The Anji Interviews


Jesse Robert Coffino, Editor



In the pages that follow, twenty educators recount their first encounters with the public early learning programs of Anji County, China, and describe their continued engagement with the ideas and work of Ms. Cheng Xueqin and the educators of Anji County. The breadth, depth, and diversity of perspectives and experiences shared by these educators provide keen insights into the current state of global early education and illuminate the clear response of the Anji ecology of early learning and True Play. 

For the educators, children, and families of Anji, these visitors frequently stay for a week, visit ten schools, and then return home. These visitors are invited to share their own stories while they are in Anji, but their backgrounds, their experiences in Anji, and the impacts that these experiences have had on their thinking and practice are often unknown to their many gracious hosts. Their retelling of those stories here, indelible and accessible, is their contribution to a growing, continuing conversation about the future of education. 

Marie Randazzo’s and Peter Brown’s stories and my own story begin this volume. Marie’s and Peter’s interviews were among the last interviews that I conducted. Among the interviewees in this volume, Marie and Peter had visited Anji for the first time most recently, so their memories can be said to have been “most fresh.” 

My interviews of Marie and Peter represent my first meetings and conversations with them. I know each of the other eighteen interviewees well. I have met them all in person and therefore share with them a degree of familiarity. Of the twenty interviewees, I was with sixteen when they had the encounters with Anji Play that they describe in the following words. 

Jesse Robert Coffino
Chief Translator and Interpreter
Anji Childhood Education Research Center 

30 April 2019

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The following interviews were conducted over two months, between January and March 2019. They were conducted one-on-one, in the format of a video conference. The subsequent audio of those interviews was transcribed and edited for print. 

Each interview includes the name, title, and affiliation of the interviewee; a photo of the interviewee in Anji; the date(s) of the interviewee’s visit(s) to Anji; the date of the interview; and a photograph or stills from a video taken by the interviewee and described in their own words.

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Marie Randazzo

Teacher, University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (retired)

Date of visit to Anji: December 11, 2018

Interview conducted on March 1, 2019

Jesse Coffino: Thank you so much for responding so quickly and for getting in touch.

Marie Randazzo: You’re welcome.

Jesse Coffino: And you probably know very little or nothing about who I am, with the exception of what I communicated in that email.

Marie Randazzo: Right, that’s all I know, so yeah.

Jesse Coffino: Yeah, and so I’ll just give you—

Marie Randazzo: So how did you get so engaged with Anji?

Jesse Coffino: Yeah, I’ll give you sort of the quick rundown.

Marie Randazzo: Okay.

Jesse Coffino: I grew up in the Bay Area in California. I was born in 1982. I ended up going to Columbia University in New York for college, and I stayed there for about 16 years, in New York. And in college, I studied Chinese. That wasn’t my major, I studied political science, but I became exceptionally fluent in Chinese. So I read and write at a graduate student level in Chinese.

Marie Randazzo: Wow.

Jesse Coffino: And I can get up in front of an audience of 1,000 people in China and give a speech extemporaneously.

Marie Randazzo: Wow, I’m impressed, because I’m finding it very difficult.

Jesse Coffino: Yeah, I can give you some hints, I can give you some pointers that may or not be helpful.

Marie Randazzo: Oh, great.

Jesse Coffino: And so I worked for a decade as the studio director for a very well known Chinese contemporary artist at his studio in New York, in Brooklyn, managing his projects all over the world and sales and fabrication and all that stuff. And amongst the organizations I worked with was a not-for-profit in Booklyn, focused on book art, it’s called Booklyn. And the director of that not-for-profit, his wife at the time was also a friend of mine, and we became friends.

And she is an early educator, she has her PhD in curriculum and theory design from the University of Wisconsin—Madison, and was the director of teacher preparation for early education at NYU before she decided to become more of somebody out in the world doing her own thing. Not a freelancer, a consultant, and doing that kind of work.

And so she spent some time . . . she was asked by her former colleague, Dr. Frances Rust, who was at UPenn and is now back at NYU . . . Frances had worked on these projects, and she said to Chelsea, “Can you can help me with them?” She was spending time in China, Chelsea Bailey, Dr. Bailey, while I was doing some work in China. And so we’d meet when we were in the same city at the same time. And I get a call from her, and she says, “Jesse, your wife”—my wife, Samantha—“she’s seven months pregnant, you’re kind of between projects, you speak and read and write Chinese. I’ve been to this place where this incredible paradigm shift is taking place, it’s going to change the world and it’s completely revolutionary and I want you to drop everything you’re doing and be a part of this with me.”

And I said, “You’re out of your mind, I have no idea what you’re talking about. I told you not to drink the water from the tap in China, Chelsea, take a deep breath.” ’Cause I’m a generally skeptical person. I’m unfortunately not always very reflective and not a very spiritual person in some ways. I appreciate nature, maybe some sort of Goethean spiritualism around the drama of the natural elements. I was skeptical, I didn’t know what she was talking about, I’m not an early educator, and generally, from the Bay Area, I’m generally skeptical about people who talk about their revolutionary solutions, their paradigm shifting Uber-ification of whatever. There’s always some claim to some greater truth or change that somebody is making. And I realize now that that response, “You’re nuts,” is highly problematic. That is often a reaction that is deemed acceptable in our society, the so-called “hysterical woman,” not to mention the stigma it attaches to people with mental illness. But really, that’s what I thought. And I also know people often see me as a little unhinged when I start to talk about Anji Play and Ms. Cheng and True Play.

But Chelsea, Dr. Bailey, said to me, “Okay, look, I get it. I’m bringing Ms. Cheng out to the States. Can you translate this PowerPoint for me?” So she sends me this 200-page Chinese PowerPoint.

Marie Randazzo: 200 pages?

Jesse Coffino: Yes, 200 pages. And this approach to PowerPoints for Ms. Cheng plagues me to this day, because I’ll be traveling with her to Moscow or Bangladesh to give a talk, and she’ll be like, “Jesse, I just finished my PowerPoint,” and it’s, like, the night before a talk that I’m interpreting for her. And it’s 200 pages, the images are all different scales and different fonts, and I’m like, “I can’t translate that.”

So anyways, I get this PowerPoint and I’m just blown away. I’m not an early educator, but the clarity, the profundity, the simplicity of the logic but the depth of it, I was just blown away. I’m not an expert, as I said, so I was able to understand it. The photos immediately communicated to me the truth of the words that were on the document.

Marie Randazzo: Yeah.

Jesse Coffino: And so I think, “Wow.” I’m up all night translating this thing and I’m blown away. And I said, “Whatever I can do, just let me know.” And so they come to New York, visit New York. I meet Ms. Cheng, and I go interpret for her at Bank Street, where she’s giving a talk. And little did I know, but Chelsea sent the PowerPoint to somebody else to translate. That person was an early educator fluent in Chinese.

And so the translation that they rendered was so bound by preexisting, accepted language in the field that was not an accurate conveyance of Ms. Cheng’s words, that Chelsea of course used mine, because mine was from somebody who was educated enough, who understood the ideas and who understood English. 

Marie Randazzo: It was beginner’s mind.

Jesse Coffino: Yeah, it was. And it was this kind of humbleness or naivete towards the truth of the thing.

Marie Randazzo: Right, that you didn’t have a preconceived idea and all of those buzzwords.

Jesse Coffino: And so I’ve learned, that’s a critical stance for a teacher in an Anji Play school, towards a child’s knowledge, that the thing itself has more value than the preconception or the assumption of the observer, or of the translator. The person who is trying to see that and articulate what’s taking place.

So yeah, so then, the last four and a half years, Chelsea and I have been to Anji maybe 10, 12 times. I’ve organized lots of groups of people to go there from the States. Our strategy from the get-go was, we want to share Ms. Cheng’s work, we want to share the work of the educators of Anji, we want to make it clear that it was not coming from some book that they had read, that it was a genuine, authentic movement to understand children, to make a change. We wanted people to understand that it was Ms. Cheng that did this, that we secured her position as the founder, as the creator, of this.

We wanted to not try to bring it into other people’s ideas. So some of our first contacts were big European foundations: “This is such a wonderful example of rural Chinese innovation, we’d love to put it in our curated list of rural innovations that we have discovered and will make better by highlighting and explaining.” And of course China represents a major market for their funders, what they see as the inscrutable future. And then from there, after a year or two, it goes up a level, they realize this is maybe more important, and it’s, “Oh, this is a great model for developing countries with low resources.”

So our feeling has always been, “No, this is something different. We should at least come to the table with you as equals, if not with you listening to what we’re saying.” That’s a very cavalier, or grandiose, or perhaps hubristic, approach, because you don’t ever say that, but we hold a very firm line about what we believe and what we are articulating and describing that’s happening there. So for us, our first step is, we’re going to share this with integrity, we’re going to share it clearly and with integrity. We’re not going to try to monetize this. We’re not going to try to turn it into a product. We’re not going to try to fit it into other people’s frameworks.

We’re willing to talk to those frameworks, we’re willing to have a conversation, but we’re not going to compromise on our values. Once we do that, once we get the word out, then we respond to the people it speaks to at the degree of depth they want to go. So if somebody says to me, “This is incredibly urgent, we need to have Anji Play for our children, here are the steps we’re going to take,” we say, “Okay, what can we do to help you?” If somebody says, “Oh, this is interesting, I’m also studying Montessori, and I’m studying Dewey and Waldorf, what makes it different?” I’ll say, “Here’s this great link on our website, figure it out,” and everything in between.

That’s really been our work up to today, and now we have a number of pilot programs in the United States, and some other parts of the world, and we’re moving very intentionally. We’re not dictating timelines. Our only demand is that people engage with the ideas authentically, then, when they decide that they want to do it, that they commit to the ideas that are behind it. But beyond that, we don’t go in and say, “You have to raise X amount of money and buy X amount of materials,” if it’s just two years talking about what it means for a teacher to step back—but those teachers have to be really committed to thinking about what that means in the practice—then that’s something that we want to support. If it’s somebody that comes to us with a million dollars and wants to do an Anji Play school, but they don’t care about that, then sorry. Maybe I’ll respond to your email, but my time and energy is better spent with a Head Start program where this is going to change things. So, almost as a corollary, what we’ve found is, the people for whom this is an urgent need are the people who are working with children who are frequently last in line for the best things, and for whom systems are most often designed to both assess and hold accountable teachers and students, which means that they’re being measured according to extrinsic, narrowly defined ideas of what progress or preparation or success means. It reflects both a lack of respect and a lack of trust in the capacity of the child, but at the same time, in a parallel way, a lack of respect in the teacher and in the larger community. And so one of the things we’ve been encountering is that those ideas are inherent in systems of American and Northern European philanthropy. And, I don’t want to get too political, but neoliberal ideas of efficiency and how funding is delivered and how things are measured. There’s both this very—

And it’s an admirable intention for many people, which means, how do we guarantee and provide quality for the largest number of children? And then this is where neoliberalism comes in—it’s always that problem of scaling. But it becomes locked down in a view, and this is also true of how teachers are trained, of what their relationship is between the learner and the teacher.

We’ve seen a lot of people who, they view teachers as somewhat competent. “What’s the simplest way, the most concrete way, that we can tell them what to do so that they can do what we’ve told them to do, so we can measure what we’ve told them to do?” And so that’s your view of a teacher; that’s going to be the view of the child that you’re going to inculcate in that teacher.

And so, for us, the people that have an urgent need are people that know that reality, and many people know that that is what that system is doing. And they see something that is from the bottom up, from the inside out, that fundamentally says, our first stance is the efficacy, the will, the intention of the child. Their expression of that will and their own trajectory of growth or development or learning or inquiry should be primarily the most valued experience, and you build out around that.

And so that can go up against a lot of things. And it’s funny, I promise I will stop talking in a second, but you look at something—I don’t know how much you know about CLASS or ECERS, or other assessment measures. There are things that are research-based that you use in federally funded or NAEYC-approved programs, that, again, come from a good place. ECERS, “let’s make sure kids have light and air and spaces that are quiet,” but then it become this formalized, “you’ve got to have a kitchen, you’ve got to have this space and this space,” and it has nothing to do with the teachers’ understanding of the preparation of the environment, based on observing the needs of a child.

CLASS, which is about, in some sense, addressing a lack of meaningful social and verbal interaction between adults and children, becomes a thing that’s used to regulate and legislate how a teacher talks. So anyways, that’s my harangue. So can I ask you some questions? Are you ready for that?

Marie Randazzo: Sure.

Jesse Coffino: Okay, great. So can you just tell me very briefly who you are? ’Cause I know very little about you.

Marie Randazzo: I’ve been an early childhood educator for 42 years. I’m just retired. Last year I taught a course in early childhood environments in China, through a translator, for professional development. While I was there, one of my students said, “I think I know what you’re talking about about play,” and she showed me a video of Anji. That blew me away.

I thought, “Oh my god, somebody finally gets it. Oh my gosh!” I was thinking . . . I have always been on that path on my own, taking my kids out all the time, letting them climb trees and do whatever in nature. But I’d never had any sort of sanction, you know, the idea that “this is school.” I just sort of did my thing within the confines of what I could, and justified it because parents were always supportive of me.

I started in Head Start and then ended up in a private school. So now I’m retired, but now I’m also on the board of Mary Crane Nursery School, started by Jane Addams over 110 years ago. They’re still very committed to play, but teachers are fearful of children going outside; teachers are fearful that children will get hurt. Teachers restrict children because of their fear. So I’m hoping to inject a little more, as a board member, and then as someone who can do some professional development with them. And I hope to show them some photographs from Anji that I took to get them enthused and to see that children are really capable.

And quite literally, I just walked into that center in Anji and thought, “I just entered early childhood heaven, oh my god. Really. I had to come to China to find this? It was wonderful.” And with Reggio, I’m not unimpressed, I think they do lovely work. But this just transcends it. It’s just, the educators in Anji really get young children and what young children want to do.

And it also hearkens back to my own childhood, which, I always knocked away some of the adults so I could do stuff like that, just play in a risky fashion without people putting a damper on it. Building rafts. They never worked, but I build rafts and set up in the creek and try and float them and get places. They always sank, but it never stopped me, I just kept trying. So it was really beautiful to see these teachers just allowing children to experiment. And then to see such cool objects to do it with. Things that kids could sort of find in nature if they were allowed to run free, they might pull together things similar. But here it’s just massive.

I worked very hard to create those rafts. I would put wire boards together and try and nail them. We had this creek behind our house, and in between my house and the creek of course was a huge cornfield. So I would just run up and down the rows of that cornfield, just gleeful that nobody could find me among the corn. This idea of being out of view of the adult, being allowed to do what I want and nobody would notice.

Nobody would be like, “Come outside of the cornstalks.” And the other thing that we used to do in a group, I was a little bit older, but we would ride our bikes and go up to the nearby state park. And then there was a fence, a barbed wire fence, because on the other side of the barbed wire fence was a quarry. And of course a quarry was full of water. And we would just go down in the quarry and swim. And that was extremely joyful water play, nature, it’s sunny, it’s hot, there’s lots of water, we can jump, we can throw rocks around, we can do all sorts of building.

And again, we weren’t supposed to do it. It was off limits, as a matter of fact. Danger, keep out, and all that. But again, childhood desire to challenge yourself and take a risk and do something that is exciting and interesting, and uses your creativity and your mind. It was just good fun. And to do it with other kids was really fun. I have a lot of little vignettes of things that I did as a kid, but we were relatively more free growing up than what I see kids have today. There’s so much fear about children doing things and taking risks, that people need to overcome.

They can’t let them do it. There’s so much more restriction.

They just put us out in the morning: “Go play.”

Jesse Coffino: It’s a common response from people of your generation or a little bit younger. But I’ve also been interviewing people in their twenties, and they have fewer of these memories.

Marie Randazzo: I would imagine. They have a lot more memories of some play.

Jesse Coffino: Yeah, or even just organized things, organized sports, or organized activities.

Marie Randazzo: Yeah.

Jesse Coffino: So you find out about Anji because you’re in China, working with teachers.

Marie Randazzo: Right.

Jesse Coffino: And then, before you get to Anji, I know that some teachers from Chicago had visited. Did you have any more conversations about Anji after that first encounter with that picture your student showed you, or was it just in the back of your mind, and then it comes up again?

Marie Randazzo: No, after I saw that picture, of course I read a lot on the website, and I talked with Zhang Yinna and urged her to set up a tour so that we could go see Anji together.

Jesse Coffino: Had she heard of Anji Play before that?

Marie Randazzo: She hadn’t either.

Jesse Coffino: Wow.

Marie Randazzo: Not before. She heard it from me.

And I told her about my experience, and I showed her the website, and of course she was very impressed and pleased that it was in China.

Jesse Coffino: Yeah, of course.

Marie Randazzo: She’s taking people from China all over the United States to look at different play programs. And I was like, “Don’t even bother to bring them, take them to Anji.”

Marie Randazzo: They like it here. I have seen some nice programs, but this is . . .

Jesse Coffino: Different. It’s different.

Marie Randazzo: Yeah. 

Jesse Coffino: So tell me about your experience leading up to arriving at Anji. You go to China, you see some other programs, where are you coming from when you get to Anji?

Marie Randazzo: We made a number of visits. We visited the Red Yellow Blue centers in Beijing. We visited a preschool in Shanghai, which is supposedly the best preschool, the best early childhood, in China, or at least in Shanghai. It was alright. It was very much like early childhood programs around the world that have some respect for children’s play, but there’s always a hidden agenda in these.

Children’s play is never really, the play is the work of the child, they choose the play, they learn all things they need for future success in school. True play is hard to find in school. True play . . . you have to look when kids are hiding out away from the adults. That’s when you see true play. But in Anji, there was true play, oh my god, I can’t believe it.

Jesse Coffino: Okay, so you’re getting on the bus, you go to Anji. And Peter Brown was talking to me and he told me it was very early in the morning, that you all get to Anji in the morning. And then what happens? You get off the bus. What do you see? Who greets you? Can you walk me through whatever you remember of that experience?

Marie Randazzo: Yeah. Well, the first thing we saw was the official-looking security guards, which is different than America. But they were very friendly and welcoming. We walked in, and then the next thing I started to notice was parents coming with their children. One mother sitting with, just took a moment to sit with her child to look at a book together.

There was a very charming moment, the little boy had obviously been at school for some time, 15–20 minutes, and his little friend came in, and he was just so overjoyed to see her. He ran over to her and scooped her up and swung her around. It was really sweet. And then the teachers—kids were getting things together, snacks, dates, and tea. They were in and out of the classroom, building things; they had not yet gone outside. Then each group went outside and did some sort of warm-up kind of thing together. Some were doing the movement type of thing, and some were just dancing, some were singing, and then they went to their areas. And kids just got busy, and the joy and the determination was just palpable, they were just so excited to get started. And yeah, it’s hard to figure out where to look, there’s just so much going on that finally, I forced myself to pick out, a lot longer, but just watch them, and I could see what they did. I have a really nice little video clip of two little girls building, and I wished I could have understood them because I could tell one of them was kind of, she was a little bossy. And I wanted to know what it was that she was saying and how the other was responding.

They were clearly both cooperating and solving interpersonal conflicts, so that was interesting to me. And then of course all the water play was just fantastic. What do kids like more than water and mud? Get themselves feeling the elements. So they were putting that around.

Jesse Coffino: Do you remember how you felt in any way?

Marie Randazzo: Oh yeah, I wanted to join in. Yeah, in fact, I just experienced such incredible joy and was so thrilled that this was actually happening. Sanctioned in school, public school. God.

Jesse Coffino: And then, did you see anything that happened after the play? What else was the rest of your time there like?

Marie Randazzo: So they provided us with a demonstration of how they debrief. And it was a little bit of a show for us, because they normally do it in their classrooms and whatnot.

Jesse Coffino: Oh, it wasn’t in the class, okay.

Marie Randazzo: So it was a little different than . . . but we got a lot out of that, understanding how they led the children into discussions about what they did, how they were figuring things out, what challenges they met with, which I think is the educational part of it. This is where kids really have to start thinking and reflect on what they do, what works, what doesn’t work.

So that part is educational, in the traditional way.

Jesse Coffino: Yeah.

Marie Randazzo: And I think the attention focused on what they were doing and how they did it would motivate them further to meet challenges and find challenges. Because they were being rewarded just by the attention they were given, that “this is important stuff you guys are doing.”

Jesse Coffino: So what’s amazing is that—because I’ve brought a lot of groups to Anji, we’ll go to nine schools, so you see a real range of programs. And a lot of it is splitting off from the larger group, and small groups going to classes and seeing that sharing in the classroom setting.

And there are occasional times where we’ll have a bigger school and we’ll do it in a different space. What’s interesting for me is that, because they’re reflecting on what happened that morning, while it’s kind of for sure, there’s no way to rehearse that. There’s no preparation you can do. As you said, because the child’s experience of true play, because the environment and the materials communicate that that’s the most important thing, and then the stance of the teacher and observing says to the child, what you are doing is the most important thing. And then, the teacher is using the smartphone or whatever, that object is that’s in their hand, a thing that has so much value in the child’s larger social, cultural, and familial context, the one value of that phone for that teacher in that moment is to understand what I, the child, am doing. And then to aid me in thinking about what I’m doing. So that piece of technology is in service to the child’s active creation of meaning behind their own experience. And it’s also for the teachers to actively engage in a process of understanding and organizing what the child is doing.

Marie Randazzo: Right, it’s the teacher’s focus on what kids are doing, rather than their own agenda.

Jesse Coffino: Yeah, so, every Friday, the teachers have a half day, and they’re organizing, they’re talking about it amongst themselves, they’re engaged in a reflective process. You may have also seen, you’ll see this when you are in Anji for longer, that oftentimes, when teachers are doing that sharing, the principal will come in and videotape the teacher engaged in sharing.

So again, the principal is communicating to the teacher that “this activity that you’re doing is educational, it’s important work, and we should understand that together.” Also in my mind, I’ve been thinking about it recently, there’s this blurry line between the observer and the observed. There’s an equity in the teacher also being observed in front of the children. And then, you probably saw this in how the children were relating, but for the teachers in Anji, they’re asking very open-ended questions, there’s no leading to a particular insight.

What we often see is that a teacher will go into a sharing, taking a video of something that the teacher thinks is an important insight, the child will come up and say, “No, go 10 seconds further ahead.” What the child knows is important is not what the teacher thinks is important. When a teacher will hear a child talking about a degree of incline, when really the child is talking about surface tension and force with the sand in there . . . So if you go into that, thinking “This is what they should learn,” it’s that interesting tension between educational versus learning from the child.

And again, as you said, the communication and respect for the child’s experience automatically fills that space with that place for confidence. And then you have the continuation of the play stories versus the kids’ drawing, and then the fact that it’s happening every day and it’s the culture of the school.

Marie Randazzo: Yeah.

Jesse Coffino: Sorry, that was long.

Marie Randazzo: No, that’s okay. That’s the beauty of it, is that all of those skills that we want them to get, like using their hands to draw and communicate and pre-writing, are all there. But it’s all embedded.

Jesse Coffino: Yeah.

Marie Randazzo: The child’s agenda, and the child is trying to figure things out without the teachers imposing that, “We’re doing it all, I want you to do this or this.” And one question that one of our museum educators asked was, “Do you ever pose a question to the children beforehand?” and Ms. Cheng said “No, because then that would not be true play, that would be a task.” So it was so beautiful. She didn’t miss a beat. Which, it’s true, as soon as you start to format it, it’s no longer play. That is work, or doing something to fulfill a request, which is different.

Jesse Coffino: Yeah. And then what would you say, if anything, after that visit, what have you brought back with you? Has it changed any way that you’re thinking? Does it reaffirm certain things? Have you done something, after being there, related to that experience?

Marie Randazzo: I think it’s reaffirmed everything that I have always thought and believed in. But it also is that it is possible to do it in a school context. ’Cause I’ve always thought, “Well, this is not going to happen schoolwide. Schools just aren’t going to be this way. Adults are just too fearful.” Here were these incredibly brave adults just going, “Yeah, we’re going to just do it.” And doing it.

The other impact it’s had on me is that I don’t think I can ever do professional development anymore. Just go and see Anji and leave it at that. Instead of professional development, go to Anji, or go take a course, or go read the website. That’s it.

Marie Randazzo: The industriousness and earnestness of the two young girls as they work impressed me.

Marie Randazzo: The industriousness and earnestness of the two young girls as they work impressed me.


Peter Brown

Head Teacher, Velma Thomas Early Childhood Center, a Chicago Public School

Date of visit to Anji: December 11, 2018

Interview conducted on February 24, 2019

Peter Brown: Ah. Hi.

Jesse Coffino: Hey.

Peter Brown: Hey, how are you?

Jesse Coffino: Good. How are you doing?

Peter Brown: I’m doing very well, thank you. Nice to see you, sort of, face to face.

Jesse Coffino: Yeah, it’s really wonderful, and thank you so much for responding to me out of the blue. I know it was probably a little surprising because we’ve never spoken or met before.

Peter Brown: Yeah, well, there are nice surprises, so . . . As I told you, I’ve been doing a lot of reflection about the days I spent in Anji and the trip as a whole, and the way I have done that has been to talk to a lot of people and share slides and images and have some discussions with teachers and parents where I work. So this is another way to reflect. And everybody’s excited about visiting Madison next year for the 2020 True Play Conference, and I’m still trying to get a couple of people over this May.

Jesse Coffino: I have come to see a changing zeitgeist around how children learn, what is best for children, what children need. And if you go on Facebook, you see parents and early educators sharing articles from the Washington Post or The Atlantic or Psychology Today, or there’s a growing consensus about what is best for children, but there’s been, in my mind, at least, my experience in the last four and a half years is that in some ways there’s been a lack of . . . There’s been no clearly defined approach that says, here’s the specific system that respects deeply the agency, the capacity, of the child, that doesn’t talk about complicated things but says love is the foundation. And so it’s something that’s at once very clear and focused and also not afraid of talking about learning. Because in Anji they’re not afraid of talking about learning. The role of the teacher is to be an expert in the learning of the child.

And there’s a profound logic to it that I think is undeniable to people that have a deep feeling for children or for learning. And so I got this email from Chelsea saying, “Can you translate this PowerPoint for me?” And I got it, and my wife was seven months pregnant at the time, but after reading that PowerPoint, I know that I’m going to stop everything else that I’m doing and I’m going to help share this with the world in whatever way I can. So, in the last four and a half years, the Anji Play website, Facebook, all the public-facing descriptions of Anji Play in English, the visits we plan to Anji, that has been our work. We’re trying to—basically, our initial mission was, “We want to share this work of Ms. Cheng and of the educators of Anji with integrity. Find the people to whom it speaks deeply, and work with them at whatever depth they want to go to.”

And so then it was, first we share, then we find our friends, I guess. We find our comrades, and then we figure out how to do it together, and we haven’t gone to people with a, “Here’s the boxed curriculum. Here’s the budget. Go raise the money.” Instead it’s, “What are your challenges, what are your constraints, how do you understand this? How do you make it something that’s yours, in a way, without losing the core of the approach?”

And part of that mission has been, and part of the reality is, that we’ve really only been working with programs in very underresourced settings, primarily.

Peter Brown: In the U.S.?

Jesse Coffino: In the U.S., yes. So we work with one Head Start program now—well, two centers, one program. We’re working with a lab school at a community college in California. As you know, and particularly in California, community colleges and the associate’s degree are the stepping stone to a career in early education for many teachers . . . frontline early educators. And oftentimes those educators are coming from the same population as those children, and they’re facing the same challenges, they’re facing the same conditions, as the children and the institutions where they work, constraints that are oftentimes social, cultural, environmental, which have to do with larger systemic injustices in this country. As you know, it’s a long story.

Peter Brown: Right. Right.

Jesse Coffino: And we knew that if we just went to one or two forest schools or a great Reggio program, they would buy the materials and they would do Anji Play in some sense, perhaps in some formalized way, but they might approach the ideas thinking they know a lot about them already, they might think they are already basically doing Anji Play or something we might call true play, and then people would say, “Oh, well, that’s great.” But how are you going to change anything? Nobody’s saying that forest schools are going to change the world. And they’re great, but in most cases, in America at least, you’ve got to be wealthy and you’ve got to be near a forest, or it doesn’t really work.

So that’s a really long intro.

Peter Brown: No, I appreciate it.

Jesse Coffino: And I grew up in the Bay Area, and then I was in New York for 16 years, and I’m back in the Bay Area now, and I lived in Chicago for three years, actually. And I’m the father of a four-and-a-half-year-old.

My wife is in North Carolina. She’s a neurologist doing a fellowship. So I’m single-parenting this weekend. So if you hear some screaming and I’ve got to run, or if my daughter comes barreling in—

Peter Brown: That would be delightful. I did that for a year myself when I was back in school. When my daughter was born, her first year was, I was home every day and the best year of my life.

Jesse Coffino: You know, me, too. So that first few years of Anji Play for me was also during the last years of my wife’s residency, so there was a lot of Rose time for me.

Well, let me just explain what we’re doing.

Peter Brown: Sure.

Jesse Coffino: We’re putting together a conference in May, the 1st International True Play Conference, and I’ll send you information about it, and part of the conference is that Ms. Cheng really wanted to put together a book that had some of the stories of the first people that came to Anji from outside of Anji.

So she’s been in charge of collecting the stories of people in China, experts and teachers in China who visited and how it somehow spoke to them. And she put me in charge of the non-Chinese world. So many of those visits have been organized directly by us. And there have been a few that weren’t.

So you’ve made it to Anji in your own interesting way. What we’re doing is, I’m going to ask some questions. This video’s being recorded. I take the audio from it, and there’s a service online that will then just transcribe it into English and then—

Peter Brown: Oh, wow.

Jesse Coffino: What I’ve been doing with my interview subjects is that I send them the transcript and then they can add or change or clarify whatever, or just sign off on it. Because we would not want to put anything out that wasn’t really their voice. 

Peter Brown: That works for me. Depending on what I’m doing, I often, in fact, I sat down when I got back and dictated about a page of my most poignant things that I could think about the day there, and then I went back and I had to clean it up because there were some things I could have said better, so I appreciate that opportunity.

Jesse Coffino: Can you start by just telling me any biographical information you want to share?

Peter Brown: Sure. I got into early childhood education in my mid- to late twenties, mid-twenties, as a curiosity. I was offered by my sister to take a position that she was leading, and she said, “I think you’ll be good at it.” So it was a teacher assistant position, and I worked in that way for about six years, at two different sites. And one of them was a social service agency that made teacher reflection on their own practice a key component, and there was a weekly supervision period. Every teacher was involved, and it was really a formative experience.

And as I was doing that and going to school and then seeking a position with . . . I wanted to work in the public schools in Chicago. And when I applied, I was offered a position that didn’t exist in the city at the time. Someone was innovating a home-based teaching model that, because the schools in the predominantly Latino areas were so crowded and there was no preschool space available, this model was seen as an alternative.

I did that for about four years and I absolutely loved it. I worked with a social worker again, and we grew, and we were working with 16 families weekly, and that was also very formative for me.

During that time, I met a woman who had started a preschool in Chicago, just north of Hyde Park, in the Kenwood-Oakland area, and at the time it was a demonstration center for new teachers to come to spend a week before they went off to their first assignments.

There was a lot of opportunity to create curriculum in different ways, and it was there that I got really fascinated by the way that she was bringing, and we were bringing, parents into the program to be essential to what we were doing. Half of those kids were bused from the Back of the Yards neighborhood. We arranged for the parents to be able to come with them, stay in the school, if they could.

Anyhow, I’ve been with that program now for 20 years, and when she retired, I took over the head teacher position, and that’s the administrator of the program. It’s usually under the umbrella of a bigger school.

And so what happened was, that school was closed twice by the Board of Education in this period, set to close due to selling off of property. Gentrification and other factors. And both times, the parents who were involved with the program, basically there for a year or two only, were such strong advocates, they were able to sustain a move each time.

This particular place where we’re at now, this is our 12th year there. So the power of the parent and the understanding of the parent became really part of how we operate, from the minute we meet them.

So right now . . . about 15 years ago, I was working with a colleague named Karen Hague who started Reggio programs in Chicago at a social service agency called Chicago Commons, and that was unique because of the fact that it was really serving very low-income families, and it was quite . . . When I saw it I was quite moved by it, and I went to the man who was in charge of early childhood in Chicago, up at the Board of Education, who happened to be a former principal of mine, so I could get him to come out. And so he came out and looked at some of these programs and just decided to put some meat and muscle and dollars behind getting some of this thought into the schools, with professional development and support.

So we’re one of the schools that took that on, and you know how it is in big systems. There are changes every few years, and teachers get handed new stuff to do, and they start getting cynical, and they don’t invest themselves so much because they think it’s going to be gone in a few years, and that has been the case for some programs . . . but the people that were drawn to it the most stayed together. And so several programs around the city are still going with it, and we support each other.

That’s why I was so amazed by the situation in Anji, when I began to understand that this wasn’t just this one place that was doing this, or a few. So that’s what I’m doing now, and about 10 years ago we went full in with our whole staff focused on understanding Reggio in our context, and we’ve had wonderful, wonderful professional development embedded, and we go places, and we work with people, and we have connections with five different states.

There’s a coalition of teachers who have been working for 10 years together in those states, California will be one of them, who are going over to Reggio in two months. This is something that they’ve been planning with the Reggio folks for a long time. So that commitment is there, and, for me, going over . . . And I’ll let you focus the conversation a little more in a minute, but I just want to say, it’s that style of engagement with others, with parents and teachers and, of course, children, that . . . Since I’ve come back from Anji feeling . . . I’ve already met another teacher who was there last August with a group from the Lab School in Chicago that were studying the Dewey trail. And we’ve made an arrangement to get together and sit and share our . . . That’s the way I see this, that people . . . I have more questions than I have . . . People ask me things and I say, “I’m not saying this definitively, but this is what I felt.” And I’m just now very hungry just to continue the dialogue and listen and hear more and think about it. For me, obviously, I’m making a lot of connections between what I feel so strongly about what they’re doing in Reggio and now in Anji, and I’m looking for connections, but I’m also looking for what’s very unique about each program and what each one has to offer.

And the last thing I’ll say is that the basic, most basic, commonality to it, for me, is respect of children and understanding that children are powerful learners and they need not be corralled into learning.

I’ve been to programs in Chicago where there’s no play for three- and four-year-olds. They’re literally in groups moving about a classroom, from center to center, being asked questions, and asked to talk, and the blocks are off in the corner, like we were worried about in kindergarten years ago.

Many years ago, there was a report, and I’m forgetting who put it out, but I’ll find out. It was called Crisis in the Kindergarten, and it was a number of professional early childhood people and university folk who got together and were writing about the loss of play in kindergarten. And they described other countries outside of the U.S. and the fact that these places, that have thought about and studied early childhood from similar sources that we have, have gone full into play as being central, and we’ve gone away from it. And I believe it’s going to come around again. I just think we have to do what you’re talking about in the right ways to make that happen.

Jesse Coffino: I think that my . . . in the last month or so, I’ve had this sense that people who advocate, or who are practitioners in the field, who strongly support really self-determined play, so not guided play, not some construction of playful learning which is about setting up a project that has a specific outcome that’s desired by a teacher or by a—

Peter Brown: Yeah.

Jesse Coffino: But really that open-ended, self-determined play, that teachers have to be able to articulate the learning that’s taking place. Not to create that learning but to be able to speak to both parents and policymakers and the general public, to not say, “Oh, play is great because it’s great, we shouldn’t worry about describing clearly the learning that is taking place.” So a teacher has to be able to say to a parent, “Do you see how compassionate your child is right now? Do you see this complex problem they’re solving right now? Do you see this negotiation that’s taking place, with this triangle in this space and how it relates to this square, right?”

And so I think there is a tension that need not exist, between play and learning, among some approaches to play and among some advocates for play, but I think that there is also a problematic middle ground, which is to say, “Oh, we can see this learning in play, so let’s organize the play so we can see that learning.”

And that’s where the . . . That solution is actually more problematic, and it’s not like the situation that you’re talking about, which I’ve also seen, which, to me, and this is going to sound overly dramatic, almost seems like abuse. To not have a three- or four-year-old playing, it’s heartbreaking.

We know the experiences that a child can be having and how meaningful it would be to the learning and development and growth to have that respect for their agency, for their capacity, that they can handle things. 

So, one of the tools that Ms. Cheng developed with her educators in Anji, as they were trying to understand these optimum experiences of childhood, what play meant in a school setting, they were trying to really understand what play, was because they had this mandate from the government that said, “Oh, well, you guys should make play the center of your curriculum.” But there was no clarity about what that was. And they went through this period of what they call “false play.” And this has different manifestations. What it looks like in China doesn’t necessarily look the same or as obvious as maybe it does in China, and false play in China was teachers spending all this time making little toys and then going up and performing in front of the child to keep them happy. I’ve seen similar things in America that don’t look quite the same. So my understanding is that what they were calling, and call, false play is play that doesn’t come from the intention of the child, and the knowledge of that distinction came from the adult’s reflection on their own memories of play as children.

And so, often, in my work with educators and parents, we often talk about play memories. I don’t know if you’re willing to share any of your . . . Do you have any early joyous memory of play that you’d be willing to share?

Peter Brown: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that a lot, too. In fact, I was reading a book yesterday, a memoir of a musician who grew up in Mississippi and talked about why he and his friends would go into the woods to play. Because they were free there. They were able to . . . and it gave me a chuckle. For me, when I was up to age four and a half, five years old, I lived in the Philippines, and so my memories are vague at best, but there are old Super 8–style click-click-click video pieces that I would see of myself just playing, running around in the yard with a dog and a hose, and just being open and free.

And, in fact, the story goes that I was taken to preschool one day down the road, and after a while it was a little too much for me and I just walked home, and no one knew that I’d left. And I think I walked home probably to that place where there wasn’t so much structure. I don’t know.

But a little older, I remember . . . So I grew up in Chicago, and there wasn’t anything close to me in terms of a . . . Well, there was, but not when I was five or six, I couldn’t walk to the lakefront. I grew up in Hyde Park. But there was a vacant lot right behind us, and that’s where we went out to basically . . . at that time we were playing war because there was a big war going on in the ’60s and that’s what me and the kids I played with did. We invented scenarios and made rules and figured out how to structure the space and do all that. And then, when I went out to my cousin’s, which I did a lot, in suburban Pittsburgh, they had woods behind their house, too, down a steep hill, and we could go down there and do the same thing.

And so I just felt like that was really, for me, formative about . . . that you can trust children to be in their own space without hovering over them so much. And as a parent, of course, then you get a different mindset in time. It doesn’t mean you can convince yourself that your kids can be out of touch these days, because there’s phones and there’s all this, but . . .

Also, my mother used to have a little home daycare in the basement of our house in the summers, and she would hire us for a dollar a day to go down and play with the kids. So I had a lot of early experience being around, when I was still in my teenage years, observing children and watching what they did and what their ideas were and trying to follow them. Those are the things I can think of around that.

Jesse Coffino: It’s so fascinating, because in these interviews, I’ve interviewed maybe 20-something people so far, professors, early educators, people who are in their early twenties who are working in design, people who are in Bangladesh. But something I’ve found fascinating, that many of the early educators I’ve spoken to have had some familial connection, either a parent or an aunt or an uncle had a daycare, or they were in a position where they were taking care of their brothers and sisters for whatever reason. So there is this common theme of this, not transformative, but deeply meaningful, introduction to the profession. So people almost always . . . if you take Carol, for instance, who, at 20 or 21, who’s in Madison, who wanted to be a 4-H agent and go to a land-grant college, but was then told, when Reagan came into office, that you had to get your master’s before you could become a 4-H agent, instead of being a 4-H agent and then getting your master’s later. She liked the working-with-kids part of 4-H, and she had this incredible older male teacher that she worked with in her first couple years at a Head Start program, where they were using HighScope when there weren’t these standards yet.So HighScope could be a framework for really beautiful play. 

And there is also a common story of things changing. And it’s reflected also in these play memories where I have people in their twenties or thirties or forties or fifties or sixties or seventies or eighties talking about the freedom they had, and then seeing that disappear for children. It’s a thread that emerges in these interviews.

Peter Brown: I had not heard of Anji until, actually, one of the student teachers at our school was at Erikson Institute and had encountered it there, just heard about it. I knew nothing. This whole new adventure for me started when Erikson asked if they could bring some Chinese teachers and educators over to our school, and that was back in October, I think. September, October, and then they visited in November.

I had not heard anything about it at that point. And I heard the excitement in the student teacher’s voice, and that was the first time I’d heard about it, and I looked into it just a little bit. But then, when I got onto the trip, the first few days, there was one of my colleagues on the trip—there were 14 of us—in particular, that’s all she could talk about, was how excited she was to go to Anji. And she started talking to me about what she knew. She hadn’t been there, but she had done a lot more thinking about it. So for me, it was almost . . . I had a very light structural idea of what was going on, but until I stepped off that bus and went through the gate of the school, it was like walking into an art gallery and seeing paintings of an artist you never knew was on Earth or something. You know what I mean?

I was not prepared for it in the way I normally would be to do something, and in a way, I appreciated that, because sometimes it’s a different learning experience when you’re a blank slate as opposed to having preconceptions. And I think that’s possibly also part of why I was so moved when I stepped in there. I just felt like I was walking into the Secret Garden.

We spent the first four days in Beijing and combining cultural visits and having a lot of really interesting information shared by guides. And then going to three schools, and those schools were . . . Each one of them shared some things that I was interested in, and I enjoyed all of them. There was a lot of documentation of children’s work. There was clearly a heavy focus on collaboration and the kids doing stuff together and working over time on projects, and, in each case, really looking at a context of space and figuring out how to make the best of that, because there were different challenges, and I found those visits really compelling.

But when we got off the bus in Anji, we took a day trip and went to sleep and got up in the morning and we were there first thing. At the end of the day there, one of my first reflections was how different that experience was, in terms of my own orientation to it, from the visits in Beijing and Shanghai. And it reminded me of how we do like to have people come into our school, which, the main difference in Anji was, we were on our own for a long time, to really step back, look, think, watch kids doing what they’re doing for long periods of time. Have little chats with different folks, either colleagues or people who were working there. And I felt like, in other visits, particularly when we went to other schools in Shanghai, it felt . . . Except for when we met with teachers and staff—we always had really interesting interchanges in those visits, where we were sharing work and they were sharing work and we had good conversations and that was great.

But the time spent observing what was happening with the children was a much more structured, short-term, tourist approach, going from place to place to see the building, which, again, there’s a lot of value in that, but it’s almost like going to too many places in a short period of time, instead of one place and slowing down and going deep. And to me, it truly reflects . . . in Anji it’s a mirror to what’s going on there, and with the children, it’s not about moving from thing to thing to thing, but it’s about staying in a place and really figuring it out and running into all kinds of challenges and working on them together. And so it was almost a parallel process for me in Anji when I thought about it.

When I stepped off that bus and walked into the courtyard of the school, I had a visceral, physical kind of reaction of just happiness. My eyes started watering, and what was it? It was mostly the sound and the feel . . . I don’t know how to describe it, but my . . . Maybe this sounds dramatic, but when I was a little kid . . . I’ll go back to this: I was once in an opera in Chicago, where I was standing on the stage, where this character of Werther, the Goethe story, he walks out into this place, and it’s so beautiful, he’s overtaken, and he sings this song that gives me goosebumps to this day, this aria. And that’s how I felt walking in there, and I wasn’t expecting it. Like I said, it felt like this harmonious music of children’s voices improvised, and happiness, engagement, relaxed, and I just stood there for about two or three minutes and just listened and took it in. And then I wandered off into a room to the right, just to look into the classroom, and I was really amazed by the amount of space, very little clutter or furniture, and openness.

And then the walls were telling all kinds of stories about what was going on outside, with the little notebooks that were hanging on the walls, of the children. And I started walking over towards one, and I was encountered by one of the kids who wanted to know where I came from and walked me over to a map, and he showed me where he lived, and then he pointed to me, and I showed him where I came from, and then he drew a line between the two. And then I showed him how I got there, by going up over the Arctic Circle and down that strait. We laughed, and we had this little encounter where he started to show me his little four-square notebook and drawings of some work he was doing outside. And then he went off and got back with his friends, and was this really . . . It was an encounter that told me that, first of all, they’re probably used to having visitors, but also, I saw a natural interest in people and wanting to share and confidence in oneself. So that was my first impression going into the school, and like I said, those things happen in other places, but it didn’t feel the same. I have to think about how to describe it if I was going to make a comparison.

Jesse Coffino: Yeah, and I’m getting a little misty myself just hearing you say these things. I’ve been to Anji maybe 10 times, I would say now, in the last four and a half years. I invariably have a moment where I cry a little bit. Always something different.

I remember, the first time I went, I was just overwhelmed by, like you said, there was this ease. There’s this ease where there’s no pretense. There’s no performance. No sense that this has been prepared for my visit . . . And what’s so interesting, because now I’ve brought so many groups of people there, the teachers and principals and children in the schools, and my colleague Krystina Tapia shared this with me, because she spent a month and half in a threes class during their first introduction to Anji and before one of our groups arrived, that they do put an effort into making sure that we are incredibly welcome and comfortable during our visits.

But it’s not a change to what they’re doing, what they do every day, and for everyone, their first experience was of the authenticity of what they were encountering in Anji. And the confidence—I’m so glad you used that word, because, the confidence of knowing that a space belongs to you, a confidence that you’re capable. The confidence of going up to a stranger . . . I was really the fourth or fifth foreigner to visit the schools of Anji. I was with Chelsea, and the children weren’t that interested in us. I mean, they were interested in us. They were curious and very respectful, but they had stuff to do that was so much more interesting. In other schools in China, a foreigner coming into class unexpectedly might be the event of the year.

And school after school I went to, it was like, “Oh, hey. That’s nice. You’re interesting. What’s your name?” Maybe the curious kid would ask, and then they’d go right back to whatever they were doing. So there’s, I think, as you say, you talk about parallel processes, there’s a confidence in the teachers and in the staff in Anji of knowing what they’re seeing, knowing what they’re doing, of knowing in some ways that they’re developing this approach, they’re deeply engaged in research, they are the highest experts in their field. They’re creating this. And they’re not worried about impressing anyone. Let me put it that way. They want people to feel respected, and they want to be presentable, but that degree of external affirmation is unnecessary for their work.

Peter Brown: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Jesse Coffino: So I wanted to ask you . . . You use this phrase, “hard to describe,” when talking about that feeling of your first moments of encountering Jiguan, and other people have said that. And I don’t know. Tell me a little bit more about what you saw or what you did when you heard those schools. Tell me more. Were you just at that one school, and what was the . . .

Peter Brown: Yeah, at the one school. I got into a conversation, and I really feel sad right now because I can’t remember her name, but a young woman who was a researcher there . . .

Jesse Coffino: Yuan Qing, maybe?

Peter Brown: Yeah, yeah, yeah. She approached me at one point and asked me if I had any questions. This was a period when the children were coming in slowly and with their parents and taking care of plants and doing whatever, and again, coming in very comfortably into a program, rather than walking in and sitting down and having . . . Letting go of home and being back there again in a really nice transitional way. And she came up and asked me if I had any questions, and we had a wonderful conversation. It was right after what I just described to you.

So I got some grounding from what she shared with me, and then, after a few more minutes after that conversation, the kids were starting to go outside, and so we went out. I think, for two hours, I was only in the one . . . I don’t know how the schools are named differently from each other, but we were only in the one site, but we spent two hours outside documenting what the kids were doing, observing, watching, trying to understand . . .

The first thing that came to me that I really started grappling with was, how do all the kids remain together in their groups? Because, in our situation, if we had that much space and kids were going out, they’d just be all over everywhere all together. So I thought about the fact that, in all this unstructured play, there was a structure that the kids had integrated, in their own way, of understanding how they were working together or playing together, which, to me, seemed like a wondrous thing. I wanted to know more of how that worked and how kids got to that point.

And then learning that this was the first day that they’d been in a group and they were going to stay in that space for a month or so, and thinking about that, about all of those things, I started seeing a connection between the kids in a long-term project, where they were really working on something for this great period of time, and how different that is than just chance encounters or one time or one week of working on something.

So at first I was like a kid. I had to see . . . I walked slowly around everywhere and got curious and went up ramps and looked in . . . Tried out a few things. I was really taken by the, what felt to me, and I don’t know how this works, exactly, but the community had been involved in the creation of the space, with these vehicles that were there, that were planted in the ground, with some of the fanciful things in the bamboo forest where the kids could play percussion instruments on the sides of trees. It felt like these were ideas of people coming together and sharing possibilities and trying them out and seeing what worked.

So for the first 45 minutes I was just slowly walking around, looking, taking pictures, thinking about these spaces and how valuable it was to have the variety of space out there, where there were clear possibilities within each space, that the kids could start with, but then whatever they did was fine.

I also, of course, I got very interested in the zip line that was being used, because I remember, in those woods outside of Pittsburgh, doing that in the woods. We set one up out there, and I thought about that a lot, and I got so curious watching a group of six or eight kids. I must have stayed in that spot for half an hour, watching them organize systems of how to take turns using that and what they had to do to for someone to take flight with it.

And so I could start to see some of the complexity of the social interaction and the social learning that was occurring, the negotiation, the frustration, the joy, all the different emotional elements of play that were coming. And also starting to see how the teachers were also documenting what was going on there. And just very rarely and lightly touching base with kids when they needed a little something, you know?

And then I just witnessed this whole community of hundreds of children outside at the same time, being that busy in their little groups. And then the toddlers came out. I don’t know how old, two- or three-year-olds.

Jesse Coffino: Three-year-olds.

Peter Brown: Three, yeah. And they had their own pace and style and enjoyment, and I could see kids that young using materials to invent ways to . . . Often it was about moving things to different places. Where they needed to use them. So it was finding a tube that could have water come out of it far enough to go into a container that was not too heavy to carry over to the space where it was needed, or organizing at a work site, delivery of blocks. Just really . . .

And I rarely saw anyone not in a group of three or more in every little space, which was also interesting to me. So then that was two hours. And then we got together and went inside and went upstairs to the conference room and all of us looking at each other with our . . . We all felt the same way. Everybody there was just so visibly moved by the experience that we were witnessing.

And then this is where it got even . . . This is where I felt another sense of joy, was seeing the children come up, and the session of the teacher facilitating a really in-depth conversation about what had happened out there and what needed to happen, and the voices of the children being the most important part of the conversation. So it’s just, in this case, almost the instant opportunity and the tools to reflect, and knowing that that teacher probably did some serious work, in a short period of time, to put together something that she felt was compelling and important for the child, and I saw her observational quality that she brought to it.

And then to see the kids, and I’m assuming these children were a little older, so they probably had some experience with this because this is something you’d have to build over time.

Jesse Coffino: That approach to reflection begins at age three.

Peter Brown: Yeah, but that’s the . . . All of us talked later about that experience, about that reflective experience and the planning that would go into the next step. And that’s where all of us got this sense of, these are kids who are going to be important to their community as they grow. They’re going to figure out how to work together, how to solve problems, how to compromise, how to wait your turn.

Jesse Coffino: How to be intentional and reflective people.

Peter Brown: Knowing that that’s getting integrated inside them at this age. That’s, to me, the most important thing. They’re not going to have to think about that. That’s going to be part of who they are. So that’s where we just . . . all of us were sold. “We need to spend more time with this. Think about this. Share this out. Find other people opportunities to understand and experience what they’re trying to do here.”

Jesse Coffino: And I’ve got a really great video, maybe I’ll share with you, of three-year-olds doing reflection.

Peter Brown: Oh, I’d love to see that.

Jesse Coffino: In a more rural school in Anji. A school with maybe only 40 kids. Really interesting. And I think something interesting that I’ve seen over the last four and a half years is that Chelsea, every time Chelsea’s there, Ms. Cheng press-gangs her into talking to teachers about video analysis, or framing observation or talking about whatever.

And they’ll take the top ten percent of teachers. So maybe, like, 70 teachers, and Chelsea will share her ideas, talk about it, and they’ll discuss it, and they’ll reject the stuff that’s not useful. They’ll take the stuff that seems valuable. They’ll start using it immediately and adjusting it and understanding it, and so you’ve got 14,000 kids, you’ve got 700 teachers, and they start making it their own and what you’ll see, for instance, and that transition used to be, you’d have play and then the kids would come in and do their play stories and then maybe they have a nap. Then, during lunch, the teachers—because they have what’s called an a-yi, or a helper, who’d watch the kids napping—the two teachers would look at their videos and talk about it and then choose what’s going to happen on the screen after nap.

But now they’re at this point, they’re such great child watchers, that basically, and you talk about that ease, those beautiful transitions, where the kids are . . . The arc of play has ended. The kids are ready to go in. The teacher had the flexibility in her schedule to say when that happens. Maybe the kids come in and draw. But the teachers also instantly can pull up the video and put it up and not really say anything, because the kids know exactly what they want to talk about, because the teacher has been present and engaged enough to know exactly, and sometimes the teacher chooses the wrong moment, and a student will come up and say, “No, no, go 10 seconds forward.”

Peter Brown: Oh, interesting.

Jesse Coffino: Less experienced teachers will say, “Oh, weren’t you doing this here?” and the kids would say, “No. That’s not what we were doing.” And now the teachers really don’t do that as much, because they don’t supply any kind of insight for the child, but what’ll happen is the teacher will choose a moment, the kids will come up, and they’ll start talking about something the teacher hadn’t thought about.

Recently we had a number of really high-level experts in China . . . so the top constructivists in China and the top curriculum theory people and the top philosophers of childhood were there, and we were observing a class together where the kids, five-year-olds, were talking about how they put water into this half-pipe that had another pipe inside, and how, when there was sand in, the force of the water would slow this thing from moving. And so they could put a pipe inside a pipe, two half-pipes inside each other, that were nested, and if you had sand, you could tilt it at an angle and it wouldn’t slide. But then, if you had enough force, by turning on the tap of water, the water would move the top half round, and the teacher was . . . this was a younger teacher. This was a younger teacher with the five-year-olds, and she thought it was really interesting and important that they were talking about inclined planes. When, really, the children were talking about much more complex interactions of friction and force, surface tension. And so that . . . what you were talking about, and what I’ve come to think about, which is that true intentionality is based on questioning assumptions through observation. And that’s not to say we question our own judgment, it doesn’t mean there aren’t ways that work and don’t, but you have to think about your assumptions. That’s part of the stance of the teacher in Anji, which is, “I don’t know what you’re capable of. And I have much to learn. I know what you’re capable of now. I know what you might be capable of, but there’s this whole other area that I have no idea about. So, as much as possible, I need to give you, the child, the space and the conditions for that to happen, for me to see that.” 

And you have to tell teachers, “You know, children don’t really want to get hurt.” And so you have to provide a safe environment. You provide fall surfaces, there’s no spikes sticking out of the ground, and you give them ladders and planks, and they’ll stay safe.

You give kids blocks, they’re not really going to hit each other with them, and if they do, there’s probably something else going on that you should be attentive to. Or if I say, “Have the kids draw a picture of what they did that day,” oftentimes I’ll hear, “The kids aren’t going to do that. They’re not going to sit down for that. He’s going to start hitting that other kid with blocks. That kid, he’s going to climb over the wall.” Those are those assumptions, right?

Peter Brown: Yeah.

While you were talking, I kept thinking about those basic things that, in my experiences in Reggio and then in Anji, the American questions that always come. And one of them is about safety.

And I was so really moved by, and I knew this would come up when I was there that day, by the instances where kids built structures with three floors, and somebody was playing at the bottom of it, and someone was sitting on top and getting up and off it with the amazing materials that they had to build with. And I can just see a reaction to something like that from parents, from administrators, from teachers themselves.

And that’s that point, too, where, okay, you kinda know this is going to be okay, and if calamity occurs, you’re right there. You can—

Jesse Coffino: That’s the critical piece.

Peter Brown: Yeah, you’re so engaged, but separating enough to let them do what they’re doing. And the other thing that I . . . Just the whole, what you’re telling me about . . . Like that quick turnaround. It does make sense. If you’re observing and you’re watching, you already know what it is in your mind. You’re not going to look for things. And the ways that we do it, we tend to use video less, and images and words more, and of course it made me think about how we could think about what we do differently in our setting. But there’s inevitably a day between it or more. So that’s really an in-the-moment thing for the kids, and I think that’s huge.

