out of a swing. To get the maximum benefit of that force applied to muscles and joints, we need daily repetition. The solution? Inner tubes. Sure, you can buy cheap plastic floater for pool use, but we want something durable that can take constant bouncing, and inner tubes are perfect. While most tires these days are tubeless, you can still buy inner tubes. Better yet, you may be able to get them from a tire store for free or at very little cost.
Old tires are a ubiquitous feature on adventure and many preschool play spaces. In the backyard, these seem less useful as they are heavy and hard to store. Other than not having the benefit of lifting the weight of a tire, innertubes can be played with as well as tires and have the added fun of bounce.
Once you’ve got a bunch of tubes, here’s where you will see the kids use them. They will become soft landing targets for jumping onto or “crashing” into. If you can find a hill or slope, they will become central to rolling games, especially if you tie them together to make a cylinder. Tubes can be stacked to make a hide-out. They may even make it into costumes. Tubes will be used with water play, which we will get to in a subsequent post.
What Size and How Many?
You almost can’t have too many, so get a bunch. Remember that you can take the air out of them for storage, and an air pump is pretty cheap to refill them quickly. Don’t forget bicycle tubes as these add an extra dimension, so get several of these. Even tubes that can no longer be inflated are great because you can cut them to make rubber ropes and bands, which are great for rubber-band guns.
What? You want us to arm our kids? Of course, this is up to you, but there are terrific benefits to rubber-band guns. First, unless you are inches away, the wide bands made from tubes can’t hurt because they have a lot of wind resistance. Also, these end up having a large role in games and contests. Best of all, they are total kid magnets. Think of this as a softer and cleaner version of paintball. Your biggest problem will be the parents of your kid’s friends that question your sanity.
On the serious side, either bands or water toy guns, allow the subject of guns and gun safety to come up. You can count on your kids having questions that will surprise you.
At the Play First Summit, Teacher Tom said, “The best use of power is to Empower.” Coming as it did from Tom Hobson, I thought about this idea in the context of children and Tom’s passion for standing back and empowering children to find their solutions. Over the past week, with the passing of John Lewis, I’ve been thinking about Tom’s dictum from the perspective of politics. Allowing kids to play with guns may be a perfect example of what John Lewis meant by “making good trouble, necessary trouble.”
While I’ve written books hundreds of articles on children’s play, none of those offer succinct and developmentally sound recommendations that are appropriate for these times. I can’t be comprehensive here as that would be a book-length effort, but I can give you some ideas you can do right now to get your kids active and help them thrive. I will share these ideas in several posts over the coming days, so like this post to get the full story.
There are no toys or play equipment that is more fun or more beneficial than other kids to play with. This means that families will eventually form trusted cohorts where they can allow their children to play together. This trend will emerge gradually as we achieve community spread and sufficient reliable testing. This means that whatever you do now to provide play experiences for your children should be scalable to accommodate several children later on.
Since the goal is getting kids active and outdoors, we should think about ways to “gamify” their play. Here’s an example. Arrange for a playmate’s family to create similar challenges in their backyard. An obstacle course will do nicely. A measured distance to do a timed run is another example. Then video their activities to share back and forth. While you can start this sharing process, let the kids come up with their contests as soon as possible.
Bang for the Buck
In my practice as a play systems designer, I use the rule that everything must serve as many functions as possible. Kids master challenges at a prodigious rate, so finding recourses that can be reconfigured, repurposed, and made more complex is the key. As we go through proposed equipment, we will give suggestions for multiple uses. Of course, kids will find many more ways to use things, but if we start with flexible use materials that will be easier for them.
In my experience, the worst thing parent do is spend too much money to provide play stuff for their children. This is especially true with active play and constructive play where low cost and disposable stuff work best. It also eliminates the sort of problem that I hear too often that sounds a lot like, “Hey, we spent $3,000 on that playset, and by God, you’re going to play on it.”
It’s Not Swings and Slides
While playgrounds are great, they don’t do a great job meeting all of the children’s developmental needs. Rather than talk about equipment, we will couch our suggestions based on the aspects of physical and neurological development. In this way, you can extrapolate from the examples to come up with local resources to provide the same benefits.
“Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
We have all heard the story about how a frog won’t leave a pot of water if it is heated gradually. First off, that contention is just not true. But more importantly, it makes the analogy that things before were better and have only grown worse over time. This assumption allows us to believe if we mobilize for change, there is a preexisting condition that will naturally come about. When the issue is self-determination, the myth of gradually becoming accustomed to change is not true as well. I suspect, and much of history and anthropology bear this out, as far back as we can look, there have been times of civil liberty and others of repression.
In today’s America, we can see that the repression of peaceful demonstrators is not that different from Child Protective Services taking children from parents because they allowed them to play on the playground across from their home while at the same time, the mother watched over them from the kitchen window. Forcing children to sit at desks for most of the day to memorize information unrelated to their interests or abilities is just as draconian. When autos are so dominant that children cannot play freely in their neighborhood, or when cars become the new weapon of choice for attacking demonstrators, we can see our society has run amuck. When we cannot distinguish from “peace” officers from boogaloo boys dressed up in camo with multiple machine guns and ammunition strapped on them as these poor guys struggling to come to terms with their impotence, we know that we live in a repressive society.
The thing about repression is that social norms don’t just creep in unbidden. Rather they grow on fertile soil. One of the first agendas of any leader who wants to move the tenor of their society in one direction or the other is to change the educational system of children. This is as true today as it was in the times of the Romans. Children are the fertile soil on which both slavery and freedom spring.
There are many ways that the imbalance in our society can be ameliorated. Confrontation, working from within, and mobilization are all effective. History shows, and the founding fathers knew that education is perhaps the most critical and sustainable change agent. But note that protecting schools is not in the constitution, but a free press and speech are. This is an important observation. The constitution does not guarantee education, but a free press and unfettered inquiry are.
“The constitution does not guarantee compulsory education, but a free press and unfettered inquiry are.”
Hummm, “open unfettered inquiry.” That sounds an awful lot like “play-based” learning. As Tom Hobson, aka Teacher Tom, points out in many of his essays, when children are allowed to play with minimal adult interference, democracy and fairness between children generally blossoms. He is also keen to show that this process is not without challenges for children or for observers who want to spare the participants from pain.
As Lenore Skenazy at Let Grow points out, the change that must happen is regaining trust. Lenore’s message is we can trust our children to roam our community as it is objectively safer than it has ever been. We can trust our children to navigate life without our constant overwatch. This is what a free society does. It trusts its citizens to self-govern.
As Ms. Cheng Xueqin, the founder of Anji Play said so poignantly during the recent Play First Summit; we can also trust children’s “true play” to be a powerful change agent. I can personally attest to this power as I have seen play as members of playground building crews went on to become school board members and engage in other civic responsibilities. Its power is clear, as the play settings we create require that teachers and parents must stand back because the children become so engrossed in their play that adult direction becomes unnecessary and unwanted.
After the Summit, I was describing to my sister the conversation Ms. Cheng had with her co-founder of the True Play Foundation Jesse Robert Coffino. While I love my sister deeply, she is an arch-conservative and steadfast supporter of the current occupant of the White House, which makes conversations somewhat guarded. But this time, the conversation took an unexpected turn as she recalled her days as an elementary school teacher. She recounted that as a test, it was her practice at some point during the school year to abruptly leave her classroom unattended for a short period. To her profound joy, she would find on returning her students just as engaged in their projects as they were under her watchful eye. I realized at that moment that our shared commitment to children was, and will be going forward, a bridge we can cross together to reach new common ground.
Advocating for true play is what John Lewis called “making good trouble.”
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.