And I was told that maybe once a week the teachers get together and look at this video, and images, and the child’s work, and analyze it and have discussions like you described, where, so often, if you’re the main focus, if you’re filming it, you’re thinking about it, you don’t have the alternate viewpoints that other people have who are just coming in fresh and looking at it and can add a different perspective.

In our place, we do that with, two classrooms every week get together and they share what they’re doing and get feedback and thinking and offer suggestions, and I was so . . . I think once, a couple years ago, we did some action research for a year. It was maybe four years ago, where we just filmed kids in meetings. Not the teachers, but the kids, and just watched how they were engaged, and then we had discussions about it. And it gave us so much agency to suggest changes about what we were doing or what we needed to focus on more. And there was an example of a question about a child, who maybe wasn’t participating in discussions, being nurtured by the teacher one-to-one at other times to figure out if this was a bad day, or to see where that child is at, and to try to understand that child more.

What I am describing is a constant embedded professional support where people are thinking together, and being on equal ground with each other even, in some ways, where everybody is not necessarily correct or incorrect, but it’s, “Let’s get to this place together.” Again, it mirrors what the kids are doing, and that’s another, again, real connection with what drew us to the Reggio philosophy, was that reflection and professional community that develops.

Jesse Coffino: And so I think, to me, that’s something I found really fascinating, because we’ve really been thinking about how to articulate what’s going on in Anji in a way that people understand outside of China, because there’s this structural and linguistic context, but also, Ms. Cheng, she’s going out in the world and talking about this. So we have a lot of conversations—something that’s so fascinating to me—we’re talking about True Play, basically deep, self-determined, uninterrupted engagement in the activity of one’s own choosing.

So that could be a child or it could be an adult. So, if I love doing interviews, this could be my true play, because I’m choosing to do this.

Peter Brown: Yeah, yeah.

Jesse Coffino: And I’m deeply engaged. And when we say true play programs, educational programs or policies are programs we mean programs that say that that experience for the child is the most critical experience of learning, and that everything else, as much as possible—outside of daily routines, self-care, things that are necessary, that are needs—that all other pedagogical decisions, all other work of the teacher is centered around either creating the conditions for that True Play or understanding the implications of that True Play.

And so the work of the teacher, then, on that half day on Friday, is going to be about talking about what they saw that week. Because that’s what they want to understand. That’s what they want . . . To them, their professional identity is understanding children, understanding their learning, understanding their development and then what their role is in that.

So when their starting point is stepping back initially, and then they’re thinking about . . . And I know this probably is very resonant with you, because the larger question of what the role of the adult is, what scaffolding looks like, the environment, because their teacher . . . There’s a lot of articulation of these ideas in other places, but you see it in a truly authentic way in Anji, and I can get on the phone again and we can talk about this more, the Venn diagram of approaches, because I think there’s some interesting things we could talk about there. But to be in a culture where that stance I just described is the most important thing, I think that is what you’re feeling in some sense, in that moment that you can’t put words to.

Peter Brown: It is. And, in fact, that was supported for me in my years at CPS, there was . . . Not necessarily supported, but there was room for it. For a while there would be a half day every Friday for professional development, but the time was there. And then that disappeared. And then each time they tried to extend the school days, it’s become another . . . It’s not the priority of those who are setting up the program.

But within the programs it often is. And so, when people come to my school, that’s their first question, “How do you build this time to do this?” And it’s sort of a combination of . . . you just don’t give up. You don’t give up, and then the people who are doing it are willing to make sure that they can make it happen, too. So it’s not just an administrative issue. It’s our issue. It’s the school’s issue.

Jesse Coffino: You’re really bringing up these parallel processes or parallel relationships or mirroring, because something we see in a lot of settings, more institutionalized settings in the States, and even globally, if we look at American and Northern European philanthropy in the Global South and what top-down, “scalable,” and accountability-based and outcomes-based approaches look like, and how that fundamentally gets mirrored in what happens in the classroom and how experts train teachers. And, you know, Ms. Cheng says that you can’t have any meaningful educational reform that in any way turns its back on the parent and the family.

Peter Brown: Yeah. That’s true.

Jesse Coffino: But something that’s very important, which is that children are at their . . . in Anji, they’re above their ceiling when they’re in this environment of love. But if teachers don’t feel a sense of love, or they don’t feel a sense of safety, or they don’t feel a sense of respect for their capacity, and the system doesn’t say, “I don’t know what you’re capable of as a teacher, what are the conditions so that you can be as . . . so that we can all see that.”

And so it takes a leader like you at a school, or the people that you’ve worked with to make that change, and it’s hard because there are currents moving in the opposite direction.

Peter Brown: Yeah, yeah.

Jesse Coffino: How do you feel safe when, in two years, you know you’re going to get another binder with another set of assessments? I don’t know. So it’s very powerful. It’s powerful for teachers to be respected, to be treated as highly capable professionals and to be given safety of trust in their efficacy to a certain extent.

And that’s not to say there shouldn’t be any accountability or consequences. I’m not . . . And you’ve seen Anji. As you said, it’s not Lord of the Flies. Dr. Peter Mangione—a leading expert in assessment and a co-creator of the Program for Infant and Toddler Care, which is an infant/toddler program with a foundation in the work of Magda Gerber and Emmi Pikler, which are fundamentally about respecting the agency and natural trajectory of the child, about love and trust and the engaged, clearly communicating, stable presence of the adult—he describes, among his first reactions walking into the schools was . . . and he uses this word more than once . . . he described the children as “regulated.” And he doesn’t mean regulated from the top down or from the outside by adult rules. I believe he was talking about the internalization of the necessary order that we all need to be constructively engaged. That, with this freedom, with this open-endedness that, like you said, it was joy and it was laughter. It wasn’t dysregulated; it wasn’t, in a sense, being regulated. 

And so he used the word “regulated” in the passive voice, which, to me, spoke not to the passivity of the child in relation to the regulation that Peter witnessed, but to the sense in which it came from many places, and was just a part of atmosphere of the fabric, a passive voice. Because it just was.

Peter Brown: So for me to share this experience I had in Anji, I feel like I’m just at the beginning, because I’m . . . I feel like I have to slowly bring my community into it. Instead of just coming home and raving and not letting go of so much. Like I said, I had an hour with my staff, where I shared an overview of the day, and slides, and we had some questions. As soon as that hour was over, they asked, “Can we have some more conversation about this?” So I know that it had started to take hold. There were a lot of people who wanted to continue to ask questions and think about what it means, and maybe even start to make some possible connections to influence what we’re doing.

Currently, we’re in the midst . . . We have a very small space in front of our school. We call it the patio. I don’t know how big it is, but it’s nothing like looking at what was in the school we visited in Anji. It’s just the front and the sides, and we’ve developed the space to be very much . . . It’s filled with sand and mud and tree houses and mazes of tall grasses and places to do . . . Recycled trains have been built and things like that. But we’re looking for some more active physical possibilities for it, and we’re fortunate to be in a neighborhood where one of the two or three nature-play playground spaces that communities have put together and pulled together or worked on, it’s walking distance, for our kids, from school, and the kids go over there, and the teachers notice a lot of difference in the way the kids interact with each other in that space.

And so we’ve engaged one of the people that’s connected with that space to come and start doing pop-up versions of possibilities, and then, so we can observe how the kids use what kids brought in, and I can see, looking at . . . Believe me, there are people who want to know more about the building materials, the blocks and the ladders and the cubes and the things that they saw in the films there. But we don’t have the space to do everything, so we have to look at it that way.

We also have a huge park that’s four blocks square, half a block from us, with animals and birds and insects and a lagoon. So we’re looking at these outdoor spaces, right now, a little differently, and I think that being in Anji and thinking a little bit about how that . . . the materials and the way that they’re brought forth to provide opportunities, but still open ended and child centered.

And my visit to Anji also reinforced many things for me and made me think differently about other things. Parents in Anji observe play to help themselves understand how complex the learning is that is going on there, and playing themselves, and being a part of that.

I think that, part of the orientation or something, that the aim was for every parent to be involved in that. I don’t know if that’s true, but you can inform me about that a little more, but, in our school, we bring the parents in the first two days, and we get them deeply involved in the classroom one day, and then with each other the second day. And then we have programming that brings them back. And, in some instances, it’s involved parents doing long-term observational studies in the classroom about what kids do with transformational materials. Or how kids work together to learn together. Or how kids use their hands in the class. Whatever they, the parents, want to study, we’ve encouraged, and had them document and come back in learning groups and talk and think about it and then prepare presentations for the community.

But that tends to be the most engaged parents that are able to do that and are able to get in. And I want to think about deepening the experience for other parents to come back . . . Because I think, once you get them in the school and in the classrooms, almost everybody is able to finally leave something behind outside, the other life they have to deal with, and allow what’s going on in there to come to them, and they think about it and they feel more grounded about being a partner with their child and learning.

I saw that in the first hour, quite a bit, the natural parent/child interaction at the beginning of the day, but I was curious about the way bringing parents in and having them in-depth playing with children and observing play and writing down what they’re seeing . . . how that looks.

We presented a project at a Mexican fine arts museum in a city park in Chicago, and the head of early childhood for Chicago came to it, and the parents spoke for three hours and shared images and stories and this and that. And typically, people in those important positions are good for an hour and then they have another meeting they have to . . . But this guy just stayed and stayed and stayed. And that’s a part of what’s going on in Anji. The parents become confident. The teachers become confident. The children are confident. And whoever comes in with a different agenda, if you can get them to stop, feel it, look at it, ask questions about it, then almost invariably you have an ally. And I’m assuming that’s a lot of what Ms. Cheng did to build this into more than one or two or three schools. She had to have had advocacy and a very, very, very well-documented sense of what’s going on there. 

What being in Anji does is it shakes up other people. Hopefully people who were not like me, who are coming there, who aren’t already in tune with what’s happening, are going to have to question what their beliefs are, because . . . And I’m not saying everybody will, because there’s going to be . . . and there’s a lot of middle ground, but I’m sure we would have teachers who, if they went over there, would want to say, “Let’s try to figure out how to do what the three schools that you’ve talked about are doing.”

And that’s not what I’m thinking about right now, because we’ve worked so crazy hard to invest in these things that have been important to us, but I certainly feel like, in our setting, it’s going to enrich and allow us to have those same questions.

For example, the teacher interaction with children, that’s critical. And to learn and listen as to why and how that approach that’s happening in Anji has become central to the goals that are held there. We have to think about that more ourselves and look at ourselves and wonder, are we . . . particularly in terms of kids’ social interactions and interrupting the process to scaffold quickly, as opposed to giving the children the space to . . . So that’s just a little example, but you could look at that throughout the day and how teachers’ roles go. We try to do an action research project every year as a school, and often it’s something suggested, but it’s best when the group decides what it is. So I could see us looking at the role that the teachers are playing in terms of intervening or being part of play, what they see as positive about it and what they see, maybe as something they can evolve with, looking at the way it’s done in Anji.

Jesse Coffino: One of the options I’ve had—because I spend a lot of time in playground settings where parents are with their children—when I see interventions around social interactions, and, to use maybe borrowed language, where I see the image of the child being the parents’ image of themselves in a social space, and what I see happening is that then children are reliant on an external mediator and aren’t encountering social stuff on their own, so I see children in parks where they’re looking to their parent when a child takes their toy . . .I begin to wonder about why and when we’re stepping in. And so it’s a conversation I’ve been having with people, like Larry Cohen, who is thinking a lot about where the parent or adult becomes part of the child’s play or interaction.

There’s a question about what it means to get down and start playing with children. It may be necessary for a parent to get to a place where they can respect the value of play. But then thinking about, when am I being invited by a child, and when is what’s happening, when I get down, about my needs versus the child’s needs?

Peter Brown: That’s a great question.

Jesse Coffino: I’ve been thinking a lot about need, social-emotional needs vis-á-vis children and what those needs are. And so you see this example in Anji where it’s . . . and I think you talked about this . . . where there’s a clarity of confidence and then an authenticity. So you knew that, when those teachers were saying something or those parents were saying something, that it wasn’t rehearsed, and it didn’t feel studied or contrived, and not a lot of time was spent on trying to figure out how to say it so that other people understood it, but instead just saying it. And the parents that you’re talking about, who spent those three hours talking to the head of early education for Chicago, that was a highly authentic, highly confident feeling that they were expressing.

The Chicago Public Library is going to start doing Anji Play fairly soon.

Peter Brown: Oh.

Jesse Coffino: Yeah. And as I said, one of the really important things for us is, we don’t want to exclude or label people who are not Anji Play–specific people and say that “you’re not Anji Play, so we don’t want you to be in conversation with us, sharing your work with us.” We are trying to create a larger community around the idea of True Play, and we want to share with people what that means. We’ve created this network online that we call the True Play Community, and we have this leadership training program. We’ve got three people in it, and we’ve just started to get them onto this digital platform, and they’re the primary users, but amongst this, we also have these cohorts. So we have a cohort for each of the pilot programs we are working with here.

We have the Anji Play Library community, and a True Play conference cohort. We have the library community, where Madison Public Library and libraries in New York and Virginia, and probably Chicago, will be a part.

And we’re going to have the Madison Parents Cohort, where parents in Madison can have their own space, and we’re just starting it, and it’s free. I’d love to invite you to take a look at it.

Peter Brown: Okay.

Jesse Coffino: But when we get the Chicago Parents True Play cohort or when the Chicago Library is going, we will want you to be a part of that.

Peter Brown: Yeah, yeah, please do. I think we could quickly build a cohort, depending on different interests. I’m curious about the library. How does that work, with libraries?

Jesse Coffino: Well, so Madison Public Library—

Peter Brown: What way?

Jesse Coffino: Carissa Christner, who is the youth services librarian at the Madison Public Library, saw Ms. Cheng speak in Madison two and a half years ago. She said, “I want to do this.” And so she got in touch with us, and for the last two years we’ve been in really close conversation. She has time for drop-in programs, so she started this summer outdoor drop-in program. All ages, anybody could come, and she started with found materials. And then, after a year, they were able to access some funding to buy some ladders and make some climbing cubes and buy some mats. And now it’s expanded to three sites during the summer and a site in the winter. They get hundreds of families showing up over the summer, and it’s been winning awards. And so, Chicago. Josh Farnum, who’s a youth services librarian at the Chicago Public Library, contacted us a year and a half ago or so. And he was into it and so he started planting seeds there, and now there is a higher-level interest at the library to doing it. 

And, again, we are in this amazing position where somebody like Carissa at the Madison Public Library can work directly with the Chicago Public Library and share her experience and knowledge and expertise.

Peter Brown: Right, right.

Jesse Coffino: We don’t have an agenda outside of True Play for all. We don’t say, “Pay us for services and we’re going to tell you what to do.” It must be an authentic thing. But if it’s going to be called an Anji Play program, we must insist upon fidelity and integrity to the original approach.

Peter Brown: Because it will just be co-opted by someone.

That’s interesting, because the Nature Play area, the one by our school, is right behind the public library. It’s in a lot adjacent to the parking lot of the public library, and that makes me wonder if they had anything to do with that, too. But there’s—

Jesse Coffino: Sorry.

Peter Brown: Oh, go ahead.

Jesse Coffino: Rose?

Rose: You’re still too busy for me. Hi.

Peter Brown: Hi. I’m Peter.

Rose: I’m Rose.

Peter Brown: Nice to meet you.

Jesse Coffino: If you can be patient, go sit down, and I’ll be there in a minute.

Rose: Okay.

Peter Brown: Yeah, we’re almost done.

Rose: Bye.

Peter Brown: Bye-bye. 

Jesse Coffino: Bye-bye.

Peter Brown: Alongside an elaborate structure organized by a small group of children, teachers keenly observe and document children’s work, in a parallel process of shared interest.

Peter Brown: Alongside an elaborate structure organized by a small group of children, teachers keenly observe and document children’s work, in a parallel process of shared interest.


Dr. Chelsea Bailey

Independent Educational Consultant

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Interview conducted on January 30, 2019

Jesse Coffino: I sent out some questions to start the ball rolling for these interviews, and I started with play memory. Have you asked people about their play memories? I’m wondering how you do that. Do you do that? Is that something you do?

Chelsea Bailey: I do. I don’t. I use it strategically. It’s not like a regular thing that I do. Actually, you know what I do? Here’s what I started doing. I tell other people about how Ms. Cheng approached this. I tell them Ms. Cheng’s story, and then, when I get to the part where I talk about play memory, I just feel this shift. I know that they are being triggered with their own memories, and so I like doing it that way because it’s not, I’m being . . . It feels a little too therapist-y to say to someone, “Let’s just go there and talk about your earliest play memory, memories of a place, of a child.”

It feels more . . . It’s like this interesting thing where we’re going along and we’re having a professional conversation and then everything shifts. I think it’s . . . I was going to say jarring, but it’s jarring in a good way. It’s unexpected for them, and then I can reflect back to them. “What just happened for you? You just remembered your play, didn’t you?”

Then, they’ll say, “Yeah,” and then they’ll tell their story. I like paralleling the story of Ms. Cheng’s creation of Anji Play with triggering that play memory in them, because it has that same jarring effect. It’s a paradigm shift.

So it’s more about that, and it’s only . . . It’s only like once or twice where it didn’t really work, once recently it was because this person already knew too much about the story and Ms. Cheng developing this.

Jesse Coffino: Yeah. Is there any memory of play that comes up for you that you go back to, or that’s like the thing, you’re like, this is . . . When I think about that question, this is, what comes to mind?

Chelsea Bailey: There’s actually two stories that come up for me again and again, and they’re really different ones. Actually, three. There’s three different play stories, play memories. I feel like they—just to get a little meta, I feel like they represent different aspects, like the different ways that children play in Anji. The first one is a memory of making a little, like, nest for myself in our hall linen closet, and I was probably in elementary school at this point, because I would take a flashlight or take all these pillows or . . . It was a linen closet, so I could put . . . it was one of those things where there was, where the first shelf started probably three feet up. I don’t know why. Who knows why the closet was designed this way, but it was a small closet. It wasn’t like a big walk-in closet. It was a small closet, like the size of a pretty standard hall closet, and I would take all of these pillows and all the linens and I would reorganize them into that lower space, into this nest, and I would go in there and shut the door, shut the door behind me, and take a flashlight out and read and do. I had a little secret world in there.

When I think about, for me, that has a lot of . . . There’s magic and depth and meaningfulness and . . . It was like Narnia or something, it was through the looking glass or through the wardrobe for me, so it was a place of really deep fantasy. And it’s funny, because I’ve always been a really social person, like even as a child, I was really outgoing. I think about that now, in how I would balance my intense sociality with this aloneness.

Rebalancing myself and reconnecting, having that balance be with my connection to self. How important fantasy was for me. It was incredibly important. Then, there were other memories throughout my childhood as I got older. I had a really big closet in my bedroom, and it was a walk-in closet. I would take everything out. This is just a . . . I’m remembering, as we’re talking, that there was this theme for me where I would . . . Later, I would take everything out of my giant walk-in closet and turn it into a room.

There were many times, between me and my mother, that were me being asked, told, to clean up my room because everything from my closet was in my room. There were these containing spaces that I would create for myself, and when I was older, I would go into the big closet later, and I would write poetry when I was . . . I was young. It was eight and nine and 10, just coming into that pre-adolescence. I wish I still had that poetry. 

The hall closet, the family closet, that was when I was younger, and that was really about reading, but my closet, my bedroom, was much more about, like, my poetry hangout, my Bohemian poetry writing hangout, that, but that does it. This second, this is the second closet that was a different . . . There’s not a play memory that comes up so much . . . There is another play memory that comes up for me, and this comes spontaneously to me when I’m talking about Anji, when I’m talking about children’s play.

These memories frequently arise for me organically, so another one that stands out to me, and this takes place in my backyard, and you may have heard me tell this story . . . We lived in the suburbs. It was Dallas, and it was a nice burb, a nice middle-class suburb, and we had a big backyard. It was probably tiny, but in my memory it’s huge, and there’s a lot of vegetation in it, and it was a pretty typical backyard, and it was mostly grass, and along the edges were bushes and a fence.

There was one corner. It’s far away . . . as far away as you can get from our kid’s play area. It was this area that had all kinds of vegetation. I remember going out there at one point, and again, I’m probably in the middle of elementary school, and I remember finding flowers on this hanging plant, there’s this . . . There was quite a vine.

There’s just these beautiful purple flowers, and they cascaded down, and they were beautiful, and they were . . . When you see beautiful colors in the midst of all this green and brown or whatever, it’s really striking, and just being, I’m so interested. I’m so . . . I felt like I had found this something that nobody else knew was there, and I remember. I would go back.

I would go back to, like, check on, like . . . Like you and your plants. I would go back and check on this . . . I just felt I had found this little magical portal. I felt I had found . . . I felt like it was just for me. I felt like it was “these flowers are so beautiful.” I don’t know if they were fragrant. They might’ve been. But I remember going back. I would go back and check on this plant to see what was happening with it, and then the next time I go back, right in the summer, it has fruit on it. It’s not grapes but it’s some kind of berries, and then it’s cascading with these berries, and I’m just conjuring a fruit. I mean, from the flowers to the fruit, and I’m thinking, “My god. This is so . . .” And I don’t have any sense of food cycles. I don’t. I’m eating Kraft macaroni and cheese. I don’t understand any of this, and so I’m feeling, “My god. How can this get more magic?” Then, I would go back in the fall, and then the leaves would be . . . the fruit had fallen and the leaves would be turning.

Then I go back in the winter, and they’d be bare, but the bare branches were there. This was so magical to me, and I really felt like . . . it felt really personal. It was this absolutely personal encounter with nature and with the cycle of growth.

Jesse Coffino: Growth, change, potential, life.

Chelsea Bailey: Yeah, seasons, all of that.

Jesse Coffino: Conditions, right? Have something responsive to conditions throughout the environment—

Chelsea Bailey: Yeah, it was just . . . I would say that it was about wonder.

Jesse Coffino: It was unfolding according to some.

Chelsea Bailey: Yes.

Jesse Coffino: You witness that or you can even—

See that thing that was supposed to happen, what’s happened, and not know what’s going to happen next.

Chelsea Bailey: Yeah, and feeling that it was . . . that I could understand the pattern of it without somebody telling me what it was. It was probably, and I’m sure I had other experiences of authentic learning, but it really stands out to me as this absolutely authentic experience of encountering a pattern of change and something that had nothing to do with humans. Obviously, it’s something to do with humans, but in my mind, it didn’t.

It wasn’t dependent on me, and it wasn’t dependent on any grown-up in my life. Maybe somebody was watering it. I don’t know. I think it came from my neighbor’s yard. But like I said, the fact that it was all tucked away in this corner was really important, because it wasn’t a part of this. It was this private discovery, this private, and I feel like, now I love those private spaces, the hidden magical spaces in Anji environments, because I have that deep memory of what it means when you discover the magic of something on your own.

I didn’t have to be alone, but I also didn’t need to share it with anybody. Like, the learning could happen without needing to share it with anybody. And to get me out of my very thinky head, which I had when I was a kid too, into this physical, this natural, into nature. Right, from the abstract and the concrete.

My third memory is that, this neighborhood I lived in or this community I lived in, it was at the edges of this suburban community, they were developing the community. The neighborhood I lived in was developed, and it’d been there for a little while, but a bike ride away was a wonderland of construction sites and so . . . This is probably older elementary school, older elementary.

My friends and I spent a huge amount of time out in those places that were being developed. I spent a lot of time engaged in what was clearly risky behavior, and we were running through this torn-up—basically, these areas that had just been torn up because the houses were going to be made concrete. They were building infrastructure, so there were those . . . drainage pipes. They were everywhere. They were both outside in the ground, and there were actually long stretches where you could run through the drainage pipe underground that’s already been laid. That was very exciting, and then we just ran around with rebar. There are all of these uneven surfaces, and we’re jumping off things and we’re riding our bikes over stuff.

It’s very, what do they call it, motocross or whatever. It was very active. I wasn’t a girly girl. I wasn’t really a . . . I wasn’t exactly a tomboy, but I wasn’t a girly girl, and I was very active, and so there was . . . my friends and I, and it was a mix of boys and girls. We went out there and we did all the things we shouldn’t be doing, but because it was the days of go out in the morning and come back in the evening. Nobody was asking, and the parents didn’t want to know what you were doing, and you didn’t tell them what you were doing unless you got hurt, and then you didn’t want to tell them you’re hurt because you’d get in trouble for doing something dangerous, and so it was this sense of total adventure and freedom and, absolutely, the world of children.

My very clear memory, and Anji Play helped me clarify this a lot—this won’t surprise you—I was very much a provocateur. I would get other people to do things I didn’t want to do, like I would talk, I would say, “You guys try that. Why don’t you try it first? Why don’t you go through the culvert that we can’t see the other end of and then come back and tell me what happens and then I’ll go?”


Chelsea Bailey: Frances and I had been professors together at NYU and she . . . I left, and she stayed, but then she became emeritus and she went to UPenn, among other things, and so she was the director of education or teacher development, teacher training, teacher development, professional development, at UPenn. 

Frances had done these really kind things for me where she had referred me.She would get calls for consulting jobs all the time when we were at NYU, because people, especially for-profit projects or not-for-profit projects, want PhDs at major universities as consultants. Frances would get case calls all the time. She’s very well known, and she would send some my way, and so she sent one my way that was a really interesting project.

I knew it was an important project, and it was doing evaluations and curriculum, and they really loved my work, and because they really loved my work, they referred me to work at the children’s television show WordWorld, and my year at WordWorld changed everything for me, both materially and professionally. And it was the most painful and the most educative year I’ve ever had, because I just learned so much about the corporate world, about children’s television. A whole bunch of stuff changed for me that year, and I also realized that I, for the rest of my life, my job would be . . . It’s going to be telling people. Giving people, how do I say it? Explaining to people why early childhood is important. And that I wasn’t ever going to get to graduate into really having colleagues that I could have a conversation with . . . That my job in this life was to stand up every single day and say the same thing over and over again with clarity. That’s what I learned that year, more than anything else, and I accepted that. I took that on. I accepted that that’s what I was going to do, so I felt this incredible gratitude to Frances, because . . . Even though, yeah, it was that she referred me to this other gig, but in my mind, if not for Frances, then none of this other stuff would have happened. 

At that time, I hadn’t seen Frances for years, because she had moved to Chicago for a while and then she was in Pennsylvania, and it was my friend Roberto, who worked at NYU, it was his 50th birthday. She was going to be at the party, and I was going to his party, and I was going to see everybody from NYU, which I wasn’t really looking forward to, but I knew Frances was going to be there, and I put in my mind, really strongly, “I’m going to wish Roberto happy birthday and then I’m going to thank Frances.” I hadn’t seen her for something like 10 years. It had really been a long time. And so I did that and I ran up to her.

I give her a big hug, and I said, “I want to thank you,” and she threw her arms around me and she said, “No problem.” Then, in the next breath, she said, “Do you want to open schools in China with me?” I probably would have said it anyway, but in that particular moment of reciprocity, I said, “Sure.” She said, “What are you doing right now?” I said, “Not too much. My consulting is quiet right now.”

Then, we met with a family from Hong Kong at UPenn, and then it was just this, like, roll . . . The ball started rolling, and because I had the chance to work on the project with these funders, I spent four months in Tianjin and got to work, sit knee to knee, with Chinese kindergarten teachers and principals, with almost no mediation, with no cultural mediation, because the funders just abandoned us to whoever was there.

We barely had a translator, and so it was so, such a very sincere, uncurated experience, and I got to really . . . I introduced this Western curriculum, and I understood what that meant. Again, for four months, I got to understand, in a nuanced way, what that meant to the Chinese sensibility and the Chinese context. Through that, and because I also, I needed help, so I reached out, and I reached out to people I knew who would work in China, in the US, and then they referred me to people.

They referred people to me and then they referred me to people, and then that eventually got to somebody who was connected to a publishing company in China that was looking for Western experts who could do talks in China to kindergarten teachers on the importance of play, and so I started doing that, and then I was asked by this person on behalf of the Chinese National Society for Early Education, connected to Professor Hua, I didn’t know then, but she was the one who organized this conference.

I was asked to bring important Westerners, high-ranking Westerners, and after some interesting shuffles around of who it might be, it turned out to be me, Frances, and Peter. I wasn’t even supposed to go. I was going to find three other people to go, but then it was clear that, for a whole bunch of complicated reasons, I was the best third person to go. I tell all the details of this story because I feel like there’s so many things that could’ve happened even a little bit differently.

We went and we gave our talk, and you’ve heard me tell this before. We gave our talk, and we gave a very 101-level talk, because I had given talks in about 10 other cities, at that point, all over China, and I’d spoken through translation with professors and teachers and students about what play meant, from their point of view, for young children, and I felt like it was pretty introductory. It was a pretty new idea. And then I spent four months in Tianjin working with people on this exact idea.

I may have made presumptions, but I clearly . . . I did make presumptions. So, the next day, they were very polite. There was a thousand, it was a conference in Anji with a thousand teachers, and that was in July of 2014, and then the next day, we went and saw the schools. What’s so interesting about my memory of seeing the schools that day—because we saw two schools. We saw Jiguan and we saw another school where we’ve been to again, but I can’t remember the name of.

My memory, first of all, when I first walked into the yard, the outdoor space, it just felt different than anything I’d ever felt. There was just this sense of freedom. We know this. You know what I’m talking about. There was that sense of freedom, but it was so jarring. Because now I’m used to it. I still love it. I still, every time I go to Anji, I just, every muscle or cell in my body relaxes, and I feel like I’m home when I’m in the schools.

At that time, it was jarring in a good way, because it was so different than what I was feeling in the US or I felt in other parts of China. Here’s what’s interesting about my memory. I have no memory of Frances and Peter being there with me. They just evaporate. Everything evaporated. It wasn’t like we were talking to each other. 

The other memory that I have, and this is actually frequently the case, is that I don’t remember having a translator. I don’t remember having an interpreter. I don’t remember speaking with Ms. Cheng directly, and I guess that’s a sign of a decent interpreter or a deep connection, right? Again, you’ve heard me tell stories. First I see all this stuff going on outside, and then the school has three rooms. I’ll be going to the next room, and it’s all pillows and books, the whole room. It’s not a classroom, though. It’s like a lie-around-and-read room. Who has that? Who does that at the school, right?

Going back to my memory of my secret Narnia closet space, this is the idea of having this pillow-filled room with books. It was so relaxed. That’s part of what I felt. There was such a lack of tension. Then the next room was an entire room filled with, the words I’d use were, these rough-hewn blocks. I thought they were cedar because they have this incredible smell. They were all fresh and they weren’t finished. They were really rough.

Some of them were just pieces of log, teeth-like, big branches. Some were shaped like blocks. It was just a room of baskets with that. Again, the idea that you get a room that was only that. I mean, there are places in the US where you see that, but it’s rare. It’s really rare. Then, the next thing I saw was this . . . It was like a breezeway. It was like a hallway, an opened outdoor hallway, that had what I know now are play stories, and then the pictures of the kids.

The photographs, they were actually . . . I think they were Xeroxes of photographs. Then that’s when I lost it. Because this was, this documentation that was clearly, that had this Reggio feel, but I knew it wasn’t that, because it wasn’t . . . Well, first of all, it didn’t look like original documentation, but also, it was, it didn’t feel formal. It didn’t have that formalism. I’ve seen enough derivative curriculum to know what it looks like when somebody is trying to use somebody else’s curriculum.

That feeling that I had when I first walked in, it was like that feeling of being shocked by this . . . The joy that I saw in the risky play, and then the sense of ease and just care in the book room. Then, that going to the magic of me discovering that one plant in my backyard, the natural, being able to encounter natural materials in that way. The respect. There’s so much respect for children and how much space and the number of materials. All of that was built into it. Respect was built into everything.

Then, seeing these images and the documentation to . . . It wasn’t just respect at that point. It was bearing witness to what was meaningful and important to children and reflecting on it, and that is just a whole other level of teaching. That’s rare. That’s rare in any instance, and that’s why today, in a conversation with the leader of a large network of Head Start sites . . . I said a couple of times . . . that there’s these pieces of Anji Play that people have no idea that are there, that are more important than the parts that they’re seeing, more foundational, and are so rare to see. When I saw the documentation, I started crying. I want to cry now. I knew that this was profound and important. Like I say in my story, in this story, my memory is that I grabbed Ms. Cheng by her shoulders, and then I shook her and said, “Who created this?” Of course, I didn’t, and I’m sure I didn’t do that. That was my emotional state, and I did say, “Who created this?” Then, like, in a half of . . . Then in the next breath, I said, “You. You created this.” She said, “Well, yes, me and a few other people. Yes.”

That’s when I turned to the person who was organizing my . . . this trip for me. I said, “I don’t care how I do it. I have to come back here as soon as possible, and I need to stay for three to four weeks.” I was able to get myself back in October and stay. I was actually in . . . I was in China for four weeks, but I was in Anji for . . . Because that was . . . I paid my way by giving more talks. That’s when I got . . . I observed and I had . . . Bobo, he was my translator and my interpreter, and which was . . . It was so, I don’t know, like stumbling. I just stumbled into this really magical place, and I didn’t know at that time that I was the second person to spend time there, or that we had been the second group of Western visitors. I didn’t know about Renate [Dr. Renate Zimmer] at that point. I actually found out it was . . . I was visiting all these different schools, and I was interviewing Ms. Cheng, and interviewing teachers and principals. I was up in her hometown, Zhangwu, and I see this picture of this white person in the principal’s office. I said, “Who’s that?” Then, they said, what do they call her, “Qimoer” I said, “Who is Qimoer?” It was really clear that she was a visitor.

When Ms. Cheng—and I have such a clear memory that when Ms. Cheng, with Bobo translating, the 25-year-old who had done his master’s thesis on Virginia Woolf, Bobo was translating for me, and when we were at Shuangyi and I was sick as a dog, I had terrible parasites, and it was a . . . It was still hot, I remember I’m dripping with sweat, and just interviewing her about this. It’s really clear when she . . . No, when she tells the story it is about how they first started with the games and the toys [false play].

Then when she says, “We realized we weren’t doing it right,” then I said, “Why?” Then she said, “The children weren’t happy.” I said, “Well, they look happy in the pictures.” She said, “No. Look at their eyes. Their eyes are not smiling, right? You know this.” I start to get this butterfly feeling in my stomach. I said, “What did you . . .What did you do?” She said, and I think I asked, “Did you read a book?” She said, “We realized we didn’t understand play.” I said, “What did you do? Did you read books about play?”

She says, as politely and deftly as one could, just says, “You’re an idiot. Of course not, we didn’t have those books.” That’s the wrong answer, right? It’s a wrong question to ask. That they remember their play as children and watched the children play, and that’s with everything. That’s when I started to cry, in those interviews, that’s when I started crying. I was on a little kid’s chair, and I remember falling off the chair, falling over, because that’s when I know. That’s the moment.

In the same way that the moment is when I see the documentation and how it’s layered on top of all these other . . . basically acts of respect towards children. Then, when she says, “We watch children play.” There’s no way she could have hidden. Like there was nothing, there was nothing hidden in the story. Even if there had been other support or help, or whatever . . . That methodology is foolproof. I mean, I don’t know if it’s foolproof, but it is the methodology, right? I’m told this story, and I started to sob. I just basically burst into tears. Bobo says, “Why are you crying?” He doesn’t understand what’s going on at all, and I say, “Well, she’s a historical figure.” That’s all I could get out. That’s what came out of my mouth, because it was . . . I knew it’s historical significance. After she said it, after she told me that story, I asked her very explicitly if other people would come, and what help they had, and she said really not . . . that they really did it on their own.

Professor Hua didn’t start coming until what, like, 2012 or 2013? It was pretty late. Then talking to the teachers, in the level at which they talk about things, how they talk about children, it was so sophisticated. That’s when I said, “Okay. I want to take this to the West.”

The first thing that happens is that I have to come up with a plan. I have to get permission from the local Anji government. But Ms. Cheng doesn’t believe that the West needs it. That’s what happens. I said, “This is better than 90% of what’s going on in the West.” I’m going to say, now, I’m going to raise it to 95, maybe even more. I said, “It’s better than 90% of what’s going on in the West,” and she doesn’t believe me. We’re at Jiguan. We’re sitting around the conference table. Lily is there, the other principals are there, and she doesn’t believe me. I explained to her why, what part of . . . I basically explained to her the difference between what she’s doing and what other people are doing. I explained to her the pieces that are similar to Reggio, similar to other things.

Then I explained to her that mostly we’re not . . . there’s no scale. We have idiosyncratic programs like Bank Street College School for Children or other . . . or the Boston School, or Play Mountain Place, or you have these idiosyncratic single models, but they really aren’t models that are scaled, and that most people aren’t doing Reggio, the way Reggio was intended, fully doing Reggio, even though more people have access to Reggio or are doing Reggio.

It’s basically, I break it down for her, exactly why what she’s doing is . . . will help other people in the West particularly. Once I convinced her of that, I said, “You need to write a plan.” I don’t know. I can’t remember, actually, if I felt there is some urgent need to write a plan or I was told I needed to write a plan. I can’t remember. It feels like some . . . My memories, my emotional memories, some combination of those two things.

Then it’s a holiday, and I really . . . Over the fall holiday, since the schools are closed, I want to go somewhere by myself. I want to go in my Narnia closet so I can write and focus, and write this, and this is a beautiful place, I want to go someplace beautiful, and it’s a beautiful place. I don’t want to be in the hotel in town. I want to get out in the mountains. There was this whole thing about them convincing me, me convincing them to let me go somewhere alone. It was very difficult.

We figured it out. We figured out how to do it, and it’s hilarious because I’m there for a week, seven days, by myself. Every single day, somebody drives an hour and half or two hours, whatever it is, to visit me. Finally I say, “You have to leave me alone or I’m not going to be able to do . . . I do need a day by myself to write, just one day by myself to write this.” Finally, I get left alone for a couple of days. I make a lot of Chinese grannies cry because I’m eating alone.

Anyways, I write this plan, and then Ms. Cheng . . . and then somebody who spoke English, and who was involved in another part of the local government, also helped, and was friends with Ms. Cheng, and helped me make our strategy, because she was going to be my interpreter. We come up with this whole plan. We go over the plan. We go over the plan. We go over the plan for how we’re going to present it to the local county government head. I spent all this time preparing, and really a lot is going into making this thing, and we go, and it’s actually in that we meet Principal Zheng in the conference room at Fenghuang Shan, at her main school. I do this whole thing. It’s really formal. And then the head of the county, the head of education for Anji County, who, I think there’s been two or three of them since then, I make my whole pitch, and he says, “Okay, I agree.” He doesn’t ask any questions. Afterwards, I say, “Okay.” We say our goodbyes. We take our formal picture. Then I ask, “What happened? Why was that so easy?”

Then somebody says, “Ms. Cheng had already done the play memory, had done play memories with him before.” He had already been very moved and was very supportive of her work. Of course, there’s no downside for the Anji County government to do this, right? Then I leave. Actually, before I leave, I start reaching out . . . My first strategy is that I reach out to all the people I know who are in influential positions who would love this.

I’m telling you a lot of it was intuitive for me. I just knew who would love this, and I knew that they were in positions of influence. I think a nice way to say it is that I reached out to people who were going to really appreciate this. People in the field who would really appreciate it.

I reached out to these people, and I just started sharing photographs with them. I started saying, “This is incredible. You have to see this.” Then the next thing that happened, I can’t remember the order of it, the next thing that happened, maybe, that Ms. Cheng . . . That was October. I think the next thing that happened was, Ms. Cheng came to the US and went to NAEYC.

And that’s when you got involved. Ms. Cheng goes to Los Angeles to give a talk at the Pedagogical Institute. That was about 60 people, but it was the very first time she had given the talk in the US.

Then to Dallas, where we visited a Head Start program. Peter was able to set up visits to Head Start of Dallas. My sister showed up and explained . . . “My boss told me . . .” The Head Starts were overseen by my sister’s department at the Department of Health and Human Services, and when she told her boss that her sis was in town with this Chinese delegation that was visiting one of our sites, her boss told her to get over there because it was important. When my sister walked in, everybody feels really scared, because before my sister did disaster preparedness response, she was a compliance person. Everybody got really nervous when she came in. My sister and I are both in pictures with Ms. Cheng at the school in Dallas, which is really sweet, and then Bank Street was the end of that trip.

Jesse Coffino: That was the first time I met Ms. Cheng, I was her interpreter, and Qing and Frances were in the audience.

Chelsea Bailey: Yeah.

Ms. Cheng and I had a really fun time together. It’s really hilarious. I tormented her in the . . . what do you call the . . . the vendor room, because I kept taking her to different vendors . . . I introduced Kodo Kids to Ms. Cheng. I said, “This is somebody you should know.” I didn’t ever see this stuff before, but I was like, “Of all the materials in this entire place, they’re doing it right.” What’s funny is that I was looking for Cas. I was looking for Cas’s stuff, and I couldn’t find it. I think they had changed the design, and I remember I actually saw the . . . Because it went from the rounded design to the angle design. They were, like, way back in a corner, and it was a really small . . . Kodo Kids had, like, a massive area. Cas had this little tiny area, and I thought, “That’s not it,” because it’s angled instead of round.

We could have connected with Cas that much earlier. It took us probably . . . I think it took us another few months. I took her to Red Leaf Books. I took her to the Reggio booth, we did meet Chris, and I showed Chris pictures of what she was doing.

So we are sharing Ms. Cheng’s work, her experience, and the first thing was to make connections, to have other people who would be spokespeople for her. To introduce this through existing lines of communication . . . I thought there had to be people who I knew who would really understand this. And some people, they really did, and some people, they did, but they didn’t, and some people just outright were a hard no.

That was my strategy. To introduce Anji Play as the significant curriculum in as clear . . . with the same . . . I’m having trouble telling the words. I wanted to convey, in whatever I said, that profound experience of encountering Anji Play, that Ms. Cheng was positioned that way. I wanted to share that with the world, because I knew that if we shared that with the world, the feeling of Anji Play, then we wouldn’t have to convince anybody of anything because people would want it.

Yes, and one of the things that I want to mention before we move on to the more future, the more recent past, is a conversation she and I have, I think, on my . . . it’s either my second or third visit, it might have been my third, where she said to me, “Okay, I’m . . .” She said herself, “I’m responsible for China, and you’re responsible for sharing Anji Play with the rest of the world.” I said, “Okay. I agree to that.”

Then, there’s another shift. That might have been the first time. I mean, that might have been my first visit. I mean, my second visits were when she gave me permission to share it. Then, I feel like it was before she had been to the US, or maybe she’d been to the US, where I explained to her that children . . . that we have true play in the US, but then it’s only available to some children, and this outraged her. Because as we know, true play . . . Ms. Cheng very much views that true play is a basic human right. It was the equivalent of denying a hungry person food or shelter, which we do here also. That’s when she said about herself, “I will make sure that every child in the US has access to true play.” There were these two shifts, or these two moments, that were really important.

Now, when I think back to initial reactions, it’s funny, because I used to talk about this a lot and I haven’t talked . . . I’m recognizing that I haven’t talked about this in a while, so I think we’re past initial reactions because of the work we’ve done to get it out there. There were people . . . there was a litmus test. Ms. Cheng has a litmus test, which is, do you cry when you go to Anji? I passed that test, you passed that test, but . . . in the US, most of the people were not going to cry because they weren’t actually feeling it, they weren’t experiencing it. 

But really, the test was, I’d show people pictures. I would describe it to people, I would describe the context of it, and I would show people pictures. You could feel people slip into that state of awe. They would get very still and very quiet. We’re very jaded. I think people in the US, generally, are jaded because we have everything. I mean, we have . . . There’s so much of everything, and we have this illusion. Remember, this is 2014, so we still are thinking good things about ourselves, and the cracks hadn’t started to show quite as much.

You would feel people, and people thought that we already were in the pinnacle of whatever we were doing, and we’ve got this, and they felt confident in their expertise. Nobody was really calling out the field of how crappy things had gotten for children because of accountability movements and how every single person who’s in the field is culpable. I mean, it’s complicated, but we are all culpable because this is our field.

What happened? Showing people these pictures, it’s like they would slip back into their deepest memory of play. It would trigger, it would throw them back into those, into their own childhood, but it would also catapult them back to why they entered the field in the first place. It’s the second one that got really tricky, because, depending on how far away people had gotten from that and how deep in they were in the systems that moved away from that . . .

There were a few . . . Here are the reactions that I would get: “This is great. We’re already doing it,” and “We’re doing it really well, and I’m happy to sort of be allies, but we’re not interested in doing this.” “We’re interested in doing this but we’ll be allies, we can be comrades,” which is fine. I think it’s incorrect that people are already doing it, because it’s its own thing, and it’s like I say, you can agree with Montessori, but that doesn’t mean you’re already doing it, or you can share some philosophical points of view with Montessori, it doesn’t mean you’re doing it.

There was that reaction. There was a reaction that was, I think, we have some people who it just didn’t affect. Those are mostly people who weren’t in early childhood, and you had experiences with that showing this to people early on, in all the conversations we had about that early on. It’s just, what does this mean to anybody? They say, “Kids are playing. Yeah, whatever.” There was this, not affected by . . . People who were . . . You had to be inside . . . You have to have it already in your life, and so it had to already matter to you. The lives of children had to already matter to you.

You had to be connected to either the internal or external kind of kid world. If neither of those is true for you, then it’s just not . . . There’s no meaning in it for you, really. There’s that group. Then there’s the group who get it. Like I said, you’ll feel them slip into that kind of wonder, that state of awe, and there’s a profound shift. It’s like something that got buried inside of them has been opened up. Those are people who are almost immediately devotees, really committed to the cause. “What can I do? How can I be involved? Tell me more, where do I sign up, how do I do this. I’m going to start it tomorrow.” Those are the people we really work with. I mean, those are . . . They number in the thousands now, it’s thousands and thousands. It’s thousands and thousands of people. Then there were people in the field of Early Childhood that were really angered by it. Like I said, I mean, I can’t say why people are angry, but my . . . And I feel like it’s presumptuous for me to say, but I will anyway. It appeared that they were threatened by what . . . or there was everything from . . . I mean, within this fourth category of outright rejection, there were people who range from “No, we’re good” to “Hard no. We’re good,” or kind of an aggressive “We already do this,” to really aggressive words.

There’s a fifth category. But let me finish with the fourth category. It was confusing to me. I lost friends over it, bizarrely. Why would this make you angry? How could this possibly make you angry? But it seems to do that. The fifth category, which is funny . . . I can add this category now because we’ve been doing this longer . . . are the people who are like, “Great! How do we monetize what you’ve done?” They just see it as a—

Jesse Coffino: An opportunity.

Chelsea Bailey: Right, because we haven’t come into this as a business, we are not thinking about how to monetize this and are actively working to sustain this work. We don’t fit easily into any category. And so, people motivated by greed might see us as weak leaders, that we aren’t pushing the growth and sharing of these ideas with an eye to the potential profits that they see as existing. 

So those are my categories.

Jesse Coffino: I think there’s a subcategory, which is . . . There’s the devotees. You have also said that there’s people for whom it’s an urgent matter, there’s an urgency or there’s deep sense of almost . . . Not existential but—

Chelsea Bailey: Very personal.

Again, I have a conjecture. I think that, within the field of Early Childhood education, which is a massive field, right, which is a force . . . It’s organized and it’s a force. There’s a lot going on there, there’s a lot of money, there’s a lot of politics, there’s a lot of policy, et cetera, et cetera, and a lot of lives are impacted. Within the field, I’m on one of the far ends of the bell curve in terms of being willing to take risks and choose ideology or a position over stability.

On the other end of the bell curve are the absolute bureaucratic formalists, and within those people, there are those who can be very power-hungry. I would do anything for children on the one end of the bell curve. I mean, not everything, because we tend to look out for ourselves, too, but the needs of the child are our prime and foremost consideration, and I’m willing to take risks for that. On the other end of the curve are people who are protecting themselves. That’s how I’m going to put it.

So, in the middle, there are all these people who were part of the field and following the structures of the field and following . . . Some are innovators and leaders and some are the good . . . Follow this mainstream, and some are collaborative and some are not. I think that the people for whom this is urgent, they are people who have, either in the past, or who have now come into the field and stayed in the field and made a commitment to the field that is beyond whatever’s happening in the field at that moment. The lives of children and just how we think of childhood itself are  primary.

They’re willing to put themselves in an uncomfortable position in order to pursue that for the greater good, we could call it. They are actors of and for the greater good, and there’s a lot of people like that in early childhood, thank goodness. People in education, period, like that. People for whom it is a moral imperative.

One of the things that I actually don’t talk about publicly is the work that I’ve done with the teachers in Anji, because I don’t want anybody to misunderstand what it was. You know that one of the things that I have purposefully done is make myself a quiet presence. I mean, and not quiet presence generally, but I want to be a promoter and a supporter. I want to be more behind the scenes, unless I absolutely have to be in a leadership role, because I don’t want any misunderstanding.

I get nervous about you speaking for that reason, too. What I did was . . . I think it was that second time I went back, when I stayed for those three weeks, I said, “You know, I’ve done observation and reflection stuff with teachers for a long time, and I have a few tricks of the trade, some things that I figured out that I . . . Would you be open to me sharing those with your teachers?” “Of course,” Ms. Cheng says. “Of course,” she says, “Yes, please.” Because she is so open. 

I went back . . . I think it was January. I think she was here in November, and I went back in January because . . . I was there in January, and that’s when she asked me to work every day with 100 teachers, every afternoon for three weeks, Sunday and then start on Monday morning. I did it, and basically, I just taught them qualitative research methods and more stuff about objective observation. I just want to tighten up their . . . I just gave them support around practices that they were already doing, and they were so sophisticated.

It really was like working with advanced master’s-level students. Really, really high level of reflection and observation practice. I’ve never worked with master’s-level teachers, master teachers, who were thinking at the level. I mean, I don’t do Reggio stuff. I’m sure there’s master teachers who do Reggio documentation, who have a sophisticated thinking, or Montessori teachers, and we’ve met them. The fact is that it was 100 teachers, and they weren’t all at the same level, but it was really high, it really was high. That was an incredible joy.

I brought up the concepts of cause-and-effect experimentation and . . . I mean, I can’t believe I just threw this idea out to see if they could generate a hypothesis about what the children are hypothesizing, and they have mastered that. I mean, and I really talked to them about it for one afternoon, and that’s how it was. It was just, “Hey, here’s this idea,” and they would just take off with this incredible level of sophistication.

I would come back a couple months later and they would . . . they would have built out this amazing system around this one idea we had discussed . . . I guess, basically, I was planting seeds, and really, the main work I did with them, the intensive work I did with them, was about objective observation and descriptive observation. I went back a bunch of times. I think I counted it. It was eight months, over two years.

Jesse Coffino: In that time, up until today, you continued that relationship with teachers, right?

Chelsea Bailey: I have. I have. Now, it’s like I don’t usually do a three-week thing. I did a one-day thing with them, and I always . . . I take the stance, and I don’t always know how Ms. Cheng feels about it or how the teachers feel about it or the principals, but I try to take them to the far edge of where I think they are. I don’t hold back, and I don’t take them . . . I don’t push them a little beyond where they are or move the needle a little further. I really try to find the far edge of where they are.

The last time I was there, I introduced this idea . . . I’ve introduced some pretty far-out ideas, and I feel like it’s not because I want to be far out, it’s because I think they’re capable of, really, advanced thinking.

Chelsea Bailey: The last time I was there, I introduced this idea of two levels of looking at children’s learning, and that was the idea of functional learning, which is all that academic learning and child development stuff, and then deep learning, which is . . . it’s shorthand for, what is the experience or meaning that the child is having, and then being able to create a gap or a sense of difference between all the measures that we have for children, the fact that there’s a gap or can be a gap between all the measures that we could think of for children and what’s meaningful to the child about that experience.

I don’t know, maybe it won’t matter to them and they won’t get any traction, or maybe it’ll work for them. Lilly [Sheng Yi, principal of Anji Jiguan Kindergarten] seemed excited about it, and other people seem to not get it. 

Jesse Coffino: What are the changes that you’ve seen in the last, what, four and a half years? 

Chelsea Bailey: Well, what I would say is that, there’s a greater percentage . . . well, first of all, there’s all the environmental changes, the continued development of the environments, the continued development of the physical materials, right? That’s absolutely happened. I would say that, when I worked with those 100 teachers, that was over 10% or, it was not 10%, it was 100 of the 700 teachers and principals. Now, the number of . . . Actually, I’ve asked the principals this question.

The number of that percentage of people who really understand it, who get it deeply, is much greater. That 10%, basically, 10% was about the number of people who could enter into high-level conversation about what they were doing.

It was interesting. When I first started going to Anji, the indoor spaces were still, I think, what they had been like before. They hadn’t really been working on indoors, so they had really beautifully developed outdoor spaces, and beautifully developed, like, mezzanine, in-between spaces, the indoor/outdoor spaces, and they hadn’t really developed the indoor spaces yet. They had already started to change materials on the inside to more open-ended materials.

It still felt really like teacher-owned space. That would be a good way to say it. So what I’ve seen is, I’ve watched them basically clean, empty out, the classrooms, and reintroduce materials and designs back into them. Now, they have indoor spaces that reflect the outdoors, the same . . . The indoor spaces are a reflection of the same principles and the pedagogy and philosophy that inform the outdoor spaces, and these indoor spaces are now very, very much child-owned. I certainly didn’t help them with that at all. They did that on their own. It developed naturally from their practice and from their school leadership and Ms. Cheng’s leadership and vision. 

And what’s fantastic about that is that they were able, using the model of an ecology, to extrapolate outdoor spaces and indoor spaces from outdoor spaces. In terms of teacher practice, part of the changes to indoor spaces has also lead to changes at the level of teacher practice. As the indoors becomes more oriented towards the child, the teacher also becomes more oriented towards the child. . . . I would say they were in early stages of really understanding . . . the early stages of exploring the reflection piece when I came in 2014.

And that was the reason that I was working on observation and reflection, so that they could strengthen that place you’re . . . the facilitation of the place you’re in peace. That was really the meaning behind all of that. Over these four years, four and a half years, they have really developed a very sophisticated practice and built out that play sharing piece. I just dropped in at this time. The teachers knew the whole approach wasn’t done in 2014.

When I dropped in, and that day happened to be at the place where they were really working on play sharing, and that’s what they have continued to work on this past four years. Now, even in the past year or so, they’re continuing to explore, and so that conversation I had with them, this last time I was there, about deep learning versus functional learning, was about . . . The reason that we had that conversation was because we wanted to . . . We were talking about play sharing.

In terms of play sharing, if you have an orientation towards functional knowledge, then you’re going to orient those facilitations towards functional knowledge. Every teacher has orientations towards functional knowledge, because we all have to tell other people about, we all love to talk about kids, and we have to tell parents about kids. If you’re in the US, you have to tell the government about kids. I’m arguing for it, and I’ll see where it goes: having a parallel system of discussing functional learning and discussing deep learning.

That’s why you have those things in your back pocket to talk to people about learning who need that, but then the teachers can also have conversations internally, and hopefully externally, about what is actually meaningful to children. What’s cool about that, Jesse, is I believe that in that, we’ll be able to blow the ceiling, like, just blow the lid off of what’s actually happening for children.

The first time I . . . or the second time I went back, that’s my first deep . . . a three-week trip, I knew right away that Anji needed their own assessment. It’s not that they needed a new assessment. They need their own assessment, because they were providing children with the opportunity to express, to pursue interest, and express experience and insight that was beyond the typical categories that we provide for children. Assessments are containers that describe children’s experience. Of course, assessment is almost always, in educational settings, matched with the experience . . . the containers of experience they were creating, providing, to children. What that meant is if you were . . . if you took the parameters, if you expanded the parameters on the experiences, you were . . . the opportunities you are giving children, then you necessarily have to expand the parameters.

I should say, if you don’t expand the parameters, you’re going to be . . . you’re going to have no way to describe the complexity that you just provided children the opportunity to have.

What is happening in Anji is that you’re giving . . . you’re opening it up. You were not having an assessment-driven experience. You were opening it up to a child-determined experience, but the assessment was so . . . you had to narrow that complexity down into the existing categories, and the categories are pretty broad in China. I mean, they’re broader than they are here, so it wasn’t that hard for people to do that. The idea of having an assessment, which is one of the things that I had been . . . As you know, I’ve been thinking about that for the last four and a half years. What are we going to do with the assessment? How are we going to get it? I’ve had all these strategies for how to do that, and one has been, “Let’s find an assessment that already exists.” That seems good, and we explore that, and we hit limits to that right away.

I looked at a whole bunch of different assessments, and because Peter had been involved in the development of DRDP, and he and Ms. Cheng talked about adapting DRDP, or using DRDP, in China or for Anji Play, we tried that out, and Qing came over and she got trained in it. She went back and she taught it to the teachers there. By the time I got there, I realized the teachers didn’t . . . It didn’t make sense to them.

And, fascinatingly, I would say that the DRDP is very much concerned with minutiae of developmental details, and the Chinese guidelines are concerned with broad areas, and so that was one of the . . . It was inside-out from one another. A part of it was functional, a part of it was cultural, but it was too big of a . . . it was too specific, and it was going from the detailed to the general, rather than from the general to the detailed.

Jesse Coffino: And with the DRDP, we had the . . . the oldest kids on that measure are our American kindergarten ages, which is six years old or five years old, and the oldest kids in Anji, based on my untrained perspective, seemed well beyond those measures.

Chelsea Bailey: So we’ve tried to find a ton of people who wanted to develop this. I’ve been trying to find a partner to develop it for a long, long time. We didn’t get any traction on that. And so finally, recently, after many, many different attempts, we decided to, you know, step out on our own, partially because we had been thinking about this. We have been thinking about it for four years. We’ve been observing this for four years. We’ve been thinking about assessment. We’ve been thinking about looking at, you know, we’ve had . . . When we worked with programs that have all of these accountability measures, we, yeah. We encountered some . . . We had basically had been test driving a few . . . a whole bunch of different ideas around assessment. We finally decided that we are just going to try it, to do it ourselves.

Well, then, we, because it’s usually you and me, it’s a “we,” we called in my dear friend, Dr. Lisette Garcia, who has a PhD in developmental psychology, and has specific expertise in qualitative mixed methods, mixed methodology around assessment and evaluation, so mixing qualitative and quantitative methods. 

So we have two working groups. We have many working groups. But the two we have of relevance here are the video analysis working group, to understand . . . a group to create a vernacular for teaching people video analysis, using the same methodology that they are using in Anji, an approach that I worked with them to develop in Anji, and so that was . . . We’re developing working on a consistent methodology around video analysis. It’s a working group of people who know Anji Play well and have been to Anji, that we can work well with or are working well with. And then the other group is a working group around the development of the assessment. It’s the early days of the development of the assessment, and the idea is that we will do this, create this tool, this working model of the tool, and then take it to China, and have them test it out and give us feedback on it. And it would not be a valid tool if it couldn’t be used outside of Anji Play as well. And the interesting challenge and idea is that it can be used in any setting, school, non-school, China, non-China, anywhere in the world. I think that that’s, you know, I’m just thinking of this now, you know, we had so many educators in the US who are concerned about culturally relevant pedagogy. It’ll be interesting, and I think that’s why things start to go in all these directions, because they’re trying to . . . It’s a pluralism, and it’s trying to account for everything, which is not possible. With this tool we’re trying to do something that’s general enough, broad enough, universal enough . . . but not reductive. It’s an important assessment innovation.

My real goals in this work are to have Ms. Cheng’s work remembered and known, remembered and canonized, and to have her known, have her be recognized, be in history books.

In the first instance, I want Anji Play to be known because it’s a . . . it has value to the world and value to children. I want it to be known, and I want it to be known well and correctly. I want a legacy. I want her to be a legacy of this educational approach that will continue on for hundreds of years. That Anji Play be in the canon of educational approaches. And it has . . . and part of that, a subset of that, is that it moves the needle.

It’s exactly looping back to where we started, which is, Anji Play offers a model of a particular view of children that is deeply generous and respectful of capacity in such a way that it can change people’s minds of not just how they interact with children, but how they interact with each other. I feel like it has an important contribution to make to the world.

And you know, we have . . . Despite that, because of, let’s say, because of the distances between places and . . . historically, the distance between places and the slowness of communication, and the cultural and linguistic challenges of translation. There is not an integration of Western . . . What have been thought of as Eastern and Western points of view and between the East and West period.

The way the world has been set up the last 500 years is that the West is the one who’s writing the script for the whole world, including . . . education, so global education has been strongly influenced by Western colonial imperialism.

Jesse Coffino: Childhood is really where that story of who we are as people, or as communities, or as cultures, or . . .

Chelsea Bailey: Absolutely. Childhood is the formation of culture.

That’s absolutely true. The West has not had the benefit of the influence of the East. It hasn’t, and the West is at a critical turning point in terms of how it’s . . . how the definition of culture, and behavior and humanity, how those are getting defined.

Because we now have this moment where the certainty of the West is faltering, and the approaches and the strategies of the West are not . . . the . . . what’s the word I’m looking for? The efficacy of these strategies, of Western strategies, is faltering. They are running out. The East has a whole different sort of approach to, in China in particular, to sustainability. Of culture, of ideas, as well as, you know, physically, as well as intellectually and everything else.

So it is really important to me that Ms. Cheng, as a Chinese woman, breaks the legacy, interrupts the legacy, offers an alternative direction in the legacy of Western thought, because the people who have defined Western early education—and it has its own history distinct from primary education and it’s much more closely tied to philosophy itself—the formation of culture, the formation itself, that has been defined mostly by Western men. I mean, Maria Montessori, she is one of the only . . . what’s the word? Counterexample. Reggio Emilia . . . I mean, Malaguzzi is remembered for Reggio Emilia. Malaguzzi is the name associated most closely with Reggio. So again, you have Montessori as this complete outlier in terms of being a woman. So, to have this woman who is rural, who comes from rural China, to set, to have a powerful influence in the direction of the future of educational thought, is important to me.

And then I think that maybe there have been others. Maybe there have been other women who were in these places in the world . . . Maybe there have been people like that in the past, and their amazing ideas were lost because they weren’t protected and promoted. And so I see myself not as a promoter of work, but as a guardian. It makes me cry.


Cas Holman

Associate Professor, Industrial Design, Rhode Island School of Design
Founder, Heroes Will Rise

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Date of visits to Anji: 2015, April 2017, June 2017, December 2018, May 2019

Interview conducted on January 29, 2019

Cas Holman: How are you doing?

Jesse Coffino: Good, good. How are you? The materials, Rosie’s school, they’re pretty into them.

Cas Holman: Nice.

Jesse Coffino: Yeah, I know. It’s pretty exciting to see how all of, instantly with the barrels, like, the barrels and the planks were instant, and the same things that you see kids everywhere doing with barrels. They go inside. They kind of lay inside together. They get in them, they get on top, they get inside. While other kids are on the planks, kids make seesaws, they make, pretty much, it seems to me like, if there’s a scheme of play and there’s a scheme of materials, it’s like planks turn into ramps. Planks turn into seesaws, things that kids can walk on, right?

Cas Holman: That’s the ways of familiarizing and exploring what the materials are and how to use them.

Jesse Coffino: The mats were there. The mats take up a lot of room, but the mats are so brilliant because they’re really firm. They’re not bouncy.

So you don’t get that springy . . . Kids don’t want to jump on them like a trampoline.

It doesn’t slide at all, so even on my hardwood-floored surface at home, they don’t slide when you’re jumping from them.

Cas Holman: Amazing.

Jesse Coffino: They’re the same size as the climbing cubes, so when they stack, they stack to the height of the climbing cubes and also on the dollies. You know, you can make castles and other things with them, or, like, forts, and so you can jump on them. You can stack them indoors and jump off them onto another one. So they really take up a lot of space. The mats take up a lot of shipping space, and they take up a lot of floor space, because you can stack them, but they’re pretty thick. So the school took some, and so, the first day or two, the barrels and planks were out, and the children really liked that. And then, the teachers were, like, the teachers were getting a little impatient, because the kids were so into it, that the mats came out. The school has been like, Sinian the co-director is up in her office and she’s like, “I just sit there watching them play with these mats. It’s so amazing, and the teachers are all really psyched.” There, the materials are forcing them to step back, because some of these, like I was saying to Tran, they aren’t slides or things that are places of control and rules.

So the teachers are kind of having to think more about why they would intervene with a barrel, right?

Cas Holman: Yeah.

Jesse Coffino: Like, a slide, they know. One kid goes up, the other kid doesn’t come down. A barrel’s a different thing, and it’s, like, half a child’s height. They can get inside it, on top of it, and roll around and satisfy that physical feeling of sliding or instability, right? But that other piece of fixed equipment that’s in the center of the space, and takes up so much space, and is like a center of surveillance almost, it kind of removes the power in that.

Cas Holman: Yeah, it’s kind of supposed—

Jesse Coffino: Space, that location and space changes.

Cas Holman: Yeah, yeah.

Jesse Coffino: So that’s all right, and so then on Thursday I’m going to talk to the teachers, and then they’re going to introduce the blocks, the ladders, the climbing cubes.

Cas Holman: Awesome.

Jesse Coffino: And then I want to organize something for the parents’ association—not through the school—where I do an event with parents. Where it’s like, “If you want to learn, I’m another parent. I can tell you about, I go to China, like, 10 times a year, and I was just in Moscow and I’m going to Bangladesh. Oh yeah, also I hang out around a school. I’m looking at your kids and taking pictures of them.”

Cas Holman: No, and kids all love that.

Jesse Coffino: Right, but you know what I mean. I want to introduce myself and these large, minimally structured and open-ended materials that maybe your kids get injured on. Did you sign up for this? I don’t know. I didn’t.

Cas Holman: Well, but also yeah, similar to how, in Anji Play schools, they do, the parents come in and they tell play stories. It’s the same as what Ms. Cheng does and what they do with the parents in Anji.

Jesse Coffino: Yeah.

Cas Holman: They have to understand why their kids are going to have a scraped knee maybe more often, and they have to also recognize and be stoked about what’s going on, you know?

Jesse Coffino: That’s right. Cas, can you tell me about your earliest, deepest memory of play as a child?

Cas Holman: I wouldn’t say this is my first play memory, because I was probably six or seven, but I have distinct multisensory memories, one in particular, of being up in a tree that was in our front yard. And the bark had purple. I remember realizing that the bark had purple in it, and the smell and stickiness of the sap in the tree, and that it was both uncomfortable, because I was kind of straddling the tree, but high up enough that my weight was probably on one branch that was kind of poking me. And just hanging out, and watching an ant crawl in and out of the big kind of gaps and cracks in the bark. And breaking off a piece of the bark, and then feeling sad that I broke some of the tree. Like, in my head, I likened the bark to skin, and I felt bad that I ripped some of the tree’s skin off. But I of course needed to dissect it, because I was trying to . . . I was exploring the bark and the tree from being up inside of it. I mean, sorry, up in it, you know? The branch was probably two body widths off the ground. That was in Grass Valley. I see it every time I go to my mom’s. I’ve tried to get my niece to climb it, but she won’t. And it doesn’t have any branches that are anywhere near the ground anymore. I definitely could not . . . I’ve since put up a rope course for Mina, using that tree, and even up in a ladder, I used a ladder to get up to attach the upper ropes, and I couldn’t reach any of the branches that I used to hang out on.

But it also, it was my . . . There weren’t a lot of people around at any point, so it wasn’t like I was ever really driven to find places to be alone. But it definitely felt like I was the only one that went there. I mean, I was. And thinking about being the only one that had been in that spot, in the air.


Cas Holman: One day I receive a call from Chelsea telling me that she’d seen Rigamajig, a play material that I designed, in China, and that I needed to know, from what she found of my work and from what she saw of watching my work being used in China, she had a feeling I would want to know about Anji Play. When she first showed me photos, I was completely blown away. It made me have faith, in a way, in our future, the future of humans, humankind, that this was happening at the scale that it was, is.

She called me. She left me a message and said, “You don’t know who I am. I work with some schools in China, and we’ve seen your work. It’s not me, we aren’t the ones doing it, but we think we’ve seen your work in China. Please give me a call.” And when it came in, and it was a number from New York, and I still had a connection to New York, but I was at RISD . . . I remember I was in class, and I was kind of like, “I don’t, I can’t, what?” I think it took me a couple days to come back to it, because it felt like something I didn’t know how to deal with, or what to do.

But when I called her back, of course, she’s Chelsea. We talked for a long time, and she told me about you and about what you were doing, and that she wanted me to be involved. I was kind of like, “All right, but let me . . . Let’s first get past this that-I’m-being-knocked-off-in-China part, and then maybe I’ll . . .” And I wanted her to send me some pictures, and she kind of was being dodgy about that, because she wanted to have a sit-down. So ultimately, we did sit down in New York, and when she started showing me pictures, I think that was when I really understood.

Because how she was describing it over the phone, I was like, “Yeah, okay, great. That’s wonderful, whatever. Yay. China is doing something great, okay.” And it sounded a lot like what we, kind of “we” being people who I work with in, or who I’ve worked with in, other playground projects in schools and things—play activists, as it were—and the groups in New York of people who are trying to make movements for loose parts, and fewer litigious-driven or liability-driven safety rules . . .

But it sounded like things that we knew were kind of idyllic from the ’60s and ’70s, but had kind of given up on because it just was not . . . seemed totally unfeasible in the US because of safety regulations and the way that parenting was going, and education. So when I saw pictures, and when she told me the scale, that’s when I kind of realized, like, “Oh my god, this is real.” It’s not like some anomaly happening in a tiny village. Which would also be wonderful, but the scale of it was what I think made me feel like this could be a movement and actually change the way we do things.

It was my second year at RISD. Second or third, so Rigamajig was Rigamajig by then.

And I met you all in Union Square, and Ms. Cheng was . . . Yeah, I don’t know. I was very excited and kind of unclear what the . . . if we were meant to have kind of a specific kind of meeting, or if we were just kind of doing what we were doing.

I remember, I mean, she took out her computer at some point and was just showing me pictures and telling me stories of what was going on and what the children do. I was struck by how excited . . . I mean, first of all, I could have listened to her tell stories about, and I had a million questions about, the materials and how, what was the system of the day, and things like that. But I was struck just by how much she wanted to show me all of the things.

As I was asking questions, she really wanted to show me six examples of, when I was like, “So how do they . . . do the children . . . or how does it get put away?” I was asking about cleanup, and if the things evolve over the course of a week, or if they leave things up. I was very curious about . . . because one of the things with the Imagination Playground in particular, because it is left out in the number of playgrounds and schools, is the difference between, if the children know it’s going to be out for a week, that they’ll come back to something the next day, or that other children will add to it and then it evolves. They can kind of watch it evolve. I was curious how the schools in Anji did that, and then when she was explaining that at the end of the day they put everything away, I was like, “Oh, what does that mean? How does that change?” So it was like I immediately wanted to jump into the nuance of what it means to put something away and start over, and levels of mastery and the learning curves and things. I was struck by her and how much she loved . . . I mean, it was clear that she loved what was happening. She loved the children and the things they did, but she loved and loves Anji Play. She loves that children are playing in that way. She loves children playing. She wanted to both show it to someone who understood that it was rare, and understood how valuable and important it is, but also that she wanted to share. She wanted to show enough that other people will then take it and show it. She wants it to spread. She wants it for everybody, yeah.

After I met with you, Chelsea was like, “I have, there are specific people that I want to come to Anji, and we’re going to have this meeting, and it’s going to set the . . .” I think I saw it as like a think tank for leading what the plan for bringing Anji Play to the rest of the world would be.

Then we spent time in the schools, and I think the first school that we went to, I cried. I just couldn’t believe that it was that . . . that it was real, you know? And maybe we got there early. There was a grandma with a toddler who was maybe a year old or so, who was climbing up a ladder and following the bigger kids around, and the students who were also there a little bit before school were helping him climb a ladder and watching out for him, and the grandma was hanging back. There was such a nice kind of ease in what I would see over the next four days as we traveled around to a bunch of different schools and spent time meeting.

I think we, in that trip, also kind of drafted a working agreement to kind of standardize the materials. At that point, Ms. Cheng already could tell and already knew that she needed to be able to get materials to other schools and be less involved in the process. And so I was trying to figure out ways that I could help her standardize the materials and also not have to . . . I found myself kind of reminding her, when I was like, “Oh, but so which of these two?” She was like, “I don’t know, I’ll decide when I go to the school.”

I was like, “But what if you don’t have to go to the school?” “Well, I want to go to the school.” “Right, but there’s going to be a lot of schools. Maybe you won’t be available. What if you didn’t go to the school? That would probably also be okay, you know?” So there was this kind of like, right, this system has been built around her being a huge part, and she loves being a huge part, and of course that’s always ideal. But that’s definitely not going to be feasible moving forward, so how can we kind of take her out of the loop and get, in terms of things she doesn’t need to be . . . like, she doesn’t need to be deciding which blocks every school has, you know?

So there was this kind of, like, process of . . . And then through that process, the questions that I asked helped me understand what the materials are, as I continue to . . . A lot of the questions that I’ll ask around, like, “Oh, does it open this way or this way?” I think that’s a simple mechanical question I’m asking for the sake of manufacturing a thing. And in asking it, and in having the conversation through the answer, I learn more about what . . . how it works and what are the values of what it does. Which, of course, illuminate that nothing is as simple as, does it open this way or this way? Is it pine or bamboo? It’s not a matter of the most simple material properties that are the answer to that question. There’s always much more.

Which is also really fun, and going through it now, I think that my way of really getting to know a lot of the nuance that I would probably not understand in terms of her principles and things that she’s thinking about, I wouldn’t understand them just through watching or through observing and listening to play stories and stuff. I think that I get to have an extra purview of understanding through the conversations around, is one giant block cheating? Are three small blocks better than one giant block, because it’s too easy to have one giant block? And we have those . . . I’ve had a couple conversations with a table full of teachers around things like that. Is one arch or arc too easy? Should it be split into two so that there has to be a capstone, it has to be balanced, or can we just give them an arch, you know?

I have had a couple trips that were specific to the materials, where I spent the morning at a school, watching kind of a prototype. So, the climbing cubes, for example. Those have all . . . There’s never been an issue with how they work with their design from a “how they function from a play value” perspective. But there have been some problems, or, not problems, but there was a desire to make them . . . They’re wood, and wood sitting outside is a . . . So we wanted to make them last longer and not split, because wood splits, so they were getting repainted.

And so that’s a good example of something that I tried to help . . . Well, we standardized them, the placement of holes and slats and things like that, and sizes, so there’s . . . of course, and how they line up with ladders and all of the things, so that everything is like one system. We added kind of a plastic frame that helps with stability, but also, that plastic is what sits on the ground now instead of the wood. But in the process to get to that, we had to . . . We tried a few different ways. And so I sent ahead quite a few different proposals of different ways that the cubes might be fabricated, and then when I came to Anji, one of the schools had a few . . . two different versions that I had sent.

So they had one that had this metal interior frame, and then another that had, I think, a different type of construction, and so we watched the kids with them, which was a little bit enlightening but not that much, because, again, the play value was the same. It was more of a fabrication issue, but then we got to kind of play, the kids went inside and we kind of played with them and rolled them over. One was not totally stable, and one was a little wobbly.

And then we went to the factory to have meetings with the factory about how we could manufacture them better, and what was working with the prototypes and what could be better. That was kind of where, out of one of those meetings, I asked, “Okay, so what are the quantities? Are we going to be flat-packing these, or are we shipping them assembled?” I got to know a little bit more of what the product system would be, which is different from the Anji Play system.

And at the time, they imagined flat-packing them, and they knew that there were going to be quantities over a certain amount. So I said, “Oh, well, in that case, let’s make a mold and make some plastic. This is going to . . . So, we’ll injection-mold this one corner that we’ll use for all of the things, and then we’ll get this extruded part, and then the only difference will be blah, blah, blah.” So that’s a great . . . And then, over the next few days, I would send them sketches or draw up as cleanly as I could, and then their engineers would play with it for a while, and then we’d meet the next day and go over it.

And then I think, by the time I left, we kind of knew what the cubes were going to be. I did wind up . . . I worked with one of my designers to give the final engineering drawings, because there were a couple of things that they couldn’t figure out that I knew I could figure out once we had it in a 3-D file, so we built the 3-D model. But so that . . . I love that version where I’m observing the school in the morning and then visiting the factories and working with the factories in the afternoon to figure out something that they’re trying to manufacture.

I also have gotten to have days where I can just observe and see things I’m not looking for, rather than looking for, “How is that new ladder working?” I can just observe, and the last time that I was there was with Netflix, actually. We were recording for a special. I brought the Netflix crew to Anji to record for this, something that’s about, it’s a design thing. And Ms. Cheng and I got to have a really short meeting onscreen, but I think, because we didn’t know what we were going to talk about, we didn’t have anything specific, in the 20 minutes we were sitting there, we had two new design ideas for things that wobble. In a way that we had . . . In other meetings there’s been other people or other stuff, and we kind of just got to brainstorm together, you know?

Yeah, we started with . . . I said, “So outside, I noticed this. I was thinking, what if we did a barrel that’s a triangle instead of a circle, like, if we extrude some other shapes and make some things that are similar to barrels, but then children could see how and could play with what’s different about having edges, or having something that almost balances but not quite?” And we went from there. It was really fun.

So I think that I . . . It’s my favorite type of time in Anji, is when I get to do that, and when I get to brainstorm about, what other materials could kids really explore and experiment with?

The last time I was there, I was really struck by the patience of one child in particular who had a cart. It was cleanup time. I love cleanup time, and in my mind, some of the best principles of play are visible in cleanup time, although there is a desire, there is kind of a goal, to cleanup time, right? Ultimately, we are trying to get all of the parts to be put away, but it takes as long as it takes. And if you have to bring two pieces away and take one out and put three more away and then take three more out to get four more away, I think it’s a really kind of wonderful process that embraces “it takes as long as it takes.”

But the last time I was there, I saw one child that had a cart with a bunch of wooden planks, and she was pedaling, and she was kind of stuck on the lip of the ground, so there was like a lip from safety surfacing to concrete or something. She just went back and forth, and she just kept trying, and then she’d get off the bike and kind of push it. Every once in a while somebody would run by and she’d holler at them. I’m sure she was asking, like, “Hey, come here and help me for a second.” Eventually, another student came, and together they pushed it up, and then she got on and it kind of rolled backwards back onto the lip, and she just kind of kept trying again. 

It was hard to watch, a little bit, because I’m not that patient. But it was beautiful. She wasn’t frustrated. Yeah, she just kept at it, and eventually she got it up and over and then made her way back to the block shelves and put them all away. She was the last student out on the playground. Everybody else was already inside. The teacher was waiting patiently. So I’m struck by any number of things, and I also, the last time I had an “aha” moment where I’ve been . . . It’s hard to not notice that they make these kind of courses. And you could call them obstacle courses, or you could call them paths . . . And only recently, I think, I went twice, and it was the children were climbing along it, up and down and across and under and through, and then jump.

Then, we started seeing tires being incorporated more, so that they’d make the path, and then the tire would roll the path. It was these cool kind of cause-and-effect sort of game that they were inventing, and I’m seeing that more and more often. I started to think of these paths as kind of like, they make the non-linear path, right? It’s like, it’s not even about A to B, and often it has splits, or it has options, or it has some obstacle that they are also part of. It’s like a kinetic thing.

But then they test the paths with their bodies or with an object. Sometimes it’s a ball; more often it’s a tire. And they’re testing them with their bodies, like the ball versus the tire, while they also kind of follow the objects themselves along the path. So they’re testing it with their bodies, and then they test it with the tire, and I love the idea of thinking of your body and a tire as kind of the same thing.

And then they would change and add to the path. They’ll do it, and then they’ll add more, and then they test it again, and then they add more. And I like that it wasn’t this . . . it was a continuous . . . the testing was happening throughout. It wasn’t, “We’re going to make the thing and it’ll be done, and then we’ll use it.” It was, the using it was the testing of it. It was all same-same. And again, back to the . . . I’m always trying to design for no finish. It’s not about the finished thing, it’s about the process and all things. That’s so exactly what they’re doing all the time.

There are some staples that don’t change, and I love that the schools in Anji are constantly prototyping. Every time I go, there’s new stuff or changes to the things I’ve seen. And I think we started with, of the 150 materials, we started with the 30 or 50 or so that we knew were standard, like the absolute standards, you know? The blocks, ladders, planks, and there could be some variations. We could add slats to planks. We could add, take some rungs away from ladders, but for the most part they’re the standards. And I think that if they get to, and I’ve learned this with both Rigamajig and Imagination Playground . . . The more we design, the less children can design, right? So there’s a lot of . . . I don’t think of . . . I think of the design. The climbing cubes are kind of an exception to this, because they’re more of an object that is used as incorporated into either a core, like I said, like a linear path, or a non-linear path. But the other things are all ingredients with which they . . . Like, for example, for drawing, we don’t want kids to have to make the paper. Give them a blank piece of paper, right? They can make paper, sure. That could be a fun process, but if every time they wanted to draw a picture they had to make paper, or go burn the end of a stick to use it as charcoal . . .That’s too much, that’s not the point. We would give them some things, and they can make something big and have a huge impact, and that is, in and of itself, more empowering than knowing that they put the ladder together themselves. Which . . . Because we could give them a bunch of dowels as a ladder. In fact, I think we talked about this at some point. They could assemble their own ladder, and they can decide how many rungs they need. But, so I think that the prototyping around little adaptations is fabulous, and I think that both the teachers and the children can learn from the differences, and can say, like, “Oh, the barrel with extra holes is cool, but then we can’t walk on it.” Or, like, “Oh, we made a wooden . . .” Ms. Cheng loves using natural materials, and I do too, but at some point we come up against that a lot of materials don’t lend themselves to things like wood. The barrels, we were like, “PVC is kind of the best solution. It’s not a great material. It’s not very sustainable. What else can we use?” So we spent a lot of time looking for other options to replace the oil drums, which is also unfortunate, because I love that those are just an appropriated thing that, again, children see everywhere in the world. So when we were exploring other ways of doing the barrels or replacing the oil drums, we made one out of wood. We made this wooden cylinder. It was really heavy, and it was going to be very expensive, so it wound up getting significantly smaller, I think in part because of weight, but so the diameter was much smaller. We brought it out and gave it to some children who, before they even touched it, one of them said, “Oh, that’s too small. I’m not going to be able to walk on it.” We were a little bit confused, and then we realized, without even interacting, he knew instantly the connection between circumference and speed. And so a bigger circle, he’ll move more slowly. A small circle, he’ll . . . His feet couldn’t keep up.

And then we watched that happen, and it was . . . it was too loud, and it was too heavy, and everyone that was involved, we all kind of learned, “Oh yes, right.” We just reminded ourselves what the children already kind of knew, but for, at the same time, for the child to have had something that “doesn’t work,” may have helped him understand why something else works, in the same way that it does for us also. As adults, we also need to understand how something doesn’t work in order to understand why something else works.

So, there is a level of standardizing with mass-produced things that is not at all in direct conflict with Anji Play. I think if it were being manufactured by a more kind of rigid product company it would be a problem, but I don’t think it’s . . . I think it works great.

During my most recent visit, I saw the children using Rigamajig Jr. at schools there. I saw a quantity of parts that was so much greater than I’ve ever seen in any one school, so that was really fun. And I had a funny moment where when I was saying, “Oh, I’m so excited to see it.” I was talking to Ms. Cheng the night before I went to the school. I said, “How’s it going? I haven’t heard. What are they doing with it? How is it? What are they . . .? How’s it going?” And she said, “Well, they aren’t staying together. The children make things, and then the things they made fall apart.” And I assumed . . . we had had . . . It took us a couple rounds with the kit that we sell in the US to get the right kind of plastic and to get the threads to kind of stick. The nuts and bolts were coming unscrewed for one round of manufacturing, and then we fixed it and now they’re great, but so I assumed it was that.

And when I went to the school the next day, that wasn’t the problem at all. The problem was that the kids were building these giant structures that didn’t have any cross braces, so they were collapsing. They were just folding on themselves. I said to myself—I was with Sophie [Ms. Cheng’s daughter], actually—I said, “Oh, well, the problem is, it just needs a cross brace.”

And I said, “So, maybe we could show a child a truss, or point to a bridge.” Sophie said, “Well, just show them.” And I responded, “But that’s cheating. I can’t just show them,” you know? She said, “No, just show them.” I said, “No, I can’t. No, Ms. Cheng would kill me. . . You can’t. You don’t do that.” And Sophie was like, “Well, just go over and maybe just, like, do it with one of them.” I was like, “Okay,” so we talked.

I was like, “Okay, I’ll go and one of the . . . I’ll ask the children how it’s going, and then one of them will inevitably tell me, like, ‘Why does it keep falling?’ and then I’ll do it with them.” So I sat down with one of them and I said, “Oh, what if we put this like this?” And I made a point of using a straight plank but also a curved one, so they could see that it wasn’t that this piece fixed it, but that something that does this kind of support . . .

And then I said something like, “Oh, and then let’s use one of the curvy S-hook things to do it,” so again, so that they’re seeing it’s not that it’s that piece. It’s that something that supports it, like . . . And instantly, it caught on like wildfire. Within 10 minutes, every structure . . . And there were a lot of structures in this school’s kind of foyer courtyard area . . . All of them were so stable. They had all been fixed.

When Ms. Cheng came in and saw all of them, she was like, “Oh, it’s fixed.” And I asked her, too, “Isn’t this kind of cheating? Aren’t we supposed to let them figure out how to do it?” She responded, “No, we need these things to stand up.” “All right.” Technical director; I’m still not creative directing anything.

In my mind, Anji Play is the ideal. And so it’s set the bar really high, and of what I try to get all of my partners and collaborators to aim for and expect and be brave. It helps me to be brave. It helps me to help others be brave in advocating for, if not demanding, that children be able to . . . that children be trusted and that play be honored. Outside of Anji Play setting a standard of play and creativity and collaboration and that love can be central to our goals, the other thing that I think about and come back to is the idea central Anji Play, that we don’t know the extent of our own capacities and we don’t know the extent of the capacities of the child.

The first time that I began to understand how Anji Play approaches knowledge and understanding differently was in a play sharing moment. I don’t often have an interpreter for those, but at one point I was sitting next to Yuan Qing when the teacher was speaking with one of the students. I assumed she was saying something like, “Do you recognize that you learned about ramps?” or something, or “See what you did here?” From being familiar with Reggio and with Montessori and just constructivist learning in general, expecting the teacher to be marking and naming the learning by saying things like, “Here’s what you learned. This is called an inclined plane.”

So I assumed that in the play sharing, that was what was happening. And Qing said, “No, no, no. It’s more like she’s asking, ‘What were you curious about?’” And that was, for me, a big “aha” moment, when I realized that it wasn’t about “What did you learn?” but “What were you curious about?” And the emphasis on curiosity and exploration and the intrinsic motivation of the child, rather than, “Did you obtain this thing we want you to obtain, that we know about and we value? Did you succeed in doing what we wanted you to do?” So the shift of “What were you curious about?” from “What did you learn?” is a monumental difference in the underlying values and goals of the approach. But I am still understanding Anji Play with more and more depth, and may ultimately find out that even that understanding isn’t totally accurate.

On that first trip to Anji, we all wound up in the mountains, kind of trying to make a plan for how we would get it out. How we would get Anji Play to the world, what it would look like in the US. At that point I was really excited about the idea that the context was so important. So, unlike Montessori, where the materials are the materials anywhere they go, in Anji Play, the model requires that the materials change with context. So, for example, a beautiful bamboo basket, which is common and costs nothing in Anji, would be really kind of precious in the US, so we might need to use milk crates.

So there would be a context-specific version of each of those materials, so I remember my excitement in thinking about what that meant. And then, of course, just seeing everything. It was my first trip there, and I like to have some grounding goal for myself when I go somewhere. Most of my photos from the first trip, a lot of them are of the children playing with the materials, but a lot of them are just the materials themselves. I think, at that point, I did have a sense that that would be something I’d be working on, so I was trying to catalog everything I saw, and how it was stored, all the different versions of it, kind of how it was used. I still feel that excitement each time I go back, but on that first trip I was definitely was so blown away. And excited. I felt really, really honored to be working with that team and be part of those conversations.

So now I have two relationships with Anji Play. I have a relationship with Anji Play and the efforts to bring it to the world and to talk about it and show it to people, and I do so from a materials perspective and a design perspective at conferences and in talks and interviews and things like that. But the other part is the relationship with Ms. Cheng and Mr. Qiu and the materials and the design, and getting to be a little bit involved in things in China, like the exhibit, which I just saw pictures of the other day. That was a crazy . . . Where we had two days to try to design, get designing. And in retrospect, I remember all of us in that space, like, “Wait, what? What’s happening?” It’s raining, and it was you and Chris Moffett and me and Chelsea, and then, yeah, we designed it at the breakfast table in the hotel, and designed it in the conference room. Wherever we were, sketching things that we gave to somebody, your contact, who then took it and made it happen . . . And so with all of this, I of course always want to continue doing the work with the materials that we started, that I feel like that we have only just finished phase one of 10 phases.

And so I’m always excited and ready, when the time is right, to go do another round of that, because those are the materials that we now have in the US.

And it’s funny, when I’m speaking to American audiences, they just, it’s so, almost, shocking, which doesn’t seem like the right word, but I don’t know what else to use. They have so many questions, just around how this practice and approach work, that I don’t feel qualified to answer. I don’t feel comfortable answering, so I’ll always . . . I have kind of a disclaimer about my role . . . and I also don’t understand China enough to explain why this works there, other than that some people have decided that this is the right way, and so it’s happening and it’s growing and it’s working.

And all of these questions about, why is it working, or how is it working? Because the people that I’m talking to, at least, often they recognize that Anji Play is the ideal. But they have also given up on or forgotten how to try, but mostly . . . “Giving up” isn’t the right word, because it’s not like they are quitting. It’s really . . . we continue trying to get close, but for so many people it just doesn’t seem feasible to give children ladders and let them jump off of a 10-foot stump. So people wonder, what is the climate? What is the climate around play, around learning, around parenting, that has made this possible? So there’s a lot that I can’t speak to, but everyone that I’ve introduced thinks it’s incredible. I don’t get a lot of pushback, things like, “Oh, that’s dangerous,” which is a testament to who my audience is. When I initially introduced Rigamajig, I got that pushback, so I’m not in those audiences as often, which were more mainstream educational trade fair and conference audiences.

When we see something new in general—this is maybe human nature—when we see something new and we’re trying to make sense of it, we make assumptions that make it understandable, based on what we know.

So, for example, people assume that the teachers set up the paths and courses, or that the teachers tell the children how to do it, or they assume that the cleanup is a pain. So when I’m showing videos or photos I have taken in Anji, I’ve learned what details people are going to assume. For instance, someone might respond to an image of a child’s construction in Anji and say, “Wait, that’s amazing, but obviously the teachers set it up,” you know? Or they might say, “Oh, but obviously the cleanup takes forever and is a pain,” because it’s hard for people to believe . . . It’s too good to be true. When they see children engaged in risky play, they assume, “Well, sure, but obviously they don’t care about their kids in rural China.”

So, I’ve learned which details people will assume, so that I can make a point of saying, “Here’s what I mean by ‘completely child-determined.’ Here’s what I mean by ‘it gets cleaned up at the end.’” “Cleaned up” means put away, and is part of their routine and relationship to their environment and each other, so I’ll show a section of what cleanup looks like, and we see and hear children laughing and helping each other, and three kids carrying one thing. And then someone will say, “No, but what about the giant cube?” And I will pull up a video of five children moving it 100 feet to put it away. So I love watching people’s minds be blown by what they see in Anji. Because you have to ask yourself why you would ever assume children couldn’t do this in the first place, and then they see these images, and it’s a mind-blowing experience for them.

But when you’re tirelessly working to get something into the mainstream or to make something normalized, often it becomes sort of normalized. There is often . . . we were calling it sloppy eclecticism. Which is, again . . . and I think we were all aware that that is a problematic term, because there’s always context. There are different factors and conditions that make something feasible in any one context. But regardless of that, or maybe because of it, there is something so pure and inarguably true about what’s right about Anji Play. I use the terms “pure,” “true,” and “right” to mean that the experience and the value of play is inarguable, that the experience of the child is central. That is always present. So it is pure, and it is new. So, at the beginning of a revolution, we are all thinking about how to keep this purity intact as it grows and spreads over time in these different contexts. 

And because the principles of Anji Play and the values of Anji Play are so central to the model, my hope is that it will be harder for its practice to stray from those principles and values as it spreads and grows. People have seen the thing that they’re passionate about become a product or become mainstreamed in a way that loses its authenticity and its potential for effecting deep change. 

I often relate Anji Play to my work in design and industrial design. As a design professor, I think of learning and my work with my students in a similar way. For example, I don’t teach them Photoshop or Illustrator. I teach them how to learn a software. Because for one thing, software changes really quickly, so, every year, anything I teach them would be unusable. So instead we teach them to embrace, or help them navigate the logic of any one software, so then they can learn any other software.

And not just only because it changes quickly, but because this kind of learning lends itself to any number of things that they might approach. That’s pretty common, that one would learn how to learn, rather than learning a specific task or skill. But in design in general, we try to approach most things that way, so what’s brilliant about Anji Play is that in its values or in what its values . . . The values don’t necessarily describe what it looks like, right?

And so how the materials that are used to facilitate true play will be whatever they need to be in any time and place. Ms. Cheng, through years of trial and error . . . and I think that we have an idea that the materials we have are really great for now. I think that there’s a version of, there’s a way of experimenting with and learning electronics, and building that involves electricity, that would be an Anji Play method for learning it. How to learn cooking with Anji Play. So it’s not “Use these blocks and it is Anji Play.”

But I think that inherent in its bones is an importance and a respect for context. When we were traveling around Anji, we visited a school in Langcun, where the children and families came from a local ethnic minority group. It rightfully had really different materials than the ones that we saw that were in Dipu, because they had a different meaning to the children.

And so it’s the bamboo basket or the milk crate question. It’s not about the material. It’s about things that you pull from your environment to use, to explore and to play and to build and to effect your . . . have an impact on the space you occupy in the world. A way of working with and communicating with your peers through making things and playing.

Cas Holman: Rigamajig and Anji Play materials playing together.

Cas Holman: Rigamajig and Anji Play materials playing together.


Krystina Tapia

Director of Global Teacher Preparation, Anji Childhood Education Research Center

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Dates of visits to Anji: October 2016, April 2017, September–October 2017, April 2018, November 2018, May 2019

Interview conducted on January 31, 2019

Jesse Coffino: If you think about how many people have visited Anji—and I was talking to Carissa about this—there is a second layer of people that have seen Ms. Cheng speak, or who have interacted with the materials, who have really gotten into it. Many of them have had similar experiences in some way. It has been interesting to speak to them. But we have this first group of people who have visited Anji, and you’re one of them.

Krystina Tapia: Yay.

Jesse Coffino: In your time in Anji and thinking about Anji Play, it has spread more widely. How that experience has developed, what you’ve experienced, obviously a lot of that is your own firsthand experience. A lot of that’s what you’ve heard people say about it.

Reading things that I have interpreted or translated, and, as you know, reflecting on play memories is a part of that story, about how it’s taken shape. We don’t know how it was exactly done in Anji back when this started.

Krystina Tapia: Yeah.

Jesse Coffino: But I’m wondering, when you talk to people about Anji Play or about true play or just play in general, do you ever ask people about their memories of play? How does it come up?

Krystina Tapia: I occasionally do, and when I do, the experience is really, it’s really deep for them, because it’s not often that people ask you to reminisce about . . . what’s usually a really joyous time in your life. 

My fondest memories of childhood involve playing in my grandparents’ backyard. My grandparents were a huge part of my life in the early years, well, and still continue to be. I didn’t go to preschool, actually, and so they would take care of me. They had this amazing backyard that had a bunch of fruit trees, and my cousins were there with me and my brothers. We would often just spend the afternoon, or the morning, in their backyard, doing whatever we wanted.

I remember there was this show called Star Search on TV, and my cousins and I really liked to pretend that we were going to be chosen to be on it. We’d create these elaborate dance routines in my grandparents’ backyard. We’d pull out benches to create stages, and whatever laundry was on the clothesline, we would take off, and we would turn it into our costumes. I just remember it being a really joyous time, where we made our own choreography and were singing and dancing. It was really this uninterrupted time that we had together. 

And it wasn’t that we were trying to copy any of the routines that we had seen on TV, but it was really this idea that we could create something on our own that could be performed for others, even though we didn’t perform it for anyone. It was more for ourselves. Our interest was sparked and motivated us to spend hours outside, perfecting our routines. It still is one of my fondest memories.

My husband Matt also shared a lot of his memories of when he was younger with me. His mom ran a day care, and so many of his play memories involve sharing, which he’s not super fond of, to this day, because he was forced to share all his stuff with other children, and they would often break things or ruin something he had created.

The memories that he does recall fondly involve him and his friends riding their bikes and going out exploring. There was this rope swing that they created underneath a bridge. It was exciting, he said, because he never knew if, when they got back, whether the rope swing would still be there, or whether it had been confiscated.

It was kind of hidden, so most of the time it was still there, and then they enjoyed the thrill of being able to use it. The rope swing was way more dangerous than what a lot of people would let children play with today, but he clearly remembers the thrill of having it and being able to enjoy it with his friends. 

I became interested in early childhood education . . . I can say, when I was in kindergarten. They would have these prompts, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” In my mind, I thought I wanted to be a teacher. I looked around and everyone, all the girls had pictures of them being teachers, and I thought, oh, I didn’t want to be like everyone else. So I drew a picture of a construction worker, because it was completely different than everyone else. I always think back to that, because being a teacher was deeply in my heart, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do, but I also just didn’t want to be like everyone else. I rebelled at that early age of five, and said, “That’s not what I want to do.”

I remember, in elementary and maybe middle school, creating classrooms for my brothers to attend. I would be the teacher, teaching them, I don’t even remember what, but I remember being in the teacher position. Then, when I went off to college, I tried out different things, but was always drawn back to teaching.

When I was in college, I did an applied developmental psychology minor, which had placement in preschools. I was in an infant/toddler classroom. It was then that I knew that’s exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to work with young children in a school setting.

A lot of me wanting to be a teacher also had to do with growing up in the Hispanic culture, where children are mostly supposed to be seen and not heard. I felt like my feelings and voice weren’t heard as often as I wanted it to be, and I wanted to make sure to give children the opportunity to have a safe space where they could have their views really heard by someone. Even if it wasn’t one of their parents, they still had that person that would listen to them. I wanted that to be a part of who I was as a teacher, and how I could support young children in their growth.

I feel really lucky because, in undergraduate and graduate school, I was able to work at lab schools. They were play-based and child-led. It was always “the children come first.” I feel like that provided a really great foundation for my future teaching.

Not all my placements were like that, though. I also student-taught in a kindergarten and first grade classroom. The first grade classroom, that was really interesting, because it was at a public school, so the teacher still followed the public school curriculum, but she did it by really drawing on children’s experiences, and what their interests were.

For example, there was a social studies unit on community. The class would go and visit construction sites that were nearby, that the children would pass by every day on their way to school. The children would ask the workers questions or just observe and document what they were seeing. Then they would come back into the classroom and they would draw pictures and write words about what they saw.

Those drawings and words were put together to form books. Those books became the foundation of their learning. They would learn how to read and they would learn to write through creating these books about their lived experiences. It wasn’t this thing that was so disconnected from what they were interested in and experiencing daily. 

That mentor teacher really inspired me, because it showed me that, even though she’s in this public school environment, there are ways to still honor children’s ideas and honor their interests, and really make that the foundation of what their learning is. While I didn’t go on to teach elementary school, it was great to see that there was this possibility of blending academics and children’s interests in this really amazing way.

Jesse Coffino: We talk about, one of the things I was talking to, maybe it was Amy Kaiser about, is that, in Anji, just how beautiful those transitions are, between moments. Then thinking about transitions from early education to elementary education, you’re talking about this really beautiful transition, and then you’re transitioning, right? You’re transitioning in these placements . . . So where did you go after that?

Krystina Tapia: After I graduated, I started working for an early childhood program attached to a major tech company in the Bay Area, which was mostly child-centered and play-based. In my time there, I felt fortunate to be able to have a lot of freedom to explore and discover things on my own as a teacher, to work with parents and collaborate with colleagues.

There were many amazing professional development opportunities. One in particular stands out. My manager at the time, she sent out an email to all of the teachers. It was about this talk at Mills College about something called Anji Play, and the first teachers to respond to the email would be able to go. 

I didn’t know what Anji Play was, but I thought it looked really interesting, based on the flyer and descriptions. I thought, “Hey, I want to go.” I remember a couple of teachers from our school went, one of my friends, Teresa, and another teacher named Ashlee. We were all really excited.

We were part of an outdoor committee at our school, so we were really committed to looking at the outdoor spaces at our school and making sure they had really awesome potential for children to explore and play. So this talk seemed really in line with our role in the school community.

When we went to the talk, I remember sitting there and watching Ms. Cheng speak, and seeing all the photos and videos. I had my laptop, and I couldn’t keep up. I wanted to make sure that I captured everything she was saying, because it resonated so much with me. I remember thinking, “I don’t even know how to capture what’s present in all these images. There’s just so many materials and so many rich experiences happening.” I remember thinking “I don’t even know how to convey this to other teachers who aren’t here with me.”

I remember feeling that this is something really special. This is something that I want to learn more about. I remember, Ms. Cheng talked about documentation and taking photos and videos and doing play sharing. I thought that this was really interesting. 

I don’t know if it was that week or in the following weeks, I decided to station myself in this great block space in our outdoor area of our school. I took videos of the children playing in this space. My idea was that I was going to show them back to the children, and see what happened.

I took a five-minute video that I thought was super cool. The children were building all these amazing structures, and there was lots of action happening. I couldn’t even keep up with it all. I was really excited, and I wondered what the children would say about the video. 

I don’t remember if it was that day or the next day, I showed the video to the children. It was just on a tiny laptop screen because we didn’t have something set up to do a more formal play sharing. I just pushed “play,” and all the children were immediately entranced by this video.

They all stopped talking, and all their focus was on this video. Once the video was over, I said, “Does anyone want to talk about what was happening?” A few children went up and shared. It was the children that you saw in the video. They were explaining what they were doing. I don’t even remember the details of the game.

When the children in the video had finished saying their piece, I thought the sharing was over. But then this other child raises his hand and starts talking, too. I said, “Wait a second. I didn’t see you in the video. I didn’t see that you were involved in this game.” He says, “Oh, actually I was, but you weren’t videotaping where I was. You didn’t have a video of what I was doing. I was actually on the other side of the playground.”

I said, “Wait, what?” He says, “Yeah, that was just part of the game. The other part of the game was way over here.” Then he explained this intricate rule, and the game that they were playing. It actually involved almost the entire class. As a teacher, I just saw this tiny interaction happening in the block area. I thought it was an isolated instance of play, but it was a lot more than that. 

Through hearing the children speak, I learned it was actually this really complicated game that they had been playing for I don’t know how many weeks. I had no idea this was going on. The only reason I knew was because this kid that wasn’t even in the video was brave and took a chance, and said, “Oh, actually, let me tell you about what I was doing.” 

From that day on I kept thinking about what else I didn’t see or know about. I remember, around that time, really starting to change my view of how we were using our time in the classroom.

We had meeting times for children, that were supposed to be used for discussions or group conversations or to talk about whatever we needed to talk about that day. I remember them being teacher-led most of the time. I also remember, me and my co-teachers would spend time negotiating with each other about who would lead the meeting, because none of us really wanted to lead. I remember starting to feel uncomfortable and having this gut reaction of not wanting to facilitate these meetings anymore. I remember reflecting on this and also how much the children enjoyed sharing their play experiences about something that I had no clue was happening in my classroom. As a teacher, my thinking started to shift, and I began to realize that there had to be a different way of teaching and a different school experience that we could be providing for these children. 

Jesse Coffino: It’s so beautiful when I think about, with all the interviews I’ve done so far, there’s kind of like this “before Anji Play” and “after Anji Play.” As I was saying earlier, it doesn’t have to be somebody who’s been to Anji. 

A lot of people, when they see these things, they hear these words, they immediately go out and make a change. They change something that’s going on, or they go back to something that they knew or they had. They rethink what they’re doing. They make this change.

Krystina Tapia: I was part of this outdoor committee that worked on the outdoor spaces in our preschool yard. I remember a conversation when another teacher said that children were not allowed to throw rocks or bricks. I don’t remember the exact material.

She said, “The children shouldn’t be allowed to throw rocks.” I said, “Well, I agree that they shouldn’t throw them if anyone’s nearby, but what if no one’s in that space? Why does it matter if they’re throwing them then?” “Because it’s dangerous.” “But how? There’s nobody there to get hurt. I don’t understand.”

Before Anji Play I might have agreed with the blanket statement of throwing rocks being dangerous. But after learning about Anji Play and seeing children as being so capable and my really understanding that what they’re doing is serving a purpose, and that they’re learning, it really made me rethink things.

It definitely put me at odds with some of the teachers that I was working with, because I had started to change the way I was thinking about working with young children. I became the one that was the rebel, that let children throw rocks.

Ms. Cheng spoke at Mills again, and then she toured my school and spoke to a really small group of teachers. One thing stands out which I think is really funny. We had sewing machines in our classroom, and Ms. Cheng said, “Those are really dangerous.” I started laughing to myself, because at her schools, children are jumping off of these really high structures, but the sewing machines in my classroom are dangerous? I mean, she probably didn’t know that I had done research, and they were the most slow-moving sewing machines available, and the children had lots of experience with them. I later learned that Ms. Cheng thought that there were elements in the sewing machines that could be beyond the child’s control, which makes sense considering that safety is her default and bottom line.

However, in that moment it was funny to see what her view of danger was, versus my view of danger, and how they were different but ultimately had similar considerations of safety for the child. After this visit from Ms. Cheng, I continued to be moved, but didn’t really know what to do with this information that I was learning. 

At that point, I was ready for a change, so I switched schools. The school I switched to was problematic for many different reasons, and it came with a whole different set of challenges. It was a lot more academically focused than I was comfortable with and didn’t fit my teaching style or beliefs about young children. One good thing that came out of that experience, though, was that it gave me an opportunity to go to Anji. The first study tour happened to be when we had a teacher professional development week that we could use in any way we liked. I let them know that I wanted to visit Anji Play schools in China and they agreed to let me go. 

Before I left for China, I didn’t even know what to expect, truthfully, but I did know that I needed something to motivate me to get through the school year. I needed some hope of something being done differently for young children anywhere in the entire world. I was hoping that Anji Play would be that thing, but I didn’t really realize how big an impact it would have on me until I was there. 

What greets me in China . . . I couldn’t find you guys, and I didn’t know what to do. I was in a country where I don’t speak the language, and I don’t know where the people I’m meeting are, so I was a little freaked out. I tried to speak to people at the airport, but none of them spoke English. Then I called you, was able to figure out where you were, and was greeted by a lovely group of people having dinner. So my anxiety of not speaking the language, and not knowing where everyone was, was immediately eased.

It was a very weird feeling to not speak the language and not have people understand you. I have traveled quite a bit, and I feel like, in general, traveling is not too hard if you speak English. Most countries you go to have some English that they can use to communicate with you. In China, that wasn’t the case. That was an eye-opening experience. I think that was my first sign that things were going to be different, but not necessarily in a bad way. Just in, like, an “oh, something unexpected is definitely brewing here” way.

The person that I connected with most was Carissa. We connected, and I think that we spent most of the trip just talking to each other about how amazing everything was that we were seeing.

I remember the first day at the first school. It was Lilly’s school, Jiguan. I just remember going in, and the children were already out playing, and just this wave of emotion hit me. I went into the corner and I started to cry, and I couldn’t figure out why. I was thinking, “Oh my gosh, why is this hitting me so hard?”

I was kind of embarrassed, because I didn’t really expect to have such a strong reaction at what I was seeing. A few minutes later I got myself back together, and I thought to myself, “Okay, I’ve got to see what’s actually going on. Why did I have such a huge reaction to literally the first 30 seconds I was at this school?”

It was really magical. The entire experience was. I have trouble explaining it. I feel like it’s hard to explain what you see and what you experience when you first get there, besides it just being pure magic and this place where children have the opportunity to do all these amazing things that you didn’t even know were something that you wanted children to experience until you saw it firsthand.

Jesse Coffino: I didn’t expect that to happen to me.

Krystina Tapia: Yeah, me either.

Jesse Coffino: I cried too. I still have feelings of . . . even hearing you talk about it is bringing up emotion for me.

Krystina Tapia: Yeah, and that was very unexpected. Usually I feel like I’m pretty even-tempered, I don’t really experience emotions that strongly within such a short period of time, and so that caught me completely off guard.

It takes over your body, you’re, like, shut down by emotion, and when you wake up, and you’re in this, like this paradise . . .

Jesse Coffino: It’s just this magical place. What are you hearing? What do you see when you open your eyes?

Krystina Tapia: I just remember, especially at Lily’s school [Jiguan Kindergarten], there were all of these magical corners that you would go to on the playgrounds. There was this place that had a bunch of trees, and it was hidden from view at first. There were children playing with blocks and little ladders.

They were the youngest ones; they had scarves and different things. I remember that area. I think that’s where I went over to get away from the group and have my moment. Then going into the courtyard in the middle of the school building, which was another enchanting place where they had a river of water flowing, and children just being so joyful. Having these suits on so they could completely be immersed in the experience without having to worry about whether they were getting wet.

Just all those factors that would cause teachers worry, seem like they were already thought of. The teachers didn’t have to worry about the children getting wet, the children getting hurt. The environment was created exactly for the children, with materials that the children could manipulate, they could use. It was just so incredible.

The spaces were beautiful, and not beautiful because they had an interior designer come. It was because it was all specifically for the children. The children’s work, their drawings, and their photos, were at the forefront of everything. It just really has this huge impact on you when you walk into the space, that it is theirs. You can truly tell that is their space.

So many schools that I’ve been to, people say, “Oh yeah, this is a space for children,” but truthfully, that’s not the feeling that you get when you walk into their school. You think “Oh yeah, there’s a couple of kids’ things here,” but it’s just like a space where it’s too beautiful to touch, almost. You don’t want to mess it up.

The space that I found myself in on that first day of that first visit was so beautiful, and everything was so inviting, that you wanted to explore with the child. I was wishing I had gone to preschool and was able to have that type of experience that they were having.

The biggest take-away from that trip was just the feeling. That’s just so hard to explain. The feeling of knowing that the children had this place that was completely their own, that they were allowed to explore however they wanted. That they were allowed to be themselves, completely as individuals, and it didn’t seem that there was anyone that was making them do things that they didn’t want to do in that exact moment or they weren’t ready to do. There was just such an overwhelming sense of freedom for them.

You can tell the teachers still had a part in it. It wasn’t chaos-freedom, but it was freedom within this amazing environment, that was just so beautiful. You could definitely feel the teachers’ love and presence there at all moments. The teachers were always next to the children, so it wasn’t like it was a free-for-all.

It was these beautiful moments of teachers truly experiencing those interactions, the learning that was happening with the child, instead of them being the people that were saying, “Oh, look over here, look, the flowers are blooming,” or whatever was interesting to the teacher, they were really able to see the world through the child’s point of view.

And it’s at all the schools, which is incredible. For me, coming from a school that was part of a group of four schools, there’s always this talk about consistency, and making sure the children have similar experiences, and how do we do it, and then not doing the greatest job at that.

And then I go to these schools and what you see in each school is exactly what each child needs. It’s not the same experience. It’s not the same exact materials, it’s not the same exact spaces, but what was available to the children was the same. You could feel the commonalities between the places. You could feel the love, you could feel the joy, you can feel all those things that were present.

It made sense for that community. It wasn’t as if it was being forced down upon the school, you know, “you have to do it this way because that’s how all the other schools are doing it,” but really that the schools were allowed to figure out what it meant on their own and have those experiences available for children that were meaningful to those children that were at that school and what made sense for them.

And throughout this experience, this first week for me in Anji, Carissa and I had found each other. We talked about everything that we noticed, from the spaces in the classrooms to the materials that were being used, to the types of interactions that we were seeing, to how we were feeling in those schools.

I can’t remember exact conversations, but there was just an excitement between the two of us. We are thinking, “Oh my gosh, this is the best thing ever,” and wanting to be able to bring that back or that feeling back to the children that we were working with.

And then, when I returned, my work environment was almost the complete opposite. I remember thinking that if I could even bring a tenth of the joy back, that would be so meaningful for the children at my school. And so I went back and tried to figure out ways, during the day, to bring some of that joy in. Definitely the love, too. I remember thinking, if anything, I want to make sure that these children have a sense of joy and know that they’re loved, because that’s something that you can still have even when doing things that you don’t necessarily agree with.

I remember trying to figure out ways to do that, and also trying to figure out ways to give children opportunities to have that more open-ended play and longer periods of play. I remember there were set recess times. 

I remember, me and my co-teacher, one of my co-teachers was really on board with children being able to play. I remember, we would rush through the things that we had to do, so we could give the children extra time outside. Even if it was an extra five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes, anything that we could squeeze into the day, that they had more time to be able to just be free and be able to explore what they wanted to explore, and not have to follow such a strict schedule.

There were materials in the outdoor space at the school. They weren’t necessarily the best materials, but some of them were still open-ended. This one day, the children had made a McDonald’s drive-through out of boxes, complete with a drive-in window. There was a line of tricycles that stretched from the window all the way across the playground, because so many of the children wanted to go to this McDonald’s.

It was so sad, because in the middle of this, of course it was time to go in, and they had to clean up. I thought to myself, “Okay, well, I can keep this experience going by doing play sharing,” and so I shared the photos and videos with them. I asked, “What were you guys doing? Were there any problems that happened?”

The way they responded, it sounded like they were really at a McDonald’s. They said things like, “Yeah, this person wasn’t giving me the water quick enough, and then we were supposed to have chicken nuggets and this other person wasn’t making them.” They were discussing all of these details, all of their understandings, and it was really rewarding to be able to give them that experience.

You could tell that the children were so invested. They were more interested in talking about that than anything that we had been talking about, probably for the past week. It was great to be able to give that to them. And the children that couldn’t have cared less about most of the stuff that we were doing in class on a normal day were actively participating and really wanting to share their ideas about how they could improve their McDonald’s the next time.

I have been to China five times now. The only place I have been is Anji. I went to Shanghai once, for a night, because I got to China a day early and had to wait for people to arrive the next day to go to Anji. I was ready to get to Anji.

I can’t wait to go; I don’t want to leave. It’s my education happy place. I just wish that it were here. I tell people that, ever since I learned about Anji Play, I can’t teach at another school. There’s just no way. After I came back from Anji the first time, it was torture having to go back to a non–Anji Play school every day, knowing what was possible and what the reality of the situation was.

I remember, on my second trip, feeling really anxious, because I wanted to bring this amazingness back to the children that I was working with, but not being able to. I remember people at my school just really clearly not having any idea what I was talking about, or not agreeing . . . it just being a really challenging time.

I remember Intisar [Dr. Intisar Shareef, late Chair of Early Childhood Education, Contra Costa College] was on that second trip. We had a long conversation about it. She finally just gave me this one bit of truth. She said, “Live your truth.” It stuck with me. “You keep doing you. You keep advocating for what you believe in, and eventually, others will notice. That’s what is meant to happen.”

I always think about Intisar when I think about Anji Play, and whenever I’m having any doubts about whether we can have this big of an impact or how we can grow. I think back to what she said, and try to live my truth and hope that the rest will fall into place. The funny thing about that was, at the time, I didn’t realize how much of an impact her advice would have on me, but now it is sometimes the only thing that gets me through the hard parts.

When I finished the school year after the Anji visits, I didn’t continue teaching, but something interesting happened with the teachers that I had worked with. The teachers that I had worked with that were the most opposed to whatever I was saying messaged me, and they said, “You were right.” They said, “What we’re doing is not okay for children. They should have more opportunities to play, and they should have all these experiences that you were talking about. We didn’t see it then, but we see it now.”

That was a really powerful moment because these people that I thought would never change their minds, and were adamant about children having to be taught specific things, had shifted their thinking. Were they now at the level of Anji teachers? Absolutely not, but the fact that they were even open to the ideas that I was sharing, and the fact that they were even thinking about this different viewpoint, was amazing. 

My next trip, I was able to be in Anji for two months, which was an incredible experience. The feeling that I always go back to from that trip is love. I felt such an overwhelming feeling of love the entire time I was there. Small experiences with the children, like them adamantly trying to communicate with me in Chinese, even though I had no clue what they were saying. Some of them tricked me into saying bad words in Chinese because I had no idea what they were saying.

There’s a total trust that the teachers had with me, a foreigner coming into their classroom. When they needed something, they would use gestures to communicate when an interpreter wasn’t nearby. They would ask for things like, “Can you take them to the bathroom? Can you help us out?” They were totally trusting in me and in my abilities to help them through it and take the children to wherever they needed to go.

And the cooks in the school cafeteria, they made me special lunches, because they would say that they had made something that a foreigner would like, or the meal would be too difficult to eat with chopsticks. 

The love that was present at the school, with these little three-year olds that had never been to school before, let alone a school as big as the one that they were at. They were on the third floor; they had to climb up many sets of stairs to get to their classroom and figure out, once they got there, where their classroom was. I remember, so many days, a teacher from the second floor coming upstairs with one of the children from our class and happily dropping them off in the classroom.

There wasn’t blame or shame in the child not being in the classroom with you. There was this sense of community. It was never, “You’re not where you’re supposed to be,” but it was this community that allowed children to be exactly where they wanted to be, needed to be, or allowed them to get lost, so that they could learn where they were going, where they were supposed to be in the future. Without judgment and without fear of someone getting in trouble (the child, or the teacher that lost them). It was just this sense of love throughout the entire school day, throughout the entire school. The relationship between the people there was incredible and so powerful.

The parents, too. One mom studied English at university, and she says to me, “Finally I have someone to practice with.” She would take me to visit her parents in rural Anji, so I could see what the countryside was like. She would take me out to dinner so that I wouldn’t be alone on weekends. It was just such a magical place, and I feel like it all stemmed from this amazing set of schools that were created, and what they value, and how it’s trickled into the community around them.

When I think about the people doing Anji Play in their schools, I’m so jealous. I think, “You have free rein, you have been given this amazing opportunity, one that I wish I could have had as a teacher.” I feel like I share that with them as much as possible, because I want them to realize how special and how amazing and incredible that opportunity that they’ve been given is.

Without visiting Anji, it’s hard to understand its power and magic. And for me, it has been a really different experience from going to the classroom to working with adults, adult learners. There are lots of similarities. There’s lots of differences, too.

As a teacher I was more open to children being able to share and giving them the time and space. I realize that’s the case when I work with adults. I’ve had to reflect on this a lot. Trying to think about, how do we afford the same opportunities to adults that we give to the children? What does that look like for adults? That’s been a challenge for me, too.

I can spend days talking about Anji Play, but is that going to be meaningful to the people that need to implement this? Is that going to resonate with them? Maybe, but most likely not. Really trying to see where they are and meet them where they are, and trying to figure out ways to communicate that have an impact on them, will probably make more of a difference. But that isn’t always the easiest, and I’m not necessarily the greatest at it, but I keep trying.

It’s really rewarding when you see a teacher go from not understanding to having that light bulb moment where they’re saying, “Oh my gosh, what have I been doing my entire career? I can’t believe I’ve wasted so many years doing things this other way.” That’s really rewarding. Even if we just have one or two teachers experience that, it is so important. Those people are then able to share their experiences with others, and hopefully create more moments like that, too.

And now there are lots of people from my old school that have been drawn to Anji, too. I’ve been able to reconnect with many people through Anji Play. Anji Play unites people. It’s really amazing how people with similar views and values seem to somehow end up in Anji together, or at least talking about Anji Play or wanting to do something with Anji Play.

Krystina Tapia: This captures the love and joy present at Anji Play schools. Joyful and loving principal, teacher, and child!

Krystina Tapia: This captures the love and joy present at Anji Play schools. Joyful and loving principal, teacher, and child!


Dr. Frances Rust

Scholar in Residence, The Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, New York University

Date of visit to Anji: July 2014

Interview conducted on: February 8, 2019

Frances Rust: I was there with Chelsea and Peter when we discovered Ms. Cheng. I always tell people how she asked teachers what they remembered about their own play, and then went and created her approach, and her philosophy, and the materials based in Anji, by drawing on those shared stories and recollections.

As for myself, I was very ill as a child and spent a lot of time in the hospital. There were a couple things I remember. I don’t know if you’d think about them as play, but they were very formative for me. I was in the Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. They didn’t have a children’s ward. I think that was important to the way I was treated. I was a really cute little kid and the only one in that part of the hospital. I was five or six years old. I was like a little mascot. The nurses and doctors would do things like, they would take me into the nursery, they would put a mask over my mouth and nose, and they would let me put the dots on the chart to show the baby’s temperature.

Imagine. Imagine. It couldn’t happen now. It couldn’t. Middle of the night, the night nurses would have lunch, they would bring me into the kitchen in the middle of the night, we’d sit up and I would hear jokes and sort of be part of the “family” . . . 

Then the other thing was that there was a friend of my mother’s who put together this bag of toys or things for me to do. If I ate, I could take something out of the bag. I had these things from the bag to look forward to. 

The last play memory from that time had to do with my mother, who was a widow. She had a very serious beau at this point. He bought me a doll that was almost as big as me. At the hospital, they gave me a little bassinet beside my bed and let me put the doll in there. It wasn’t play in the normal sense, but it was like having the autonomy to make something of the time I had. I never was unhappy about being there.

Jesse Coffino: The thread that I’ve picked up on, and something that, to me, sounds to be in common among these memories, is the sense of love. If you were loved, you felt safe. From teachers and from people in education, they talk about the value of adults taking children seriously.

I’m hearing this, “Oh, I could mark that chart.” Or, “I was hearing their jokes.” Then, with the bassinet, I hear the sense of, you had a responsibility, and I see my daughter with her stuffed bunny, and bunny is an imaginary animal, an my daughter knows she’s imaginary. But it’s the  bunny she’s taking care of . . . she enjoys it and it seems uninterrupted.

Frances Rust: It often makes me think that as teachers—this is what I try and get my students to think about—our work involves finding a way to make each kid feel special. It’s one of the reasons I think that teaching online is so difficult, because that sense of that communication is so hard to achieve.

So, in 2014, I was asked to come to China and do a presentation about play. I called Chelsea and I said, “I’m not doing this unless you come.” She said, “No, Frances, I’ve had enough.” I said, “No, not doing it unless you come.” The people who asked me to come knew her. Okay. Then I said, “There is a guy at WestEd.” Ron Lally. God, I think he’s like genius. I had seen him do a presentation at NAEYC on assessment, and the way he got teachers to buy into the HighScope assessment, genius. So I said, “We’re going to go.” 

Ron at that point was quite ill, so Peter Mangione stepped in instead. We prepared. We did these transcontinental conversations, we put together PowerPoints, I can show you the whole thing. We get there, the guy who’d invited us takes us around to see various places, and you’re, like, nauseous. It’s teachers doing all this stuff.

Then we get to Anji. Ms. Cheng takes us out to this village where they grow bamboo and white tea. We see this amazing school where the kids are walking on barrels turned sideways, in clogs, no less! Climbing trees, hanging upside down on spindly branches. They were walking across the ropes between trees and stuff, and so happy. Oh my god, I was in heaven.

Then, after that little village experience, we gave our talk, and I said, “Why are we giving the talk? Ms. Cheng ought to be up here.” It was in one of those big proletariat halls where there were, like, 400 people, and they were so attentive, but I’m saying to myself and to Chelsea and Peter, “What we are saying is boring. This is awful. What are we doing up here on the stage when the genius is sitting here in the audience?”

The next day, she took us to a much bigger school. There were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of bricks that the kids just laid out on the tarmac or built up with; there were the barrels—the works, the whole thing that we’d seen at the little school. One little girl had broken her arm or her wrist. When I asked, her mom said, “No problem, kids get hurt.” To me, this was not the China that I knew and had experienced. 

Chelsea and Peter just worked constantly from then on to find a way to make Ms. Cheng known. She came once to an NAEYC meeting, in Texas, and I got the president of NAEYC and all to meet her, but they couldn’t “get it.” They couldn’t understand its importance. 

And I remember her being asked, during her first talk in New York, at Bank Street, how she got the local educational authority to back her up, and she said, “I’m the government.” She’s in a unique position. And while she could have used her position to tell people what to do, instead, she engaged them in thinking about what it could be like.

I have a doctoral student who is studying, I won’t tell you the city that she’s working in, but she’s studying the way a mandate in special ed has unfolded. One of the things that’s fascinating is, there is this moment in this process where the office of special education sends out two directives. One is that, when the mentors visit the schools, they need to write a log with the teachers with whom they are meeting. This means that nobody lies about what happened. The other piece is that, I think it’s once every other week, the mentors must come together, they will come together and talk about their work in the schools. 

Well, you can imagine, at the very beginning, everybody is saying, “Oh my god, this is more paperwork, we’re never . . . and more meetings, and we’re going to hate it.” Well, they love it, in part because they’re in charge of what gets written down. There’s not a rubric there. To the meetings, they’re bringing actual, honest to god, issues that they’re facing out there in the schools. What happened was, they started accepting this mandate to push special ed to come under greater local control, and they’re informing the district and reshaping its way of dealing with the schools.

Then a new superintendent comes in, and he says, “I don’t like special ed.” All of this goes away. The buy-in goes away. That is one of the things that, over time, I saw in my own dissertation: leadership is critical, but leadership has to enable people to buy into the vision. Without that, you can kiss it goodbye. Everybody’s used to mandates from above, and they will subvert in every way they can because it’s not theirs. 

In my mind, that is part of Ms. Cheng’s genius, that she has invited them to tell her what made Anji Play look different, their own deeply held experiences of play. Entering those schools in Anji felt to me like the schools I started. My schools were for children ranging in age from three to six—all in the same class.

For two of the three hours, my kids were making decisions about their time. I really had developed this from my knowledge of Montessori’s work and a breadth of ideas from the British Infant School and others—all ways of thinking about creating the classroom as a play space. I just set it up so that children could really play and then go outside and play too. There was no plastic in the equipment we had outside. It was aluminum, but light, so, you know, you could set up the climbing apparatus any way you wanted. I had a zip line in the woods, but it wasn’t at a school. It was at a local synagogue that was in the woods.

So when I get to Anji, it felt completely familiar. Montessori’s notion of creating the environment for what you want to have happen was alive and well there. Enabling children to take responsibility for their time and the teacher to be an observer. I am convinced that the engineers and architects and scientists of China are going to be coming from this place, from Anji. 

This was not my first trip to China. I had set up a kindergarten program with Chelsea. This is how I knew China. I had set up with Chelsea . . . a family from Hong Kong approached me at University of Pennsylvania and asked me to set up a kindergarten in Tianjin, at Tianjin University. They wanted to develop this first one and then develop a hundred all over the country, like a franchise. I said, “This is not a good idea,” particularly when I went to see it. 

I also have photos from our trips there. The rooms were set up . . . first of all, they would take a small room, put 15 kids in it. They’d have another room next door where the kids could sleep. Everything was done in this one small room, and even though they set up areas, nobody ever used those areas. The teachers handed out everything.

I was full of admiration for the teachers. Three hours a day, they’re “on,” and somebody’s serving the kids and toileting them, and then the kids sleep, and then they have another hour or so, and then the kids go home. Everybody’s doing the same thing. You give them a bucket of, I don’t know, pattern blocks, and everybody will get six, and you build with your own six. You don’t build together. 

Chelsea and I changed that . . . We repainted all the rooms, we got new furniture. She can tell you about this. Chelsea wrote curriculum. The thing that was fascinating to me was the work of a colleague of ours, that we’d known from NYU, who didn’t speak a word of Chinese, who came to implement the curriculum in the kindergarten: Michele Reich. Michele did amazing stuff, amazing, and what the kids did in science and math was amazing, but the whole infrastructure was pushing against what we did. When I came in June or May to see the very end of it, I saw some of the same things I’d seen when we first came to visit the school: In March, when we’d got the new furniture finally in the room, don’t you know, trash is starting to appear on the shelves, because, as one teacher said to me, there ought to be something on a shelf.

The kids loved the new space and the teachers joining them on the floor in play. I’d never seen Chinese teachers really sit on the floor and watch what children were doing and be part of it. I could say to them things like, “If you’re halfway nice, kids do want to be with you. Don’t feel like you’re losing control. Just sit on the floor with them, they’ll do whatever it is you ask them to do.” It was remarkable for Chelsea and me to see the changes. 

I am so admiring of Chelsea. We would work on the curriculum, but she would just write, write, write, write, and get everything organized. I was like, “I have a job and it isn’t writing curriculum.” Anyway, we finally put that to bed, but it was years. Really, it was years out of her life. 

Anyhow, I’d seen enough of China to know that what I was seeing in Anji was almost like a secret. It was, like, so beneath the radar that you wondered whether you should tell anybody about it, because it was so good. I know there was a professor who came from East China Normal and saw it, and he started to cry because he recognized what he was seeing. He was a very old guy. But I know there were other people who came from other universities, and also from East China Normal, who were like, “What is this?”

I think, in many ways, what’s happened in Anji coheres with Montessori and the notion of preparing the environment so as to enable children to develop autonomy. I have been in Tianjin, I saw kids doing the typical stuff of getting in each other’s way, grabbing stuff. In a way, getting little bits of attention for each other, but this is the only way they knew to get it, and it was always sub rosa so that the teacher didn’t see it. 

What I saw in Anji Play is what I experienced in my own schools. I never had discipline problems. Children were making choices. I was never saying no to them. The environment was shaping what they would go on to next, and, as I told you, Montessori’s notion of those cycles of learning was at work. 

The cycle of “work,” according to Montessori, goes like this: They begin the day with familiar activities, work through false fatigue, then their real work of the day begins. Nobody was getting in the way of their doing that cycle. They were making choices about what they were working with. In the second part of the day (the “real” work time), the three- and four-year-olds would be in the block corner. People would say to me, “Don’t you limit the number of kids?” The kids never were that many in the block corner. There’s too much else going on in the room. Too many other things that you want to see and do, or that you’re deep into, but when you’re there, deep into, and you’re working with other people, it’s not always that you’re working alone. That’s possible, but not likely. The choice of task determines what you do. 

To me, Anji Play coheres with Montessori. It also coheres with Dewey’s and Kilpatrick’s notion of project-based learning, although I don’t think it’s what Kilpatrick wrote about. I think it’s much more the Deweyan notion of the good teacher. Dewey talks about the good teacher being somebody who apprehends the “soul life” of the classroom. To paraphrase, he says, “You can teach people to do discipline, you can teach them to do content, but not this piece of getting how people are relating to each other. They have to learn to be in the moment.” And with these environments I saw in Anji, there is no ceiling. There is no limit to what can be known and done in them.

Jesse Coffino: With Montessori, there’s a more embedded outcome in material. How would you see the relationship between those two conceptions of materials?

Frances Rust: I think that most Montessorians limit themselves to the way Maria designed the material, but times change, and other materials encourage and support the learning of similar concepts. Take, for example, the golden beads. They were too expensive for me to buy, so I used Cuisenaire rods. Later, I used, they were Dienes blocks. You might know Dienes blocks, but to me, they are not as satisfying as Cuisenaire rods, which look beautiful and which felt so good to handle. Both were basically using Montessori’s approach to math. I think Montessori’s math stuff is genius.

One of the things that I understood almost immediately when working with kids was that there were some basic concepts you want to get across to them. Then you let them go. They can do incredible stuff. For example, you take a piece of equipment like the red and blue rods. As you hand them to a child, or have the child pick each one up, they get a physical as well as cognitive understanding of long and short. The “one” rod fits between your hands easily. Your whole body knows that “10” is the longer one because your hands and arms have to stretch to hold it. Then, if you set all the rods down on the floor—I mean, after you’ve named this “one “and “10,” or one, two, three, the whole thing—and then you put the numbers beside the whole thing, the child has the sense of 10 being bigger than one, etc. 

Okay, that’s a framework within which to function, but what if you set them down as a maze or a spiral? Starting with the smallest one in the middle. Then the kids start to think about, “All right, what comes next?” without you saying, “This is sequencing.” What if you found the middle of each rod and made a pinwheel? You don’t find those in any of the Montessori books, but I have watched kids doing this. The mathematics was built into it, and they’re developing it. I think it was just getting going here.

Every program I’ve ever created for teachers’ professional development grew out of my Montessori training. The notion of looking at what you’re doing, keeping track of what you’re doing, seeing what the impact is. Inquiry is built into everything that I do. All of my teacher ed programs have had inquiry at the core. The notion that I often talk about with my students, and now with the teachers that I’m working with in Brooklyn, is, we’re getting better at this work. And so anytime I give a workshop, and even in my writing, I always mention Anji. I pull out the pictures of the schools we saw, for anybody who will listen. I show them this because I’m like, “This is what we ought to be doing. This is the way we ought to be preparing teachers.”

When I think of the quality of teaching in Anji, again I’m reminded of Montessori and Dewey. It’s much like Dewey: it’s creating, it’s enabling a responsible citizen to emerge—a caring human being. I think that that’s what our profoundest wish has to be: that we enable the development of good people.

Frances Rust: This photo shows so many things — kids working together; deep concentration, autonomy, and the lovely plasticity of the materials the children are using: tomorrow, they may appear in a totally different configuration.

Frances Rust: This photo shows so many things — kids working together; deep concentration, autonomy, and the lovely plasticity of the materials the children are using: tomorrow, they may appear in a totally different configuration.


Dr. Peter Mangione

Co-Director, Center for Child & Family Studies, WestEd 

Dates of visits: July 2014, June 2015, June 2017

Interview conducted on  January 24, 2019

Peter Mangione: I was approached by Frances Rust to go on a speaking tour with her in China. She and I talked about different possibilities of who else might present with us, and the person who was organizing the tour had suggested a third person to present with us. We talked with that person, but it seemed like that wasn’t going to work out. At which point there was a conversation with Chelsea Bailey, and the three of us decided that we would put together a presentation and do the speaking at different conferences in China.

My role was twofold. One, I was going to focus on infant/toddler development, and then Chelsea and Frances were focusing on the preschool age. Two, my other role was to provide some video material that Frances was familiar with, that I had co-developed with Ron Lally, that Chelsea and Frances could use in their presentations.

We prepared the presentations. The focus was on play. Talking about how play looks at the infant/toddler age in my case, and they were going to talk about it at the preschool age.

We arrived in China, and first we had meetings and visited a couple of programs in Shanghai with some people who were also interested in early education and play. We went to one infant/toddler program which was a place for parents and other family members to come and observe their children in a group situation facilitated by infant/toddler educators and to receive some parent education.

From Shanghai, we were on our way to the conference in Anji. We didn’t know anything about Anji. We stopped at a program on the way, which was quite interesting. It was inspired by Reggio Emilia. They had done an amazing job in implementing ideas from Reggio Emilia at that program. We were thinking that there were going to be some interesting examples for us to see in China that went beyond our expectations. We were talking during the van ride to Anji, and our host said to us, “Well, in China, if you really want to see play, Anji is the place to go. It’s the one place where they are doing play, and it’ll give you a chance to see what they’ve done there.”

This was in July 2014. Our host also told us that no one, outside of one person from the West, who was not an early childhood educator, had visited Anji. She was a professor of physical education. Chelsea, Frances, and I were actually, as I understand it, the first three early educators from the United States for sure, but also generally from the West, to visit the programs in Anji.

We arrived that evening, and Ms. Cheng, the founder of Anji Play, who inspired, developed, and leads the continuing development of Anji Play, had a very quiet visit with us in a restaurant. We were quite tired. It had been a long day, and we really didn’t have much of a chance to exchange ideas with her. But we went over the schedule and what we would be doing the next day, visiting some places and getting ready for the conference. We were among the main presenters at this conference.

We went, that next morning, to one of the Anji kindergartens, and I remember it very clearly . . . It was extraordinary. We pulled up in the van, and I remember getting out of the van and just looking across the outdoor play area, and right away, I knew this was completely different in some sense. It was an early childhood setting; that was clear. Its equipment was child-sized. There were young children; there were teachers. But it had a different feel from what I had known, and it wasn’t simply about being in China. The first thing my eyes were drawn to were children playing with barrels. They were very graceful and very organized in the way they were playing, walking across the barrels as they moved. Then I remember, really clearly, one child who lost her balance a little bit. She didn’t panic. She just jumped off, and it was a very graceful movement. The children’s play with the barrels was very regulated. That’s where my eyes went to first, what caught my attention first.

Then I started looking around, and there was this other play area where children would walk along a rope attached to trees, or maybe poles, at both ends. There was a second rope, parallel and up above the other one, for the children to hold as they moved along the lower rope. The children were very enthusiastically playing on that. It was a small program. There were maybe 10 children playing with the ropes. The feeling that I had was, the children were completely engaged. They were very happy with what they were doing. There was a sense of calmness. The children seemed to be completely capable of regulating themselves.

Then, of course, the three of us, Chelsea, Frances, and I, were looking at each other and knowing that we had encountered something completely new, and we were feeling a sense of excitement about it. We started looking everywhere, seeing all the different materials, the way the rooms were set up. As I expressed earlier, it was a small program. We were very excited about it, especially Chelsea. But all of us were. I think Frances said something like, “Here are the future engineers of the world.” Her words conveyed the impact of this first moment that we encountered an Anji kindergarten and observed the children engaged in play.

We knew we had encountered something new. It was fascinating for us, because we had prepared this whole presentation on play. For me, I was thinking, “My presentation will work fine,” because I’m focused on infant/toddler development, and the principles that I was going to lay out connected with what I was seeing here. What we didn’t have in any place in the world was a program which connected with those principles at the older ages, at the preschool age, at kindergarten age in China, three to six. Certainly what we had been working on in birth to three, and the work that I had studied and was familiar with, the Piklerian approach developed at the Loczy Institute, and also, in some sense, Reggio Emilia, bore some similarity to the kindergartens in Anji, although I felt those programs were markedly different from Reggio Emilia schools. And the Anji kindergartens clearly didn’t have any Reggio Emilia influences, although you could see points at which there was some intersection in the two philosophies.

Then we went to a second kindergarten in Anji, and it was the same as the first one we visited. Actually, it was the same but different. It had its own character. It was, like the first one, a small program. Instead of mainly playing on the barrels, although there was some of that play too, the children were building with boards and different kinds of pieces of equipment. They put together a structure very carefully. Then they used the structure as play equipment, climbing on it and moving on it. What was striking in this program was, they did have a standard plastic play structure, similar to what we have all over the United States—fixed structures. But the children weren’t playing on the fixed structure. The structure was sitting there, empty, of little or no apparent interest to the children. It made me start to wonder, well, was the standard structure here first, and then the Anji early educators brought in this other concept of play equipment and materials? Then I wondered whether the standard or conventional equipment was just leftover material from the past, that was just there and wasn’t really relevant to what was happening programmatically for the children.

In the second program I also started to notice some things that were connected to the cultural experience of the children. There were some artifacts from the surrounding rural area. . . . There was a garden where some planting had been done. There was a place to do cooking with a traditional stove. I also had a chance to see some children playing with smaller play items. It wasn’t just all large motor play. There was a lot of fine motor stuff and other kinds of play materials the children could manipulate.

And then we had a very nice lunch in that small village. Then we went to the conference center to go over the prep with the AV staff, and get a sense for the setup and make sure that our computers would hook up, and we could show the PowerPoint that we had. After that, the three of us went back to the hotel, we had dinner, and then we worked. Frances and Chelsea were especially interested in rearranging what they were saying, because it was clear to all three of us that we were in a place where concepts of play were well developed. . . .

We were presenting about play, but we were talking about it from a particular stance and experience, and there was an equally interesting and valid stance and experience in this place in China. So it wasn’t that we were going to define play for the conference attendees. . . . We wanted to reframe how we were going to be talking about things. We were coming to share our experience, but we wanted to make sure people were clear it was our experience and perspective, and in no way to suggest that it should replace, or the approach to play in Anji should be different. It was more that we wanted to express, “Here’s a chance for a meeting of the minds and different perspectives.”

The next day was the conference. The audience was large. During Q&A we were asked thoughtful questions. They were very interested in the video we showed. I was struck by how their interest tended to focus on the environments shown in the video clips and that they compared them to environments they know . . . These were folks from all over China. Most of them were not from the area of Anji or the kindergartens in Anji. They knew little about how the Anji kindergartens had developed their whole approach to supporting children in their play—the idea of freeing up the entire kindergarten program so that children can play and teachers could be . . . I’m not sure what word the educators in the Anji kindergartens would want to use to describe their role. But certainly they would not be guides so much, because the children were the initiators of the play, but they would be with the children as they play. The teachers were the children’s supports, providing a sense of place, and making sure the environment and routine and everything was working for the children.

The next day, after the conference, we went to a large program, which was fascinating for two reasons: First, it was a large program—a very large program, larger than what I was used to. There were hundreds of children. We arrived at the kindergarten before the children actually came out and started engaging with the outside play environment. There were a large number of people who had been at the conference the day before, who were also there to observe. There were many adults for whom the approach to play in the kindergartens in Anji was new. Everyone had cameras. We were looking at the elaborate setup of the outdoor environment, all the different places where we might see children playing, and thinking about all the different materials that they had available to them to play with—materials which would be, from the point of view of what I knew from the United States, unconventional—like tires that were painted, and big barrels and ladders, and planks of wood, and tubing. There were a lot of different kinds of things.

As we were just walking around, and it was probably 30 minutes before the children came out, I was trying to imagine what was going to happen, because this environmental setup was very different. There was just so much more equipment and materials than in the smaller programs. There was this whole area with an unbelievable number of blocks. In the United States, the concept of block play at preschool age was, you have a small corner with blocks. It’s usually indoors. . . . Whereas in this storage area, a whole wall that was probably, I don’t know, 25 meters long, had all these different blocks. Big-sized blocks, little size, medium size, and you could imagine all the different kind of building that could occur.

Then, in a moment, all of a sudden, the children descended on the play environment. . . . The classrooms are up a little higher, so it was like the children were descending on this outdoor play area. Within less than a minute, there was all this activity vibrating throughout the place. A large group of children went to the storage area with the ladders, boards, and barrels, and they were taking a lot of things out into the adjacent open play area. They started to build structures. . .. There were also large cushions that they were putting underneath the structures. Once built, the children would line up to climb on structures, though some structures were not very stable. Other children were playing with barrels, and other children had gone into a quieter play area and were doing fantasy play. There were some climbing structures in another area where children were. The activity all started happening at once.

There were many children and, because of the conference visitors, many adults. Yet I had the same sense that I experienced the day before in the small program. The children’s play was self-regulated. The children were focused; they were fully engaged. They were very excited and joyful about what they were doing. It was all self-regulated, as I said. A lot was happening. There was a loud buzz. But even so, somehow the children were able to keep their focus, without being distracted or diverted by all the activity and people around them. Even though there was all this stuff going on around them, they appeared to be focused on what was most intensely interesting to them and what they were interested in constructing or exploring or experimenting with, and doing it together collaboratively with other children. You had all this activity happening, yet everyone was doing, side by side with others, what captured their attention. Even the adults. It was almost like the adults were swept into the experience as they took photos and observed. . . . You could see the adults were observing intently, leaving space for the children and letting the children’s play simply happen. It was a very respectful presence the children and adults were sharing.

Some of the children did become interested in us, and a few children came up to me and they wanted to have photos taken with me. A child gave me something, like a little flower. The children were aware of our presence, but at the same time, they didn’t want to engage us the whole time. They just wanted to make contact with us and then go back to their play.

This visit was very impressive for a number of reasons. One, just the sheer number of children and how big it was and how regulated everything was. Two, it was hard not to focus on the large motor play, because that was what was so different at first impression. That’s the first thing that hit me, especially there, to see the risky play happening. But I did take some time to go over and see what children were doing with blocks, and it was, again, a quieter, more contained activity that didn’t involve large motor play. Their play focused on building, creating together, testing things. Three, in all play areas, the children were methodical in the way that they were using the play materials. You could see their minds at work, and working together, as they engaged in play.

That day we went to one other large kindergarten program. It was a similar experience, although, when we arrived there, the children were already playing. What became clear to me in this program was that there seemed to be groups of children playing in different areas. It seemed like different teachers and their groups of children stayed in different areas. I was starting to see some organizational features on this visit. Later I learned that each group was a class, and that they had a particular area where they played on a given day. Each day the group would play in a different area.

Like in the other kindergartens we visited, every place you went, you could see children intently focused on their play. Whatever the activity happened to be, or the activity area, I should say, whatever materials and equipment they had available to them where they happened to be stationed, they played with a sense of absolute engagement, and joy and focus. Their play felt to me focused and regulated. Those are the words that I kept coming back to as I was observing it.

I walked over to a quieter area, away from the madding crowd—I mean the crowd of adults, because again, there were all these early educators from the conference who were visiting too. There were areas you could go that were quieter, shaded. There were small groups of children, and I could see again that there was a peacefulness that the children had about them. It was a peacefulness that I experienced in other kindergartens in Anji later, and I certainly experienced the first day at the smaller programs. But it was wonderful to experience even in this large place, which had so many children and so many things going on, and which had become even more stimulating because there were all these adults walking around taking photos and talking. There were these harmonious, peaceful places that the children could create themselves and make into the context for their play. It wasn’t that they were quiet, because there was certainly a lot of talking. If you listen to the children’s voices, they were at a high volume a lot of the time when they were playing, because they were enthusiastically talking when they were playing and creating together.

Chelsea, Frances, and I talked about our observations a lot. It was clear to me that Chelsea Bailey had an “aha” experience or a “eureka” moment. All three of us had such a moment, but for Chelsea it was like her life had changed. She had discovered what she was going to devote her life to. I shared Chelsea’s excitement, and wasn’t quite sure what to do with the experience. What I knew was that I was fascinated by the children’s play in the kindergartens and wanted to learn more about it.

On this first visit to Anji, I learned about the kindergartens through the translators. They were students, actually early childhood students. But I also have to say, for me, everything was new. This was China. I was taking in everything. It was my first time in China. I was very interested in what my translators, as early education students, were studying. They had encountered Anji for the first time. It was all new to them, and they made comparisons to what they knew from their education. I found myself trying to sort out: What part of this experience was China, and what part of it was this extraordinary place where the early educators understood and supported children’s play in an extraordinary way? All these thoughts were churning through my head.

I remember, at the last kindergarten we visited, I was starting to become very interested in exploring how to photo-document the children’s play—the way the children organized their play, especially their large motor play. I spent a long time just watching small groups of children doing different things. Ms. Cheng noticed me and came over to where I was observing. A translator was with me, so Ms. Cheng and I started having a conversation about what I was observing. She expressed interest in my choice of taking a long time to observe a small group of children playing, rather than going all over the place and trying to see everything all at once. I was intent on understanding how this small group of children would engage in play and and just staying with them for an extended period of time. I talked with Ms. Cheng about some of my impressions, particularly how organized and regulated their play was. She listened and then talked about how one child was experimenting with how to safely climb a structure he and his friends had built with a ladder and boards.

So that was my first experience in Anji. Of course, beyond the impressions of the children’s play in the kindergartens, every program we visited involved taking photos and talking with people about being from America. The fact that I was a novelty—a big, tall guy from America. Such conversations were part of the experience, too.

Jesse Coffino: Novelty on both sides. And curiosity.

Peter Mangione: We left Anji and went on to Hangzhou and met with some people there. Then we flew from there to Qingdao, where there was another conference. We presented at that conference a part of our original talk, but we also had our photos from the Anji kindergartens that we wanted to use in our presentation. Frances, in particular, wanted to use a couple photos I took of children lining up to climb on a structure they had built. She also had a video of the girl at the first place who was on the barrel and then had to jump off.

We started to incorporate some of those concepts from the Anji kindergartens into our presentation. For my part, I mostly didn’t, because, as I said before, my focus was infant/toddler development and play, and I felt in complete harmony with what I had seen in Anji. I felt like finally there’s a place in the world that is letting their children be children and truly trusting them to learn through all the means that they have available to them to learn—that no one knows better how to learn than the child himself or herself. That’s part of my philosophical approach with birth to three, and what I believe we should be doing. It was wonderful to see such an approach in action with the older age group, with three- to six-year-olds in the kindergartens.

We gave our presentations in Qingdao. In a way it became more of a standard experience, because everyone who attended the conference was familiar with educational methods such as Montessori or HighScope. The questions became much more conventional again. That we were a curiosity, of course, was part of the experience.

The rest of our time in China, the three of us, Frances, Chelsea, and I, did a lot of reflecting. We kept coming back to what the experience in Anji meant. Chelsea was already trying to figure out how she could get back to Anji and develop a collaboration with Ms. Cheng. Chelsea expressed that she wanted to learn about the approach to play in the Anji kindergartens and understand it deeply. We talked about how we could collaborate together to support the work in Anji and how we felt it was a treasure and we wanted to make sure that when the world learned about it, its integrity would be preserved.

I think we all felt very protective of the Anji kindergartens, because they were so extraordinary and unique and offered so much to the rest of the world as a way to look at how young children in that age range can engage in play and learn with joy and do so in a regulated, constructive way. Also, I reflected on the environments and the materials, and all the thought that had been put into creating and selecting every item. It was clear that the play environments and materials resulted from years and years of thoughtful work. It wasn’t just something that someone had an idea and did it, but the kindergartens in Anji were developed with great intention. I could tell, and the three of us shared this reflection, that there was a huge investment, intellectually and emotionally, in what had been developed in the Anji kindergartens.

Chelsea and I kept in contact. Frances was busy with other things. The three of us had a couple calls, but then Frances dropped out pretty quickly. Chelsea and I kept communicating, and she kept running plans by me. Then she returned to Anji. During her extended time in Anji, she developed a whole concept of how to build awareness of the approach to play in the Anji kindergartens. She and I had some meetings, during which we would discuss her idea. Chelsea started to contact other people and share what she experienced. She knew people in New York City at Bank Street College. All of a sudden she was reaching out to a lot of different places. She organized an advisory group to work with her. She organized a trip for the international advisers, that happened in June 2015, almost a year after our first encounter with the Anji kindergartens. There were professors from Columbia University; there was a close friend of Chelsea’s who had done preschool teaching and infant/toddler teaching, years and years ago, who was there. There were faculty from Mills College in California.

Actually, I need to back up, because the next time I saw Ms. Cheng and Chelsea was at the annual NAEYC conference, which happened to be in Dallas, Texas, in November 2014. I had arranged for the group that Ms. Cheng was with to visit a Head Start program. During that visit, Ms. Cheng expressed a wish to transform the outdoor environment at the Head Start program. Chelsea had already arranged . . . if I’m getting my timeline right. Yes, she had already arranged for Ms. Cheng to come to the US in February 2015. During Ms. Cheng’s February 2015 visit, she gave presentations at Mills College, at Bank Street College, and, I think, in Los Angeles. That’s when I met you, Jesse, because you were doing translating. With you as Ms. Cheng’s translator, Chelsea was trying to generate interest in Anji Play and to find a group of people who could support her as she continued to develop her collaboration with Ms. Cheng. Jesse, with you as her partner, Chelsea was exploring how what had been created in the Anji kindergartens could be shared with the rest of the world.

Then some of us started planning to gather in Anji in June 2015. I was excited about being able to communicate more with Ms. Cheng and become acquainted with some other people who were working with Chelsea. The visit was about going to one place in China. I had been to a few places in China previously, but it was clear to me that Anji was very beautiful, and it had all these amazing early childhood programs. That’s where I wanted to be. I felt like I was going to visit Anji rather than China, even though it would also be my second visit to China.

Jesse Coffino: I arrive in Shanghai and am whisked off to Anji and then I’m done and I get whisked back to the airport.

Peter Mangione: Yes, I was recently reflecting on my visits to Anji and China, because I was in China in December 2018. It was my fourth time there, and I was reflecting that I stopped thinking about being in China so much as being in Anji. I felt like I was in a different place when I was in Beijing this time. It was a different place, and a different kind of experience. 

The visit to Anji with other advisers was an important time. We were a small group of like-minded early educators who, together, visited kindergartens and observed the children engaged in play. It was much quieter and more focused for us than my first visit to Anji’s kindergartens, because there weren’t conference attendees visiting, too. I was building relationships, especially with Ms. Cheng and with Chelsea and you, and a few other people. In addition, it was very exciting to be with colleagues who were experiencing the kindergartens in Anji for the first time, because I could see them having the same kind of eye-opening experience that I had a year earlier, and I could sense the excitement and the feeling that something very special was here. It was the combination of the thoughtfulness of the adults and how they had created the play environments, equipment, and materials, and then to see how the children related to them.

By then, too, Chelsea, who had spent quite a lot of time in Anji in fall 2014, had a deep understanding of the approach to play in the Anji kindergartens and wanted to make sure that we had a chance to gain that understanding, We learned that, after playing outside for extended periods of time, in some kindergartens for two hours, the children would do play stories, which involved drawing a story about their play, and sometimes they would dictate to their teacher the story of play their drawings represented. What the children had the opportunity to do was reflect on their play right after it happened, so the play story was immediately relevant to them and strengthened their engagement in learning through play.

Then there was also the teachers’ work with video and photos each day. As the children played, we observed the teachers videotaping and taking photos. We learned that, during the children’s nap time, the teachers studied and selected photos to share with the children. After nap time, the children would gather together with the teacher for a “share.” The teacher would show a photo on a screen, and the children would talk with each other and the teacher about their play, in response to some very simple prompts from the teachers. The teachers pretty much allowed the children to take that conversation wherever they decide to take it. There was, again, excitement. Children would stand up and point to things and explain what happened. There was lively discussion, among the children, about the exact meaning of their play.

One of the things that came up, through your translation, is that the children actually engaged in a lot of fantasy play as they were building structures and then playing on them. This aspect of the children’s play was exciting to think about, because pretend and fantasy play are such a rich part of learning for the three- to six-year-old age group. When I was observing the play outside, without understanding the language or the kinds of interactions that are happening among the children, I missed out on an amazing dimension of their play. Having the “share” time translated deepened my appreciation of the power of the Anji approach to play.

There were so many more examples of the skills children showed and the different ways they played, the different environments they had available. For example, how children were allowed to extend their play from the morning to the afternoon. I kept coming back to the thoughtfulness of the creators of the Anji approach to play. Their passion was shared by a large group of people, given all the kindergartens in Anji that had been created and continued to evolve. Even from 2014 to 2015, I saw changes, as we visited a couple of the same places. There were further elaborations for the children to pick up and take wherever they wanted to take it. There were also different kinds of equipment that had been introduced to the play environments.

I’ve been back to Anji one other time. I’ve had the great fortune in my life to develop a friendship with Ms. Cheng, and Chelsea and you, and have hosted Ms. Cheng and her colleagues as visitors in my home. That was very special and a learning experience, too. We had a chance to interact with Ms. Cheng in playful ways. I greatly appreciated the conversations with her about Anji Play. Both the professional and personal sides of my experience with Anji Play have been wonderful and have enhanced my life. Every time I meet new colleagues is extraordinary, but especially someone like Ms. Cheng and her colleagues, who have done so much for children in such a heartfelt and mindful way. They are always thinking about how to create new possibilities for young children and take such joy in it.

In February 2016, I arranged for Ms. Cheng to come to California and give a presentation for the Program for Infant and Toddler Care Graduate Conference, to share with people in my community who are dedicated to infant/toddler development and care. That experience was extraordinary, too. Several of my closest colleagues in the Program for Infant and Toddler Care community have since visited the kindergartens in Anji.

My most recent visit to Anji was in June 2017. There was a conference, and I gave a presentation there and was able to visit some more programs. Again, between 2015 and 2017, it was striking how the Anji early educators keep thinking, keep reflecting, keep documenting, keep imagining new possibilities for the children. That’s what makes it so exciting. It’s dynamic. It keeps moving. What was happening in one program would be suggested to another program. There was much more obvious, and maybe this had been going on earlier, but much more obvious documentation by the children of what they were doing than before. It was much more visible. I could see how the Anji early educators keep adapting to the children’s creativity and add new richness. I keep discovering more and more each time I visit Anji. Each time offers new discoveries because the approach keeps growing.

Jesse Coffino: Would you say that there has been joy in your relationship with Anji?

Peter Mangione: It was interesting because, one evening, there were no translators at my home, and Ms. Cheng was there with another colleague who could speak Chinese, and my wife Mimi and I spoke English. The four of us spent the evening being playful. . . . We were teaching Ms. Cheng English words, and she was teaching us Chinese words. We played the whole time. We laughed and just thought it was so fun. And we were learning. It was great. More generally, I feel joy in my heart every time I have an image in my mind of children playing in the Anji kindergartens. I feel joy in my relationships with Ms. Cheng and the other early educators in Anji, knowing how much love and care they have for young children.

Jesse Coffino: How would you describe the stance that you saw adults take in Anji?

Peter Mangione: There was this thoughtfulness and absolute respect for the children’s play. Not
just play—play, of course—but absolute respect for what the children created themselves, in their relationships among themselves and with their teachers and with the materials and the equipment. Respect for the whole experience of the children.

What I felt was that defining the adult stance or role is always tricky . . . I think it’s tricky in my work with infants and toddlers. It can look like the adult isn’t doing anything, but the adult’s doing a lot. There’s this concept that Magda Gerber talked about in her work, and I think it’s a wonderful concept that I use. It’s called “empathetic attention.” That’s what I was seeing in the teachers in Anji. At one point, and actually, that episode I talked about when Ms. Cheng was side by side with me and we were talking about what I was observing, at one point the teacher had to do an intervention, but it was a very measured intervention. That’s the words I use in the training I do. In other words, how small can the amount of help you give be in order to allow the children to maintain the control of what’s happening and keep their own responsibility for regulating themselves?

I saw respect and openness from adults, and the children being free to organize and regulate their play, making it ever more complex and rich. At first, I didn’t know how the early educators in Anji developed their approach. In 2014, I left Anji thinking, these are really skilled teachers, so there must be some kind of professional learning experience that those teachers share. It’s important for it to be shared with others. 

Peter Mangione: This photo shows one child drawing a play story, with a second child communicating with her about details in the drawing. The intent engagement of the two children as they collaboratively reflect on their play is one of the countless powerful learning experiences that I have observed in the Anji kindergartens.

Peter Mangione: This photo shows one child drawing a play story, with a second child communicating with her about details in the drawing. The intent engagement of the two children as they collaboratively reflect on their play is one of the countless powerful learning experiences that I have observed in the Anji kindergartens.


Mary Anne Kreshka

Faculty, Department of Human Development and Family, Sierra College 

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Date of visits to Anji: October 2016, October 2017

Interview conducted on March 2, 2019

Jesse Coffino: Really, what we’ve really been starting with, and you know the role that it plays in Anji Play, but I’ve been asking people to share, just what is their deepest, earliest, and most joyous memory of play as a child?

Mary Anne Kreshka: As a child.

Jesse Coffino: Yes.

Mary Anne Kreshka: My family lived, when I was a young child, in the area called Paradise, in Northern California. And this will bring me to tears, because I recently went to that area, and looked at the remains of the house that my father and his friends built during the Depression. And as a child, I was allowed to be very involved in that, and it was . . . the only thing left is the fireplace on the ground now, with the rocks that my siblings and my mother and my father gathered, and our friends, to build the fireplace, which is still standing. Which was interesting.

I started school in a two-room schoolhouse in Magalia, which is part of that Paradise area that was just leveled by the terrible firestorm. And one of my first memories is, there was no kindergarten, because at that time in California, kindergarten was a luxury in the urban centers. In the rural areas, there was no kindergarten.

I started school at first grade at age . . . I suppose I was five. And this old schoolhouse was on a hill, and it was very populated with pine trees, and of course, with pine trees, there’s a lot of pine needles. And at recess . . . it seemed to me, as I look back, that we had very prolonged recesses. I don’t suppose they were, but they seemed long. Or maybe the teachers needed a break and we had long recesses.

And we had a noon lunchtime, so we all took our lunches, and we had this hillside at our disposal during that time. When I got there and I realized, in the first grade, that some of the children had brooms, old brooms, that had come from home, and I quickly found out why. The brooms were used by the girls, sometimes the boys but mostly the girls, to sweep the pine needles into piles.

And pine needles, and that’s a . . . I guess, those are the white pines. Pine needles are long and tend to stick together. You can build a pile out of them very quickly, and what was happening was, there were walls laid out like a blueprint of a house. With the walls and rooms and doors and beds, a lot of beds. There was a kitchen and a lot of beds. I don’t remember much else. And this would take days to do, to get . . .

Because we had all this space, we had, there was no limit to the amount of space, we could make a big house. And there would be bedrooms and a bathroom, and kitchens. I have no memory of living rooms. And you could make a wall maybe three feet high, a yard high, that would encompass the whole outline of the house. It was like an outline of a house.

And then, of course, there had to be the mothers, the grandmothers, the children, the babies. And we didn’t pay much attention to fathers, but occasionally, a couple of boys would come running through and jump into the piles of pine needles and we suddenly had dads amongst us. And there was always a kitchen with a stove and a table and chairs, but all of this made out of pine needles, which I look back on, is quite amazing.

And at that same time, my father and his friends were building our house, also on a hill with a lot of open space. My grandparents had given my parents five acres to develop. This was in the middle of the Depression. This would have been in . . . in ’35, in 1934 or ’35. And this was a very poor neighborhood. This is a former gold-rush town called Magalia, now devastated.

But in our lot where we had the house being built, children were allowed. My brother and sister and I, there were . . . I just don’t recall anybody ever telling us no. We could use the saws and the hammers and the nails, and we built things on our own with the leftover ends of boards from the house.

The house was decorated with poles from the pine trees, real full logs. And we had all of that at our disposal. I remember being fascinated by the plumbing, because there were all these ends of the pipes that we could deal with, and all of that was up to us to do what we wanted to do with. With no sort of prohibition about it in any way. I don’t even remember anybody saying that we needed to be safe. I mean, nobody said, “Aren’t they going to get hurt?” And somehow, that never came into it.

That’s out of my early childhood, and yeah.

Jesse Coffino: There’s something very poignant there. I mean, I hear all of these themes that are so universal, or somewhat universal, which is nature, and building, and being family.

Mary Anne Kreshka: Yeah.

Jesse Coffino: Family play and . . . not the lack of supervision, but kind of the self-determination.

Mary Anne Kreshka: Yeah.

Jesse Coffino: And those pine needles are what burned, right?

Mary Anne Kreshka: Yes.

Jesse Coffino: And you think of how things are changing.

Mary Anne Kreshka: Yes.

Jesse Coffino: That the more rains there are, the more pine needles there are, the hotter the summers are, the more houses that you . . .

Mary Anne Kreshka: Right. Yes. Yes.

Jesse Coffino: The 1930s are now . . . I don’t know. There’s something, and I don’t know why I bring that up, but it just for some reason—

Mary Anne Kreshka: No, I think . . . yes, no, I think a lot about those things.

Jesse Coffino: And then, how did you become an early educator? Why is this what you do, and what have you done?

Mary Anne Kreshka: I’m two years older than my sister, four years older than my brother; I was fascinated with babies. Always was. My mother, too. But it was . . . I was attracted to babies and they to me, so that was a piece of it.

Also, I do think this enters into it. I had no idea until maybe 20 years ago that this existed. My maternal great-grandfather was born and raised in Germany, immigrated to the United States, raised a large family in Illinois and in Iowa, and my great-aunts, two of my great-aunts, went to Germany to be trained in the Froebel method.

And she brought back many of Froebel’s gifts, and they were part of my childhood. And there were things that we . . . beads that we strung. There were objects to put together. There were the wonderful hardwood spheres that we had. We probably had more than I can remember, but they were . . . I think my great-aunts gave them to every newborn child in the family, and those were part of . . .

We had tiles of all sorts that fit together in very intricate ways. I have some of those, still. And I think there was in . . . I don’t know how it happened. My sister was born . . .

I think what pushed me into early childhood was my parents then moved from . . . earlier than that. We lived in Southern California, and there was a terrible earthquake called the Long Beach earthquake. We lived in Long Beach. Our grandmother lived in Pasadena, and our apartment house was destroyed during the earthquake. I was with my father, having just visited my mother and my brand new baby brother in Pasadena, when the earthquake hit, and we were in the car, and I was thrown against the dashboard.

And it wasn’t until we stopped at some place that my father realized there’d been a major earthquake. We rushed home, and my sister had been in the middle of this. Our mother having been gone for a few days in childbirth, and my sister with a stranger, someone that was quite reliable, I think, but left in this terrible experience which was, literally, our apartment being destroyed.

And we then moved to my grandmother’s house, where it was safer, and my mother, it took a month for her to be able to leave to come to a safe place after that earthquake. My sister was very separated from our mother, but glommed onto me, and she would only go to sleep when she could sleep with me. She would only eat when I fed her. She was a year old. It was a traumatic period of time for her, as I look back on it.

But I was a caretaker, suddenly. I was four. Actually, I was three. I was three years old, and here was this child that was mine, all of a sudden. And I, for whatever reason, took it seriously. And the adults accepted that. They said it was expected that I would be her solace, as it were, until our mother returned.

I think that that event was pivotal in sort of heading me in that direction.

Jesse Coffino: Wow.

Then I went to the University of California, Berkeley, and Erik Erikson was there at that time. And I majored in child development, and had the opportunity to have as mentors, women, all of them, except for Erik. Although I never really knew Erik. He was around, but I didn’t have direct . . . at that point. I did later in my life, but not then, have contact with him.

But it was a very ambitious time in the field, and Berkeley had embarked on the 30-year study of children growing up. It was a longitudinal study, so there was a period of time when it was very exciting to be there, and as an undergraduate and then in my graduate work there, it was exciting and surprising and we were very supported in . . .

And California had had an extensive child care program during the Second World War, which continued on into, particularly in the Northern California Bay Area, continued to a very robust childcare and preschool, then called nursery school, program that I was able, early on, to observe and work in and be employed in.

It was a long . . . I walked into both a brand-new and long-supported civic program, public programs.

Jesse Coffino: When you first heard about Anji Play, where were you? What was it that was going on? What did you hear? Why were you . . .

Mary Anne Kreshka: I think I read about it here and there. I don’t really recall that, but my first up-close contact was through PITC. I’m a longtime member, trained person in the PITC methods of work with infants and toddlers. Which, interestingly enough, I didn’t have in my academic work, because infants and toddlers didn’t come into group care. It was a little bit during the Second World War, there was some, but PITC was a brand-new and very exciting arena for me to have both and intellectual and academic connection with infants and toddlers at about the time my grandchildren came around, which was, it all sort of fit together.

I heard about Anji in most detail from PITC, at one of the graduate conferences. You and Ms. Cheng were there, and that said it all.

Jesse Coffino: And what did you hear or see? 

Mary Anne Kreshka: All of my major mentors in my training had talked about play. Montessori talks about play. Dewey talked about play. Everybody, I mean, and certainly Froebel and the . . . the work that was going on in the settlement houses where immigrant children were coming, and there were programs in Chicago and in New York City where they had the playgrounds on the roof, and they provided these amazing scenes for children to access.

I think what interested me from the beginning was that somebody, Ms. Cheng, had a plan. And everybody had talked about and exhorted us to include play, but it never had a plan. They never had a format for it. It sort of went in the natural way. Go outside with the kids. Let them have a lot of fresh air. Nature, you know. Let them raise pollywogs. There was always a . . .

And I was able to follow up by doing some construction sort of things, building things with kids, but there was never an overall, thoughtful, intentional plan for play. It was, “Get them outside, let them get the fresh air.”

We had very complex jungle gyms, which you couldn’t do legally now in California. There was an effort—we had a lot of tricycles—and there was an effort to have play, but it never came to an organized sort of thing. Nobody ever put it in their lesson plans. You let them go outside to get the fresh air.

I think what hit me from the very beginning was, that there was something about Anji that had an intentional approach that was more than just having the children make choices on their own. That the environment suddenly was an integral part of the child’s learning, and that was very novel in terms of my training and background.

Jesse Coffino: Now, you’ve been to Anji twice.

Mary Anne Kreshka: Yeah.

Jesse Coffino: Can you tell me about that first visit? What do you remember of it? Do you remember the first time you went into a school? What do you remember of that first trip?

Mary Anne Kreshka: Well, the thing that I remember first impressing me was the presence of the teachers. They were there, and the children knew that they were close by, particularly on the playgrounds, but they didn’t hover. They were there in case there was a problem, and later, I saw how they would engage in solving that. But it was very clear to me from the very beginning that the role of the teacher was very different.

The program that I’ve worked most closely with is Sierra College, which has used the HighScope curriculum model, which uses the Plan, Do, and Review approach. If it’s done in the best ways, it is rather marvelous. Sadly, it’s often done in a very tossed-off way. The children get in a circle, they make a plan, they go out and do it, and they sort of review it. And I saw in Anji . . . “Ah! This is what Plan, Do, and Review could be.”

Those two things: the role of the teacher and seeing that children, at the same time, were truly able to do the planning themselves. Nobody was . . . Well, that’s from their arranged environment, because even Anji has an arranged environment, to use Maria Montessori’s terms. Within that scope, the children clearly could do these amazing things.

Those were my first sort of impressions.

Jesse Coffino: And sometimes we think of Anji Play as “do, review, plan.” 

Mary Anne Kreshka: And there were two events that I remember from my first visit. The children at Jiguan, in the group . . . you know, we were separated a bit, in different places, but in the group that I was with, the children had endeavored to make a hotel for their California visitors.

And they’d built, with their blocks, on the playground, a hotel for us where we were staying. And it was such a sense of community and generosity. They were very clear that there had to be a lot of toilets. And they made little cubicles with a lot of toilets, recognizing our Western proclivities, and they . . . made presents for us. They somehow . . .

We were there as a part of their environment. They included us. Suddenly, we were included in this marvelous play, and they were somehow recognizing us as visitors in a very different way. Our children would never . . . I mean, it was so unusual. I remember being so completely entranced by that. And they explained to us very carefully, and later drew pictures, later, made their plans, their drawings, of what they had constructed, so that that sort of . . . acceptance with the children, they obviously knew that we were there.

And we’d been around . . . I think it was maybe on our second visit there. I remember that very vividly. On my second visit . . . I have another memory.

I was not overly concerned or even impressed by the children’s facility in dealing with heights and jumping and all the rest. Somehow, that didn’t . . . for my colleagues, it was difficult. And that didn’t . . . somehow, I felt that it took over for some people, and I felt sorry about that. But it wasn’t anything that alarmed me or that I felt . . .

But, I do remember wondering, trying to figure out how the particular materials were collected, what the basis was. That wasn’t entirely clear the first time I went, that Ms. Cheng had done a great deal of work . . . and observation, and research, to develop them. The first time, my impression was that it seemed more that those play materials were what was available in the community, and that they had . . .The intentionality of it wasn’t quite so clear to me on my first trip.

The second trip, I asked for, and certainly you and others there were very responsive in allowing me, to spend more time in a given space, to observe, and that was . . . And Nicole and I. I had a colleague that I was traveling with, so it made a big difference. That I was able to see the start of an activity and see it to its end. During the first visit, that hadn’t been possible. And that was very, very important, to see . . . I remember, the beginning piece of it, that, during that first October that I was there, how a group of children came from their classroom with their teachers. It was under an overhang, and there were tables set out with paper and pens, and the children, on their own, gathered in small groups and began to make their play plans. And then took those plans, drawn plans, to the playground, constructed them, and then at the end, brought the plans back after they’d put their equipment away, came back to a classroom. I saw that in a briefer way the first time I went. The second time, I saw that happening a number of times. And there’s always this amazement about how the children cleaned up.

And on my second trip, I took exception to that. I did not think or experience it, in watching the children, that they were cleaning up in our sense. Because we have a terrible time getting our children to clean up. You ring bells, you’d give all sorts of rewards. And there is a good video that we had after the first visit, about cleaning up, which somebody did someplace in Anji, that shows children doing this very rapidly. But it’s always in the cleanup thing. Children are cleaning up. I took exception to that. I saw the children constructing . . . using their environment that had been given to them. I saw them constructing their own creation. And I saw, at the end of that, because it was time to go in to eat, to nap, that it was then deconstructed. But it was on their terms, and that was such an amazing difference to what we do.

Children need to clean up so the custodians come in and clean. We need to clean up because it’s time to go home. It has little to do with the children’s creation, and there, for the first time, I saw the children taking responsibility for the deconstruction of their construction.

And in some cases, they were left to be up. They were not always put away. But the ones that I saw that were put away . . . and it was on the children’s time terms. It was not hurried, and it would take . . . I’m sure that in most cases, on particularly the large playgrounds, it would take 20 or 30 minutes to get everything put away. This was not something that happened rapidly. The music would start on their boombox, and then the children would start. Some children would start right away, be the first back into their classrooms. Others would take forever to put it away, and would be the last ones coming into their classrooms.

It was unhurried in that it was on children’s time. And I think that the Anji program, more than any that I’ve experienced, is on children’s time, not on adults’ time. Now, obviously, children are part of a family, they have to come when they’re dropped off by their families going to work, and they eat and sleep and then somebody picks them up. So, of course, there are time constraints and schedules. But when they were in their play groups, in their class groups, it was their time. And I saw it in that beautiful, small program in Ms. Cheng’s village, where there were only a few children, and that wonderful playground where when the children . . . When it was time together in a group setting, it took forever for the children to get there. Well, it seemed to take forever. It didn’t; it was on the children’s time. Some children got there early, helped put the chairs together, sat down and talked. Others, you would think . . . and you kept waiting for the teachers to try to bring them in. Everybody waited till everybody got there. It was so respectfully done in terms of, when are children ready to be part of a group? When the teachers ring a bell and they come sit in a circle? No.

Everybody was ready to be part of a group when everybody got to the group. And that was an entirely revelatory sort of concept. And can we really . . . can we afford that? I mean, how do we get that sort of time for children?

At the same time, I saw, in all of the programs, the eating space was sometimes used as part of the other space. But often, it seemed to be off in the corner of . . . set aside to, that was where you’re gonna eat, and then napping time was always separate. Yet, families live in high-rise apartments, but their schools are allowed to spread out. Here, we have it spread out and we still bring our children into small groups where they eat at their art tables, and they bring out the mats and sleep in the same space, as though we don’t have lots of space. And particularly where I live, there’s a lot of space. How do we, why are we confining this in a way that doesn’t somehow make any sense? Why did we . . . How did this come about? And I . . .

Jesse Coffino: I think it’s very interesting, this . . . it’s something I’ve talked about, and . . . Because I’ve been a number of times to Anji, and each time, there’s something else that kind of speaks to me. And I was a parent with a four-year-old, and formerly a three-year-old, and then formerly a two-year-old, formerly a one-year-old. Spending more time in schools in the United States is . . . I describe these really beautiful transitions in Anji, where you’re talking about how when the children are ready to be in a group, they will be in a group.

Mary Anne Kreshka: Right.

Jesse Coffino: And maybe it’s probably not sort of this very simple behaviorism that we often use. “Here’s your reward, here’s your sanction, here’s your conditioned bell,” right? Where you’re talking about sort of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation.

Mary Anne Kreshka: Right.

Jesse Coffino: And I think about this with Rose, too. If I say . . . she knows when I’m gonna bargain with her, based on my tone of voice. And she knows what the bargain is. And it has nothing to do with what she wants. It has to do with her understanding what my need is, and then balancing what she wants.

Mary Anne Kreshka: Sure. Right.

Jesse Coffino: But if . . . for her today, I said, “Oh, your responsibility is cleaning up.” And for her there is an intrinsic motivation in being responsible for something, the trust that that means, to be given the responsibility for something. And then the fun that can happen, the joy that she can have in using a paper towel to clean up a surface.

Mary Anne Kreshka: Sure.

Jesse Coffino: That some of that comes back to me, with just this idea of the child’s trajectory or the child’s pace, or really following the child, but also sort of what it means to respect a child, in a way.

I have hear you say before the the cleanup was something that was surprising to a lot of people. The risk was something that was surprising to a lot of people. But for you, you kind of . . . you have experience, you have knowledge of children, you didn’t really . . . you weren’t so surprised by that.

Mary Anne Kreshka: Well, I think it all has to do with the autonomy that children have there, that, somehow, we deny to them. I remember having several conversations about their nutrition, and . . . The food is cooked for them and brought in. The children served themselves in the programs in Anji where I spent some time in the classrooms. And they served themselves adequately, and seemed to eat a good amount. I mean, it was like . . . We have to measure out what each child has on their plate, in order to get the federal free lunch program.

That was really interesting.

I think the other piece of it . . . and I wanna go back to the role of the adults. Teachers in Anji also have autonomy. They have the aunties, and you know what I mean by the aunties, who bring the food, who bring the water, who have the washcloths there, who clean the toilets, who clean the boots and the raincoats. The teachers don’t do that. I mean, they might. There might be some of it they’d be involved in. They’re not prohibited, but the role there is very different.

Teachers have a gift, from our point of view, of observing children, which our teachers, except at the child development center which is at our college, teachers in all the other programs that I know anything about and every semester in my classrooms, the teachers, my students are amazed that, at the child development center, we have custodians cleaning the toilets and the kitchens. In most early childhood programs in California, the teachers clean the toilets, clean the floors, put the chairs up to clean the floors, do the laundry.

It’s, they’re multitasking. They don’t have a lot of time to devote to observing an individual or a small group of children. I felt that . . . observed that over and over, that it’s a very different role for the teacher. The teacher’s being honored to understand the child and the children, and given the time to do that. And we don’t do that. We train them, give them what we can in a short period of time, two years, and they’re fully certificated to teach, and they’ve not actually had a lot of time to observe children with the guidance that comes with that. I found that disappointing. How to do that in our present situation, is very difficult. But in terms of the stratification of staff roles, I think at Sierra College Child Development Center we’ve made some changes based on my experiences in Anji. I’ve been influential around that. Where we can’t ask teachers to do anything any different unless we’re providing the time and the training for them to do it. And it’s not just up to them to suddenly be different. We have to allow for that.

It became clear that Della, my great-granddaughter, at four months, was trying out some new things on her own. And my granddaughter’s very wonderful about letting her do that, but Della began to get . . . started to, what I told you, what everybody called being fussy. And she would go, “Ah! Ah!” and flap her arms and legs around. And everybody, including my granddaughter, would jump forth and try to distract her, or pick her up. And it happened enough in my visit there that I was able to look at it and say to myself, “I’m wondering what would happen if nobody jumps to her with this.” And I brought it up with my granddaughter, who saw, immediately, what was happening and was able to support that. She had to back everybody off, her husband particularly.

It turned out that Della was perfectly fine with going through that and getting to the next stage of what it was she was wanting to do. She just needed to express that. And it wasn’t being fussy, it was being expressive.

I think that that’s something that I see happening more, or perhaps it’s what I try to get people to become more aware of, is, what is it that the child is trying to communicate with us? Whether they’re four months old, or four years old. And often, we miss that. And how to translate that . . . I think it has a part to do with waiting and seeing what the child will do as they problem-solve and for the adult to stop thinking about it as frustration, or failing or failure, but rather think about it as what learning’s all about.

And at the same time, we have to provide that for the teachers. We have to let them talk about why this is bothering them, upsetting them, and then give them a time to work it through. And I think that was also part of our problem. We didn’t, we were not able to build that in. And I think it would be always a major problem for somebody coming new at Anji.

Mary Anne Kreshka: We’re hoping to have an infant program at the Child Development Center. We’ve applied for the funding. We think it would be a combination of Head Start and California Department of Education funding. It would be wonderful to start, at a very early age, doing some Anji things, not bring it in to the three- and four-year-olds, but grow it, this sort of . . . My thoughts are, if I live long enough . . .

There’s something else that I saw . . . again, when I think about what I took away from my visits to Anji, one of the major things I took away from my experiences in Anji was the role of the adults, the teachers, the professionals. I felt that there was a . . . in California and in the United States, you talk about childcare. If you mention, in a public meeting, at a party, that you’re a preschool teacher, everybody says, “Oh, well, how sweet.” I felt that in China, that the teachers were honored in a different sort of way that we don’t have a format for. We don’t honor young children in the same way. And that, here, there is this stratification that may exaggerate what they have in China. But it’s okay to have people in different roles and working as part of a team. And I think that Ms. Cheng has put together something that’s quite unusual. I didn’t see that to that extent in Reggio. It is there to a degree, but not to the extent it is in China. And certainly not here. And that’s cultural, and has to get developed in its own cultural way. And that role of culture is critical in terms of the physical play materials. I mean, the use of bamboo bowls and cups and the things we saw on the playgrounds from time to time, that were very cultural, are really important. And we’ve gone to such a plastic approach to that. Again, for safety and liability. I think that cultural responsiveness in materials is actually something that can be easily done, if one just looks at it and can include the community and the parents.

I think about the children in our group here, that, after we began to engage with Ms. Cheng’s work in Anji, that I got to know really well alongside of the teachers, and we saw the children differently. They came alive on their own, in new ways, that our . . . DRDP and CLASS and ECERS didn’t tell us. And I think that the play stories, the drawings, have been pivotal to that for us. Which is still going on at the center. The children are still drawing, still doing plans and play stories, where they are drawing and playing and going over it again. I’m really very pleased about that.

If there’s an alarm I’m feeling now in the field, it has to do with, most of the education that our people going early into early childhood education get is in online courses. At the college, we now, only this semester, had two on-the-ground courses. All the rest are online. And I think there’s room for that to some extent, but to not have the direct contact with children in real settings, I think, is very limiting and I think . . . I don’t know, I don’t have an answer for that. It has to do with money and . . .

Jesse Coffino: Yeah. Those systems, systems of efficiency, and—

Mary Anne Kreshka: Yeah.

Jesse Coffino: Measurability.

Mary Anne Kreshka: Right. Yeah.

Jesse Coffino: Well, thank you.

Mary Anne Kreshka: Sure.

Jesse Coffino: Oh, it’s lovely. It’s really, really great.

Mary Anne Kreshka: Good.

Oh, listen. I love the photos you sent. I haven’t sent mine yet, but those . . . that’s Rosie’s center, right?

Jesse Coffino: Yeah, that’s right.

Mary Anne Kreshka: Yes. That was sweet, thank you.

Jesse Coffino: Of course.

Mary Anne Kreshka: Well, Jesse, what are you doing that’s exciting for you, now? You’ve told me some of the things.

Rose: I wanna take something out of my arm this weekend.

Jesse Coffino: Take out of your arm?

Rosie: Yes.

Jesse Coffino: Well, what is in your arm?

Mary Anne Kreshka: Hey, Rose. How are you? Nice to see you.

Jesse Coffino: There’s the pencil! Now it’s like you wanna be—

Rosie: Can I have my pasta?

Jesse Coffino: Your pasta? Sure.

Rosie: Hey, also my nail.

Jesse Coffino: Your what?

Rosie: My nail.

Jesse Coffino: Your nail?

Rosie: Yeah.

Jesse Coffino: What nail?

Rosie: My nail.

Jesse Coffino: Mary Anne, I think we will have to leave it at that. Thank you! 

I’d really love to see you. It’d be nice to . . . ’cause I know that your family is here, that it would be really . . .

Mary Anne Kreshka: Oh, we’ll try to work something out. It’s interesting. I experienced this with my other set of grandchildren. There comes a time when the peer group is very important, particularly for my grandson, who’s 12 now. I spent a couple years with my other grandchildren, sitting on bleachers while they’re doing their sports things and . . . I’m not there as much anymore. Well, they don’t need me as much. I was doing some weekend caretaking while their parents went off. It’s changed now, and I’m there less. I sort of am sad about that, but it’s important. And I have Della to go visit.

We will get together soon. I’d like that.

Jesse Coffino: All right. Thank you, Mary Anne. Bye.

Mary Anne Kreshka: The enclosed private and personal space was created by the three girls following their plan—note the paper under the stacked blocks.

Mary Anne Kreshka: The enclosed private and personal space was created by the three girls following their plan—note the paper under the stacked blocks.


Dr. Tran Nguyen Templeton

Assistant Professor, Early Childhood Studies, University of North Texas

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Date of visit to Anji: June 2015

Interview conducted on January 25, 2019

Jesse Coffino: Hi, Tran.

Tran Templeton: Hi, Jesse. I’m trying so hard to see what we can do with Anji Play in my community here. With many programs in the United States, questions arise about the safety of the materials and risky play.

Jesse Coffino: Anji Play materials appeal immediately to children, but they’re solid. They’re these solid things for children. The height of half your body. You can lay yourself over them. You can roll. You can move them with your body and go in and out of them. They’re just . . .

Tran Templeton: Versatile.

Jesse Coffino: Really smart. Immediate. You’re seeing the child’s capacity quickly.

Tran Templeton: Yeah. I think that the image that sticks out in many people’s minds is an image I have of a child jumping off of a high place. When I share this image with teachers and educators who are considering what Anji Play could be in their settings, I make sure that they know that that’s not the first place we’re going to go to, and it might not ever be the thing that we do. It’s not about heights, it’s about the idea of children being able to determine their own play, to be able to take some risk within our constraints, like licensing. Our conversations rethink what that image is about. Not the literal image. 

Jesse Coffino: Those images force that conversation. Any teacher who loves a child is not going to allow a child to endanger themselves. Because these images are taking place at schools where that love exists, you can infer that it’s not dangerous. Like you said, that doesn’t mean you’re going to have ladders or high places for kids to climb, but when it’s self-determined, the child and teacher are both responding to what is and isn’t dangerous for the child. Safety should be at the forefront of the thinking of any teacher.

Tran Templeton: It’s a metaphor for how curriculum could be within the classroom itself. And we are working it out here. They have a brand-new facility. They have four spaces that are all connected outdoors. And the teachers are very aware of this. I think they feel the possibility themselves. So I’m trying to ease into it. I’m new here too, so I can’t just come in and barrel over things.

Jesse Coffino: How is it to be back in the Lone Star State?

Tran Templeton: It’s been good to be able to rethink how I approach and present material.

Jesse Coffino: You have to think more about the blocks to change or learning that might come from the learner. 

Tran Templeton: And there are larger structures that they go home to, the classrooms that they go into, the people who manage those schools, and how they talk to those folks, and convince them that curriculum is not what it has been purported to be. But people are curious here.

Jesse Coffino: If there’s no curiosity, there’s no real learning or joy.

Tran Templeton: When I show my students videos of Anji, they’re just, “Wow.” Their eyes light up, and they’re, “What is this? Where can I find this?” You know? They know, right? They know when they see it. They know what’s good. They can’t articulate it. What they see, they didn’t know was possible before.


Tran Templeton: I have memories of play before my sister came along, she’s nine years younger, and memories after. Before my sister came along, I remember playing a lot with my older cousins. We lived in an apartment complex right next to an open field. This was before Houston was as developed as it is now. I remember going out there a lot. There’s this spear grass. I’ve asked Chris before if he ever played with spear grass growing up. Are you familiar with it?

Jesse Coffino: Like sawgrass? 

Tran Templeton: It was so sharp at the end. A sharp point. You throw it at people, and it sticks into them. It’s a little painful.

Jesse Coffino: We had sawgrass. If you pulled it in one direction, it’s like a razor blade. You could cut open an arm.

Tran Templeton: It was that kind of play. Just running around, hurting each other with this spear grass. When my sister came along, it drastically changed my play. We moved from an urban center with apartment complexes to a neighborhood with houses. It was the ’80s or the early ’90s, and there was a lot of fear about kids being out of doors. It really shifted the kind of play that I was allowed to take part in. My play became more in-house play, because I also had to take care of my sister. It revolved around the video camera; we had just gotten a handheld Sony video camera. I would record her making music videos to Depeche Mode and the Cure. This was my early teens. She was young. “What can I do with a young child?” The video camera was introduced then, and also I was influenced by the music I was listening to. Star Search was on TV. So all those interests sort of converged into, “Well, let’s make videos of you performing as a singer or as a storyteller, as a comedian,” you know, because those were all the segments of this TV show. I talk about this in my classes a lot, about play being a culmination of, or being produced through, the environments that we’re in, the materials that are available to us that we take up, the interactions that we are afforded. I have my sister, she’s younger, and we were afforded certain freedoms. Our parents allowed us to stay up late. All of that played a part in the kind of play we took part in, along with larger sociopolitical forces, like what’s thought to be safe or unsafe for kids to do outside.

Jesse Coffino: Your memories of play take place over a shift from your early childhood to your early adolescence. The latter became part of what would probably be the play memories of your sister, if we were to ask her. 

Tran Templeton: She would remember having to dance to Morrissey videos. For me, play continued into adolescence. I played with my cousins. We made up games. We made up challenges, that sort of thing. There was a lot of interpersonal play. It was about who was around.


Tran Templeton: I’m an early childhood scholar, and my partner, Chris Moffett, had connections to you and Chelsea. He knew about Anji and he floated the idea of going to this place. Part of my work centers around play, and, at that moment, I was in the midst of developing my dissertation. My work focuses on photographs and how adults image children. I was interested that documentation and photography and video are big components of the practice of Anji Play. I wanted to see how these practices might differ within this curricular model or within a different cultural context. To see if children get constructed through the image in the same way that they get constructed here. So Chelsea came to Teachers College to talk to me and to my colleague, Dr. Haeny Yoon, about Anji Play. What she described and what we saw persuaded us that it just sort of made sense to go to Anji. So Haeny, Chris, and I went. Chris and I had just met. I arrange my Anji timeline according to my relationship with Chris. It’s lasted about the same time.

Jesse Coffino: I hope it continues forever, at least with Anji Play. I love Chris too, but that’s none of my business. 

Tran Templeton: Then I remember arriving in Anji and being at Jiguan in the midst of what seemed like 700 children. I think it was the largest school that we went into. I distinctly remember the schools, and noting a few things, but I remember being in the midst of 700 children who were playing, and being overwhelmed with emotion about it, overwhelmed with the idea that this is possible for kids . . . I can feel that emotion welling up right now. I’ll try not to. I saw what it’s like when it’s possible for children to have a freedom, and for adults to not get in the way. That was really . . . it’s a memory that is so strong that even talking about now, it stirs up . . . But during my experience in Anji, there was also another side of what I felt, which is a question that we have to ask ourselves: Why can’t all kids have this? And for me, in particular, why can’t children who are marginalized in the United States have this? I go back to a question bell hooks posed in an interview on C-SPAN: she says, “Nobody ever says that black kids should get Montessori or Reggio. Nobody ever says that they should have more freedom. We always say that have should have less freedom.” So there is a ring of hope, but there is also, on the flip side of it, a sort of despair over who gets to have this, that if it were to come to the US, it would probably only be available to a select few. 

I still have very, very strong visions of being in the midst of these children in Anji, of having no other adults around me, of being able to be on my own with the camera, by myself or with the kids. I remember standing there marveling at and noticing connections to the outside world that I had missed as a child, in that transitional point that I just mentioned. The fact that I did grow up outside, and was able to do things outside with the materials at hand, and then later had to be confined into indoor spaces, which most kids are today in the US. In that moment in Anji, I really saw that it’s possible for kids to have this connection to the outdoors and to being outside, what it does for us to be able to be outside in the sunshine, and to feel pure air, versus air-conditioned, circulated stale air, an aliveness. I hadn’t really articulated that before, but just . . . I can still kind of smell that Anji air, you know.

And in Langcun, up in the mountains, I remember going through the school space on a Sunday and seeing the structures there, and being able to imagine children there, being able to imagine all the different ways the children could use the materials, and then realizing that I couldn’t possibly imagine the extent of the child’s capacity, that the children are able to do so much more than what my imagination allows me to think about. 

And I remember being with the teachers. It was a small room. It was Chelsea and me and Yuan Qing and Michele Reich, and Ms. Cheng, probably. There was a small group of teachers kind of reviewing their work. And again, I was overwhelmed with feeling, not about the kids this time, but about the teachers’ practice of looking at children’s play very carefully. It can be hard to tell teachers how important it is to just to be there, to not interfere, that afterwards we can talk about it and analyze it. I got to see that in Anji. It was a really emotional moment. I didn’t expect to be overwhelmed with emotion about teacher practice, but it’s something to see adults truly caring about children and making an effort to take them seriously. The act of taking children seriously is not common, unfortunately, despite so many paying the idea lip service, and we write about it. And it’s hard for us to do that with other adults. So it’s even harder to do with children. And when we do, I think it speaks volumes about our commitment to our relations with other human beings. When adults with power can give that up, that’s a lot. That means a lot to me.

  And that experience in Anji has helped me with my own teaching and scholarship. What it means to take kids seriously and what it means to listen to children is something that is central to my work. I am always looking for examples of that in practice: what does it look like or feel like in practice? I take those things into my practice with preservice teachers. I show videos of Anji to these teachers in the classroom. I am introducing what I saw and experienced in Anji to a whole group of people who might not have the chance to visit China, who might not have the chance to see, in person, what it means when we say, “We need to take children seriously.”

And I always pull from my own classroom practices or from what other people do, but with Anji it is different, because you’re encountering a complete curriculum and a whole vision or image of a child doing something differently. The examples that I have always used always show the image of the child still in a room with other kids, doing the same things that they typically do. So what we are doing is asking, “How do we change that image?” So the image of the child leaping off a high place, that we talked about earlier, what can that mean for us? We live with quotes, and we live with mantras or whatever. But we also live with an image.

That one image in particular, it’s stayed with me and it’s helped me. And when I talk to people about Anji Play and my visit to Anji, there is one video I shot that I always come back to. It’s a three-year-old on a plank, with a mat below him. It’s a ten-second clip. In other places, teachers would have been horrified, or adults would have been really worried. But the child took a look, and he saw that the mat wasn’t there, and he backed off. I remind myself of this image when I think about trusting children, allowing them to make decisions, and knowing that they have knowledge and understanding of their environments.

My visit to Anji has also furthered my theoretical understandings and thinking about embodied knowledge, thinking about where knowledge is situated and how it gets produced and manifested. That’s a large part of what Anji has done for me. It has opened up possibilities, and allowed me to think more about what’s possible.

During our visit to Anji, I also remember being told that we’re going to give a talk to 500 people, and having to throw together a presentation really quickly. I presented about why we should watch children and why we should observe children. I have always emphasized observation in my own practice with preservice teachers, but also during the time that I was a classroom teacher. 

The presentation allowed me to think more about the practice of observing and what it does for us when we observe. I worked at Teachers College Rita Gold Center, where our mantra was “wait, watch, and wonder.” It comes from an analytic principle from Melanie Klein or Anna Freud. So “wait, watch, and wonder” had been part of my practice, but Anji just takes that idea to a new level. I took a class at Harvard, when I was there, with Eleanor Duckworth, who has a book called The Having of Wonderful Ideas. She talked a lot about inquiry and wondering and curiosity and asking questions. So all of that culminated for me in Anji. The “wait, watch, and wonder” and that work with Eleanor Duckworth. 

And we gave a talk, and it was 500 people, and everybody had cameras, which was very striking, the practice of cameras there. And the preparation for that talk was a really good practice in, “How do I talk about what I do within this context, and make it make sense to a different cultural audience, especially if we assume there’s a universality to looking, looking as a practice and visuality, what it does for us?”

And then I came back from Anji and needed to do my dissertation. But I am always aware, and I think, “Well, why can’t Anji Play happen here?” And I can’t do my research where kids don’t have freedom. My research requires listening to and looking at what children do when they’re free, as a way to think about their development of self. I can’t do that in a space where they’re expected to transition every 15 minutes, where they have typical materials. Everybody’s studied that already. To me, that’s not studying children. That’s studying children who have been subject to an oppressive environment, like studying the effects of interventions on prisoners. Child development is still based on Piaget, Vygotsky, and all those old guys. We know that that’s not the model we should be using, yet we don’t have anything else to think with. Anji allows us to think with other forms of the child.

And I probably have a chip on my shoulder about how people think about young children in early childhood, in that they are incredibly devalued, and the child becomes merely something that we have to develop to conform to the global workforce. While, at the same time, early childhood is seen as atheoretical and not intellectual, when the opposite is true. That’s why philosophers like Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze talk about the child, because the child is an intellectual space, and Anji allows us to be cross-disciplinary, and to elevate early childhood work.

And I go back to that image of the child jumping off from a high place. The high place is religion and politics and sex and whatever else. We don’t want them to be there. We want them to stay low to the ground, because that’s supposedly safe territory. Anji Play allows us to think about all those things. And for a long while, I was thinking of Anji Play in terms of its curriculum, because I also work with culturally relevant pedagogies and helping teachers implement anti-racist work. So that work has allowed me to think a lot about how Anji Play works. That it is a powerful metaphor for curriculum, for taking risks, for seeing children as capable. 

But In our neoliberal reality, with its need to measure, in some way, the productivity of teachers, we have to ask, “What is it that teachers do just to show that we’re doing something?” Because, often, doing less is actually doing more. And, for the large part, we still get stuck in these ideas of teaching, what a teacher is supposed to be doing, what a teacher looks like and feels like, because of the ways we’ve always seen teachers. We apprentice teaching, through watching teachers teach, for twelve-plus years of our lives, and so we think, “Well, our role is to control. Our role is to regulate.” At the same time, we think about how we were regulated as students. We can’t reconcile. We can’t break out of that. We’re always sort of negotiating that agency.

Teaching is an ethical project. I always emphasize that teaching is an ethical practice. That you should not go into it if you’re not thinking about the ethics of it. That can be interpreted in so many different ways. But Anji Play really gets us to think about that, what it means to be an ethical practitioner of children, of young children. Who are we holding down, and how are we holding them down? Because we’re not always thinking about that. We’re so often thinking, “This is right. This is what’s good for kids,” without questioning that goodness.

Tran Templeton: This photo (and memory) exemplifies for me not only the kinds of risk that very young children take and the trust that adults have in children within Anji Play, but also the knowledge that children have about their own bodies and environments.

Tran Templeton: This photo (and memory) exemplifies for me not only the kinds of risk that very young children take and the trust that adults have in children within Anji Play, but also the knowledge that children have about their own bodies and environments.


Dr. Chris Moffett

Visiting Assistant Professor, Art Education, College of Visual Arts and Design, University of North Texas

June 2015, October 2015, April 2017, June 2018

Interview conducted on February 5, 2019

Jesse Coffino: Do you ever ask people about their memories of play?

Chris Moffett: It comes up for me as a question very much in the context of trying to explain what Anji Play is. I think it’s a beautiful way to orient people to their own experience in a way that’s very hard to talk about otherwise. And those play memories are oftentimes so far away in our experience that it’s just important to go back, and use that as a way to understand what Anji Play is, but also just what is education in general. I have found myself evoking that experience more often when people ask what Anji Play is, just as an entry into it.

But also at a more formal level, since visiting Anji and hearing more about its origins, I’ve taken it on myself to ask my own art education students about their own early play memories, as an orientation to their coursework in general, without any particular connection to Anji Play, but just realizing that those play memories are, for educators, super important to be able to go back to and access as best we can. We’re never going to be children again, so that’s part of the challenge of the play memories: to tap into something in our own experience that brings us back closer to those moments, and understanding another perspective other than the one we’re living as adults and teachers in the moment.

And so I found, in my coursework with undergraduate students who are preparing to become teachers in the near future, that reminding them of those moments—not just, “Okay, here’s how you’re supposed to handle education,” but, “Here’s a moment in a student’s experience that’s profound, and you can also remember those and check in with those”—is a huge counter to the pressures that I think educators and future educators are feeling to manage a classroom, to impart knowledge, and all these expectations. And stepping back and realizing, “Oh, right, I handled that pretty well on my own as a child. It didn’t require a huge apparatus. It’s actually quite simple if you get out of the way of it,” is a huge relief to them, as people who are both caught up in the educational system and planning to take a role in future implementations of that for others. Play memories are an elegant way to tap into that.

Jesse Coffino: And when you bring that up with your students, or the people you’re working with, is it an invitation to think about it and sit with it, or is it an invitation to share? Do people want to talk about it? Do people not want to talk about it?

Chris Moffett: People love to talk about it. In fact, I started this semester two weeks ago, and with my elementary art education students I asked them to reflect, not on play memories per se, but on materials they engaged with at an early age. Because they had just gone through several years of studio practice, they’re immersed in charcoal and drawing materials and paints, sculpture, clay, all these very traditional student materials, and then on top of that, it gets layered with a whole slew of techniques, procedures, expectations. So I’ve just been asking them to reconsider what the scope of possible materials actually is. And I just launched into it by saying, “Well, what did you work with as a child?”

And they love to think back to what all those things were. We had probably a 20 minute discussion on Oreo cookies. Right? As this weird little construction material that you had this engagement with: it tastes a certain kind of way, there are different rituals and approaches to eating it, and all this kind of stuff. Or moss, for example, and what did you do with it? I think, for them, it was super engaging, and provided a really nice counterpoint to this sort of technical expectation around artistic materials.

Jesse Coffino: There’s this book called with a chapter called “The Psychopathology of Everyday Things,” and their affordances. And you’re thinking, as an educator working with materials, how these materials invite people, how the Oreo asks you to twist it, how that surface tension breaks in the twisting, right? Affordances. And that’s part of the experience, going back to that. But you mentioned, it was really interesting, what I picked up on is you talking about this distance between their current experience, where they are now, and that memory that they’re drawing on. And just this notion of memory being incredibly subjective, because you’re recalling and you’re adding experience and other things on top of what you’re recalling, and the experience itself is Rashomonian. Or just think about the unreliability of eyewitness accounts, or this larger question of subjectivity or objectivity.

But you have these deeply meaningful, highly subjective experiences. Then, in the Anji Play approach, the way we’re talking about it, these experiences make some claim to truth, right? So there’s a truth behind that experience, but its recall is filtered through all of this other experience. Is there any tension there in your mind? How do you feel about the use of words like “true”? 

Chris Moffett: As a trained philosopher, I’m supposed to have ideas about truth and these sorts of things, but practically speaking, I find it just an odd choice of words. I mean, for precisely those reasons. It’s an elusive thing, and we have very subjective notions of what truth is or why we should be oriented to it in general. And I think much of contemporary philosophy is about questioning our assumptions about what counts as truth, who says, and to what ends, and how can we situate to knowledge differently. So it’s a loaded term, and I think it’s a particularly loaded term within education, where it’s often deployed in very bureaucratic fashions. You’re often being assessed on whether you’re in the truth or out of the truth.

That said, I do think there’s something at the heart of it, if you think of it as an experiential practice. What feels true, what rings true, maybe might be a more interesting way to think about it. I’m sort of riffing on the language, but if you really think about truth as a kind of sensory practice, then that becomes interesting. All of a sudden it’s not just a question of are you in it or out of it, but what can you do with it? How does it speak to you? What does it afford? In the same kind of way that a material might.

Jesse Coffino: And, in parallel, we are talking about the period of childhood as the period where culture, language, the understanding of the self, of the environment, the world, reality, is taking place at this age, and you’re also determining, the child’s determining, what is and isn’t true, right? So, with Anji Play, you have a system which is about how you create the conditions for children to assess those things, but obviously there are all the inputs of culture and the environment and materials and the adult’s presence and the practices. But you have this larger question that comes up, which is something that comes up in the interviews, is that you do have what would seem to be common experiences or shared sensory and affective recalls, right? You have this very similar expressed emotional reaction or recall, and then even in the literal words that are used. When people say things, “freedom” or “alone” or “a tree.” If I have four people saying, “Oh yeah, I remember so clearly climbing into a tree and sitting in that tree,” I’m not saying that—and I guess this may be a separate linguistic or semantic question than what is the deployment of the word “truth”—but it seems to be, some things are shared. There is a shared experience or feeling that seems somewhat consistent across cultures in terms of the people we’ve spoken to. So maybe in the Anji Play or true play context, the claim to truth is the truth of it being something essential that it is possible for people to access.

Chris Moffett: There’s something about just being in a tree, for example. And whatever that is for somebody. I mean, maybe there’s an even deeper truth than any particular material, which is that we all share these common experiences of being in spaces and trying to find out, “What do we care about in those relationships?” And there’s going to be a kind of commonality, a certain biological imperative around both physical needs—like, I need air or I need sunlight, I need room to move so that I’m not trapped, those are all quite real—but then there’s also, I think, one of the things that I think about in my own play memories: How those sort of basic elements afford an experience. An experimental experience that I can craft for myself. Nobody told me to climb a tree, but I found myself there over and over again as a way to try to understand something about what my relationship to the space around me can be.

Jesse Coffino: If you’re willing to share, what are your memories of play? Are there any specific instances, is there a specific theme that emerges for you in the way you think about these things?

Chris Moffett: For me they’re very place based. So I think back to where I was. And I think we could probably find a kind of theme or a shared truth across those spaces, but the way they show up in memory is very specific to where they were. So until I was eight, I lived in rural Pennsylvania, in farm country, on 18 acres of church property. My dad was a minister. Which meant that, six days a week, that place was quiet and all mine, aside from random deer and hedgehogs and whatever. And I have early memories, who knows how reliable they are, of just sort of disappearing. Leaving the house, out into that space, into the woods, into the fields. There was a creek and climbing trees. I would just hop on my bike, and there was a perimeter to it, I had a sense of where the boundary of my world was, but I would push that, even as I was very young. It’s hard to imagine what that actually looks like today in our striated spatial world.

But for me, that was the most consistent feeling I had, of going out into a space and into whatever I chose to do in that space. Let’s say I wasn’t going out to play, I was going playing out. The very act of being out was already the play. I wasn’t going to go find someplace and then go play in that place, I was playing in place, I was exploring what my world was. And so things like climbing trees were a very natural extension of that, because that’s what was available, that was a way to understand my own physicality, a way to embed myself, I guess, in a place. To be in a tree is not just to be somewhere, like on the ground. It’s to be in the midst of something. So I have lots of early memories of just climbing and nestling into tree spaces. That’s one place.

When I was eight, we moved to the suburbs of New Haven, Connecticut, so the scope of my space was changed from 18 acres to a third of an acre, but then it became a much more social engagement, as you’re now, you’re playing in a neighborhood, you’re playing with other kids, the intersection of other people’s places, and it became much more of a social negotiation of place: riding bikes around the block, and finding a shortcut through somebody’s backyard.

Jesse Coffino: You talked about sort of pushing boundaries and space. I was thinking about your ambit of the property, and how the limits of the property bounded your space. But then you quickly went to sort of these boundaries of indoor and outdoor play and not-play. What is the discrete experience and what are these discrete spaces? And in Anji, you have this really liminal space or outdoor space that is this overlap in the Venn diagram of activities that happen on different scales, but with the same sort of philosophy behind them or the same ideals. So you have indoor or outdoor, and you’re talking about these boundaries, and then you’re talking about sort of this embeddedness. You’re talking about boundaries, but then you’re also talking about connectedness, the bounding or the lack of boundaries, and you push the defining of those boundaries, and then you have this connectedness.

And so there’s a sense of, in my mind, connectedness to something larger, there’s a sense of spirituality, maybe, or the safety of feeling connected to something that’s bigger that’s there, because you’re talking about getting lost, disappearing, of embedding, of being “out” in space. And you’re also talking about being on the property, which is almost definitionally spiritually oriented. 

Chris Moffett: That’s a whole can of worms, because as a preacher’s kid and growing up in church property, it’s a very specific environment that many people have an experience with, but having experience on the sort of backside of it becomes very different. And so in some sense you could say church was—I wouldn’t say a spiritual thing—it was a playground. I even remember, up until perhaps high school, thinking of the church structure as like a climbing gym. I was pretty good at shimmying up the walls. And I would wait through a service in order to finally have the space made available for its properties, right? Which led, you can say, to a deeply ambivalent relationship to spiritual practices. On the one hand, I was very embedded in them, but on the other hand I had a very odd relationship to them, in which they were a context but also a kind of weird proceduralism laid on top of it. I mean, you could draw interesting parallels between that and education.

Jesse Coffino: Like praxis, right? Orthopraxy versus orthodoxy.

Chris Moffett: Yes, in a lot of the same forms. A commitment to the verbal, a commitment to forms of leading and following, and the distribution of information or ideas. 

Jesse Coffino: And I guess part of that question for me is that you’ve got people like Steiner, or even Montessori, where there’s this view of this moment as spiritual, this connectedness, this sense of the discovery of our embedment in the natural world, and then there’s the values that come from these spiritual framings of experience. In some instances, you can see it create a sort of romanticized notion of a child, and maybe it’s filtered through these positive memories, who knows. Maybe it’s this joyous discovery, it’s kind of this thing, so there’s this spiritual unknown quality to it, what is known to the child in some sense. I think sometimes of prehistory. When a flower flowering in a reflection was magic, because you didn’t have a better explanation. The mystery of the unknown and the child encountering the unknown.

Chris Moffett: I’ll just speak to my own particular experience. I have very distinct memories of being a child, and then as I moved through the world and through the educational system, one of the weird side effects of how we think about education is, we bracket out people by age. We just take it so for granted, but it’s the strangest thing. If you’re this age you go there, if you’re this age you go here, and don’t interact, or only in very proscribed ways. And so I think we also see a real shift, in the US, around the public and the private, and where children are expected to be and how they’re expected to be in different places. And so the larger result of that, just in my own experience, is that after I left behind my childhood, I didn’t know any kids. I didn’t know people who had kids, and if they did I wouldn’t see them with their kids. I was studying education, and yet would rarely see a kid.

We would do philosophy of education, which presumably has something to say about early childhood experience, but we would talk about it in theoretical terms, or within the context of a particular book or particular image of a child, rather than with children or in the vicinity of children. So the closest I got was really working with undergrads, who became sort of de facto children for me. But that’s also very weird: why is that as close as I could get?

And so I was fortunate, in my private practice in movement education, to mentor with somebody who worked with kids. But honestly, I wanted to work with her because I thought she was brilliant, and it just so happened she worked with kids specifically. And so here I found myself observing and working with infants and children through movement, but one on one, in a private setting, a therapeutic setting. And I found that to be hugely rewarding, but also very strange. I spent a lot of time just trying to figure out, how do you be with kids, what does this mean? But I was fortunate to have that experience, and then I think, as a result, I slowly began to gain more confidence. But without that experience, I could easily still be in a similar circumstance of thinking about education without a direct experience of children’s lives.

And that’s weird. It’s weird that you can go through this world for so many years, and, without a very specific professional or familial exposure, not have any access to children. Now I have nieces and I see them now and then, so I have those kinds of encounters, but even today, as a professor of education, I have to seek out those experiences, I have to go find a school and ask to come visit and see them within those parameters. So I guess all that is to say, the cultural notion of what a child is is largely formed at a distance, and it takes something to actually shake that off, to find ways to get under all those impositions that keep it from actually being an encounter, and keep that encounter from being one that’s already proscribed by very clear social norms. Either you’re a therapist, you’re working with a child for XYZ reasons, or you’re a teacher and now your job is to work with and manage these children who are in this age range, this one- or two-year gap of age that now is your bandwidth for exposure to children.

So I don’t know that I really have a fully formed appreciation of what childhood even means, even after all the work I’ve been doing. Becoming aware that that was odd, and is a problem, took a long time. I didn’t even notice it as a gap until I started thinking about education, until I started thinking, “Oh, I do need to work with this child, and I don’t have a sense of what children are in general.” And so, once I became aware of it as a challenge, that was one of the things that really spoke to me about my experience in Anji. To have an experience with children that is much larger in scale, and also much freer in its expression, freer in how it plays out in space, how the children are free to be children in that space, rather than playing the role of children within an educational sort of paradigm. So that was a profound encounter.

Jesse Coffino: You’re talking about sort of this hypothetical child or abstract child or theoretical child, or the lineage of the child from this thinker to that thinker to this thinker, that practice, right? So the Vygotskian child to an American Vygotskian looks different than he does to a Russian Vygotskian, which probably looks very different than he or she did to Vygotsky. You have these views of the child or these ideas of the child, and then you have the systems where knowledge is in some ways transmitted from an expert to a learner or to a knowledgeable person to a learner, and then in Anji you kind of see this reversal, where the child is really teaching in some ways, or is the subject. That the location of authority around knowledge, or the value of knowledge, or the meaning, the authority around the meaning, or the importance of knowledge, is more centered in the child’s experience. There’s a lot of subtle distinctions there. We can talk more subtly about how the teacher may or may not be scaffolding learning, what are the routines they’re putting into place, how they’re framing questions, what materials they’re providing, what their culture is as teachers and professionals.

But to a certain extent, there is more deference given to the direction of the child’s knowledge or what it means for the child to explain. You’re talking about this position where the child is present in your professional experience, or even in your personal life, because that’s where society often organizes the presence of children in our lives.. And then you encounter in Anji something that maybe changes, a little bit, that view, that directionality. You’re saying there’s this linear view of where children should be, so there’s this band of this year for the kids where they should be, which is informed by developmental psychology. And there’s truth to that. There are things that do happen developmentally, chronologically, but that’s a narrow view of capacity or a narrow view of what a child or an educator should be doing in that moment. 

Chris Moffett: Speaking of play memories, there’s a little gap in my memory around how I first heard about Anji, how it actually kicked off. I can only say that it was really just at the invitation of Chelsea, who I had met the year or two before, quite by chance, quite by art, you could say. We were both invited to be part of an art project of a mutual acquaintance of ours who would stage dinner à vingt, dinner of 20, in which he would invite people who he thought would have interesting conversations together, and would never invite the same people twice. So it was a sort of chance encounter, sort of an artistic blind date of sorts between people who might be of interest to each other, either artistically or as just human beings. And so Chelsea and I were both at one of these dinners, and of course got talking about education, and quickly discovered we had common unorthodox ideas about education.

And then I guess it sort of got left at that, sort of kind of like a “to be continued,” and I was finishing up my doctorate at the time. And then I think, during that period, she went to China, encountered Anji Play, and in my dim recollection, as far as I can tell, it was either an email or a call or something, along the lines of, “You’ve got to check this out.” And so I perked up, and again, I was not particularly focused on early childhood, but when somebody who I think is doing interesting things is interested in something, I want to understand that. And so I took it very seriously, and very quickly found myself on a plane to China to check it out.

I think I had some ideas about why this might be interesting, partly coming out of my own interest in working with children in a movement context and trying to understand how that relates to educational spaces, so I had a series of my own questions that I thought might be spoken to in this context. But again, it was very abstract still. I didn’t have a sense of the space or the possibilities, in any but the dimmest ways. And so, when I arrived in Anji, that first sort of visceral experience was quite profound. And I don’t know what to say about that. It was familiar, in the sense that you can recognize a school setting, you can recognize children in a space together in those contexts, and I think it probably evoked some of my own memories.

But I think there was also a critical difference as well, and that had to do with a kind of . . . there’s not good words for this. I’m going to say it wrong, but a kind of wild exuberant joy in the physicality of a space that really spoke to me in a way that I had never brought those two worlds together before. I had my own play experiences and I had my own school experiences, and the Venn-diagram overlap of those was quite sliver thin. And so there was something very familiar about it—I recognized play, I recognized school, but there was something about the combination of those that was staggering.

I’ve been to China three times now. All of my reason for being there is Anji, so there may be other ways to make the long journey possible, but in each case it’s always been a case of, how do I get to Anji and spend more time there, because I feel like that’s a kind of spatial imperative, a need to be immersed back into that experience and understand it better.

And now, having gone back several times to some of the same schools and seeing some of the same contexts, it’s all sort of layered now in memory, so it’s hard to extract the first encounter. But I think there are things that have stood out to me as consistent across each visit. And each visit seems like a chance to deepen and expand on those sort of basic elements. I think one of the first things that really stood out to me was the sense of space and movement: a kind of almost oversaturation of that, seeing things that I could imagine sort of in isolation, climbing a tree or stomping across a creek, all those things from my own memories, but just seeing them en masse, a whole group of children engaging in this activity together collectively . . . the physicality of it, the sense of how pervasive the movement and physical engagements were in the space, is something that’s hard to explain.

Because we’ve all seen movement, we have sports, have all kinds of ways of understanding these things, but seeing it in such a condensed form, there’s something that just seems quite right about it. For whatever reason, we don’t do that as a common physical experience in the world. It is unfortunate. And you only really get to feel that once you see it being enacted on such a pervasive scale. A whole group of children within a school, within so many schools, and schools typically being the places where those movements are very carefully proscribed, very carefully regulated and excluded.

You could imagine recesses being a particular moment in school where you’re allowed to physically engage, but even then, those spaces tend to be fairly proscribed and the range of behaviors fairly proscribed, and there tends to be a kind of franticness that comes with the release that’s afforded by those moments. And I think that’s quite different when you see something at that scale. It feels like a kind of inevitability. Of course it should be this way, right? It doesn’t feel like an exception and doesn’t feel urgent, it feels natural and timeless, and there is something true or right about it.

So I think that stood out. There is something about just the full expression of children’s movement in relationship to large-scale material and environments. It was so clearly elaborating on itself, rather than on some kind of other external regulation.

Environments for children are typically fairly constrained, privatized, or commercialized as marketable experiences, with all the branding and colored plastic that goes with those kinds of things. So aside from my own memories of childhood, which were very different, or aside from seeing children’s faces from a distance in Central Park or seeing the kinds of materials that children are afforded as they’re moving down a city street in a stroller, there isn’t a lot to actually compare to.

And I think the expectation when you go into a school is already formed by a history of what kinds of materials are likely to be for children, and, certainly in an outside sort of play area, tend to fall into typical categories. Seesaws and increasingly bizarre plastic tree house–like slide structure things. And in contrast to that, what I recognized in Anji was a very direct relationship to the thing-ness of things, rather than a kind of semblance of things. Things don’t need to be toys in order for children to play with them. They don’t have to already fit into a particular aesthetic category or a particular educational category for them to be available for people to work. Trees are trees, and they can be climbed on or they can be looked at or they can have things attached to them. And there’s a very direct relationship to the physicality of things that I recognized there, that spoke to my early childhood memories.

I think one of the things that particularly resonated with me is just the sense of scale of materials. There’s a way in which we tend to reduce things both for children and for education. Things are made smaller and of less responsive materials, less functional, they’re scaled down in any number of ways to be a very different experience for a lot of different reasons. So, in terms of materials, one of the things that really stood out to me was how appropriate the size of them was, and yet how odd that appropriateness seemed, how sort of extraordinary it was. For example, real ladders. Ladders that you could climb up, and boards that you could string between ladders, and barrels that could be used to hold things or to get up on top of and try to roll on. Shovels that actually are designed for shoveling, in large enough areas that you could actually irrigate something or uncover something, or bury something, not just as a token sort of representation of burying or irrigating, but for real.

There was a sense of just the very directness of scale, of material, of experience, that didn’t seem particularly mediated or didn’t require mediation through any idea in order for it to be real and expressed. So that was striking.

Coming from a movement perspective, the quality of the movement expressed in relationship to those materials was quite extraordinary. Just a full range of human possibility of movement that didn’t seem particularly constrained. And, again, it’s hard to recognize those constraints until you have something to compare it to. But if you’ve been moved from place to place in a bundled-up fashion and are told, “Here are the things you can move around and here are the ways you can move around them,” then it seems very normal, but it’s also very constraining. So when you see that unleashed, when you see the full possibility of human expression and movement and relationship to environment and materials, in which you’re not just moving in an environment but you can actually change your environment and create challenges in your environment that will even elicit more movements, in this really interesting sort of feedback loop, then that’s striking.

Chris Moffett: He was exploring his material environment to the fullest.

Chris Moffett: He was exploring his material environment to the fullest.


Dr. Julie Nicholson

Director, Center for Play Research, Mills College 

Date of visit to Anji: June 2015

Interview conducted on February 6, 2019

Jesse Coffino: I want to tell you about my memories of play as a child. I remember Marin Horizon Montessori in Mill Valley. I remember finding a frog under a rock. I also remember, they had these kind of square posts that you went up, kind of, they looked almost like those Montessori numerical rods coming out of the ground, but tall, wide enough so that you could get on them. And I remember, they seemed very narrow and very high. And I remember once turning over this rock and it seemed wet out, maybe it had been raining, and there was a toad underneath it. I remember the glands on the side of its face. And I remember the idea that we’d found worms, maybe, and roly-polies, but this frog was this thing that I had . . . this toad, really, toad, this thing I’d never seen before, and I never really thought about what a real toad would look like, it was just very surprising and real and almost like this toad had this power as this wild, alive thing independent of me. And it was just very exciting, the sense of wonder. I also remember picking up pieces of metal, just metal junk off of the ground to collect. And I remember the sound of the hand-brake on my parents’ delivery van, I remember the sound it made when my parents pulled it, and I remember its shape, I could draw a picture of it for you to this day. And I wanted to pull it, and I was left in the van while my dad was getting crates of bread or something from our bakery to put in the van, and I just pulled it, and I rolled the van down the short hill into a fence. But I don’t remember that. I remember just wanting to pull it and feeling very satisfied about having pulled it. This would have been about four or five years old. 

I wanted to share those with you, because you have such a strong . . . it’s just a thread that, that’s really strong in your research, and you’re thinking about culture and language and learning and experience and then how that related to or is expressed in memories of play. And so, when you ask people about their play memories, do you do it ever in casual conversation, or is it always framed very specifically, where that interaction is about that question?

Julie Nicholson: It comes up a lot, Jesse. It’s so interesting because I just started teaching at Mills again. It’s the new semester. It started two weeks ago, and I’m taking a break from the policy class, and going back to play, which I haven’t taught for five years. And so I just had them do . . . they do weekly blogs, and they’re going to put these together every week, thinking about their play and documenting it.

And of course I started by having them think back, but then they also interview somebody; I requested they interview somebody who was generally 50 or older, just to get that generational difference. And so I just finished reading all 42 of those interviews of play memories, which was fascinating. There’s those kind of formal times, obviously, where it’s assigned, and I read them for research or teaching, but because I’m doing so much more, we haven’t talked, so you don’t know about the things I’ve been really launching into.

But one of the things I’ve done that . . . well, there’s two things I mentioned in the last year. One is that I had been working with my colleague, Debora Wisneski, I don’t know if you know her, she’s at University of Nebraska Omaha. And we created a journal with international play scholars looking at aspects of social justice and equity in relationship to play. And it was such a popular journal, and cited, and so on, that Taylor & Francis came to us and said, “Can we turn it into a book?”

So we just had it published in hardback, in a book format, two months ago. And it’s exciting. I mean, people are waiting for it forever. And we’ve got folks from many countries, all over, talking about play, and it brought up lots of conversation about, based on their research, what their positionality was, what their play memories were, where they were living as young children, who they’re teaching and working with now in the workforce and with young children.

And we actually are presenting, there’s a group of people, maybe five, flying in from different countries to present at the Association for the Study of Play in Virginia, coming up in, is it maybe March or April? March, actually. So we’re going to be flying, and then we’re going to start by talking about play memories. So there’s that.

And then the other piece, I would say, that is more casual, getting to your point of how does it just come into conversation, is that I’ve really taken a deep dive, over the last year, in exploring trauma and trauma-informed practice, because of my own experience, here with the family, and kind of learning about how to support, as a parent, children who experienced trauma early on, how do we heal that?

And a really, really important part of digging into trauma for, not just children, but when you look at, I work in all sorts of trauma-impacted communities, and then when we think about the early childhood workforce, they are very trauma impacted themselves. We talk and think a lot about play and self-care. So play both as how children’s play and adults’ play, or their self-care practices, are impacted by the trauma experiences they have and are exposed to.

And also how to use play and self-care for adults as a way for healing to happen. So we can both see the impact on play and how it’s disrupted, how it’s constrained and limited because of children’s and adults’ experiences of trauma. But we can also use play as—I talked about this all the time—as a medium for healing and building resilience.

And so, through that project—because now we’re training all over the state of California, and increasingly . . . I think we’re now in six states. We have 20 modules we’ve trained. We have over, at this point, probably 70 contracts that we’ve done. We’re talking about this all the time. And so it comes up formally, informally, in all of those ways.

And I learned a lesson, years ago, when I first started teaching this class—because I’ve always done play memories, as you know, and always early on in the course, and—but, boy, did I learn that—teaching as a professor in the middle of Oakland, with students who are born all over the world, from all different circumstances—that this notion of play memories being happy and universal and bringing up joy is naive.

And I just, I was so naive when I first went into that, and when people started to share—well, when I realized that I was not being sensitive to the whole range of lived experience and I needed to set a tone and say a couple of things—and I do this now, every time I talk about this, I always say, “We’re going to talk about play memories, play memories just as much as we all have different lived experiences, our play memories will represent all of these intersectional aspects of our identity and our communities and our backgrounds. And so we would expect that aspects of oppression and privilege that we see in our society around us, whether, whatever the ism, classism, sexism, ableism, that’s all going to be reflected in play, as is historical and political context, as is cultural context, all of that. And so I would imagine that people are going to have lots of different experiences that they could share. Some of those will be really joyful and happy. Some are going to be the opposite of that, and they’re going to be very painful, and there’s going to be a lot of trauma associated, or just a distress. And some of you may not have play memories because play was not allowed for, or wasn’t safe, or for whatever contextual reason, you don’t have, that’s not a lived experience for you to talk about as a child. I invite, in this space, all of those stories to be welcome, and I recognize that not all of you may want to tell a story about play. And if you want to be a listener tonight, that’s fine too. Now, when I set that context, take care of yourself, you know what’s right for you. But if you want to share a story that brings up tears, those tears are welcome here.”

When I set that tone, I’ve never had somebody say they don’t want to share. But what I will say is, it’s not like I can put a number on this, but if I were to say, in the interviews that I just read, where they interviewed folks over 50 about play memories, I would say a good 30% of them were extremely triggering, painful memories. People bringing up examples of playing in the context of our highly racialized society, where they experienced oppression and racism and bigotry and things.

And when they think back—as one of the students was saying, she’s a black woman, she interviewed her uncle, and he was talking about his context of play in a way where he was literally sobbing, and she said, “Do you want me to stop? Is this too hard?” And he said, “No, I need to, this is my childhood.” Others talk about play in war. Others talk about how, maybe there was play, it was allowed, but it was, they were always kind of managing community violence or domestic violence and what have you.

So I think, when we create the space for people to be real and speak a truth, they’ll tell us a little bit more complexity. And I was not ready for that when I was so naive. When was this? I don’t know how many years. I spent almost 15 years now. Something about 15 years ago, that first year when I said it, Jesse, and I had a student stand up to me. She stood up and she said, “So do you want me to participate in this activity? Because I grew up here in Oakland with a father who is violent and didn’t let us play. And so I don’t know how to play and I don’t have memories of play.” And I just remember going, “Wow, I need to create a safe, inclusive environment.” And right off the bat I didn’t.

Jesse Coffino: Thank you. That’s really powerful.

Julie Nicholson: It’s powerful. And that student, let me just say, that student . . . and she was teary. She was in her 50s when she took my class. She said, “I need help. I would like to ask your help to teach me how to play.” And everybody in that class, this was an undergrad class, said, they just kind of wrapped their arms around her. And they did. They opened up their blogs each week. They showed her their pictures. We sort of had this exchange, and on the last day of class, they said . . . I’ll use a pseudonym. We’ll call her Martha.

They said, “Martha, we would like, as our parting gift to you in the last moments of class, to have . . .” And this came from them. I didn’t think of this. They said, “Let’s all, before we leave class . . . We have a big whiteboard. Let’s put up 100 different ways that we can play as adults, and that will be our parting gift to you, Martha, because you’ve made so much progress, and you deserve play, and we want you to play, and we can heal through play.” And they did, and they just wrote it, and I took a picture of it and sent it to her, and she was just so touched.

Let me give you one other example, in case this is helpful, Jesse, ’cause this just came up two days ago with one of my students. It’s very common in college for—but it’s not about the college context—because it’s just very common for adults to say, “I’m too busy to play. I can’t have play in my life.” One of the real, the things I’ve realized, though, is that it’s really, really hard for people to advocate for things, if they don’t feel it.

Advocacy is about storytelling from the heart. And if it’s something you did when you were a child and it’s a long time ago, you’re not going to be a good advocate. And that’s why I tell them, “I need you to reconnect” with what I call their heart play, their true play. And, for many of them, that’s a semester-long journey, because they’ve since given up, and a lot of them will say, “I don’t have time. I don’t have time.” They have all these things in their mind that they’ve been socialized to say, that they serve others. They shouldn’t serve themselves.

I mean, there’s just a lot we have to work through. But this one student said to me, “Every time I do something for myself, it’s not just that I feel that I should be working and being productive.” But she said, “I actually have a history of eating disorders, and I have a history of sort of self-harm. And so it’s really, really hard for me to connect with that notion that I deserve joy and I deserve . . . that those feelings of kind of what I go through with heart, they play these different characteristics.”

And that’s the kind of stuff that I think when we’re really talking about, like, how is she going to bring her lived experience with that, that she’s still struggling with, to become a strong advocate for play for children in her professional work. It’s super complicated.

Jesse Coffino: So this interesting question. I really appreciate you bringing up that term “true play,” because I think that in the description of play memory, there’s this degree to which memories are all interconnected and change over time, that sense of multiple perspectives. So there’s a way in which memories of play can trigger other memories.

I’ve talked to young adults who don’t have distinct play memories as children, not because of the constraint of violence or insecurity, but just the elimination of opportunities because of things like scheduling or technology.

They’re not having these memories of play that we think of when, oftentimes, in our maybe privileged mindset, we . . . or maybe not, because I think that Ms. Cheng makes a universal statement, there’s this idea of true play, and that came from her experience of false play, where it was really coming from the intention of the adults, and my sort of shorthand is that, for at least young children, play is just deep engagement in the activity, deep and uninterrupted engagement in the activity of one’s own choosing, and it’s usually, there’s corresponding joy usually, an experience of joy and maybe risk.

And that in schools, if you’re a school that respects true play, then you see that as the primary experience of learning. And then, if you are practicing Anji Play, then there are specific practices and more clear articulation of those ideas connected to the stance of the adult in relation to the child’s experience of true play. So I’m beginning to question this definition of play, because if a child is deeply engaged in a video game they chose and they’re feeling joy, is that play?

And I was thinking, well, somebody who is escaping something. That’s an activity they are, in a sense, choosing, that they’re deeply engaged in. But I guess in that sense, then it’s a question of external circumstance. So that’s survival, or that’s not really what they would choose to do in that moment if they had a choice. So is there something that is a play memory that we don’t think of as a play memory, because it describes something that is play, but might not be immediately recalled as play? 

Julie Nicholson: Yes. The way that I think about play, Jesse, is very focused on acknowledging that there are cultural beliefs and values that are really diverse in communities around the world, and that our cultural routines are very shaped in the communities that we live in and the families we live in. And so the very notion of play being separate from work, for instance, that’s not true in many places.

The notion of play being something that children do, in age-level groups that are separate . . . well, let me say it in a different way. The notion that we see here, where children of similar ages are playing together, versus big groups of children of multiple ages playing together, those are all so differently shaped by the context in which children grow up. So I just got back from Guatemala. A lot of the times there, the children are playing while they’re on the streets selling wares at very young ages.

So they’re engaged in this cultural activity for survival with their family. We wouldn’t necessarily define it as play through the criteria that we use, which is a criterion with a particular economic-privilege lens, and a particular lens of how we . . . the image of the child and how that child develops towards the values that we hold true, like self-determination, agency, independent self-expression. Those are very Eurocentric, Western values.

And when I think about what I saw and what I’ve read a lot about around, let’s say just Guatemala, is that there are very collectivist and very family-oriented, very cultural routines. So you wouldn’t necessarily think of a child’s . . . a child wouldn’t think about their play and how they’re becoming self-actualized, but how they’re contributing to the group activity. So from the . . . I’m sorry. That was a long explanation, but when you say are there things that are play memories that we wouldn’t necessarily acknowledge and recognize . . .

I would say, for sure, that it depends on who the “we” is, or who the person is that we’re saying is acknowledging or not acknowledging, and I think their positionality and their viewpoint of the child, of what education is, what work is, what play is, is so based in their lived experience and probably unexamined cultural values.

Jesse Coffino: I guess my question, to kind of, not to push back a little bit, but I guess one of my questions would be that, you do see human activity that’s characterized by joy and risk and expression. And so I would see play and maybe somebody who’s baking, or their job is welding, who is, maybe, who’s engaged in those activities, and deeply engaged in them, and doing it their way, and it’s joyous. So you’re saying that it may be taking place in these collective contexts, within different cultural contexts . . . But it’s a pursuit of some creativity or joy or expression, maybe that’s taking place even in a limited context or as part of other things that are going on.

Julie Nicholson: I think that you can identify play researchers and scholars that are working internationally whol will say that, in general—though it’s a little bit hard and we don’t have any universal definitions—that, in general, you can see clusters or characteristics of things, joy being one, something that is chosen to a certain degree, although, that gets into the, again, the example in Guatemala . . . those children may not, if they had a lot of options, may not choose to be working on the streets.

So it’s a matter of sort of nuance.

Jesse Coffino: If they weren’t working, maybe they would be playing. But also, maybe that play that they are doing when they are working, maybe it is joyous and self-determined within the contours of their particular context. 

Julie Nicholson: Exactly. And they are playing while they’re working. I mean, I saw them, and it was so interesting. You just see it and you have to know to see it. I think that there are characteristics. We could say purposeless, although you understand there’s nuance in that. It’s not that it’s without purpose; it’s more means over ends.

There are these characteristics that we could say, “These are general definitions of play,” but how they’re expressed . . . the child who is truly playing by themselves with a group of kids in a forest, we have lots of those kind of memories that come up all the time without adult supervision, versus the little girls that I just saw, that were selling the blankets on their shoulders, behind their mom, and they’re sort of playing hide and seek, and tag, and different, verbal games while they’re selling. We could see those characteristics in the cultural context, but you have to allow for the variation in the culture. Does that make sense?

Jesse Coffino: Then my next question is . . . You have been doing all of this work. If you’re willing to share, and with the intro you’ve given to other people so many times: Are there memories of play that you go back to, or maybe let’s say this, were there any memories of play that were brought up for you when you first encountered images of Anji Play?

Julie Nicholson: Yes, and it was fascinating for me. I didn’t know what I was going to see in Anji before I went there. I hadn’t known very much about it. And if you remember, way back when I met Chelsea, it was because she was connected with me because of her daughter at Mills, and not because I had been part of her work or knew her work. And she heard that I was leading the Center for Play Research and invited me. But I really didn’t know what I was going to see.

And so that’s kind of fascinating. I heard that it was this amazing place and experience. So let me just start by saying that, that when I got there it was kind of a first experience, to see it being there. Two things I would say were fascinating for me. When I grew up, I was in a household where my father left when I was pretty young and my mom did not, she didn’t have a college education. So she had to survive. She had to go back to school, but then to be a nurse. She went back to be a nurse, and then she was working. So she was in school and then she was working.

So there was no adult supervision, and we were in a community in southern California where there was a lot of connection to nature, and I was a super, super big risk taker. I was a gymnast for many years and a competitive gymnast. So the idea of taking risks with my body and the physicality and all was super comfortable to me. We lived near the cliffs, 500-foot cliffs to the water. There were hills for biking.

So I had endless hours, endless hours, where, and I was sort of, I was the oldest, so I did a lot of taking care of my younger three siblings too. But because there were no adults in my family that were sort of around, our house was the crazy, risk taking, wild-things-happen house, and not always in good ways. I mean, the police came and the FBI came, there was some crazy stuff. But . . .

Jesse Coffino: And this is what Maria Montessori was trying to prevent, right?

Julie Nicholson: Yes.

Jesse Coffino: Kids like you.

Julie Nicholson: Exactly. So when I think about what I saw in Anji, the trust of children to make their own decisions, I ended up in a situation where I had a lot of agency, and it wasn’t for the best of reasons. There were some sad aspects to why there were no adults around. However, what I do know is that when I saw the children doing what they were doing, I never doubted that they were going to be able to handle the level of decision-making being offered to them, because I had that experience, and I trusted myself.

And I know, as a gymnast, I took so many risks to do so many dangerous things, but I always was ready because I would scaffold myself too. So I knew that children, because I had had that experience, that I knew how to trust that the children wouldn’t get hurt, they wouldn’t do crazy dangerous things to each other. Because I remember, when we were out there climbing down the cliffs, 500-foot cliffs, that we as peers were helping each other to be safe. We didn’t want our peer to fall down and kill themselves.

We did so many dangerous things, or sort of visually, optically dangerous-looking things, but we knew how to not make them dangerous. Does that make sense? So that connected to me. The other thing that I’ll say was more professional. I was a kindergarten teacher when play was allowed in kindergarten, and I was a kindergarten teacher in California before we had class size reduction.

So I had, like, 30 children, because the classes went down at some point by statute, but I had about 36 to 38 children, in my kindergarten, my public kindergarten classroom. And it was play based, and we just, I mean, it was amazing. When you look at Vivian Paley and the kinds of people who do really rich play-based work, Bev Bos and so on . . . I got to do that, and I got to do it with 40, 36, 38, very busy, four- and five-year-olds every single day, loose parts to the end of the Earth, project-based learning, embedded literacy, embedded math, all of that good stuff.

We did it, and I was so excited about it that I was learning about Reggio, I was learning about documentation, I was learning about all of that, before I went back for my doctorate. And I experienced firsthand the unbelievable power of that pedagogy. I saw children who . . . in fact, a child who came from China . . . another . . . I had many English language learners, and I saw how quickly they learned the language when they were allowed to play.

I saw how quickly children would learn how to scaffold, different skills, whether it was mathematical thinking. So I think I saw how it just, instead of having the universal worksheet, how, in block play and in nature play and things that kids just play, their skills just skyrocketed. I saw how literacy could be embedded in things so authentically that kids couldn’t wait to read or write. I mean, we didn’t waste time on calendars and things like that, and they all learned all of those concepts, and they never wanted to leave school, and they were just bubbling over.

I mean, I still hear from those students. I still hear from those students, and that’s been a long time since I taught kindergarten. It was so formative. They came in, they loved learning, they had an immediately positive association with school, and the parents were just, they were like, “Wow, my kid is on fire. They love it here.” And I’ve seen how that has been sucked away, and sucked away, and sucked away, where not only is the joy being taken away from the children, but from the teachers.

And the stress on the children. I see so much stress on them now, because of the focus on the outcomes, and I just feel so sad because I know as long as people have a criticism that play-based learning could just be the teacher setting up the environment and letting kids go and laissez faire and you don’t know what . . .

That was never how I taught, and that’s not what intentional play-based learning is about. But I know that we can get to those child outcomes for all children, that equity piece, if they had come in with those opportunity gaps, we’re going to get them there faster with play-based learning than this universal worksheet stuff that we’re doing, and they’re going to love learning and we’re going to give them the dispositions to be stronger students going forward.

And I just feel like there’s such a lack of understanding. So when I went to Anji, I thought, it’s really, really sad in America. We had something that had some of the same sensibilities as Anji, and it was taken away, and we’re going away from what’s good for children, and I feel like their narrative is that in America we’re going towards, it’s what’s good for children. And the irony was just so incredible for me, because I lived the experience and I taught it and I saw it. That was a long answer to your question, but that’s how my . . . when I saw what they were doing in Anji, it was pretty powerful.

I started teaching in 1987, when I graduated from college. Well, no, let me say that’s when I started teaching kindergarten. I taught preschool for five years, through my time in high school and college, and then when I got out of college, I taught kindergarten for five years.

And I remember, when we got to Anji, we were brought immediately to schools. The first school we were brought to, I don’t remember the names, but it was a really rainy day, and there were things that . . . I’m a trained ethnographer, I should say that. So I’m trained to kind of really observe and make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. And so I was just constantly observing and kind of noticing little things. And so I noticed the gate that we drove through, and I thought that was fascinating because that’s a very different thing. I see that all over Guatemala and Latin America and other places. Just having a security guard at the gate. Because that’s not my experience here. But just that notion, and, again, in Guatemala, that’s the way all the schools are too, and I’ve seen it elsewhere. But that was an image that I thought was interesting. I think that one of the things I immediately noticed was the . . . and, again, this is sort of juxtaposing my experience here . . . the ease with which children said goodbye to their families. We have a lot of separation anxiety here, and that was really interesting, to just notice that there were these rituals and routines, and children just said goodbye and parents said goodbye.

Sometimes, with the separation anxiety and transitions here, it’s the parents who are as anxious as the children. And I saw . . . so that was something I noticed right away. I noticed the natural beauty and the integration of just trees and plants and the natural world, in a way that I think in many places here, whether we have plastic toys or plastic, there’s just a lot more disruption of that connection to the natural world for young children. I noticed that right away, because I resonate with that, having grown up with that, and I think it’s calming for children to have that for adults.

I noticed that, well, I came to notice over time, while I was there, that the children know the routines so well that there’s a comfort because there’s a lack of uncertainty, and an agency, because they know what comes next; they can take a sense of initiative and agency, and things just run smoothly. And because there was so many variation and so much allowance for risk and children to discover and explore, that predictability did not mean boredom.

Because I think a lot of our experiences with classrooms where there’s a lot of predictability, you see what we might describe as challenging behavior because the children just don’t have enough opportunity to be working at their uppermost level of opportunity and capability. And so that was an interesting thing for me to see. I think that was amazing that children have that. I saw all the things that Ms. Cheng talks about and then all of you talk about. 

I wasn’t particularly interested in this question, but I knew a lot of people would be back home. If they’re allowed to take risks, do we see a lot of injuries? Do we see a lot of concern? Do we see . . . So I was looking for that, and what I found . . . It took me, I think, until, I don’t remember how many programs I went to, four or five or something. I think it took until the fourth or fifth one, and only a very limited observation where I saw a child who was upset. I was observing positive effect so almost exclusively that it didn’t feel real to me, because I was used to an early childhood setting that you always have a mix of tears and joy, and it’s just like everything in between, and you’re used to that, and I just didn’t hear it.

And I kept thinking, where are the tears? Where are the children who are getting hurt? Where are the arguments and the anger? And then I kept saying, because I don’t see it, “What’s going on to mediate that? What’s buffering that? Why is that not here?” And what I started to notice, Jesse, and I think it’s interesting, they spend so much time outside, and I didn’t have, I wasn’t given as much access to what happens inside, but because what I saw was outside, the children had a lot of space, and the children who were, let’s say, sensory-overwhelmed went off by themselves. The children who were upset could run around and have a way to discharge that. There were just ways in which the environment was set up to create a natural buffer and a protective factor for some of the things that we deal with every day because we don’t have that. Now, again, I don’t know what it was like when you go inside and if they saw more of that.

I did see some inside time. I didn’t see an extended, like, a whole day. Because, as a teacher, my children were always happiest as well when they had hours and hours of outdoor play. 

Jesse Coffino: You talk about the routines and how things are established, and one of the things that now, because I’ve been to Anji so many times and I have a four-year-old now, three- to four-year-old, four year old, it’s just sort of this . . . the beauty around transitions, where there was never a sense of control or struggle over control around decision-making.

So one of the things now, and I want to get to this, because the talk that Ms. Chang did at Mills, two talks, but the one, the big one, had such an impact in the Bay Area, and just in general for us, and you were so powerful in making that happen. It was just such a fantastic event that, Rosie’s school now where she is, the teachers there all saw Ms. Cheng speak at that talk.

Julie Nicholson: That’s amazing.

Jesse Coffino: We just brought in Anji Play materials.

Julie Nicholson: That’s so great.

Jesse Coffino: And they had slides where the teachers had rules and the kids had to obey those rules. And so even though most kids would obey those rules, it became a site of control. And so in Anji it’s about deciding where the needs of the child are organized more specifically for the child, and then that schedule being  reasonable enough so that at 12:30 you are in for lunch. If somebody struggles with that, you can talk about it reasonably. 

But if it’s, “I went down the slide yesterday the wrong way, and you, the teacher, weren’t looking, and I hit the kid at the bottom, and there wasn’t a problem, and actually it was a lot of fun, and actually we both agreed to do it” . . . so then these big structures become sites of control, in that context. And there the central object that’s supposed to represent the most fun, or the most risk, it only has one function, and it interrupts the flow of the space, where kids can’t then run around and get that emotion out if they have a conflict.

Julie Nicholson: That’s right.

Jesse Coffino: And what’s so interesting about these materials is that not only are they provocations in the sense that they provoke the child’s creativity or problem solving or risk, but they are a provocation to the teacher in a way, because they can quickly make visible the child’s capacity. So if the slide has a rule, you can’t go up and down it, and maybe it’s the kids’ ability to go up and slide down and obey that rule, then they have this movable thing, this barrel, that the teacher hasn’t formed rules around, and the kid gets up and walks on it, and then suddenly the teacher sees the capacity . . . And so it can change the stance of the teacher vis-á-vis their cognizance or recognition of the child’s capacity. 

Julie Nicholson: That’s right. And here’s one other thing I just . . . there’s so much I can say about what I saw, but let me say one more thing, because it’s something that it was always important to me and in this last time where I’ve been very focused on trauma-informed practices. One of the things I saw in Anji which was remarkable . . . I’ve heard you say several times in the past about how much it meant to you as a child, personally, that adults took you seriously.

And I think that one of the things I saw—it didn’t matter which school; it was in all of the schools I went to—is that there was an, what we would call, attunement. That the adults were genuinely trained to be interested in what children were communicating to them about who they were, how they were feeling, what they were thinking, what they were dreaming and imagining, while we often have a focus on a future orientation.

So we think about how this child is learning this skill, or how they need to learn this skill, so they can read in the future. And that’s fine, but it often means that we’re not mindful and present with the child today. We talk about it, in the sociology of childhood, as the being-versus-becoming orientation. And we’re focused on who they’re becoming, versus who this being is right here in front of me. And I felt like I saw this same orientation too, observation, listening, documentation, that was mindfully attuned to the child in who they were, and the child felt taken—that the adults were taking them seriously.

And I think that there’s a way in which—how—whatever that is that I’m trying to describe in Anji, that feeling of feeling felt by an adult and your peers, is what I think we strive for in America when we talk in aspirational terms about inclusive education, about trauma-informed education, about equity-oriented education. I mean, use your buzzword.

That’s what we’re talking about, that every child . . . One of the interviews I did this morning was with trans- and gender-expansive early education. We were talking about the importance of children, no matter what gender they know themselves to be, that they feel welcome, and there was a way in which I just felt like children felt welcome in Anji. They felt included.

Jesse Coffino: This gets back to kind of this question of the image of the child. How an adult treating you as a valuable human being is, in some way, how they are communicating their image of the child. And so, of course, as a parent or as a teacher who loves a child, you see them as a person that needs care and protection, or really seeing somebody as an agent, as a valuable human being who’s worthy of respect. That’s often talked about.

But then you see interruptions. So, when I’m on a playground in a fraught social space, like amongst middle-class parents, or on a playground where discipline and what is socially acceptable as a child’s behavior in a public setting is different . . . And so the image of the child again becomes more about the parents’ image of themselves or the image of their culture or whatever.

But I have this question about there being these incredible . . . what might be called idiosyncratic programs, where there’s this deep respect for play, or play in its own right, where that’s where children are deeply respected, where the adults have this attunement, or the stance of thinking about learning or philosophy or children that, at its best, is about observing children actively engaged in learning. So anyone takes children seriously and thinks that what they’re doing is worthy of understanding. 

So you have, then, an approach like Reggio, which has a sense of play and connection to nature. And this turn away from that, what you’re talking about with the being and the becoming, where in Reggio you don’t assess outcomes. You don’t think about outcomes, you don’t talk about outcomes, but then you have things which are projects that have outcomes, that are moving in specific adult-defined directions.

So how do you see Anji Play fitting into this larger lineage, this cultural conflict, this larger discourse of pedagogy and play?

Julie Nicholson: Anji Play feels really different to me. I mean . . . and I think what’s fascinating, as a scholar of play, is to look at why, let’s say, Reggio developed as it did in a particular sociohistorical, cultural context, and the same is true for Anji. I think what really struck me from the very beginning about Anji Play, and I don’t know the deep history as you would know . . . I mean, I got a little bit from when I heard Ms. Cheng talk. So I know that my knowledge is pretty shallow on the sociopolitical context.

But from what I do know, this notion of how rights, and the trauma of the Cultural Revolution, and how things were taken away, and how Ms. Cheng talked in this language of giving back, of handing something back, handing back rights to the child. That has always been very provocative to me as a unique cultural contribution, because I think it really is a very important and significant reason why the adults have such a unique role in Anji Play that they do not have, let’s say, in Reggio where the adults don’t see themselves as intervening. They see themselves as scaffolding and provoking thought, but they’re very much in there, driving how certain things go.

In our context here, and, I know, there’s no such thing as one American context, there’s so much diversity, but in general we tend to take more of that role where we are directing children’s learning and feel that that is our place to do that. And I think, when you’re taking a human rights perspective and you’re talking about—and you know this, the history of rights-based education—we’ll ask the question of, should children have special rights that are unique to just children, or should they have rights that are shared with adults?

And when they tend to have special rights that are just for children, we tend to see them as vulnerable and needing adults to protect them. When we think about them as deserving of rights that are equal to adults, we see them more through an asset lens. And this is what I saw immediately in Ms. Cheng’s language: We’re handing a right back to a child to have something that they don’t need us to protect them from harm. They need us to get out of the way and let them have agency to engage in a right that they deserve.

And so it felt to me like Anji Play has set up a pedagogy and a philosophy that wholeheartedly shifts the role of the adult in the child’s learning. So it wasn’t just that, yes, we’re going to support their risk, but we’re going to support them having more voice, more presence, more embodied agency, than we would in Reggio, in Montessori, and you name your thing. Because of these roots, and this is why it’s so important to understand why things develop, and what those foundations are.

So yes, joy is important, but I think what’s so amazing about joy and love in Ms. Cheng’s work starts with this foundation of saying, this is a rights-based approach that is handing something back from the adult to the child, because that’s where that agency comes in. That’s why they’re choosing the loose parts. That’s why they’re being listened to so carefully, and why the story times are opening up open-ended questions and letting the children’s language fill the space, because the adult is handing it back to them. That’s powerful to me, and it’s very unique and very provocative for us to think about. It challenges a lot of our assumptions . . . and maybe I’ll stop there. There’s so much more. I could talk to you for three hours. 

Jesse Coffino: That was really beautiful, and thank you so much. 

Julie Nicholson: A powerful reflection of the trust, respect, and love of children in Anji kindergartens; it provokes discussion, disrupts unquestioned assumptions, and inspires a collective imagination about what it means to educate a child to learn to their potential and truly thrive.

Julie Nicholson: A powerful reflection of the trust, respect, and love of children in Anji kindergartens; it provokes discussion, disrupts unquestioned assumptions, and inspires a collective imagination about what it means to educate a child to learn to their potential and truly thrive.


Carissa Christner

Youth Services Librarian, Madison Public Library

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Date of visits to Anji : October 2016 and October 2017

Interview conducted on January 30, 2019

Jesse Coffino: When I ask people to describe their memories of play, they often talk about play in very general terms, like, “Oh, I used to do this kind of play and that kind of play. And I played with this person and that person.” It’s not—for me, at least, I’ve always thought of it as, really go back, find an actual instance in time, rather than a larger impression. So with that, how do you ask people? What do you hear?

Carissa Christner: I just say, “What was your favorite thing to play when you were a kid?” And then, if we’re in a verbal conversation, I might ask them further questions about it. But in general, I just usually start with, “What was your favorite thing to do when you were a kid?” Or maybe, “What was the riskiest kind of play you did as a kid?” Or “What was the kind of play that you could really get lost in?”

And I don’t often ask people to specifically share their play stories with me, because sometimes those feel very private to people. So then I just kind of give them sort of a silent space to sit with that memory and kind of soak into it.

I’m always worried when I ask really young adults—like when I go to talk to undergraduate classes at the university—I’m still worried that at some point I’m going to find the generation of kids who were like, “I never really played on my own. My parents always told me what to do.” I’m dreading finding that day where people just don’t even have memories to pull from.

Jesse Coffino: And you have to wonder, if you ask that question, there is a presumption. For some people, it’s, “I’ve just been running my entire life.” Or, “I’ve been working since I was four or five.” So then the question is, when you ask somebody who is . . . You have a program for the larger community of parents that . . . you know. People are refugees, and come from places where there’s war and famine and dire poverty. Is there a presumption? Or is it, those memories are even more memorable and striking, or even more important to bring up and to talk about?

Carissa Christner: I can say this: One particular instance comes up in my mind. I was playing with my cousins, one of whom is slightly younger than me, and one of whom is a couple of years older. We were playing at their house in a ditch by the road. Not a super busy road, but still, it was a ditch by the road, and we were making, I think, a fairy house. I think we used acorn caps as cups in the house, and I just remember thinking that that was really cool. I was utterly enchanted by these ideas that my cousin was coming up with, ways that we could make a house for tiny creatures. I’m not even sure if they were fairies. But they were some tiny creatures that needed a tiny house. It’s one of my favorite memories.

Jesse Coffino: It’s that enchantment. That enchantment of the idea . . . the fairy house, the acorn caps, the interpersonal relationship with your cousin that I’m sure you’re still in touch with. I hope.

Carissa Christner: Oh yes. And we get together. We see each other at least every other year. 


Carissa Christner: I think the first time I heard the words “Anji Play” was in an email from my manager, Krissy, saying “Hey, this looks interesting. Does anybody want to go?” And it was for an Anji Play presentation that was happening in Madison at the Preschool of the Arts. And it sounded interesting to me, but unfortunately that night I had a program that I was running at the library, so I wasn’t going to be able to go.

Then I saw a flyer in my son’s backpack, that they were actually going to be speaking the previous night at his school, and I was able to go to that one, so I went.

Isadora (Carissa’s daughter): How was it?

Carissa Christner: How was it? It was life changing.

Isadora: Life changing?

Carissa Christner: Life changing. 

It was. It was a life-changing experience. I sat there, and as I saw Chelsea and Ms. Cheng’s presentations, talking about Anji Play and talking about true play, it . . . It was like this huge light bulb moment for me, when I realized that the programs that I had been doing at the library, that I had thought were play programs, weren’t play at all. They weren’t true play.

They are what we now refer to as “false play,” where it is an adult designing an experience. I was already fairly loose in my interpretation of those experiences, but I was still very much, “Here are some very specific materials that I am providing for you, that will achieve this result if you interact with them in this certain way.”

And having someone present this to me and to remind me of what true play, when I was a kid, what did that really feel like? And to say that’s not just frivolous—there really is deep value in that kind of play, and, in fact, deeper value than in the play that I am designing for kids—that was really revolutionary in my mind. It was paradigm shifting; that’s the word I’m looking for. To the point where, basically, as soon as I got done hearing the presentation, the very next time that I had the program that I had been doing at the library, that was all about STEM skills for preschoolers, I started trying to ask the kids to do a play story when they were done. Just to try to see if I could incorporate even a tiny bit of Anji Play.

Isadora: Tiny bit.

Carissa Christner: And then . . .

Isadora: Tiny bit.

Carissa Christner: Yeah, it just grew from there.


Carissa Christner: At my son’s elementary school, there was a meeting. I think ostensibly it was for the playground design team. They were redesigning their playground. But there was a wide variety of people there, including students from the UW and at least one day care director. Because she was the director, actually, of our kids’ day care, so in retrospect, it was exciting to have her there. But it was still a really small crowd. I recently heard that, the following night at the Preschool of the Arts, there were 70 or 80 people who showed up. At my son’s school, there were maybe 25 people in the audience. So it was very small and intimate. I was sitting on a tiny little kid-sized chair and listening to this and watching these slides of the images, my first images and videos that I have seen from the Anji schools, and I just had tears running down my cheeks because I was so moved. There were at least a couple other people that did not have dry eyes as well.

So we started trying to do the play stories in the STEM skills class that I was doing, and what I quickly noticed was, kids did not seem very motivated to do a play story, and when they did they kind of all looked the same. I was like, “Oh, it’s because I’m not asking them to do something that they have chosen to do. It’s something I’m telling them to do.” And so it’s not as motivating to draw a picture. If they did draw a picture, it was very perfunctory, like, “Ah, fine, here’s my square and here’s my circle and this is what it is.”

But they weren’t excited about it. But I still wanted to finish out my program series because I had it in the calendar and I didn’t want to stop. So I had all these plans. I mean, I was so excited about it, and I didn’t want it to happen as quickly as possible, and I had—

Isadora: Ouchie.

Jesse Coffino: Beware of falling computers.

Carissa Christner: That’s right. I had this plan that I was going to try to do Anji Play in my backyard with my kids. And I thought, “I’m going to make myself some blocks. I can build some ladders, I think. I can make it work.” Then I was trying to figure out how I was going to get enough kids over to my yard every day to play. Because my two children are four years apart, and they aren’t going to have the most meaningful kind of play together, as opposed to if they had a larger group of people to play with.

Isadora: I’m your children, mama.

Carissa Christner: Yes, you are my children. So one day, when I was on the way to work, I was thinking about this and brainstorming about it, and getting so excited about how I was going to do this, but getting frustrated about the lack of access to large groups of children, I had this huge “aha” moment where I was like, “Wait a minute, I do have access to large groups of children. I work at a library. I see them all the time.” I was like, “How can I convince them to come to a program that is ‘just play’?” It didn’t seem like it was going to be motivating enough in and of itself.

And I thought, “Well, but I do have people that show up in large crowds during my summer program for this weekly event that I had at the library.” And my weekly event had been, for years, some sort of a performer would come in in the afternoon. Sometimes it was a juggler or a storyteller or a singer, or a scientist coming in to do things that exploded, or dancing dogs. But I would have different varieties of performers come in, and people would come in and they would sit in this tiny little meeting room, in a little stuffy space, and they would sit and they would watch, and when they were done they would leave. But they all came, because it was a weekly event and it was on their calendar, so it was very easy to schedule and just know that on Tuesdays, at two o’clock, you went to the library for whatever it was. And I thought, “What if, instead of it being that, what if it was this play program every week? And instead of it being in a stuffy room, what if it was outdoors at a park? And what would that look like? Could I justify it to the library as it being enough of a library program? Would people come if it was the same play, week after week after week?” And I decided to try it.

So I ended up writing to you, Jesse, on the Facebook page, to say, “So can you tell me about how many blocks I might need?” And you were like, “Let’s talk.” And that began a very long and in-depth and very wonderful conversation—

Isadora: Because you are talking right now.

Carissa Christner: With you and Chelsea about Anji Play and what it might look like in a non-school setting and some of the inherent differences between doing it in a school—

Isadora: You said you and Chelsea.

Carissa Christner: Yeah. Between doing it in the school and doing it in a more open drop-in setting with parents involved and all of that. And I don’t know how much longer into the story you want me to go, because I could go for three hours and I don’t think you want me to go—

Jesse Coffino: Yeah, I want to hear more. I would love for you to continue.

Carissa Christner: Yup. So I ended up trying that that first summer, I mean, really at the last minute. I had this idea in March, and I started this in June with materials that I pulled together from here and there and from dumpsters and thrift stores.

I gathered materials from everywhere that I could find. I had a small budget that I had been planning to spend on other library supplies for programs, and I ended up using them, pretty much, all to get stuff that I needed to make the program work. I think, the very first summer, it was a six-week program in one park. And at the time I had already hired two performers for the summer, so I ended up having one performer kind of present in the park for the kickoff, and then one performer at the park for the very last one, for a wrap-up activity. So those performers came, and I also had this concern that people wouldn’t keep coming if it was the same, same, same every week. Just playing. So I had these performers already hired when I came up with this plan to try a play program in the park, and I was like, “I’ll just leave them. They’re fine for outdoor performances.” And I also felt an obligation to try to introduce at least one new thing every week. But what I found was that, the weeks that we did have a performer there, the kids were very frustrated with them, because they were a distraction from the play. They said, “We really want to play with this stuff, and you’re making us sit and listen to this performer?” And then the performer that had a more interactive project, a lot of the kids were torn, because they still wanted to play with the stuff that they were all excited about playing with, but they had this guy here who had some stuff that was sort of interesting too, so they decided to play with the things he brought.

And what I found about bringing in the new materials every week was that every time that I brought in something new, that was the only thing the kids would play with. But they would never really get really deep into or complex in their play, it was always just on the surface and doing the expected things with the play materials that I provided, and then they wouldn’t ever really dig into the stuff that was from the previous week. Except for paint. Paint was always popular, and there were some kids that only ever wanted to play with paint the entire time.

And they weren’t actually painting pictures. They were just applying paint to surfaces like cardboard boxes or those wooden spools that cable comes on, or their bodies. They loved paint. Then, towards the end of the program, a shipment of official Anji Play materials arrived for One City Early Learning School, and they were generous enough to share some of those materials with us for our summer program. We brought those to the park, and even those very few things—I think it was maybe half a dozen ladders, and a small pile of planks, and a couple of rollers—and even just those few materials just really increased the complexity and the deep engagement of the kids that were playing. Because they were new materials that the kids hadn’t ever played with before, and they were very excited to try them out and see what they could do with them. Because they were such big play materials, you could make big things, they are immediately very exciting to play with. You can build far more quickly than you can with a cardboard box. So that was really eye-opening and really brought home this idea that I really wanted to get the official materials for myself and not just borrow them from One City.

Jesse Coffino: What were the reactions? What did you encounter with the parents or with the community from that experience, as you introduced it, and how did it change? How did what you were doing change? How did the program change, and what were the reactions you were getting?

Carissa Christner: One of the challenges that first summer was figuring out how to explain the Anji Play concept to the grown-ups that showed up at the park. Because I figured out that the kids didn’t need an explanation on how to play, but the grown-ups needed an explanation, so that they would understand how best to interact with the kids in an Anji Play way during the play. And that first summer, the best tool that I had was to try to explain the five principles of Anji Play, which was challenging to try in just the few moments that someone was able to give me their attention, to explain love, joy, risk, engagement, and reflection, and have them really understand what in the world I was talking about.

And, that fall, Ms. Cheng came to Madison for another visit, and she gave a talk at the library about risk and play. During that talk, she listed the five starting stances that she instructs teachers to use: hands down, mouth closed, ears open, eyes open, heart open. And I was blown away. I was like, “Ah, that’s it!” It was so clear and so succinct and so concrete. I can definitely share that with parents! That has now become part of our opening welcome message, when people first come for the program for the first time, is to talk about those five starting stances and to explain why we ask people to try those attitudes towards the children’s play. That was one of the first challenges, to try to figure out how to explain Anji Play, which was such a deep concept to people who were showing up for the first time with no idea of what Anji Play is, or no idea what the expectations were for them. 

That first summer even, I already had parents who would travel to my park on the far west side of Madison from other parts of the city that were far away. Which, if you don’t live in Madison, you might not understand it. For some reason, people here think that the east and west sides of Madison are just super far away from each other, even though they’re maybe a 15-minute drive, usually. Maybe 20 if you’ve got traffic. But there’s sort of this mental mind block of, “Oh, that’s on the other side of town, I can’t drive all that way!” So the fact that people were actually making the effort to come across town was a really big deal as far as I’m concerned. There were some people who came every single week. That first summer the program took place in the middle of the afternoon, and one mom that I’m thinking of heard about it, and not only did she have to drive from across town, but she had to leave work early that day to be able to get her kids and bring them to the program. But she was so excited about it that she did that. 

So, over the last three years, we’ve been really refining how we talk about this program to parents, trying to be more clear, trying to be succinct, yet really, really clear. I think that we’re getting closer. I have had parents recently start to tell me really amazing things about how coming to the Anji Play programs has changed how they parent their child at home, and how they view their child’s ability to problem-solve and do their own conflict resolution, and just that they have so much more respect for their children as whole human beings, rather than as empty vessels that need to be filled with all that adult knowledge poured into them directly.

That really is the part of doing Anji Play that fills my heart with the most joy, is knowing that it’s not just that a kid got to have an extra hour and a half of open-ended play that week, but that the child’s parent has a fresh new perspective on the importance of play in their child’s life and what they see as valuable activities for their child, even outside of the program.

As of last year, and again for this next coming year, we have the program during the summer, three days a week, in three different parks across the city. In three very different neighborhoods. And then during the school year. There’s a big long fall session and a big long spring session in an indoor location in a gymnasium at one of the local community centers. And all of those programs are open to all ages, and they are drop-in, there’s no registration to come, and everyone is welcome to attend and try it out.

During the winter program, we’ve had as few as 20 people attend. I think we had 15 once, but that was pretty small. So, I would say, 20–25 is a slow day. Lately we’ve been averaging over 50. In the parks, it’s closer to about an average of 100–150, unless it’s raining, and if it’s raining we only get 30 or 40. But still, 30 or 40 people coming to a park in the rain to play, is, I think, pretty amazing.

Jesse Coffino: It’s spectacular.

Carissa Christner: That first summer, Ms. Cheng came to visit us again in Madison. I was a little bit starstruck that she was going to come and visit my program and I hoped that we would live up to her expectations and be “Anji Play enough.” I remember, when she heard that we had borrowed a bunch of blocks, but that I had been hesitant to borrow any of the ladders and planks from One City . . . because they didn’t have very many and I didn’t want to take them away from the kids there. And when Ms. Cheng arrived and heard that we didn’t have any ladders, she said, “Oh, but they have to have ladders to play with!” So she made you load a whole bunch of them up in the back of your hatchback and drive to the park, and then you guys showed up at the park with materials for us to play with.

I remember Ms. Cheng actually sort of setting up the ladders with a really simple, here’s two ladders set up with a plank between them. Or maybe it was even maybe slightly more complex than that. But not much more complex. And I remember thinking, “Wait, I thought you weren’t supposed to set anything up.” But she said, “Well, they don’t have older children that have been playing with these for a long time to show them what’s been done in the past. So you have to give them a boost, and they’re only here for less than two hours today. And they’re only here for one time. So you have to give them a little bit of a boost to get them started.”

Which I found very helpful, actually, for me in the future, in figuring out how to best set up my programs. At this point, I don’t usually set materials up for the kids, but there’s enough kids there now that have played with them multiple times that usually somebody has been there before and can do that setup for them. And I just remember Ms. Cheng walking around the entire time with her video camera up, and taking pictures. I was struck that I had spent a lot of time, during my programs, talking with parents and trying to help them understand the intricacies of Anji Play. The fact that she was able to just focus so closely on what the kids were doing helped to remind me that, yes, talking to the parents is important, but also modeling, watching what the kids themselves are doing and showing that to parents, is of the utmost importance. I think it spoke really loudly to me about where the interesting part of the program really is. And I was excited that she liked what they were doing enough to take pictures and videos of it.

Jesse Coffino: And how many times have you been to Anji?

Carissa Christner: I have had the very good fortune to visit China twice so far.

Jesse Coffino: What other cities in China have you been to?

Carissa Christner: None, pretty much.

Jesse Coffino: So how did you end up there?

Carissa Christner: After my first summer of doing Anji Play in the park, Chelsea invited me to come on the very first Anji Play study tour, and I sort of laughed it off, like, “That’s never going to happen.” And then we figured out a way to make it happen. I was so excited to be able to come and see the schools in person. Ever since I had seen the pictures and the videos, I didn’t want anything more . . . my dearest desire was to come and see these schools in person and just feel immersed in that environment and what that would feel like. So I remember, when we first arrived, I was thrilled each morning when I’d wake up and realize, “I’m in China!” And the very first time that I walked into an Anji Play playground full of kids, it was so moving, so incredibly moving, that I was just in tears, and I thought, “Oh, they’re going to think I’m the biggest weirdo creeper for crying on the playground. There’s a strange foreign lady crying on our playground.” But I was just so moved I couldn’t not. So I tried to be subtle about it, but of course, Ms. Cheng likes it when I cry. So what was moving about it to me was seeing these kids and feeling this environment. It was so clear to me that this environment was created and designed specifically with them and play in mind. And it’s kind of hard to explain to someone who hasn’t been there. I mean, you can talk about it, and people can sort of intellectually understand it. But I feel, until you are there in person, you don’t really get that same internal feeling as you do when you see it in person. And then I would be moved all over again, every time that I would stop and remind myself, “This isn’t just recess for them. This isn’t a break from the learning. This is their learning. This is the meat of their learning. This is the entire point of the school, is what is happening here on the playground with these kids who are experiencing such incredible levels of joy. That they’re doing such incredibly interesting and intricate play with each other and that the teachers are enjoying themselves so much too. You can just tell they have such a deep love for the children that are there.” It was just all around. It was so different from any experience I’ve ever had in any US school institution that I was moved to tears, I don’t know, at least once a day when I was in China the first time.

Part of my response was this amazement that this wasn’t recess, and part of that was a joy for those children. But part of it was, also, I think a mourning for my own children, and my own childhood, that this hadn’t been the school that I had had, or this wasn’t the school that my children are going to experience. And, you know, all of the kids in Madison, not just my own children. Or all the kids in the whole US especially, or all over the world, that don’t have this. I mean, it’s such an incredibly powerful way to see kids learn to realize that there are kids who are basically experiencing the opposite of Anji Play, schools that are more restrictive, schools that have no time for recess, like that, and understanding that that’s how kids figure out how the world works and figure out who they are as people, and to know that they’re not being given those opportunities, it almost feels like a violence towards children.

So the first time that I went to Anji, part of the reason that I went was that Chelsea had invited me to speak about my experiences at the library that past summer. I think, when I went, I was under the impression that it was just going to be an informal talk to the participants in the study tour, but after I arrived, they decided that, actually, I should speak to a visiting group of principals from all over China. A very large group. I ended up doing a presentation where I showed lots of pictures and videos and talked a little bit about what we had done that first summer in the park near my library, which felt like such a big honor to be able to speak to a group like that. 

Being there, I just became so deeply engaged in the experience of just watching the kids play. But I also gained so much from listening to the teachers and principals share their work with us. The insights that they had about the play and the videos that they chose to share with us that . . . Sometimes, on first glance, I would think, “I don’t get it, it’s just some kids and they’re doing something, it doesn’t look like much to me.” And then they would talk about it in a way where I would say, “Oh, wow, there’s so much more that I just wasn’t seeing.”

I remember, at one school, a bunch of the kids were catching grasshoppers, and they came over to show them to us. And I chose to pull out . . . I have a special puppet that I use during my story times, and I chose to pull him out to talk to the kids, even though he can’t speak in Mandarin and I can’t speak in Mandarin. There is sort of a universal puppet interaction language. The kids seemed to really enjoy seeing the puppet. But, more than that, I think I just enjoyed being able to connect with them in some small way.

But really, in retrospect, I appreciate the fact that they were willing to just ignore me most of the time and just allow me to be there in the same space as them and watch them play, even though they didn’t necessarily know me or trust me because I was a stranger. Actually, in some ways, I felt a little bit like I was bothering them when I brought out the puppet, like I was distracting them from their true play, but they all were giggling and having a good time, so I hope it was fine.

Now, since that first contact with Anji Play, I feel like it’s kind of taken over how I think about lots of things. It’s definitely changed . . . I mean, I sort of parented in a similar way before that, but that was just by instinct. Now that I am doing it because I have read and understood more about play, I am much more intentional, and I understand more deeply what’s happening when my children do engage in play that they are directing themselves. And it’s had a drastic effect on my work. In fact, I think my colleagues might be sick of hearing me talk about Anji Play at this point. “Everything’s Anji Play, Carissa!” But it honestly is. I feel like it has changed not just my programming—I don’t do programs anymore where I’ve sort of designed a project for everyone to do and then they all do it together. I don’t ever do those programs anymore. For instance, in a few weeks we’ll be doing a Valentine’s Day program, and in the past I would have done a ton of research on Pinterest to find a couple of easy-to-do, but unique, valentines, and I would buy all the specific ingredients for those valentines, and then I would put them out on the table, and I would be like, “Here’s these different stations and you can make these different valentines at these stations.” And this year I’m just putting out a whole lot of materials that are sort of Valentine’s-y, and I’m going to let kids make whatever they want to make. You know? If they don’t want to make a Valentine’s Day card, I don’t care. But it’s just going to be all these materials. And it’s so much easier for me, right? And it’s so much less prep work and so much less stress when they don’t make the right thing or whatever. But the real reason I am going to do it that way is, it’s so much more freeing for the kids. You don’t have any kids saying, “Oh, but I can’t make mine look like your sample,” or “I can’t do that thing that you told me to do.” Or get frustrated with it because there is no sample. You make what you want to make. And, you know, some kid is invariably going to make something that has nothing to do with a valentine, and I’m going to love it, because that’s what I love the best, is when kids take the materials I provide and find their own ideas and ways to develop whatever it is they’re going to do, and run with it.

So it’s definitely changed. I feel like my parenting has changed only a little bit. It’s become more intentional. I feel like my work has changed immensely. Because not just the Anji Play program, but even other programs, I feel like I’ve designed differently now that I . . . not only understand the research behind Anji Play and letting kids make their own decisions and come up with their own ideas and follow their own path, but also because I have gained an even deeper respect for the capacity of children through the work that I have done with Anji Play.


Carissa Christner: There has been a lot of excitement in the wider library world. We have started a list of all the libraries who have heard about it, either at conferences or through a couple of webinars that I have done, who are interested in trying to do Anji Play at their own library. There’s actually a handful of libraries who are already implementing their own Anji Play programs, which is very exciting to hear about. And even more who are in the process of laying the groundwork for doing Anji Play programs in the future.

My favorite response so far came from a librarian in California who has been doing some play programming there at her library for a number of years, but more sort of the adventure playground variety of play. I mean, adventure playground has a lot of similar philosophies about the capacity and the wisdom of children. But the role of the adults is different in that program. So, when this librarian saw my presentation about Anji Play, her response was, “Oh, this is the next level of play. Beyond what we’re doing.” And I said, “What exactly do you mean when you say that?” And she said, “Well, what I really love about Anji Play that is different than what we are currently doing is that it’s got the literacy elements of the play story and it’s got the parent education piece, which we are not currently doing.” And she also really liked the technology aspect of encouraging videos and pictures during the play. So, for her, those were clear and very valuable benefits to Anji Play, over the open play that she was currently doing at her library. 

Many other librarians that I have talked to all seem incredibly excited about it. Except for the handful that are worried about the risk element. But I mostly try to reassure them that there’s a difference between risk and danger. And that in the three years that I have done the program, the worst injuries that have occurred have occurred because of playground equipment that wasn’t Anji Play equipment, or bee stings.


Carissa Christner: I have so many different emotions about this journey so far. I feel deeply honored to have the opportunity to do this work. I am thrilled that other libraries might start doing Anji Play in their own settings and in their own ways. Because everybody kind of has their own conditions that they come to it with. It’s been super exciting to just kind of walk with people through that. But the first time that I got pictures back from a library that was doing Anji Play at a park during a summer, and that I saw kids that I didn’t know, in a state that was hundreds of miles away from where I am, but they were engaging in really similar play patterns to what I had seen at my park, and similar to . . . I mean, similar but kind of, sort of pale shadows compared to what we saw in Anji . . . it was very moving to know that this could affect not just the kids of Madison, not just my own children, but kids from all over the place. That’s a huge feeling, because I do feel so strongly that Anji Play . . . I feel like it can change the world, and only for the better. And the fact that I might even play a tiny, tiny, tiny role in that change is very humbling.

Carissa Christner: The stance of the teacher—near, but not in the children’s way, attentive but not distracting, crouched down low to be in the same realm as the children—this stance is one of the most difficult things to teach parents when they come to Anji Play programs at the library. The play shown here—children playing in a stream with moving water and live fish, damming up the flow of water into pools, catching the fish—this type of play reminds me of some of my own favorite childhood play memories, and seeing it in a school setting made my heart sing.

Carissa Christner: The stance of the teacher—near, but not in the children’s way, attentive but not distracting, crouched down low to be in the same realm as the children—this stance is one of the most difficult things to teach parents when they come to Anji Play programs at the library. The play shown here—children playing in a stream with moving water and live fish, damming up the flow of water into pools, catching the fish—this type of play reminds me of some of my own favorite childhood play memories, and seeing it in a school setting made my heart sing.


Sandra Moore

Professor and Chair, Department of Early Childhood Education, Contra Costa College

Date of visit to Anji: April 2017, May 2019

Interview conducted on February 13, 2019

Jesse Coffino: It’s so great to see you.

Sandra Moore: You too. The wonders of technology. It took me a minute to get it together because I came up to the Early Learning Center . . . I was actually sitting in the car because it was raining so bad.

Jesse Coffino: Yeah, no, it’s right behind me. It’s coming down.

Sandra Moore: Then I realized, when I got to the ELC office, I forgot that we don’t have any cameras on our computers.

Jesse Coffino: Oh, that’s right.

Sandra Moore: So I had to get my iPad. So I’m good.

Jesse Coffino: Well, it’s great to see you.

Sandra Moore: You too. You too. I see your baby’s artwork all behind you.

Jesse Coffino: Yeah. And if you went around the house, there’s a little curatorial program. 

Sandra Moore: Oh my gosh.

Jesse Coffino: Yeah, just everywhere. You know?

Sandra Moore: What a great space for her to show her work.

Jesse Coffino: It’s everywhere. She’s so prolific. I was just looking at this, what’s behind me. And the reason I find this one so interesting is, we were looking . . . because I have just . . . I have . . . this is about two weeks’ worth of drawings for her.

Sandra Moore: Oh my gosh.

Jesse Coffino: So one night, she couldn’t get to sleep, and she had crayons and paper in bed and she was tracing her own feet, writing her name on the back and tracing her own feet, and her hands. See, three feet. Her composition is great. There’s feet, more hands. You can see the addition of coloring. Okay. More hands here. This one’s the last one, I think, she adds these little details.

What was interesting to me is that, with this one, Rose and I were going through and organizing all of her drawings, and she said, “Oh, a pattern.” And I thought, “Oh, a pattern.” And I thought she meant the pattern of a shape of a leaf or the pattern on a piece of fabric. I understood that there was this other pattern, but I didn’t think she would realize it, and moreover, I didn’t think it was in her understanding of the multiple meanings of pattern to identify the pattern I saw as such. And I said, “What do you mean?” And she pointed, she said, “See, that’s red in the inside and blue on the outside, and this one’s red on the outside and blue on the inside.”

Sandra Moore: Wow.

Jesse Coffino: So that’s, to me, that’s how these drawings on the wall are just one manifestation of a larger influence of Anji on my life as a parent, on my relationship to my daughter’s ability and expression. 

Sandra Moore: And I can’t believe she’s already four. I remember how little she was. Well, that is great. I love her artwork. I love all of that. 

Jesse Coffino: It’s great to have it around for her to see it. I know that I’d love and cherish her expression regardless of Anji Play, but really putting it where she can see it, organizing it, the intentionality, I feel like that comes from the experiences I’ve had over the last four-plus years. 

And, you know, I had some extra Anji Play materials that I put in my daughter’s school in Berkeley, and the kids are just so alive with them.

There are challenging things that are coming up with the teachers, because, for me, I had to figure out a storage solution for the materials. And with Rosie, I want Rosie to play with them. I talk to her about them all the time. She thinks, “Daddy’s in China.” And she knows that, oh, yeah, I’m going to look at other kids playing and having fun. And so it felt bad to say to her, “Sorry you don’t have them.”

So it feels good to me, but I see things emerging that are kind of . . . I want to say something, but it’s not really my place to tell teachers what to do.

Sandra Moore: Right. Wow. Well, that’s very exciting, and it’s interesting for you to be on that side of it, and with all the experiences that you’ve had, and have to hold yourself back from wanting to say certain things.

Jesse Coffino: I can see teachers going to this place where perhaps their concern for the child’s safety or concern for the child’s need is not actually what the child needs to be safe. Then, interrupting the child’s learning.

Sandra Moore: And, you know, I think the thing for us here, which is something I struggle with, too, is that the training has been, especially around language, that when you step back and you’re not engaging, that takes away from the bringing about of language. I think that’s sort of the . . . that’s that double-edged sword that I live with with this space. Because I really like the idea of stepping back, and have children figure out their own boundaries. I get the safety part of that, and them learning their own space, and coming into their own. But I do think that there’s something important about having the teachers engage in conversation. Not so much driven by the teacher, but having the opportunity for the child to explain, in the moment, kind of what they’re doing and what they’re excited about. So I go back and forth on that one.

Jesse Coffino: I think my feeling, and this is my personal opinion, would be that if there are these spaces of time where the child is playing, where the child is engaging in their own activity, if, in those spaces of time, the teacher is really listening and hearing what the children are saying, the language that they’re using, and, because of that, the teacher is really aware of what the child is thinking about or talking about, then in all of the other places, when they’re in the classroom, when they’re doing play sharing, when they’re doing play stories, when they’re transitioning, there’s a lot more role for the teacher’s language there.

And then when a teacher deploys that language or uses that language in those interactions, it’ll be more based on where the child’s language is, because they will have been seeing and listening, they will have been actively hearing where the child is. I think that the teacher’s own engagement with the child’s deep engagement is really an important part of active listening, just being present. And I’m not sure how much that is accounted for in some more proscribed approaches to interaction. And I don’t think that means that the teacher is silent on the playground. I think it’s much more strategic, and a much more limited use of language, and much more expansive use of the ears and the eyes, or the heart, hearing to see what’s going on, so that then those later interactions can be much richer, much more meaningful, and can really develop the child’s language capacity to its ceiling, like, to really go to that ceiling.

Because what you’re talking about, it’s building on what’s there, and it’s building on the direction that it’s going. But the language is naturally going to the child. So that’s what we talk about. I could be completely wrong, but that’s kind of my . . . that would be my read of kind of the Anji Play or true play answer to, “What about that aspect of language?”

So then I think there’s this other question of language, which is around the child’s social and emotional negotiation with other children, and how comfortable teachers feel about children really . . . they’re not being as much of an intermediation or a medium; that communication is taking place between children.

So that means . . . that has implications. So what does it mean? What does it mean when children are being honest with each other, and that honesty that they’re having towards each other? Can a teacher let children be honest with each other?

There are times when the needs of politeness, or society, or the group mean that there have to be rules. So, if a child yells, you know, “@#X%,” that’s not okay. And I would say, probably, as a teacher, if a child is going to say that, something’s going on, and will be aware of that child and their life or that situation.

So, I don’t know. It’s not a simple answer. It’s not a yes or no answer.

Sandra Moore: No, and I think it’s an ongoing discussion. That is not going to be something that’s ever black and white. In understanding the foundation of development, we have to be really clear that every child is different. And with what they may need, what really works well for one child might not work well at all for another child.

I just did an observation last week at a program with . . . I was observing the teacher, because she was one of our mentor teachers and we had some things going on. So I was just watching. She was explaining to me how, in her classroom, she had some children with some very high needs. There was one child who was recently determined to be on the spectrum. There was another child who had been through the foster system. He was only four, but he had already been through four placements, and his behaviors were all over the place. It was probably about five or six, mixed into a group of 19 children, that had really high needs. And the balance of what that classroom looked like and how the lead teacher needed to be attentive to all the children’s needs. One, for safety reasons, because . . .

So I think that there are bigger issues when you start looking at different populations of children, and there’s a way to walk the path so that the children who are higher-needs are able to benefit from that true play and still get the opportunity to not have somebody all over them every moment of the day.

And by the time they get to four or five, they really start getting into group play more. That becomes more appealing to them, where they want to play with groups, and they want to have more of this cooperative “you do this, I do this” sort of setting to their play.

As they get older, the rules to games where “all of us” are playing together and everybody has a role, that dynamic becomes more prominent. I think, as they get older, it makes sense to let them have their space to do what they want to do. Because when adults interfere with that, then that play looks different.

We need to learn to step back so that they can really enjoy it. And a four- and five-year-old’s idea of play and fun is not going to be my idea of play and fun, and so we need to let them do what they’re doing.

Jesse Coffino: An environment that is characterized by love will always be, first and foremost, attentive to safety. So if any one person in that environment feels unsafe, then that is addressed. So then it’s understanding what is and isn’t safe.

Sandra Moore: Right.

Jesse Coffino: So I think that part of that process, is how . . . you can only take risks when you’re safe. If that makes any sense? Otherwise, you’re in danger.

Sandra Moore: When I went to do this observation, and I can’t, you know, I can’t look at this comparatively with Anji and what they have there . . . our teachers are so overwhelmed, and so tired, and, you know, the feeling that they’re unappreciated because they don’t get paid what they’re worth. Those issues are so big with teachers that are burnt out because they’re asked to do so much in the classroom, with all the assessments they have to do, and they have to be everything in this classroom and get paid peanuts. A lot of the teachers are disgruntled and probably don’t need to be in the classroom anymore.

So I think that . . . whereas we know that that foundation of love is so important, I have to be honest, that I feel like that’s part of it that’s missing, too, that because of the way our society doesn’t really show care for children, because we don’t take care of our teachers, it’s a systemic issue.

Jesse Coffino: If the teachers don’t have the same safety, then it’s a major demand to ask them to provide safety.

Sandra Moore: And I think so many teachers don’t feel that, and it’s true, because we don’t . . . even at the Early Learning Center we’re supposed to be . . . what we teach in terms of what quality is and caring for our teachers, we don’t pay our teachers what we should be able to pay our teachers, because we just . . . the college, we can’t afford it. We don’t have the money to.

So I think that even though we know what we want to do and what’s important to do, it’s just that the system is not set up for us to support teachers the way we need to support them.

The one thing that I believe is so true is that, in order for your kids to be taken care of, the teachers have to be taken care of. It has to start there. I’ve been paying attention and looking at all the issues around this, and I just think it’s so important.

Jesse Coffino: I’ve heard from some of the programs we’ve worked with that if the teachers . . . if they don’t feel like they have the permission . . . they have to feel like they’re not responsible if something happens. They have to feel safe around the unknown. So Chelsea talks about doubt in the methodology, doubt in the child’s ability, or doubt in one’s self. So, oftentimes, doubt in one’s self is expressed as doubt in the methodology. Then the result is doubt in the child.

So if a teacher has all these other factors or conditions that aren’t allowing for that sense of safety, then, to do this, you have to remove any unnecessary boundaries, or barriers, I should say.

So if you feel like you’re in danger because, if a child gets hurt, you’re in trouble, then you can’t . . . it’s very difficult to do this. So that’s something that has to come, again, that has to do with the relationship of the system to the teacher, and the relationships and hierarchies that the system creates and fosters.

Sandra Moore: When you guys did the presentation, it’s been a couple years now, when we first had you guys come out, and I had the president come, and the vice president, everybody came, and they were at least there for a portion of the presentation, the question that we got after that was, “What does our liability look like?” You know? Because we have a culture that is very litigious. People sue. Nobody wants to be on the other end of a lawsuit.

So I think, when you think about, “Okay, I’m into this, and I think that I know that this is best for children, but what’s going to happen if a child falls off a barrel? What’s going to happen if I was right there and I saw the child on the barrel, and then the child falls off the barrel and they crack their head open, and now the parent is mad at me?” . . . Everything’s fine until everything’s not. So I think that people really do struggle with that. I think, the safety thing, we don’t do the greatest job of keeping our teachers safe so that they can keep the children safe. So I think it’s a really big picture to look at, because the foundation of Anji Play is so wonderful. It’s that other piece that we’ve got to figure out how to bring in. Which I think is the safety for the teacher. And there are so many supports that need to be around that teacher to feel good, because most teachers that I come in contact with, and this is really most teachers, for sure, don’t feel like they’re paid what they’re worth. With them not feeling like they’re paid what they’re worth, they’re always asked to do something more and something extra, which pushes them to either learn more, do more, be more responsible for . . . And at some point in time, while you’re learning more, doing more, feeling more responsible for, you have this undercurrent of resentment. And unless that’s something that’s really dealt with, you can’t possibly do what you need to do appropriately for children, because you’re feeling like, “Well, who’s going to do something for me?”

This is something that has been so important to the way we’ve rolled out the Anji Play experience at the ELC together. The workshop you did with the teachers really gave them a chance to use the materials and then talk about them together. Because we don’t often get that time to process. Because who’s going to process? Because we don’t have time and we’re not going to get paid for that. But because we tried to create a system where they can get paid for that kind of stuff, they’re open to it, they’re interested in it, and they don’t mind learning more. But they don’t want to do that for free.

Jesse Coffino: Of course not, and they shouldn’t be expected to.

Sandra Moore: And that’s the expectation in most programs. It’s like, “Okay, we want you to do this, but we don’t have money to pay you.”

Jesse Coffino: Yeah, so that’s a testament to the leadership in the college and the ELC in your department, to make that happen.

So something that I hope, I mean, I hope that I can help provide some sense of permission for the teachers by having a chance to meet with some parents, have them interact with the materials and methods. Because I think that, insofar as parents can become a part of the process at an early stage, that can relieve the burden, or could open up communication around this thing that’s happening, where the threat or the perceived threat of responsibility or blame is going to be those parents.

Sandra Moore: That’s really our next step that I’m pushing very much. What I have been talking . . . the last time Chelsea and Michell Naidoo [Director of Contra Costa College Early Learning Center] and I had a conversation, wanting to make sure that happens pretty quickly. We have a timeline that we’re working on. I want to make sure that the parents get in, and then we get those materials out. Because I’m trying to go to the next phase of this, where we can ask for more money, because the last thing I want is for us to roll out these materials, and then we don’t have enough money to continue to pay you and Chelsea, and then you guys are gone.

Jesse Coffino: We would never leave, but we would have to figure out some way to make it possible.

Sandra Moore: I was just going to say, I’m just so amazed at the work and effort that you and Chelsea have put into this. I thought about it when we were talking yesterday, and then I thought, “How are you guys affording this?” Because I always am asking Chelsea about, you know, if she’s okay. I mean, I just am so impressed with the fact that this was just so much of a passion for you guys both, that you guys basically grassrooted this whole thing, and it’s become what it’s become, which is pretty amazing. So, pat on the back to you.

Jesse Coffino: Thank you. It’s become what it’s become because our goal was really just to share what was happening in Anji, with integrity, with a commitment to understanding it, and then sharing our understanding of it with the world. So, in that process, we were able to create opportunities for people to visit, for people to learn about it. And you’re one of those people. And those people went back, and they became leaders, in their own right, in making this happen. So you could say it’s grassroots, but it’s not at all distinct or separable from the work that you guys are doing, you know, or the work that Carissa’s doing in Madison, or any one of our friends, or colleagues, or comrades, is doing in kind of sharing the message.

So one of the reasons that I’m really excited to talk to you is because you were one of those people that have had the chance to go to Anji and kind of see it up close. And so I want to talk a little bit about that.

You sent me an email response to a prompt about your earliest memories of play, and you sent a bit of a reminiscence of play as a child, tag, and hide-and-seek with your sister. When you think about play or you recall a deeply joyful memory of play as a young child, is that what comes to the fore?

Sandra Moore: Yes, I just remember, I think the memories especially took place at my grandmother’s house, where we would go outside and we would just, after school, just play all day. Everybody knew everybody. The parents knew kids. The kids . . . everybody just knew everybody. In Oakland, which is considered a not-safe place for most people, which is where I grew up, it was . . . and I didn’t grow up in a fancy area either, but it was always, in my eyes, safe. We ran the streets, we played hide-and-go-seek, just this freedom. And there were never really adults around.

When me and my sister were growing up, the house we lived in, we had a big backyard. So our play was always in the backyard. It was always this free exploration. The dogs were back there. But my parents were never back there. They knew where we were, and we knew the rules of staying within the gates, but there was so much to do within the gates, whether it was catching butterflies and putting them in a jar, or digging in the mud, or whatever it was, just the freedom of being outside.

Jesse Coffino: You’re talking about these bounded but free spaces, or outdoor spaces that still had this sense of boundary, and so kind of that safety and presence of the adult, even though they’re not there. But then there’s also this freedom to even go beyond that and to be outside with other children. I don’t know. You get the sense that there was free movement that you had.

Sandra Moore: You know, there was always so much free movement, because it was . . . at my house, if it was just me and my sister, we were in the backyard. And if we were in the front of the house, it was corner to corner. We stayed within the street. It was corner to corner. We knew who was on each corner. Then, even if we were going to the store, you went to the store, and then you’d back up from the corner, never away from our area. So it’s that invisible barrier, and, you know, “Oh, you know, you’re not supposed to go beyond there.” And we stayed within the barrier, and it was fun, and it was safe, and we had a great time.

My sister and I are still close, but one of my best girlfriends who, we went to kindergarten together, and her grandmother lived across the street from my grandmother . . . It’s amazing that we went to kindergarten together, and then her and another friend of ours, who, we kind of grew up together, we also went to kindergarten together, we all ended up going to college together. But we always, always, always, talked about how our growing-up experience at my grandmother’s house was this amazing kind of fun thing. She was always there for dinner, or we were always playing together. And we managed to stay friends throughout our whole life. And she’s still one of my best friends.


Sandra Moore: I found about Anji Play, I don’t know if it was Ms. Cheng’s first talk at Mills or not, when you guys were at Mills, but Intisar [Dr. Intisar Shareef] went. I had to work. Something was going on and I wasn’t able to go. She went, and she was really excited about it and told me all about it.

Then, I think as we were looking . . . we had money for a conference, and I wanted to go somewhere, and she said, “Oh, you should call Chelsea. We can go. I’m going to go to China. Maybe we can go together.” And I was actually supposed to go earlier, but Chelsea got sick and I wasn’t able to go. Then we ended up going on that trip in April. I think it was maybe two years ago in April now.

The flier sounded so interesting, because we got the flier you guys were handing out at Mills. It just sounded exciting and like, “Wow, this is what we want to be doing.” So when we got a chance to go to China, it was just amazing. I couldn’t even believe it. I thought, “Oh my god, I’m going to China.”

Jesse Coffino: So this was your first trip to China?

Sandra Moore: Yes.


Jesse Coffino: What were you thinking before you went to China? What were your expectations? What was going through your mind?

Sandra Moore: I was really excited to be going to China, just because it’s so far away and it’s so . . . it’s China.

I guess the thing that surprised me most, and I don’t know why it did, but you know how you think of what a place might be like before you get there?

Jesse Coffino: Of course.

Sandra Moore: I had some kind of idea. But because, most of the places, I’ve experienced some form of diversity, once I got there I wasn’t expecting that it would be so ethnically homogenous. I expected, I guess, to have some Americans there.

I’ve been the only person of color many, many places that I’ve been to, but in no way have I ever been the only person of color like I was when I was in China. So it was such a . . . it was an amazing experience because, like I said, I’ve been the only person of color in many places and had people look at me, but not the way they looked at me when I was in China, because it was like they’ve never seen a person who looked like me, which was interesting to me. It was, “Wow.”

Jesse Coffino: And how did they respond? Do you remember how children responded or how other adults responded, if you’re willing to talk about that?

Sandra Moore: Everybody was really, really excited, and really friendly, really warm. I remember the thing that really stuck out for me with the teachers was that the teachers would, even if they couldn’t say anything else, they would be able to say, “Hi, how are you?” in English. So they wanted to take pictures with me. A lot of the teachers took my picture. And once, when one of the teachers, when they were taking my picture, and I was taking a picture with two or three of them, and they were, one by one, taking pictures with me, and I said, “Okay,” I said, “come here.” And I said, “Let me take my picture with you.” And there, even with the language barrier, I could tell that they were amazed that I wanted to take their pictures, like, “Why would you want to . . . I’m not special.” Like, they were so surprised.

When we went out shopping, I remember, one of the salespeople in this store, I was looking at these scarves, and she was so excited, she wanted to take a picture with me. Then, when I took her picture, she gave me a necklace. She said, “Oh,” and she said, “Take that.” And I said, “Oh, no, no, no.” And she said, “Please, please,” and “Take it.” And she was . . . she was bowing to me. And I was trying to say, “Oh, no. I can’t.” It was just so funny. I felt so honored to be a part of their culture, as it seemed like they were honored to have me be a part of their culture.

Jesse Coffino: Did you feel disrespected in any way? Was it a disrespectful curiosity?

Sandra Moore: No. And that’s the thing. I’ve seen disrespectful before. It was just an honest . . . it was a very honest curiosity for not seeing anyone that looked like me before. I can’t remember the young lady that was there with us so often, who would be there and translate for us, Jasmine, I think. She was so sweet, and she was just so kind. I remember, we were walking and she asked me, she said, “Is it okay if I ask you a question?” And I said, “Of course.” And she’s just the sweetest young lady I’ve ever seen. I said, “Of course,” and she was kind of embarrassed, and I could tell, and she said, “Can I touch your hair?” And I said, “Sure.” And, you know, my hair was braided or something.

She very gently touched my hair and she started to smile and she said, “It’s so soft.” And I said, “Yeah.” And she was . . . it was just a new experience for her. I actually felt like . . . I mean, first of all, I’ve had people in this country inappropriately touch my hair without asking, just because they’re intrigued by it. But she was just, in a very honest way, and very sweet, and she was so kind . . . It was just really nice. I never, not one time, felt disrespected.

Jesse Coffino: Hearing you tell the story, it seems very loving. It seems like—

Sandra Moore: Oh, it was very loving.

Oh, absolutely. It was very loving. And even when, I think on the last day, Chelsea had set up a massage for us at some place, or Ms. Cheng, I think, had set it up for us. We went to the massage place, which is very different from the American style. So when we got there, there was so much talking. It wasn’t a quiet setting.

At one point in time, when my head was face down, I could hear everybody talking, and nobody was touching me. And I was . . . I turned my head and I looked to our person and I said, “Is everything okay?” And she said, “She wants to know if she can touch your hair.” And I said, “Sure.” She touched my hair, and then I heard her start to laugh, and this expression . . . but once again, in a very honest, human curiosity, kind of way. Like, “Oh my gosh.” I could just tell. Then there was somebody else who touched my hair. Before you know it, I had these three hands on my hair like this.

Jesse Coffino: It became part of the massage.

Sandra Moore: It’s part of the massage. It was fine. Then, I guess, the person who’s there to take care of us kind of told them, “Okay,” that was enough. And she said, “They said thank you.” And I said, “Tell them they’re welcome.” And that was kind of it. I totally got the curiosity. They was just . . . it was different because it was so honest and it was so pure. It wasn’t meant to be hurtful.

I think the funniest thing that happened to me is, Intisar and I had found a Starbucks, and we were so happy to find a Starbucks. Then, when she wasn’t feeling well a second day, I walked there by myself. I was getting the lay of the land and walking down the street, and there was a man who said to me as I was walking, he said, “Hi.” And I said, “Hi, how are you?” And he spoke a little bit more English.

I said, “I’m good. How are you?” And he said, “I’m doing good.” And he said, “Very beautiful.” I said, “Oh, well, thank you very much.” And he said, “Where are you from?” I said, “I’m from here.” And he started laughing so hard. He says, “No, you’re not from here.” And I say, “I am. Why do you say that?” And he says, “Oh, so beautiful. I’ve never seen anybody so beautiful.” I said, “I’m from America, from California.” He said, “Oh, I’m going to come there.” I said, “Come on.” And we kind of laughed as I continued walking down the street. But it was just so funny because he said, “Where are you from?” I said, “I’m from here.” And he just fell down laughing. It was such a nice moment.

And in the schools in Anji, I think I was really amazed by how big the schools were. And even the schools that were considered small schools, I was amazed at how big they were, and how organized they were, and how everything just seemed so . . . I can’t put together a better word than “organized.” Things were where they needed to be. But sometimes I thought, “Oh, with all this organization and structure, the way everything is, how could it be fun for the children? Because they . . .” But the children were having a great time and still being messy, and enjoying things. But they were just such beautiful environments.

I couldn’t believe, at, I think the first school we went to, I thought, “Are the children playing in a car?” The car that was outside, and they were on the inside of the car, they had their little suits on, and they were painting, and they were doing . . . and I was thinking, “Wow,” I was thinking, “we would never . . .” That would be such a hazard for us here, to have children doing it. But it was so fun. I saw children walking on top of the car, and they were having a great time. I thought, “Wow, how fun it must be to have this level of freedom,” is what I thought. When do children get paint brushes to paint a car, or to paint walls and not have somebody say . . . And I couldn’t understand any of the language, but none of it sounded like “stop,” “no,” “too much,” “don’t.” None of it sounded like it had a negative connotation. So I thought, “How wonderful to just have that level of freedom to just explore.”

And I did feel less connected to the teaching, until I saw the sharing, the play sharing. When the teachers started to support the children in what they were doing in their play. Because most of my experience with the teachers in Anji was, you know, as they quietly observed, and they all had their phones out, doing the taping and watching. It just all came together for me when the taping and watching was then put onscreen and they were talking to the children about what they were doing at that time.

I remember coming back home and telling people about Anji, the one thing I said was, “China . . . I see why China is always going to be ahead of us.” I said, “If this is how they’re starting their children off, with this level of freedom, and language development, and exploration, and care, I understand. I get it. We need to be doing something different with our children.”

And I noticed, I don’t think at any point in time I saw any children crying. From all of my visits to nine different schools, I don’t think I saw any children crying. And I thought, “That’s amazing. That’s really amazing.” Even when there was little . . . every once in a while I would notice a scuffle . . . I mean, not . . . “scuffle” is the wrong word . . . where a child might have bumped a child, or something happened with a plank or something. They would kind of look at each other, and it would be this unspoken word, like, “Okay, that was an accident. Let’s move on.” And that was it. There was no exchange of anger. There was no exchange of physical anything. It was just a look in the person’s eye, like, “I can see you didn’t do that on purpose. I’m going to go over here. You can keep going where you’re going.” I just thought, “Wow.” It just seemed so free.

There were so many things. I guess if I looked back at my pictures I would be able to be more specific. But I think one of the things, and I think I have a picture of this, was one little girl, and she was playing mostly by herself. She had set up the blocks on the side, and she started slow, and then she got the plank a little bit higher. Then she walked across. These were the boards that looked like they might have been maybe four-inch boards, four-inch-wide boards or less. And she went and she walked to the middle of the board, and then she went sideways, and then she did a split on the board. She was just looking around, and she didn’t say anything. And I’m looking at her like, “Are you kidding me?” And it was just amazing.

So she was doing the splits, and her little, small, tiny body just fit perfectly on this board. And I thought, “Okay, we have an Olympic gymnast right here.” And the way she did it with such ease made me just think about how much . . .

Part of my thing is, I don’t really believe that we’re incapable of doing things. I think that we’re capable of doing more than what we know. And it’s just that some people have exposure and some people don’t. That’s what I walked away with in China, was that those children have amazing exposure, and how wonderful it is to be able to be exposed to great materials, great freedom, and the ability to talk about what’s important to you.

Because one of the things that I talk to my students about is the fact that we have a habit of rushing children when they talk. You know, when we ask them a question and then it takes them a longer time to say what they have to say, and we get tired as adults. So an adult will say, “Okay, okay, okay, okay, okay. Yeah, okay. So you did this.” And the child will say, “No, but that’s not what I’m trying to say. I did this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this.” They have to tell you in 20 minutes something that really only needs to be two minutes. But that’s their process.

So, to watch children tell their play stories in a way where they weren’t rushed and they were able to get it out in its entirety, how important it was that they used 20 blocks instead of 10 blocks, and that they made it that high because it reminded them of this or that, I’m thinking, “How wonderful is that to just feel heard?” 

And for all of these children, for their bodies to occupy the space in a way that feels comfortable to them. Like, I know sometimes . . . this is a crazy example, but at my parents’ house there’s this chair, and I like to sit back on the chair so that it’s kind of tilted and it’s not on all of its legs, and it drives my mom nuts. She says, “You’re going to break that chair. You’re going to fall, and you’re going to . . .” and I’m, you know, 40 years old, and my mom is still being Mom and keeping me safe, and I still have this space of risk where, “ooh, that feels kind of good to me,” for whatever reason. But in my body, I like the way that feels, versus sitting flat on the thing. So I just think about that in comparison to children, where you do something that’s at your total comfort level, but somebody outside of your body doesn’t understand that that’s your comfort space, and you know that you’re safe because you’re in your comfort space. And I feel like that’s what that is.

Jesse Coffino: I was talking to Frances Rust, who’s researched Montessori for a long time, and I was asking her about the materials, sort of Montessori versus Anji. And she said, “You know, Montessori, you can understand that they do have these learning outcomes that are a part of them. But at the same time, you can take those things and you can make things with them. There are big Montessori materials where your body is embodying distance, and ratios, and physical principles.”

So there’s these external voices that regulate your body by saying, “Oh, that’s not okay in this space.” You know, “Don’t jump off that couch,” or “Don’t climb on top of that barrel,” or “Don’t lay on top of that thing.” But then there’s also, once you can lay on top of the thing, then there’s all this other stuff that gets to happen once you can do that. Where it’s your body saying, “I understand physics, I understand distance, I understand ratios.”

Sandra Moore: But I also had an honest fear response. I remember feeling, “Oop, I could catch you if you . . . I’ll be right here.” And knowing that that was not my role, that was a little anxiety-producing for me, because I would quite frequently look around and think, “Do you guys see what’s happening right here? There’s so many children. Are we sure that all these children are safe? Are we . . . Because I’m here, but I don’t know these children.” But, like I said, I didn’t see anybody get hurt. But it was definitely anxiety-producing, because in my mind I kept thinking, “Somebody’s going to get hurt, and I know somebody’s going to get hurt, and I’m going to be close by to catch, because I know this little one is going to fall any second now.” So definitely there was some anxiety as I saw so much.

And I think the most anxiety came from when they were building, which is so interesting to me: that they would go, and they would drag the mats. It was funny, because sometimes you’d see a child jump off something, and they had only laid down one mat. And then whoever was going to jump next would go get another mat, because they felt like they needed more cushion, and they would have this building-block effect with the mats. Then, they would climb up really high, and my heart would be palpitating, because I’m thinking, “No, they are not going to jump off of there. No, they are not.” Then, to see them jump, it’s like your heart just, like, “Oh my god, they made it. Okay. Don’t do that again.” It definitely did. It remember thinking, “Oh my god.”

But I think that was the thing that got me the most. I was amazed at their agility and ability. When they would build those structures that they would climb off of, I remember thinking, “Oh my god.” But it also would show me that they had these amazing problem-solving skills. They were able to look at something and decide, “Okay, well, we can’t do it like that, because . . .” Whatever they were . . . they had a picture in their mind already of what they were trying to do and what that should look like, and they were able to create that to meet their needs, and to just do it. I was like, “My legs and my hips hurt just watching y’all.”

Jesse Coffino: Those mirror neurons were having a physiological effect.

Sandra Moore: Absolutely, absolutely. Oh my gosh.

Jesse Coffino: What I also thought was very interesting, when you were talking about kind of the natural pace of children, and what it means to give children the space or the time, you know, there’s kind of the buzzword like “holding space,” like holding space for the children to take time . . .

One of the deepest experiences I’ve had recently, and kind of bringing the eyes of the parent of a three-year-old or a four-year-old, and having more chances to work with programs in the United States and see the way things work, was really the beauty of the transitions in Anji, how they would move from play, to then being inside, to then having lunch, to then going to the bathroom, to then napping. Things happened because there was more flexibility. The teacher had the space to make decisions about discrete time, with this anchoring hard-scheduled routine, you know, lunch, and nap, and playtime.

But there’s something that Ms. Cheng has said, “One aspect of love is waiting.” So when she says, “Love is waiting,” I always understood it to mean, like, “Okay, as a teacher you get that ache in your hip by letting those mirror neurons fire by waiting and seeing if they’re safe, if they’re okay, provided they have ladders that aren’t going to break and mats they can use.” You’re waiting . . . there’s that act of love in waiting, and, like, “Okay, I’m going to take on that anxiety to see what happens.” Then, there’s kind of the waiting around frustration.

My daughter, when she was two, I remember her trying to turn over a trike, and wanting to go in, because I said, “Oh, you can do this faster. I can go in and help you.” Right? I feel like it’s the same response to, “Can you say that faster? Can you get to your point?” I remember thinking, when Rosie was struggling with the trike, “Oh, this is the way you turn it.” And I remember waiting 10 extra seconds that felt like a minute, and she turned it over and she was happy. She felt a great sense of efficacy, and probably love for me because I was taking a video of it, and then she could look at it again and tell me how proud she was and see what she did. She could reflect, even afterwards, on what she was doing. So it’s that waiting for kids that I feel like is something that our systems of accountability don’t always afford, because they want you to move in the direction of something.

Sandra Moore: Right. And I use that very similar example about waiting, because we have . . . when we’re talking about self-help skills and children building self-help skills and just basic development skills, we, as caregivers and parents, sometimes we are in the hurry-hurry-rush mode that we’re always in, children don’t have our same time frame. So the idea that something as simple as children putting on their jackets, it’s like, we have to do that for them, because we could do it in five seconds, and we don’t really feel like waiting 15 seconds for them to put it on inside out and then figure out that it’s inside out, and then pull it out and have it the right side. We just don’t have time for that.

So having children be afforded the freedom of time is an amazing thing, to be able to finish your task. When I’m talking to students, I often equate it to what it feels like when you’re in a conversation or in a caring . . . within a relationship with someone, and you’re trying to tell a story, and the person you’re telling that story to is hurrying you, because they have to go, but you’re not finished telling your story, or whether you’re cooking and you can’t really have your cooking task complete the way you want to because you have to hurry and do this.

Time is an important factor to whoever’s in that time and space. So understanding that children are in their time and space, and having them complete a project, you know, when we pull them away . . . if you pull a child away from something they’re not done with yet, and they will have a total tantrum around that, whether it means they need to put two more blocks, or whether they need to pour one more cup of water, or whether they need to do three other last colors, or they need to make one more lap around the track, whatever it is, until they feel like they are done, that’s their time. So time is really key, and we have to realize that our time is not their time, and vice versa.

Jesse Coffino: Yeah. And I think that . . . and this kind of brings me back a little bit to Montessori, which is that Anji . . . and my daughter was in a Montessori program for a year here in San Francisco. It was a home-based program, but the director was pretty committed, and she was a pretty . . . she had a master’s degree in Montessori education, so she knew what she was doing, and it was Montessori. And I saw in Anji, you know, with self-sufficiency around self-care, around food, like using the pots and pans. There are these areas where we can create child-maintained routines and structure so that, really, the child doing that last cup of water, it’s about them fulfilling the need for the cup of water, and not doing the last cup of water because they want to push the boundary, and it being them calling the shots. Because they know that they have the freedom already; their choices are being respected. Then, the behavior that’s being communicated in the filling up the water is satisfying an intention in play, and not necessarily communicating, “You’re going to have to stop me.”

Sandra Moore: When an artist, whatever kind of artist we’re talking about, whether it’s an artist who actually does some painting, or drawing, or whether it’s a sculpture, or whether it’s a musician, or a dancer, or whatever, when you’re in the midst of creating your piece . . . I could look at your piece and say, “Oh my god, that’s beautiful. That’s amazing.” And you might say, “It’s not done.” Because even though I am seeing whatever image is being presented to me in that moment, you say, “Oh, it needs to have a few . . . In my vision, I have more highlights here.” Or, “However I hear this music, the tone is always a little bit off. I need a little bit more time on it,” even though it sounds beautiful to me. The artist knows when their masterpiece is complete.

So a child who’s playing has their masterpiece of play, and they know when their masterpiece is done. That’s it.

Jesse Coffino: And then whether or not they want you to appreciate it, whether they want to share their masterpiece, is their call.

Sandra Moore: Absolutely. Because I made the mistake before . . . I taught preschool for a long time, and I made the mistake before of looking at a child’s artwork and saying, “Oh my gosh, that’s really nice. I can see your dog is playing at the tree,” and they respond, “It’s not a dog.” I think, “Oh.” You know? “How dare you try to name my art for me.” “Okay.” They get to say what it is, what it’s not, when it’s done, when it’s a work in progress, or whatever.

Jesse Coffino: So maybe that’s part of what I’ve come to understand as the Anji Play stance, is, you ask the child what they’re drawing when they are done, you ask them what they are playing when they are done. As much as possible, you leave that space for the child to fill in.

Sandra Moore: Absolutely.

Jesse Coffino: And even for me as a parent, like you said, I probably don’t have enough toes and fingers to tell you the number of times I’ve put on a piece of Rosie’s clothing for her in the last, like, three days. As a parent, “We’ve got to get out of the door. Mom’s got to get to work. You’ve got to get to school. I’m putting those boots on.”

“Oh, look at the beautiful cloud you made.” “That’s not a cloud. That’s a,” whatever.

Sandra Moore: Exactly.

Jesse Coffino: It’s a natural . . . it’s hard. It’s an intentionality. It’s a form of intentionality that is not always possible, as much as we might try. So I could build in better transitions as a parent, or if I need to get out the door, I am going to stuff her into her jacket. 

Sandra Moore: That’s something that you learn. The more that . . . the longer you’re working with children and the longer you’re in the field, I mean, those are things that you just learn. You don’t say too much. It shouldn’t be too teacher-directed. It shouldn’t be so . . . you shouldn’t be telling them what things are. You say, “Oh, you used a lot of color. How nice is that?”

It’s not about . . . You still have teachers right now who, you could see them working with children, and they’re saying to the children, “Oh, no, you shouldn’t . . . if that’s the grass, your grass is supposed to be green.” Well, who says grass has got to be green? How come grass can’t be purple? How come the sky has to be blue? How come the sky can’t be black? It’s like allowing them to experience their exploration, however they feel free to experience it.

In my experience in Anji and my work with Anji Play, what stuck out for me most, the thing that got me the most excited about doing Anji Play, was the play sharing. I’ve been really excited to hear children explain their work. I’ve been really excited to have that concept turned on in my brain, to allow them the freedom to do what they’re doing. And I’m not in the Early Learning Center every day. But even when I walk through, the children see me, and if I get a chance, to just say, “Oh, how’s your day today?” And just listening to them explain what they did, and giving me whatever information they want to give me, and me not talking, but just listening, just listening.

Then, if there’s a break in their talking, and they’re done, I say, “Oh, well, that’s great. That’s great. It sounds like you had a great day.” So I think just that freedom to have them . . . I feel like language is just so important, and sometimes just allowing a child to be able to say what they’re going to say without correcting them: “Oh, you mean you did this?” You don’t need to be correcting them. Let them say what it is they feel and then you can move on. It’s not English 101, it’s play, and they’re four. You know?

So I think, just the experience of that freedom is what I came back with. Then, working with college students, I think the thing that excited me is that I have incorporated . . . I’m teaching a hybrid intro to early childhood class. So, one of the classes, one of the last modules that I do in that class is a play module. I have some video clips of just normal . . . I shouldn’t say “normal,” but I should say American play that we’re used to, that they have to do an observation of. Then, I have a video clip of Anji, that I have in there, that they watch. Then, I have them do a comparison of it, as I introduce this idea of true play with what Anji Play brings.

Then, just to hear the students, from their perspective, look at what we’re used to doing and what they’re used to doing, and seeing if they see anything different, and seeing if that sparks anything in them. And it’s been really interesting reading those reflections. I feel like that’s my way of kind of introducing this idea of Anji Play and true play to them, and eventually wanting to do . . . since we are doing the model Anji Play site here, wanting to do a class related to the Anji Play curriculum, and giving the introduction of having them look at things and reflect on how things are different, and you can see it.

Jesse Coffino: Because now we’re talking about future teachers that are coming out of the training you’re providing, the education you’re providing. Are there any common responses from these students when they see those videos from Anji or when they’re comparing it to other settings?

Sandra Moore: Oh, yeah. I think I may have sent Chelsea one or two, but I should send you a few so you can take a look at them. But the common theme is, “Oh my god, I was so scared when I saw what they were doing.” But then, in the end, they always say, “The children look so happy. They look like they’re having such a good time. They look like they’re really enjoying themselves.” So the thing that they always key into is, first, that fear that they feel, because the play looks risky. But they also look at the fact that the children look so incredibly happy.

So we’ve had really good discussions around that and how children in that setting, how that might grow them up differently than children who grow up in this American setting.

And I think that’s one of the questions that I have that I don’t know the answer to. With all the children who’ve been through the Anji Play system, how has it affected them, or how has the rest of their growing up experience . . . you know, maybe this is research that’s in the continuation process, but how those children may turn out differently from children who don’t have that experience in other parts. I’d love to see what that looks like.

Jesse Coffino: And that’s a question that I’d also love to answer. That’s a really perfect place to end the interview, because I like the fact that it ends with your question, which is, “Then what?” 

And I don’t really know. I know that Anji County, in terms of their ranking nationally in terms of educational outcomes for high school and middle school, they’re probably very high. But how separable that is from their economic circumstances and how educational leadership happens, their curriculum at those ages, it’s hard to disentangle what cause-and-effect is. I think that it is something that people are looking at, and there’s research that’s happening. And I do think they have been following children through their primary and secondary education that have been in Anji, because all the kids in Anji essentially have gone through this Anji Play program.

That’s a question you can raise in May in China.

Sandra Moore: Excellent. I love it.

Jesse Coffino: You can raise it here on paper in Chinese for the entire audience. They’ll read it.

Sandra Moore: I would love to. I would love to.

Sandra Moore: Early math in its purest form.

Sandra Moore: Early math in its purest form.


Carol Spoehr

Director of Curriculum and Training, One City Schools

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Date of visit to Anji: April 2017

Interview conducted on January 30, 2019

Carol Spoehr: Hey, Jesse.

Jesse Coffino: How you doing? Are you staying warm?

Carol Spoehr: Yes, I am, because I ain’t opening the door.

It’s, like, minus-52 with windchill.

Jesse Coffino: Wow. That is something.

Carol Spoehr: My first thought when you contacted me was that, as we get along our journey at One City and people are asking how we started, this is going to be a good beginning, so I might as well start now. And there is some talk of me doing something called a PhD, and most likely I’d like to look at Anji Play, so this start would be part of that story too, right?

Jesse Coffino: This is a good jumping-off point.

Carol Spoehr: My biggest memory of play growing up, that I always go to when people ask, is at my grandma’s house, and she had this big wooden box, which was probably . . ., 18, 20 inches long, about 6 feet . . . 6 by 20, a good 4 feet . . . 12 inches high, it was big to us, and she threw lids in there and empty yogurt containers and the caps off of aerosol cans and mouthwash bottles, so all of that went in there. And there were other toys that were in the playroom, but that box was coveted. Whoever got there first and got it had control over it.

And it was everything. It was cups for drinking, it was bowls for soup, it was pots and pans, it was . . . When some of us got older, and I was the oldest one, we’d do the pyramids, making pyramids with them, and then it got to be funny, thinking we have my little sisters and our cousins out of the room so that they wouldn’t destroy them, but then they’d get back in, and it’d be this thing, “How fast can you build it before they knock them down?” All this joy and building and engagement and interaction focused around these pyramids in that space.

And I don’t ever remember my mom or dad or grandma or grandpa or aunts, uncles, ever having to come in to settle a dispute about this. They did have to come in and tell us we were getting too loud, or coming to see what all the giggling and laughing was, but I don’t remember fighting happening, because it just . . . there seemed to always be enough. 

And then I went to school and got a degree in adult ed. I wanted to be a 4-H agent, and as I was graduating, there was a president that was elected named Reagan, and 4-H agents, county agents, are considered to be faculty of the land-grant college. Eventually, agents have to get their master’s and become tenured faculty members. So what new 4-H agents would do was just bank all their hours from working overtime, and then, when they were ready to go back to school, they would take those banked hours and get paid for going to school.

Well, Reagan changed it so that you had to have a master’s before you could get your first job, so that meant there weren’t a whole lot of jobs out there, and the other thing I did different than everyone else on that track, because I wanted to plan activities for children, my electives, I took early childhood courses instead of more horse science and plant science. And I think back now and realize I was just 30 credits short from getting an early childhood degree . . .

When I came out of school, I couldn’t get the 4-H position, so I applied to Head Start. I got a Head Start teacher position and was at Head Start for 30 years. And then One City came along, and the philosophy where I was working shifted from what was good for children and families to, “Let’s cover our butts to meet all of the demands of accountability and assessment and the fear of being shut down.” So, if your work didn’t focus on those interests, you were on a blacklist, so to speak. And I’m not a good yes-man person.

I wanted to be in a more supervisory role and lead more groups. I was told that, even with a master’s degree, I didn’t have the knowledge or skills to lead the program, so they hired somebody from Target to supervise sites and I just . . . I was so done. And I was looking at One City, I was stalking One City, and eventually they opened and I got hired, and I haven’t left since.

Before One City, I was working with three- to five-year-olds. And then over the summer after my son got into high school, I would work during the summer, and a lot of that would be with one- and two-year-olds.

When I first started, and even through to when I left, we had HighScope and Creative Curriculum, so real . . . what they said were play-based curricula. When I started with HighScope, there wasn’t a focus on performance standards, and academic issues, like having to know 10 letters; then it really was more play-based for kids, with more of a social-emotional focus that allowed kids to figure stuff out.

And I had such an excellent supervising teacher, my first year, who had the right view of children, and so he really could do HighScope, but as money from the government came down, there was more listening to Congress, who defined performance standards, shifting from social, emotional, and health issues to this academic thing. So, four-year-olds had to know 10 alphabet letters when they left, they had to be able to count to two. So, what ended up happening is teachers, instead of letting kids play and figure it out and learn like they had been when I started, it was more, we were directing and testing or assessing or setting it up and going, “So, can you count these blocks?” instead of watching what they were doing.

A lot of us knew, developmentally, that this wasn’t right for children, and we saw the stress that it added for some children. If your assessments and the stuff you sent, the numbers on the state assessment, weren’t right, you were flagged as a non-performing agency, so you could be in jeopardy of losing grants. And for Dane County, that was close to a million dollars in 30 classrooms, so you do what you have to do.

Now I am at One City, which is a preschool program that is designed to serve children and families, children from one to six. My current position at One City is director of curriculum and training. I started three years ago as lead teacher. So my role is to mentor and introduce curriculum for the staff that we started with. We provide educational opportunities for children, really getting them ready for kindergarten, and we work with innovative ways to change education in our community, so it isn’t a test-and-assess program, and that’s what led us to Anji Play. We started with six children in September of 2015, and now we have 91 children between the junior preschool, which is the one- to three-year-olds, and the charter school, which is the four- to six-year-olds.

One day, Mimi Bloch came to One City, and I overheard this conversation that she was having with Kaleem, One City founder and CEO, and then Kaleem brought in Marlo to be our center director, but I was with children in the classroom, so I couldn’t come and nose my way in. I heard that she had Chelsea coming to Madison, and Chelsea was bringing Ms. Cheng and some people from China to talk about play, and that she wanted Chelsea and Ms. Cheng to meet Kaleem, because she thought that that would fit well together, and they set up a meeting for 3:00 on Friday the 18th of February, and I couldn’t be in it, and I, so bad, wanted to know what this was about. 

And then we came back on Tuesday and Kaleem came in and said, “So, I want everybody to go to this meeting at Preschool of the Arts at 6:00.” Marlo couldn’t go and the assistant teacher couldn’t go on such short notice. Bryce, my fellow teacher at One City, rearranged whatever he had going that night, and then he came back to pick me up. I didn’t have a car and I closed that day, so he came and got me. We went to Preschool of the Arts. We still had no clue what Anji was except that it was this play curriculum from China.

And it’s, like, 5, 10, minutes to 6:00, it starts at 6:00, and Kaleem sees that we’re here, he’s got seats saved up front for us, and he takes us in this backroom or back area, and he goes, “I need to talk to you two.” And we’re like, “Okay, this is weird.” He goes, “I just agreed to be the first Anji Play pilot site outside of China, and when we announce it tonight, I don’t want the two of you to be shocked and surprised.” And we’re like, “Okay.” But by this time, we were used to that with Kaleem. He’d come in and go, “Oh, by the way, I forgot to tell you, Channel 3 is coming to do a story,” or, “The newspaper’s coming.”

And then Chelsea and Ms. Cheng came back and Kaleem says, “Oh, by the way, you’re going to China.” “Okay.”

So then the meeting started, and literally, my heart at that moment, as I see the images . . . and I didn’t even have to hear Chelsea. I think she did a video before she started anything. And just hearing and seeing the kids playing, I started crying, but we all know that I do that at a drop of a hat . . . But it was so liberating, the whole meeting, and I’m just sitting there beaming the whole time, because it just . . . it was what I saw when I started in early childhood. That’s what we did when I first started, we let kids play and figure things out, and we were really only there if they were hurt, got sick, or needed a little cuddling and love, right? Other than that, we’re just, “Go. You need something, come get us, but . . .” And that’s what I felt.

And then there was the whole question-and-answer session, and you could hear other educators, and people that I’ve known for a very long time, starting with the buts. “But we can’t have ladders, because kids will get hurt. We can’t do the metal barrels, because kids will get hurt.” And then it went into, “Licensing won’t let us do that, because . . .” All the becauses and the licensing ones got squashed real fast, because there were at least two licensors, if not three, there in the audience, and one was our, One City’s, licensor.

And then Kaleem, they made the big announcement about us being the first pilot, and everybody’s, “Okay, but what do you think?” And I just think, “Cool. Here we go.” It was the license for us to go back and say, “Children can play again.” And what was so funny is, Bryce is just sitting there saying, “I don’t know what the big deal is.” Because he’s a sixth grade teacher by trade, but he still knew it was important.

So then we went back to One City, not knowing anything else but the pictures and what we heard in this hour and a half, and we started talking. We started to make changes. Instead of staying on our rinky-dink makeshift playground, we started going down the hill into the weeds and the wooded area and just got going. And it just . . . it was so much fun watching these kids find themselves, and for us . . . And every once in a while . . . Bryce would say, “But, but, but . . .” And I say, “They’re okay. They’re okay.” “But, but, but . . .” “No, it’ll be okay.” And he started to get into that mindset of letting kids figure it out. But, at this point, we didn’t know much about the specifics of Anji Play. For instance, Kaleem saw the power and potential of Anji Play, but he originally thought that it was only an outside curriculum, that it only happened outside, because that’s all he had seen at that point.

So, in June, we moved into our One City building, and Chelsea and Mimi came, and we say, “Okay.” The materials hadn’t arrived yet, so we had to figure out what Anji-like materials we could have outside. When the materials arrived, I have no clue, to this day, how it looked on the front playground with the three- to five-year-olds using it for the first time. I’ve seen pictures, but I was with the one- to two-year-olds, and we were separated by a fence in the building, so I never saw what that looked like, except, after the first couple of days, Chelsea brought back a big barrel and small barrel and a little ladder, and the two of us, we just laid it out and saw what would happen, but I had . . . To me, for one and twos, Anji Play is what one- and two-year-olds do naturally. They were in the sandbox, which Ms. Cheng suggested, they were building with sand, and it was summer, so we had the water open, and they could move the water where they wanted to. I had paint out and they could paint whenever they wanted. And I changed them into our outside clothes before we went out, and then, when they came in, I changed them back into their street clothes, so I didn’t have to worry about them getting wet and having to dry clothes, because they get dirty, and Marlo was concerned, she said, “Why did you . . .” And I would say, “Because I don’t want them to have to be worried about their clothes, or for me to say, ‘Oh, don’t paint, because you’ve got the good clothes on,’ or, ‘You can’t paint outside today because . . .’” So I had it set up in such a way that they could just play in any way they wanted.

With the ones and twos on the barrels, first it was a lot of just rolling the barrels or climbing in, and I think there was one day that we set it upright, so then some of the ladders ended up coming over there. And it was interesting, because they could get in the barrels, because they could flop over the edge, but there wasn’t enough room for them to do the same to get out. So it was interesting watching how they did that, and then, in my mind, coming up with the questions of, “Okay, we’re not supposed to interfere or help kids, but how are they going to get out?”

For the threes to fives, if they asked, I would ask a “Well, how do you think you can get out?” kind of question. And after talking with Chelsea about the ones and twos with the barrels, what she said was so clear. “Well, okay,” she said, “so we have to set it up a little different, because that problem solving is beyond their reach.” So we put a block inside the upright barrel, on the ground inside, so a child could step on it to get out. And it didn’t take very long; they knew to use that block to step out, and they continued with their joyful exploration of the barrel.  And with the ladders, before the one and twos got comfortable with them. I asked Chelsea, “Well, should I set them up for them?” And Chelsea said, “No.” She said, “You just want them on the ladders, because you see the older kids playing with the ladders, and you can’t see that here with younger ones, so just be patient and let it happen naturally,” and it did. And I’ll go through photos and videos now from way back then. Like Delany, who was a one-year-old and is four now, he knew exactly when he was ready to use the materials and had that confidence of learning and mastery. Because children don’t do anything more than what they’re comfortable with, so they only climb up the ladder as far as they feel safe, so there was never . . . that was one of the things, people said to me, “Oh, you’re letting the twos on the ladders?” And I just said, “Yeah.”

Sometimes we would help make it stable for them because they couldn’t, or because they are two and climbing a ladder, you had your foot on the other side so it didn’t fall over. There seemed to be more teacher intervention that way with the younger children, but really, it was the same as with the threes and fives, you were just physically closer.

And I think one of the things that happens here, though, is, we’ve been so conditioned about danger and liability and all of that, that we have gone to the hyper-safe extreme of taking everything away that ever could possibly injure a child. Which is a shame, because it’s amazing watching kids encounter Anji materials for the first time, and that kind of . . . back then, thinking, “No, I’m not sure,” and then having our seasoned One City kids, like Delany now, who’s been there for three years, come in and just go, “What’s your problem with this? Here, let me show you,” or, “Oh, see? If you do it this way,” or . . . they’re just so actively engaged in learning and sharing and mastery . . . If you trust yourself enough to stand back and watch children and really watch what they’re doing, you see amazing things.

And this summer, when Bryan, our principal, and Hilda, Bryan’s wife and also our colleague,  first started, and I’m out on the playground, usually at the end of the day, where there’s a mixed age group, they would come by and say, “What are you smiling about?” And I would respond, “Well, you just missed what so-and-so did.” And they would say, “Well, what’s the big deal?” And I would say, “Well, you kind of had to be here.” So I’m really excited for Bryan to go to Anji to get it.

So, when Bryce and I finally got to go to Anji, the year after . . . almost a year to the day, well, really, a year and two months from the day we were originally sitting there learning that we were doing this thing and going to China, we were thinking, “We’re going right now?” We were in this place of, “Are we doing Anji Play or are we not doing Anji Play?” In my mind, there was no way to go back and not do Anji Play, so, for me, regardless of what was happening at One City, there was this incredible excitement to actually see the authentic, what it really was meant to be. And what you miss in the videos is what teachers are really doing, because most of the videos are taken by the teachers who are watching, so you don’t get to see, or you don’t see, all the other teachers that are around, that are really engaged in what’s going on, but you don’t see that or you don’t feel that. So I left Madison excited about the idea that I was going to see that, to be in that. 

And going to China was the first time I was out of the United States, ever, except for two hours that I was in Canada, and it was the first time I was on a plane for more than an hour. So it was just a big experience for me, and when I landed it was surreal. And then, well . . . and then you’re in the airport, and you’ve been on a plane for 14 hours, really ready to get off it, and just . . . And then you’re looking around and not knowing where you are and . . . And then you get to the hotel, and the first thing you see after you get out of the van are uniformed security guards, not armed, but they look very official, really like police, and Bryce looked at me . . . and we weren’t prepared for this, and Chelsea was with us and didn’t prep us for this, because to her, it was just natural by now. And Bryce and I say, “Okay, what did we just get into?” and Chelsea says, “Oh, I forgot to tell you. This is normal. It’s okay,” and we say, “Okay.” And it was. Before I left, family and friends asked me, “Aren’t you afraid that something’s going to happen, it’s not going to be safe?” And now that I am back, I tell them that you feel safer there than you do here.

On that first morning in Anji, on Sunday morning, we wake up and go to breakfast, and the staff in the hotel, they were just so kind, and even coming to us to offer tea or napkins or forks, “Here’s another . . . Here.” And I remember, there was somebody from Anji at the hotel to help us check in, and he’s actually holding a door open for us, or moving suitcases in. It was just that kind of hospitality of, “Welcome.”

The church I go to serves students on campus, and we have a large Chinese student population, so I also had been asking questions of students, like, “Where am I going?” And they would say, “Anji is kind of, what you would say, out in the sticks in China. There really isn’t anything big there.” And I said, “Well, I kind of picked up on that, because Ms. Cheng had kept referring to Anji as similar in size to Dane County.”

On that first day it’s raining. Instead of us all going to the first school together on a bus, like we did for all the other visits, we were in two vans that had to make four trips. I’m in the second trip, I get out of the van, and it’s this anxious . . . first this anxious feeling, like, “Oh my God, here it comes,” like, “This is the moment. This is it,” and we walked in and it’s raining, but you hear kids outside, and you hear them laughing and giggling, and there’s a group of them that are playing, painting the van that’s there. And then you hear, way . . . I heard, way in the distance, pots and pans banging and more kids laughing, so I’m drawn that way.

And Bryce says, “We’re not sticking together, right?” And I’m say, “Well, I’m not your mom, and I don’t think we’ll get left here, so no.” I am drawn to this music they’re making and this laughter and singing, which is way on the other end of the playground. So, I’m just going, and I mean, literally as I’m walking, tears are coming, streaming. Luckily it was raining, so people probably can’t tell, and then, all of a sudden . . . there’s this relaxed feeling, like you’re home, like, “This is how I started in early childhood.”

I’m looking and seeing what they’re doing, and I turn around and there’s Chelsea, and Ms. Cheng is there, and the principal for the school, and you’re coming up, and they’re all using their fingers to call me over, and I’m ignoring it. But then, on the way, there’s kids in the sand playing, and they’re still . . . they’re getting water out and . . . It was just an incredible feeling. And then I come over and Ms. Cheng’s like . . . she didn’t even ask me, she started pointing at my tears and started laughing, and Chelsea says, “That’s because we had a bet on how long it would take you to cry,” and I say, “That’s not fair.” But it was just that whole . . . the excitement, and that freeing feeling, I think, it was more of a feeling of, this is what children do. This is what children need to do.

I just have this very deep impression of that, the way everything was set up in the schools in Anji. When I talk about going to Anji, or other people . . . When Molly and Lisa and Lucy and Jabari, other teachers at One City, came back from Anji and started talking about a certain school, or shared their pictures, and I would think, “Eh, I’m not quite sure yet if that’s the same kindergarten I went to,” and then a different picture would come up, and I would think, “Yes.” And I can remember being there. I can remember what was happening. When people ask me to share memories, I can go right back to being there. It’s kind of like, “Well, what day do you want to know?”

They’ll ask about play sharing and, “What’s that like and can kids really . . . is it really kids playing?” And I remember, and it always comes up, being in Langcun, where the kindergarten has fish in a stream, and in the pond area, and kids were picking them up, catching them, and holding them with their hands, and doing all kinds of different stuff with the fish. Now, when I was in Anji, I did more looking at what kind of stuff was inside a classroom than observing outside. I mean, I did that too, but . . . I saw them playing with the fish, but I didn’t spend a lot of time observing what they were doing with it.

And then they came in and they were doing their play sharing about how they were catching these fish. And all of a sudden, this little boy stands up, and he just starts sobbing and crying, and he’s talking . . . And all the kids stop and look at him, and some come over to try to comfort him, and you could tell, on the teacher’s face, that she had no clue why he was crying. It wasn’t like anybody did anything to him in the semicircle of kids sitting there.

And then he starts talking about how we’re killing the fish, and that if we keep handling the fish the same way, the fish are going to all die and then we won’t have any more fish. And the whole . . . you could feel the whole shift of the play sharing go from what the older ones were doing with the fish to the feelings of this little guy and the dead fish, and then they started to talk about how they can prevent that.

And people now ask me, “So, they translated all of this for you?” And I say, “We had enough people in our group that we could get bits and pieces of it, or hear a summary of what was said after we left,” but I say, “Even before that, you didn’t know exactly what they were talking about, except that they were talking about fish, because you could see the video and the pictures, but you knew that there was a shift, and you could feel all the kids rallying around, now, this little one and his deep concerns and distress . . . and these children are now saying, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re right. Now what do we do?’” And the teacher. In some of our classrooms now, if something like that happened and it wasn’t in the teacher’s . . . if that was a topic where the teacher didn’t want to go, you might hear a teacher say, “Oh, shh. We’ll deal with that a different day.” But in that moment, in the classroom in Langcun, the teacher and the school and the class were saying, “No. His feelings are very important.” And not only the teacher, but that whole classroom community, was understanding, “Oh my god, we never . . . we didn’t realize what we were doing.”

And who knows why that was so sensitive for that little guy, and does it really matter why? No, because everybody responded in one voice, “Okay, so how do we solve this?” And I’m not sure. We ended up leaving before they were totally done. When we talk about play sharing . . . and Bryce and I, who were in Anji together, we shared at our last professional development at One City on Friday, the four of our staff that went to Anji recently were talking about the week they spent shadowing a class at Jiguan Kindergarten and their talking about play sharing and problem solving and stuff, and Bryce looked at me, and we both brought that example up right away.

I also remember being at Jiguan, and the children were building large structures outside with blocks, and we were observing them. And when we went in and saw them draw their play stories and then go into play sharing. We learned they had built a hotel for the foreigners, and it had a donut shop, and they talked about how they had marked the female and male bathrooms, and just went on and . . . And the kids brought up that they used too many blocks to make the bed, so many that other kids didn’t have blocks to play with. And the teacher didn’t ask, “Do you think you used too many blocks, and that’s why the others couldn’t play?” It was just something that they were talking about when they had that time for reflection.

Similarly, with the fish, if the teacher had brought up that they were killing the fish, I don’t know how many kids would have even cared, because it wasn’t their . . . But I can assure you that the next day or that afternoon, when they went back outside to play, all the kids were going to be more aware of those fish, because it came from them, and I think that’s the power. 

What I live with, in my contact with and experience of Anji Play, is that validation, which I felt when Ms. Cheng was here at One City that first July, when all the materials arrived from Anji, and she’s here spending all this time in the other area of the school . . . over with the three- and five-year-olds. And Chelsea comes up to me and says, “Well, tomorrow morning, she’s going to come back and she’s going to spend time with you, with the ones and twos.” And I am very excited and thinking that I get an hour to be with Ms. Cheng . . . and she’s there for 10 minutes. She’s back with me for 10 minutes, and then she leaves. And I think, “Okay.”

And later Chelsea comes back and I’m . . . it’s nap time, and I’m . . . She asks me what I thought about the morning, and I’m really quiet. She asks, “What’s up?” And I say, “Well, I’m excited that I had Ms. Cheng with me at least for a little bit of this whole time, but she was only here for 10, 15 minutes. I feel jilted.” And Chelsea responds, “Carol, I should have had her come and tell you this, but she only stayed 10 minutes with you because you already have it in your heart, so she doesn’t need to be with you.”

So, what going to Anji did was, validated that I know the right course, so when I step back and I watch kids and I let them figure it out, it’s because that’s really . . . they can do it, that I can trust my judgment that this is the course, that I don’t have to solve it, that I see it.

So, I’m the one that . . . like Bryan said, “What are you smiling about?” The joy that so-and-so is having figuring this out. Or, when I go to see my granddaughter, Madison, and she’s two, and watching her and the stuff that she does and just . . . the grandma in me kind of . . . sometimes you want to step in, but it’s, “No. As much as you want to protect her, because now she’s mine, she needs to figure this out,” and seeing those moments of, “Oh! That’s what you were trying to do,” that sometimes you miss because you step in to solve the problem too soon.

So, it’s the “hands down, mouth shut, ears, eyes, and heart open.” I get it. I get what that really means. Kaleem doesn’t. He scares people off when he says it, because he . . . for new people, he says, “Ms. Cheng says, hands down, mouth closed, eyes open.” And they are missing what that really means, because what they are used to seeing in other places is teachers that aren’t involved and engaged in looking and don’t have the love and concern for the child there. But that’s okay. We’ll get him there. 

Carol Spoehr: You can see the attention the teacher is giving to observing the child. It continued for almost 30 minutes. It captures the competency and skill of the teacher and the child on the barrels.

Carol Spoehr: You can see the attention the teacher is giving to observing the child. It continued for almost 30 minutes. It captures the competency and skill of the teacher and the child on the barrels.


Dr. Lawrence Cohen

Psychologist and Author

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Date of visits to Anji: October 2017, April 2018 and May 2019

Interview conducted on February 7, 2019

Jesse Coffino: I’ve been asking, in these interviews, about play memories, and I asked Chelsea, and I asked Carissa, and then Julie Nicholson, who I spoke to yesterday, who is a theorist of play, and she’s worked a lot with play memory over the last 30 years, it’s been a real focus of her research and activism. The role that we know it has in Ms. Cheng’s practice, in the development of Anji Play, the larger learning ecology or community that has developed Anji, that play memory has taken on this role of informing how the educators in Anji understood what play was and what play could be or what those experiences could be for children, because they were able to access those memories for themselves.

For Chelsea, she says she doesn’t directly ask people for their play memories. She talks about Ms. Cheng’s story, and when she gets to the story about play memory, she sees something change in people. Julie, because she’s doing this all the time with her classes, has a more refined intro, expressing her respect for people’s experience and really explicitly creating a safe space for people to share or to not share, and to really listen. Then somebody like Carissa, who is running a program where she has parents that she has to reach in a few minutes’ time when they show up at her program, that’s part of her day-to-day, that’s part of getting people into it. So she can’t have that same degree of preface or that same degree of strategy that Chelsea might use.

And so, you know, there’s this question of psychology, of the experience of childhood, that it makes people confront. When in your practice, I’m sure that you get very deep into people’s experiences, but for us it’s the central question, “How do you feel about us asking that? How do you feel about being asked that?” And then how would you ask somebody that question if it was not in the context of therapy?

Lawrence Cohen: I don’t have a simple answer for that. When I answered the question myself, it was not a rehearsed place that I found. And my play memory was mixed with traumatic memories. I’ve done a lot of work on those memories, so it was not hard for me or traumatic, it wasn’t re-traumatizing for me. I could set it aside, and focus on the positive play memories. I could see, certainly, that some people could go straight to that traumatic place if you invite deep reflection and early memories. When you ask for a person’s deepest play memory, you’re basically telling the unconscious, “Go deep.” The word “play” is also in there, and that also means, “Go to an emotionally deep place.”

So I think the question does raise the potential for people to go to traumatic memories. However, I don’t really worry a lot about the danger of that, because I think that people are well defended. If they are going to be re-traumatized by a question about play, they are likely to be triggered many times a day by various situations in their environment. I also think people respond based on the cues of the situation. So I think, in Carissa’s program, for example, people mostly are not going to go into some deep, dark place and start sharing their traumatic memories when their kids are running around playing and it’s a joyful experience and they’ve been asked a casual question about their memories of play. I don’t see any danger in that. I think if somebody said, “Now that you ask, I have this painful memory,” that means they were ready to share that with somebody, and that’s fine. I think, if someone does share a painful memory, then it is important to normalize that for them, for example, by saying, “Many people have painful memories wrapped up with their joyful play memories.” If a person answers, “I don’t have any memories of play,” you can normalize that as well: “Many people have a hard time remembering play, for a lot of different reasons.” At the same time, you need to be aware that “I don’t have any memories” often doesn’t mean they don’t have any. It means, “I’m not going to open the door of that closet, because there’s gunky stuff in there. And there might be some shiny, wonderful thing in there too, but I don’t want to go in there and see.” Actually, if a person is functioning in the world, they almost certainly have positive memories of play, but they may be locked up in that closet that they don’t want to access.

I think that there’s a way that you’re not getting the full, accurate picture when you ask, “What are your deepest memories?” because people know that you’re asking for positive memories. I think it would be a matter of experiment and trial and error to phrase the question different ways, such as, “What are your deepest memories of joyful play?” Whenever I have heard the question posed, it has been in the context of Ms. Cheng’s development of true play, the way that she asked people this question and this wonderful practice emerged from people’s answers. I think that sets a container of safety for any trauma. If it was me doing it, I might normalize any painful memories at the outset, by saying that of course people also have some painful memories that can be mingled in with play memories. There are also memories that are not exactly traumatic, but they are not fully joyful either, and they arise in the context of accessing early and deep memories of play.

For example, I captured a memory when I reflected on the question of my deepest play memories, but I didn’t write about in my written response that I sent to you before this interview, because it wasn’t a joyful memory. My same friend that I mentioned in my deep memory, my next-door neighbor, we would play board games, and he would sometimes get irritated or aggravated and throw the board in the air, and ruin the game. And I would feel frustrated and angry, because I was winning. It was a disruption in our friendship and a disruption in the play. So this is not a traumatic memory, but there’s pain in it. I also have a sense, when I recall these incidents, that we didn’t have anybody to help us through this, and I wished we did. We managed to recover, I don’t remember how we recovered, but we did.

Jesse Coffino: So then, when you go back to that memory, is your feeling or your sense, if you feel in that moment, in your perception of that moment, was there any sense of, “This is the end of our friendship” or “This is the end of this relationship”? Or was it just, like, “This is momentary disruption”?

Lawrence Cohen: I don’t think I had in my mind, “It’s the end of the friendship.” But I didn’t have a sense of, “There’s no problem.” I know it happened again and again, so I know we always repaired it, but I am not sure how.

Jesse Coffino: With my daughter Rose, when she has friends sleep over here, there might be a conflict over an object. There will be a point of, I don’t want to call it dysregulation, but at some point where she’s not, whatever the conditions are. And there will be a conflict, a fight. Another child will go sit in our living room on the couch, and Rose will kind of lord over her possession.

Lawrence Cohen: Yeah.

Jesse Coffino: And given 10, 20 minutes’ time, they’ll come back together. And so, different children, different situations, I can see it where conflicts will emerge quickly and then stop. Over the course of an hour, there may be four or five conflicts, or there’s no conflict at all, or there’s one really big conflict. I don’t know what she’s feeling in that time, like, “This is the end of this” or “I just need to deal with this thing right now.”

Lawrence Cohen: Right.

Jesse Coffino: But, like you said, whatever happened, you guys were still friends after that incident.

Lawrence Cohen: Right. There was a sense that the game mattered a lot, and to have the game disrupted really mattered. And there’s another memory behind that one, of being told by adults that play time is over. And I’m not sure I trust this memory 100%, because my philosophy about letting children play colors it. But there’s a sense of the bottom dropping out, that what I was doing was important, and that the adults didn’t care.

Jesse Coffino: This brings up, for me, this question of what defines play or what are the definitions of play. So what’s interesting here is that you guys were engaged in a game where you had rules that had been agreed to. Suddenly you’re in this rule-bound interaction, and suddenly one party has decided to overturn or violate those rules, which means you can’t continue in a rules-based sort of play.

Lawrence Cohen: I remember a lot of other times playing games with my friend. The ones I described, where he ruined the game, were when we were four or five, but we would play Monopoly, play board games, through age 12 or so. I remember a lot of cheating that didn’t end the game. I remember me cheating, I remember knowing that he was cheating, I remember arguing about cheating, I remember denying cheating, and the game just continued.

Jesse Coffino: Yeah, but those were violations that didn’t stop the game. There seems like there was almost an understanding, if you guys were both doing it, then there’s this acknowledgment on both sides that there was an unverbalized rule allowing this cheating. So if you could call him out, he could call you out. There was a reciprocity in this.

Lawrence Cohen: Yeah. And there was this sense that winning really mattered. I knew it wasn’t supposed to matter that much, but it did. I didn’t know why it mattered.

Jesse Coffino: I was talking to Julie, and she said there are children she sees in Guatemala, who are four or five, who are selling things on the street. And they have a play that they integrate; their conception of play might be playing hide and seek under their mother’s skirt while they’re selling something. And so that might not be classically defined as play. I would define it as play, but she said that might get into areas of cultural definition. So there are children that might not have memories of play because they were running, or because they were refugees, or because they were in really severe trauma, or in war. And they may have found times for deep engagement in the activity of their own choosing, that might be characterized by joy. And maybe it happened most when they felt safe. 

I’m not a psychologist, and I know you are, but that’s my hypothetical thinking. So you have those children, you have children that don’t have play memories because their time has been so structured, or the parent’s image of the child has to do with obedience to norms, not necessarily behavioral obedience, but adherence to norms of development or time or achievement or expression of their capacity, according to an externally defined range of what a child should be doing. So there are children that don’t have memories because they weren’t outside running around in the forests.

And so my question is this. If, according to Ms. Cheng, and she’s come up with this idea of true play and false play, based on her experience, but it’s informative for people outside of the context of Anji, that there is this debate about what play is. And so my abstraction of Ms. Cheng’s work is that play is really deep engagement in the activity of one’s own choosing. In schools that respect this, they say that that this true play is the most important experience of learning, that that should be most respected, that’s the most important thing for children, and then everything else is built out around that.

And then you have Anji Play, which is a set of specific practices, a more articulated philosophy, materials. And these other frameworks. So I had this issue where I was saying, a child might choose to play a video game for five hours and be deeply engaged and have some sense of joy, but this brought me back to this idea of the game and winning, which is that these digital products are actually something that are designed to deliver a specific reward. There’s a specific reward system that creates a dependence, and a reliance, even, to the point of blocking out what’s happening in, for the lack of better words, the real world, the true world.

And so the question is, would that be considered play, or is that just some sort of conditioning? Is that an extrinsic, versus intrinsic, motivation? Are there children that have no play or that, where the play is so abstracted from the idea of play that they would not be able to articulate it? It might be a kid, a child playing hide-and-seek under their mother’s skirt in a zocalo, because they’re not in a school setting or, in some sense, free. 

Lawrence Cohen: It’s hard to see because, when our generation looks at children today, we don’t understand the electronic game experience in the same way that they do. I think we don’t know yet. I feel we need to be humble about that. But, on the other hand, I think that a lot of the digital gaming and entertainment is like cocaine. That’s the drug it’s most similar to, I think. I’ve never used it, but theoretically, that’s how it seems. You go to a party and you have a good time, or you go to a party and you take cocaine and you have a really good time. Did you still have a good time? Did you actually have a good time at the party? The cocaine hijacks the reward centers in your brain and does things to those reward centers that are above and beyond normal everyday life and enjoyment. If you use the drugs enough, everyday pleasures no longer register in the reward centers; only the drug can give any pleasure. I think that video games hit the dopamine centers and hijack your reward centers in a similar way. In a physiologically quite similar way.

Really, it’s closest to gambling, because with video games you have the same dynamic: “I won, so I have to go again; I lost, so I have to go again.” Compulsive gambling does the same destructive thing to the reward centers as cocaine. And does it make it not real play? I guess it’s a fuzzy line. Some gamers would say that, even if this is true, it is okay, because the games are just activating our existing neural networks. But it happens at a much more intense level, so I don’t know the answer, but it worries me.

Jesse Coffino: Because you’re working with young children and parents and child/parent relationships, and what play means to children and to adults, and what it means to be a present, responsive adult—what you might say is an attuned adult—an adult that can communicate with or care about or respect a child as a human, that we can talk about games and the reward systems, but there’s also, in the last, really, five to 10 years, the emergence of technology in our hands, which also interacts with brain chemistry in similar ways.

Lawrence Cohen: Oh, absolutely, Facebook and Instagram are exactly the same in terms of how we relate to them.

Jesse Coffino: For people my age and your age and even older and younger, you have this delivery mechanism, these systems that are designed to deliver these chemicals that are structured around social interactions, social relationships, performances of class and gender and values. And that becomes the basis of these delivery mechanisms. So to what extent, in your experience, are those things that are always in the world—that there will always be social competition and jealousy and bullying and oversharing and sniping—and to what extent, in your practice, because you’ve been in practice over this period, has there been, in your mind, a change?

Lawrence Cohen: The new technology has created a lot more anxiety in parents and in children. So that’s the biggest change I’ve seen. I think things like social power have always existed. There was always the girl in the playground who said, “Let’s go play on the swings,” and you can count up how many children follow like little ducklings to go to the swings. And the other children think, “I wonder how many people would go if I said it.” Some of them will try to experiment, and some of them will do the experiment in their head, “I’m not going to say it ’cause nobody will come,” and that might be true or it might not be true.

Well, now this is all quantified with the number of likes on your Instagram, and it’s too powerful, it’s too all-consuming. One of the results is anxiety. Bullying certainly existed long before cyberbullying existed. One of the things that I think about often about Anji, and I want to understand better, is this hands-off policy. Because a lot of what I tell parents to do is to be more involved, to get on the floor and play, and I’m comparing it to not being engaged with your children at all. So now I’ve added deep observation as a way to be engaged, with less chance of taking over the play. But I still believe in parents engaging in the play, not just observing, as long as it is at children’s invitation and when it’s increasing the joy and building the connection between them.

Jesse Coffino: I’ve spent a lot of time with you; we talk a lot. I apologize for not reading anything you’ve written, beyond a few articles. But I found something really, with Rosie specifically, that there will be times when she invites me into her play, and there will be times where I can step back and observe and she plays. But there are times when, and this gets back to this question I’ve been thinking about a lot, this tension between stepping back and regulation and where self-regulation is and where boundaries are, and what needs are, understanding needs and communication around needs, and the forms the communication of needs takes, and what the hierarchy of needs is in terms of me and a child’s and a larger order’s needs . . .

There are moments when she will hit me hard in the face, will scream at me, will do something aggressive. And I found that that is almost always a perfect transition and a need for roughhousing, where I pick her up and put her on my feet. She’s playing keep away from my face, where I am regulating her. Where my physical presence is showing her that that’s something she can’t do, that that’s okay, and what she’s communicating is, “I’m going to do something you don’t want me to do. Are you going to regulate me? Who’s in charge?” And if she’s in charge, that’s very destabilizing for her, and so it spirals out of control.

Lawrence Cohen: You do it with connection, instead of, “Go to your room.”

Jesse Coffino: And also instead of saying, “This is our roughhousing time.” It feels like a response to an expression of a need.

Lawrence Cohen: Yes.

Jesse Coffino: It’s physical, and can be seen as somewhat violent, even.

Lawrence Cohen: Yes. I think that it requires a lot of practice and a great ability of tuning in to know when to leave children alone, when to engage with them, when to observe, when to participate. And it takes an incredible ability to get hit in the face and to say, “My child has a need for roughhousing,” and to not just react with rage.

Jesse Coffino: I’m really glad you said “rage,” because you were talking about this tension between telling people to engage, telling people to step back, and where’s that line, because there’s another thing that I’ve also seen parents do, which is to not respond with rage, to not respond with roughhousing, but to just dismiss it and normalize it or accede to it. And so that, to me, also seems destabilizing, giving the child that much power. 

Lawrence Cohen: Exactly. And then there’s the traumatic response. For example, I hear parents say, “I’m scared of my two-year-old child; my two-year-old child hurts me.” That’s because their own inner two-year-old is being hit in that moment. You’re not living in your adult self as a 30-year-old, because you got hit, and that put you in flashback mode. That’s very deep. But in my memory about the board game and my friend throwing it up in the air, when I visit that memory, I wish there was an adult there to be some container for it.

Jesse Coffino: Yeah.

Lawrence Cohen: And to help us. And maybe that’s because I can’t reach to the, “What would we do if we were truly free and we hadn’t been constrained so much and weren’t acting out some roles?” I know now that my friend’s father was violent, but I didn’t know that at the time.

Jesse Coffino: And that gets back to this Anji question, which is how to respond in the moment. And what your bottom lines are, based on your knowledge of the child. In Anji, teachers have this great benefit of this being a culture, of this being a practice, of knowing these children, to have a really deep knowledge of who they are or where they are in a given moment. As a parent, you can have that privilege too, if that’s something you’re thinking about, if you’re open to that, if your values support that. You can be in that place.

And so, for me, when, for instance, I go back to that example, the sleepover . . . If a child feels scared and endangered in my house, with my daughter, is my response to just step back and sip my coffee and let them figure it out? Is it to scream at Rosie in front of her? Is it to force Rosie to apologize? What I try to do is, I try to go to the other child and make them feel safe. I go to whatever space they’re going to, if they want me there. But the child might have a need vis-á-vis Rosie, and my being her parent. So that child might need to see me say to Rosie, “That’s not okay.” But then it’s like, do I scream, do I yell? Do I go, “Rosie, that’s not okay, go sit over there”? Or “Rosie, what’s going on?” or “What the hell are you doing?” You know? Those are questions.

Lawrence Cohen: Right. So my approach to this is, I call it being the sun, and sort of the judge. The idea that the hurt child needs to see justice performed. I don’t think this is a child’s need. Children need restoration of connection and okay-ness and safety. And justice, I think, is a poor substitute for safety. Revenge is a poor substitute for restorative justice and restored balance and harmony. And so the sun shines on everybody, it doesn’t shine on the flowers, but I’m not going to shine on the weeds. The sun knows that Rosie’s feelings are hurt, and she’s decided that this toy is sacred and that a threat to it is a threat to her soul, and her friend has decided that she’s been hurt, and dismissed, and all that.

And so, children, sometimes it’s a show of diplomacy if you want them in different rooms, or if they want to be in different rooms, so it’s, go shine some there, go shine some there. I never force apologies; I think that’s the opposite of being the sun, it’s the opposite of self-determination. What I’ll say, instead of “You have to apologize,” is “I think that we need to make things right. Anybody have any ideas about how to make things right?” Sometimes time makes things right, but you want to empower children to have their natural ability to make things right and their natural desire to. And a sincere apology makes things right; an insincere apology does not make things right. So the more they are forced to apologize, the more they become masters of insincere apology. And you just say the word “insincere apology,” I feel this creepy feeling up my back. This Eddie Haskell feeling. Sorry, that’s a cultural reference.

Jesse Coffino: I used to watch reruns. Can you tell me about your first visit to Anji? 

Lawrence Cohen: In October 2016, I was getting ready for my first trip to China, which was going to be some workshops on playful parenting. I was at Charleston Nursery School, which is a beautiful, sweet nursery school in Boston, and I said I was going to China, and they said, “Oh, do you know about Anji Play?” and they had had some visitors from China, nothing to do with Anji, but I don’t know how they heard about Anji. I said no, and they said, “Check it out.”

I was preparing for the trip, I looked it up, and I thought, “Wow.” And I looked at how far away it was from where I was, and asked people in Beijing if they knew about Anji Play, and most people hadn’t heard of it. The few people who had heard of it, one person was planning to go, but somehow it didn’t work out and they didn’t get to go. That was the closest I got to Anji Play. One person told me that they had had heard of a school in Beijing that was planning to imitate Anji Play, and the teachers were told, “If anybody gets hurt, you lose your bonus.” And so we were laughing about how this is not exactly Anji Play.

So that was my experience before that first trip to Anji. I got back home from China and got in touch with you and Chelsea, and saw that you would be there in October, but I didn’t think I would be back to China until the next May. But then my host in China said, “Can you come and do the next workshop in October?” And I said, “Absolutely. Then I can go to Anji.” So I just knew very little about it, but there was something that really drew me to it. I think you could have put any one picture of Anji in front of me, and I would have said, “I want to go there.”

And I think, like most people, I was immediately drawn to the big-body, exciting outdoor play. The barrels and the ladders. And I just immediately wished that I had gone there, to school there. I grew up a very timid child, fearful, I had traumatic experiences as a boy that made me scared of the outdoors, scared of other kids, scared of using my body, and really, it was not until I was in my thirties that I really was tackling all this stuff and was reclaiming my physical body and started to do adventurous things and really got into . . . now hiking, being outdoors. I discovered that the perfect risk level for me is, if there’s a log that’s fallen over a creek or a ditch, to walk across the log.

For a while, that was an edge for me; it was big, exciting, and joy, fear. And now I do it and there are certain logs that are like, “This is right at the edge, or this is too easy for me but I’m going to do it anyway,” and it still has a thrill. And some, I lie down and hold onto it and inch across. It’s a place where I really push myself. So I discovered that 30 years ago, and this was around the same time that my daughter was born, and I was really wanting her to be confident and fully alive and fully in her body and physical, powerful. And so I knew I needed to model that and not be fearful.

So that’s kind of deep background of what was all in my head when I saw the pictures of Anji, and heard the stories about it. And when I went, the first time, I went for one day, two schools, I think it was, and I saw . . . first of all, I was overwhelmed.

I remembered Chelsea’s instruction to not take pictures of any adults, and to notice that pull to take pictures of cute kids, but to really take pictures of things that you were curious about and interested in, of the play and of the activities. That helped a lot. That was sort of on the way to going to the first school. We went to two large schools, I think. It kind of blends together with my next trip, when we went to 10 schools, so it’s a little hard to sort out.

But I remember thinking, the whole way, “I have such a short time, I have to do every moment and I have to absorb every moment,” and I probably spent half the time sitting, facing a wall, wanting to process what I was seeing and wanting to slow things down, and wanting to just chat with some of the other people there, not as an avoidance, but just to have some familiarity mixed with the newness. I think that it wasn’t until I went to Anji for a full week and Chelsea talked about, she was predicting how we would feel physiologically, watching children doing things that we weren’t allowed to do, things that might be scary for us to just get up and down, things that trigger us thinking, “Oh my gosh, this child is in danger.” So I had all that experience that first time. And it was helpful, the second time, to have a prep for it. The first time, I think my reaction was, “I’m just going to look away.” And I had this fear of missing out. I wanted to get everything, I knew I couldn’t absorb everything, and I felt like a kid in a candy shop. “I want to watch these children, I want to watch these children.” And it’s like, “Wait, these children in the sand area, they’re doing something just as interesting as the older ones rolling on the barrels, but I’m drawn to the ones on the barrels, and I’m drawn to the ones on the barrels who are the most proficient.” I look at my videos that I took, the first visit, and it’s very unrepresentative.

When I look at my pictures and videos from my weeklong trip, I feel like it’s really representative of Anji, as much as I was able to. The first time, I have this long video of these two boys side by side, rolling together on the barrel, and one’s taking his hat off and putting it back on, and one’s facing forward, one’s facing back. And they’re making the barrel move, and they’re perfectly synchronized, and they’re talking to their friends at the same time. And I was just overwhelmed and blown away.

And then I remember going inside to see a demonstration of the reflection. And . . . being torn between, “I want to understand every word and I want to absorb it and not have the translation and have a more global absorbing of it, and get what you get when you’re not lost in the words,” and I’m a very verbal person, so to see how visually oriented and physically oriented the reflection semicircle was was really powerful to me. And to watch these children’s engagement, 45 minutes, to watch even the adults who spoke Chinese in our group of observers being bored, and the children were not bored, this was really a milestone for me in seeing what was going on at an even deeper level in Anji.

I saw the children talking to each other. At one point it seemed like the teacher was pairing up the children to talk a little bit, like to have a pair dialogue before coming back to the group, and I just thought, “Wow, this is what I do with adults.” I never would have thought four-year-olds would do that. And I remember getting getting presentations from teachers and principals and other visitors, there was a Chinese professor visiting, and I just felt that every word was golden. I felt that every one of these presentations, when the teacher would give a video presentation and describe it, I felt that this could be a yearlong course. This could be a clip, and this discussion of it, and really understanding it, it could be, I don’t know, it reminded me—I never read Finnegans Wake, but I knew this guy who had this small group, and they read Finnegans Wake every year, and they would meet monthly, and it was like reading the Torah. They would read it together on a yearly basis and find more and more depth to it. It had that sense to it.

Jesse Coffino: So that one instance, that video and the discussion of the teachers around it, had that depth and complexity and the profundity of something beyond our immediate comprehension, forever beyond our complete comprehension, that we take and add meaning to. So there’s this overwhelming feeling, when you realize that there’s tens of thousands of books like that, and it’s happening every day for all the children, they’re constantly engaged in that process. We say, “This 30-second clip is Finnegans Wake, and there are tens of thousands of Finnegans Wakes happening in any given moment.”

Lawrence Cohen: Exactly.

Jesse Coffino: And that’s been going on for over a decade.

Lawrence Cohen: Exactly. And this is true for all children everywhere.

Jesse Coffino: Yes, that’s right. So what you mentioned that I find very interesting is, you talk about the moment of seeing the capacity of these children. We are witnessing adults that understand that children have that capacity. So the teacher knows that the child is capable of having that conversation you think of as an adult conversation, or the child knows that they can be on the barrel like that, so you’re really drawn to that.

And then, so, on the second trip, you’re drawn into more of what creates that environment and how it can be represented in different ways. 

Lawrence Cohen: I remember seeing Ms. Cheng videotaping whenever she was out with the children, and I had a sense of, that every moment is so valuable and every moment is so rich, and that there might be times when you have to attend to something else, but that every moment in a child’s experience is worth recording, it’s worth examining, it’s worth observing, it’s worth really thinking about and valuing. And that was a very, very warm feeling, kind of brought me to the edge of tears, the feeling that, I don’t know if I have a word for the feeling of that . . . Children being valued.

And that first trip, when Liz, my wife, was interacting with this girl, this girl with Down syndrome, and they were passing a piece of wood back and forth to each other, and Ms. Cheng was videotaping, and I remember having this excitement, Ms. Cheng is videotaping Liz interacting with this girl. To feel . . . suddenly, this sense of being included, and it wasn’t even me being videotaped, it was Liz being videotaped, but I had a sense of excitement and calm at the same time. I think . . . I remember moments of having a window into Chinese culture, when I would hear descriptions of, “I can’t believe that children would have this kind of pretend play,” because that’s something I see all the time. And I got a sense of the depth of how that was inhibited in Chinese culture. And it was exciting to see that being valued, but that wasn’t something new to me. The surprise was that that was a surprise. But then there was a depth of understanding about it. I remember one particular story, this might have been from my second trip, when I was there for a week, with a hair salon. It was a pretend hair salon that the children had. And one of the teachers brought a real hair dryer. And there was a lot of discussion about, does this enhance the play or inhibit the play? What’s the difference between a pretend hair dryer and a real hair dryer when you’re doing a pretend hair salon? And I thought about how, in my experience in American preschool education, there’s this, “Yeah, we know everything there is to know about pretend play, and we know it’s good.” But I think, because it’s new and different and exciting, in Anji, there was this, “Let’s really understand it, let’s really look at it.” And so we were moved by the depth of the understanding of it.

And I remember how much freedom the children had to be, in terms of what area they were in. And I learned, in the second trip, the longer trip, that you stay with your class. And I saw only one or two times where children pushed the edge of that boundary and the teacher was kind of the sheepdog, keeping them back into their area. And I was imagining myself as a child, that this would be hard for me.

I think one thing that I have is that “the grass is always greener, those other people at the other table are having more fun than my table, and . . .”

Jesse Coffino: So you would want to leave your class to see what the other kids were doing?

Lawrence Cohen: I wanted to see what the other kids were doing. I would think, “They’re having more fun than us.” It’s not a matter of “I don’t have . . .” It’s not about being told what to do. I kind of like knowing what to do. But it’s the pull. And I remember being confused about it, like, this is freely determined, the children are freely determined, but if you’re playing in the sand and you want to be playing with the ladders, then you’re not freely determining.

I just remembered that, in the second trip, the first school we went to, it was raining, it was a light rain, and the children went outside to do art, outside in the rain. And I remember just the relaxed, “It’s raining, so go outside.” Right now I live in Portland and I understand, it’s raining, so you’ll go outside. But that’s not my usual; that wasn’t really how I think . . . 

Jesse Coffino: That’s not your default.

Lawrence Cohen: Yeah. And there was a level of engagement, there was a depth of engagement, and my experience was really awe, and a feeling of humbleness. I felt humble and I felt awe, and I felt like, “I can’t sustain just even watching this. And they’re so deeply engaged in doing . . .” I remember the girl who was with us during that week, she came with her mom from Bangladesh, I was just videotaping her, this is a new experience for her, she didn’t know the other kids, didn’t know the materials, and she was just painting this patch of blue on a wall. And with engagement, with joy, and this whole . . . we’ve been trained in this whole, there’s process and there’s outcome, and we should be more interested in process. What I saw was, it didn’t even matter. These were not categories that mattered.

Jesse Coffino: Chelsea has used a shorthand to describe what she’s seen with teachers, and then also around Anji Play, or just around attunement. She said, there’s kind of detachment over here, and there’s what she calls enmeshment over here, and maybe there’s a language you use as well, and this is something that you’re very familiar with. Not separating out needs, not caring about somebody else’s needs and then being aware of somebody else’s needs or what they need.

And further, Chelsea says that, with Anji Play or with practices that center around true play, that there is either doubt in the method—if you have a doubt, you can doubt in the methodology, and that’s something you can discuss, we can talk about that—or you can doubt in the child, which is sort of doubt in the capacity of the child, and then there’s doubt in oneself, that “I can’t be here for this, I shouldn’t be a part of this, or I doubt my response.”

Lawrence Cohen: The relationship I saw between adults and children in these schools in Anji was new and different. It was challenging. I projected myself into being observed in that way, and I imagine looking up and not seeing faces but seeing iPhones, and I had a kind of creepy feeling about that. But when I took that and I said, “That’s me, let me look and see,” I didn’t see the children feeling creepy about it. I saw the children expecting that if they needed a human, they would get a human.

I saw a funny instance, an instance that I found very funny and heartwarming, where children were engaged in a dramatic play of a hospital, a bunch of children with big blocks, there was a hospital and there were a lot of hospital toy kind of things. And Ms. Cheng . . . maybe 15 people were videotaping, including Ms. Cheng. And one of the children came and handed Ms. Cheng a toy. And I was assuming the conversation was wanting to include her in the play. And Ms. Cheng was kind of, took it, but, “I’m not sure what to do with this.” And it was really fascinating for me to watch. And I knew that my default would be, put down the camera and join in the game. But I knew that in Anji, the default is, the play belongs to the children, you give it back to the children, and go back to that observer stance. And I think my main attitude was, my main feeling was curiosity, and I want to understand this, because in my work, the contrast is between “ignore and dismiss the child” or “get on the floor and play.” If those are the choices, I’m going to get on the floor and play and encourage people to go on the floor and play.

And so to see this other option that, you’re not getting inside of the hospital and participating in that direct way, but you’re not ignoring and dismissing it either, was really fascinating to me and is something that I continue to think about and want to know more about.

And another feeling I had, I remember, the first time I visited Anji, was, how on Earth do the parents agree to this? And I remember asking a lot of people, “How do the parents agree and grandparents get on board with this?” Because I find it hard. Preschools in the States that are play-based, not this kind of play, but not doing lessons and they’re playing, parents have a hard time getting on board with that. So to have not just play-based, but play that looks dangerous, at first glance . . .

And then the answers weren’t satisfying to me. “We had them come and observe.” It’s like, wait a minute, I want to see videos of that observation and I want to see, I want to hear from people about, “No way, now I get it.” How did they get there?

Jesse Coffino: You bring up something really interesting, something that I’ve heard, I think, from Carissa and Carol, people who are working with Anji Play materials, they’re working with children, and there can be anxiety. Teachers can understandably be anxious about filling the demand of stepping back. There’s a moment for Carol when she says something like, “Ms. Cheng was there, and she said, ‘Go ahead and set up the ladders. Do it once, they’ll figure it out. Set it up once so at least they know they can play with it.’” And there’s this sense of affirmation of intuition, or, oh my gosh, there’s this burden that’s been removed because you can do that. Or I thought I wasn’t supposed to do this, but then Ms. Cheng said “There’s no hard-and-fast rules, if that, at that moment, is necessary.” And so you look at the parents and the way they’ve been engaged, and they’re invited to play with their children in a way that their children are inviting them into play, and they go into that. And then there are ways in which Anji teachers do play with children. But again, I think there is more of, the initial stance is, “Can you do this yourself? Can you do this without me?” And then if the child is like, “I need you,” then understanding what that need is. Why do they need me in that situation?

Lawrence Cohen: There’s a difference between, “I need you, I can’t get up here,” versus, “Play with me. I want to share this with you, I want to do this together.”

Jesse Coffino: Yeah. And so I guess, in some sense, the difference may be between parent interactions and school interactions, if those teachers can set a context where they’re the teacher and where their practice is to back off.

And that’s not always the case if it’s a child, like a drop-in program at a library, where the child is there and it’s new and their parents are there, when a child wants you to be engaged in what they’re doing. And, again, I’m sure there are many instances in Anji where teachers get down and play with kids. But you’re not seeing that as the default, or as the initial response to that invitation.

Lawrence Cohen: I have been to China several times now. There’s a real searching there. There’s this sense of stepping off the cliff, and there’s not, you look down, like in the cartoons. And so we know there’s a new world, and we know that things are different, we want things to be different. But where is it? And so I see a lot of, “It could be this, it could be this.” The only thing I see where it’s coherent, where it’s an ecology, where . . . when I tell people about Anji, I always talk about Ms. Cheng and about, there’s somebody who knows how to be with children and play with children and knows how to implement policy, create policy and implement it and get changes made at a local level and a national level, can get parents and grandparents to sign on to something so different than what their preconceived idea is, and conceptualize this theoretical formulation and what’s going on.

So I don’t see that anywhere else, I don’t see that in America, I don’t see that anywhere else in China. I see some people in China take a piece of Anji or of something else that looks good, and try to staple it on. So, I won’t name any names, but I went to a kindergarten that had what looked like an Anji ladder, and a board, kind of construction, five or six pieces. The ladder, the board, and I don’t know what you call the V ladders and the straight ladders. And they were bolted together, bolted to the ground, and my sense was, the children were not allowed anywhere near them. Or maybe one at a time, with a teacher to help them climb up, to work on their motor skills.

And so there’s obviously a lot of work to get to that, to get to what it’s really about. And it’s a blessing and a curse that the surface level is so exciting. And I don’t know what’s the word for charismatic for a thing. People are charismatic, but Anji Play is charismatic. You can see why they would want that in their kindergarten.

So now, on a specific level, I encourage parents to take long videos of their children, and not just cute videos. Take play videos and watch them together with their children. I do that with my granddaughter. I remember, after my first trip to Anji, my granddaughter was maybe a year and a half. Now I live with her, but at the time, she was visiting, and we were taking a walk, and she was interested in this thing on the street. It was a blocked-off area of the sidewalk with some plastic cones and tubes. And I was like, “The sidewalk is blocked off, we’re going to walk around it, be careful because we have to walk on the street.” She wanted to go explore it. So I immediately had to step back. My agenda was, get to the park. Wait a minute—that’s not important. And then I remember saying to Liz, “I wonder what would happen if we don’t rush her at all. We have all the time in the world and she determines how long she plays with this,” and I said that because I’m aware of how much I am thinking, “I’m done. This is not interesting anymore, let’s go do something else.” And totally driven from inside of me.

And she played, and she experimented, and she stepped on and off the curb, and she went under and over, and touched everything. And I noticed each time that I wanted to say, “Okay, let’s go do something else,” and I didn’t. And then Liz and I were saying, “I wonder what she’s going to do to be done. How will we know she’s done?” And she just turned around, walked away, back to the house. She was done; this outing was complete. And then she turned back and she patted and kissed this bar. And then went back, turned around, and was ready to go back home.

So this was Anji internalized, for me. Step back, watch, observe, separate my need from her need, and this is something, theoretically, I’ve told parents about this for years. Isn’t it funny? We say children have a short attention span, but it’s adults that have a short attention span. But this is really living it at a much deeper level.

Lawrence Cohen: This was the closest I came to stepping in and intervening, because of the rope around the neck. Just before, I had seen how this game works: the child at the far end of the rope pulls as hard as he can, and the person on the rolling board tries to stay on. I imagined a hard pull with the rope around a neck. I fought with myself and kept my mouth closed and hands down. I can’t remember if I stepped closer, but I was certainly on high alert, prepared to step in if there was choking. I was very relieved and had a deeper understanding when the boy came over to untie the rope. I don’t know if there was any discussion that I couldn’t understand from adults or children before the boy at the end of the rope came back to untie it around the other boy’s neck.

Lawrence Cohen: This was the closest I came to stepping in and intervening, because of the rope around the neck. Just before, I had seen how this game works: the child at the far end of the rope pulls as hard as he can, and the person on the rolling board tries to stay on. I imagined a hard pull with the rope around a neck. I fought with myself and kept my mouth closed and hands down. I can’t remember if I stepped closer, but I was certainly on high alert, prepared to step in if there was choking. I was very relieved and had a deeper understanding when the boy came over to untie the rope. I don’t know if there was any discussion that I couldn’t understand from adults or children before the boy at the end of the rope came back to untie it around the other boy’s neck.


Rafiath Rashid Mithila 

Head, Early Childhood Development Programme, BRAC International

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Date of visit to Anji: October 2017

Interview conducted on February 11, 2019

Jesse Coffino: Hi.

Rafiath Rashid Mithila: How are you?

Jesse Coffino: Good. Good. It’s lovely to see you.

Rafiath Rashid Mithila: Lovely to see you too.

Jesse Coffino: Are you in Dhaka?

Rafiath Rashid Mithila: We met last at the IDEA conference, right?

Jesse Coffino: Yeah, in Billund. That’s right.

Rafiath Rashid Mithila: Yeah, in Billund.

Jesse Coffino: You guys had received your incredible award.

Rafiath Rashid Mithila: Yes, yes.

Jesse Coffino: Yeah.

Rafiath Rashid Mithila: Yeah. I’m in my office.

Jesse Coffino: Okay, fantastic. I’ll give a little preface or a little background. Which is that, as the Anji Play approach developed, as Ms. Cheng was trying to figure out what play is, because she didn’t really know—she thought it was one thing, it turns out it’s another—in that process of figuring that out, she began to reflect on her own memories of play as a child, and asked her parents and teachers and other people in the community to think about what they remembered as play as children. She asked them to draw on their deepest memories of play. And so it’s something that I do sometimes when I am speaking to audiences. Sometimes Carissa, who is at Madison Public Library, will ask parents that question. And so if it’s a question you’re comfortable answering, if you have any deep memories, joyous memories, of play as a child that you’d be willing to share, I’d be really curious to know about them.

Rafiath Rashid Mithila: Okay. I think it’s very common in Bangladesh that we— and I would say that it’s also very gender biased, because as girls, when we were kids, we used to play with pots and pans, like cooking. So I think that, if you ask anybody from Bangladesh, they would say this is one form of play that is in everybody’s vivid memory. We would get together and then we would plan our roles. Somebody would go to the market and bring the vegetables and groceries, and somebody would cook, and somebody would act as a guest. So we would plan this entire role play around cooking and inviting people. And that’s also very culturally relevant, because in Bangladesh it’s a very common thing that, on the weekend, you visit relatives, you would go to friends’ places, and they would cook for you. It’s very common in Bangladesh, that experience and that play. That is one very distinct play memory that I have.

And the play that I remember mostly took place at home, in the afternoon, when we came back from school. Then, in the afternoon, we had this free time to go out and play. So we would play at home or just go outside and play the same thing.

And we were really playing at what we were seeing at home. Our parents doing, inviting people, somebody would, like, my dad would go and get, you know, go to the market, and my mom would cook, and so that memory of play really is very common, and it’s really very culturally reflective.

This play would be with friends and family, because we, in Bangladesh, we are very closely bonded with extended families. So cousins would come, and we would play the same thing. We would change the roles and the modalities, and sometimes it’s Chinese food, sometimes it’s Bangladeshi food, we’re cooking. 

I don’t necessarily remember my parents or adults being around. I mean, they were around, but they weren’t noticing as much, you know, that’s what kids do. And their only involvement was when we needed something from the kitchen. If we would ask them. Otherwise they would just ignore us. Although they were very aware if we were playing with any expensive things or important things; only then they would interrupt our play.

I did my master’s in early childhood development at BRAC University. And you know that the program is conducted by BRAC Institute for Educational Development; it’s Dr. Erum Mariam’s department under the university. So, in the master’s program, we have a course on play, that mentions globally renowned play models. And we learned about Anji there; it’s incorporated there. And we also learned about Reggio Emilia. So, in terms of play models, they could only come up with these two examples from different contexts. There was also a US-based ECD model.

Jesse Coffino: STEM?

Rafiath Rashid Mithila: Head Start.

Jesse Coffino: Head Start.

Rafiath Rashid Mithila: So we also learned about Head Start, but in terms of play models, we only, yeah, we learned about Reggio Emilia and Anji.

Jesse Coffino: I’m really curious. This is great, because, four and a half years ago, there was only Anji Play as a word in Chinese that hadn’t been put into English or sort of shared outside of China. Right? And so you’re hearing about it. You know, it’s in some way related, I would think, to some of the work we’ve done, obviously the work that Ms. Cheng is doing, the educators there in Anji are doing, and all of the other people in China and the world who are involved. But I’m curious what you heard then. Did you see pictures of Anji? Did you read anything? What was the information that you got about Anji Play?

Rafiath Rashid Mithila: We actually got very little information about Anji Play. A little bit more about Reggio Emilia. We saw a few pictures of Reggio Emilia, because it’s available on the internet, but for Anji, it was just a very small paragraph that, in China, there’s this play model being implemented in a place called Anji. So, there was not much detail in it. We, including colleagues and staff at BIED, only visited Anji later.

Jesse Coffino: So, then, were there any pictures?

Rafiath Rashid Mithila: No. It was in early 2015.

Jesse Coffino: That makes sense.

Rafiath Rashid Mithila: I can find out my course curriculum. I know that there was no detail of the model. It was just mentioned.

Jesse Coffino: I’d love to see that.

So then, some of your colleagues came to Anji before you did. Is that right?

Rafiath Rashid Mithila: Yes.

Jesse Coffino: What did they report back? What did you hear from them?

Rafiath Rashid Mithila: I remember they said that they have never seen anything like it before. Some were definitely a little bit sort of skeptical, because they were saying, “How do they . . . read and write?” And all of the questions of academics. They were quite concerned about that. Some were very excited about the fact that . . . especially among those who are more closely working with play, they thought this is amazing. This entire infrastructure, the outdoors, the indoors, and how the kids are so engaged and they’re learning by doing. So I think most really were amazed. Everybody said, “You guys should go and visit.”

And they showed me videos and explained, “This is what they’re doing. This is how they are learning.” It was amazing.

For them, it was the first time they had seen that one unique thing, teachers not teaching, no teacher-led play or activities. And the teachers were basically recording and observing, and recording, and later they were talking about it. So this was a completely a new and revolutionary thing that I was seeing.

Jesse Coffino: Can you hold on one second? Will you bear with me for one second?

Rafiath Rashid Mithila: Yeah. Sure.

Jesse Coffino: Sorry. That was my daughter. She was calling for me. She’s supposed to be asleep.

Rafiath Rashid Mithila: Yeah. Yeah, I’m seeing a lot of artwork on the wall.

This is really Anji influence.

It’s really amazing. I mean, my daughter, if only I could show you my walls, she painted all over the walls. So, initially I . . . Hi! Perfect. Hi, Rose?

Rose: Hi, see.

Rafiath Rashid Mithila: Yes, those are beautiful.

Rose: I drew them.

Rafiath Rashid Mithila: Yes, you’re very, very creative. And you can make some for me as well.

Jesse Coffino: Yeah. You know Rafiath has a daughter that I met.

Rose: Someday, can I meet her?

Rafiath Rashid Mithila: Yes. How old are you?

Rose: Four.

Rafiath Rashid Mithila: Four. My daughter is five and a half.

Jesse Coffino: And, you know what, her daughter went to Anji, and you’re going to Anji in May.

Rafiath Rashid Mithila: Yeah.

Jesse Coffino: Okay, Rose. It’s time to go to bed. Can you say good night? I’m gonna go see you soon.

Rose: Good night.

Rafiath Rashid Mithila: Good night.

When I went to Anji, my daughter Ayra was four. And I was a little nervous because I had her with me. This was the first time I visited China, and I knew that there wasn’t going to be Facebook or any regular social media available and that language would be a big issue. So I was just worried initially that, like, how will I be able to communicate with people if I need something? I was a little bit nervous about that, but Ayra, she turned out to be quite patient, and she was fine during the travel. She enjoyed the . . . she always enjoys the plane ride. So, she was good. But, one mistake that I did, I didn’t take her stroller, so she fell asleep in Bangkok airport, and then I had to carry her all the way to the lounge and back. So on the way, I was not thinking about, you know, “I’m going to see something new” or Anji. It was not in my mind, because I was taking my daughter with me and I was worried, like, you know, we will be visiting nine schools, and whether she’s going to be able to wake up and all that. And, thankfully, when we arrived from Shanghai you were there in the airport. And you had a stroller when we arrived. The next morning when we started our trip, Dipu, it was like, it’s a very prosperous, Westernized city. It felt like being in the West, but everybody is speaking a different language, and everything is in Chinese, and it was fascinating, but I think that the first moment of awe was really when we entered the first school.

It was, I mean, both Ayra and I, we said, “Wow! We want this school for us.” And, we don’t have schools like that in Bangladesh. And it was an amazing experience. And then, when we sat inside the class, and Ayra was there as well, although she wasn’t being able to understand the language, but she could get it, because I saw that she was . . . It was raining, and kids were wearing the boots and the raincoats, and they were going outside to play. And I was thinking, “Really, in the rain they’re going to go outside and play? I mean, how is this allowed in school?”

It was a big campus, and I was amazed by the amount of outdoor space that the school had and the amount of materials and equipment that the school had, and the way . . . it was not very expensive equipment. Some of it was not. And it was utilized in a very interesting way, the tires and the swings. And I don’t even know all the names, rope-ways and ladders. I mean, what can you do with ladders? But I saw so much fun happening with ladders, and I was also amazed to see these areas that were very risky. The kids were climbing up, they were jumping off. But, kids were allowed to do that.

And there were a lot of things that in a regular school, or at least in this part of the world, would never be allowed. You don’t go outside in the rain and play. You don’t do anything risky in school. You don’t go climb really high up and then jump off. You don’t do that. So, those things were completely new for me. And I saw that Ayra was . . . I saw little kids Ayra’s age, they were climbing up and jumping off. They were going to the rope-ways, but I was scared because she had not been exposed to this kind of activity and behavior. She was scared of climbing up. She said to me, “Mommy, come with me.”

I just remember the teachers not interrupting anybody. That’s another, what we usually do is say, “Stop, don’t touch it, don’t do that.” Teachers are all about managing children. It was amazing. Teachers were not intruding. They were just silently observing, and definitely recording, and I think that’s a very . . . It’s action research that is constantly going on. Lots and lots and loads of data.

I was just thinking, you can write many books from many different perspectives from all those recordings. I’m a qualitative researcher, I know that, I mean, how valuable those recordings are. So that was very interesting to me. And, after the recording, when, at the end, they were having this reflective session, the kids were shown, “This is what you have done.” Then the kids were explaining, they were describing their reasoning, and one was building on another’s story, so everybody was participating. The entire journey was quite unique. I have not seen that anywhere, not in the US, not in Bangladesh.

And when I was in Anji, I was also, at the same time, simultaneously thinking whether it would be possible to do anything like this in Bangladesh, or in Africa. In terms of the resources, especially having all those materials, all of that equipment, in low-income countries and low-resource settings, it’s going to be a challenge. But if you go and visit Uganda, in a very low-cost way, we actually, you know, some of the outdoor equipment we saw in Anji, we tried to replicate.  We did that in Uganda and Tanzania. So it’s possible; I felt like it’s possible. It seems possible in some of these settings, although it depends on the schools. There’s this scarcity of space. The classrooms are small, their outdoor spaces are not that big, but in the rural areas, outdoor spaces are bigger. School is not small, so there it is possible. I feel like it’s possible. It’s just the main barrier would be, it’s a lot of new concepts.

I mean, in our play lab model, we have tried building with the . . . We call them the play leaders. We are struggling with the play leaders to allow more child-led play. They are always trying to take the control, and it’s mostly teacher-led guided play. So what I’ve seen in Anji, it would be a huge shift of mindset. That’s the biggest challenge, I think.

Jesse Coffino: I was talking to Larry, and he was talking about Ayra on that first day, going into that school and then just going out to play with the paint outside, just really getting deeply engaged in this new, foreign place. 

Rafiath Rashid Mithila: It was raining, and they were in coats and boots, and they went outside, and Ayra drew this big butterfly on the wall.

Jesse Coffino: It was beautiful. 

Rafiath Rashid Mithila: And I could see she was ecstatic. She was super excited. She, she had never done anything like wearing boots and a raincoat in the rain and then going outside and playing with paint in the rain. I mean, what, this is like heaven for children.

And I realized that language does not matter, because she was playing and interacting with all the kids. When we were having our meetings, she was playing outside with her princess Jasmine.

For Ayra it was a major exploratory journey. She was playing with tires. She tried to climb up and down, although she was a little scared. She was playing with paint. It was, everything that she did, usually she doesn’t do it in her own school in Bangladesh. 

When she came back, she kept talking about Anji, and she still remembers what she did there, and she definitely wants to go back. She said, “Ma, I want to go back to China.” And she still remembers “nǐ hǎo” and she remembers . . . she drew this. So after she finished painting outside on the wall, she definitely remembers that because this is something that she never got to do. She talks about that constantly. And then after she went back inside and they were asked to draw whatever they did outside, and she drew a butterfly, a big butterfly that she drew, and then she drew her friends, so they were little kids in the drawing, like little figures, and then she put it on the board. And this is, I think . . . this was a moment of pride for her. She said, “Ma, I left my drawing over there.” Do they still have it?

Jesse Coffino: I’m sure they do. I’m sure it’s framed.

Rafiath Rashid Mithila: And she remembers Larry. She remembered the food. She ate a lot of crab, which is like shrimp, and the . . . I think she remembers more than me.

But I also remember talking to the parents, and we could see that the parents were, I mean, they accepted this way of preschooling and this play model, they accepted it and they were supportive of it. That’s very important. I don’t know how, as I’ve heard that, even in China, Anji Play and this attitude is not very common elsewhere in China. I don’t know how the parents and the teachers, how their behavior and their mindset has been changed. It’s a huge achievement of Ms. Cheng’s and a mystery to me. Like, we are struggling a lot.

Jesse Coffino: Parents are always concerned about learning, and they want some proof that what you’re doing is teaching children something. So, thinking about how parents got to see or understand the value of what Ms. Cheng was advocating, I think it wasn’t about changing parents to not care about children’s learning. It was changing parents to get the learning that was taking place. 

Rafiath Rashid Mithila: So how do you make them understand that children are learning to take risks, to love? Children are learning . . . love, risk, joy, engagement, reflection. From all of those things, children are learning. They’re strengthening their cognitive skills, their self-regulation, their everything. I mean, it’s just not easy to translate into something meaningful for parents.

Jesse Coffino: I think part of the challenge is that in China, in Anji, Ms. Cheng had done all this work in advance to make these spaces and these schools and hire the staff and kind of have the infrastructure within the county. So the county had already been convinced that early education was important. They had invested assets. So, first there was the step of, “Okay, we’re going to invest in your child’s early education.” So there was a degree of receptivity. Once that commitment has been made—and I think she had gravitas because she had been such a competent administrator, or even a visionary policymaker, to make this happen before Anji Play began, you know, she had that degree of authority with her teachers and with the administrators, they were loyal to her, they trusted her, she was loyal to them, they knew that she had their backs and was looking out for them—so when she could then take these larger canvases, if you will, these new schools, and do something different, and she could keep the teachers on board . . . Then pretty quickly—because if you step back—and I’ve noticed this as a parent, but also seeing it in education, that if you step back and you’re present, and you don’t disappear—if you step back and you’re actively observing, children will play really quickly, and if you’re patient and you’re not, you know, you’re not in this for the wrong reasons, right? If you’re an educator for the right reasons, you’re gonna quickly see really interesting learning, important learning that you probably wouldn’t see if you were trying to get a child to do something.

If the teachers have even that time and space to put those conditions into place to see the learning, and then develop language to talk about it, then you can show it to parents. It’s the ability to show parents, in reality, the thing that’s happening, rather than convincing them of something you’re about to do. Because when you’re trying to convince someone of what you’re about to do, then doubts can be decisive and you’ll never get it done. So that’s, I mean, part of our strategy in some ways, in our work with our pilot partners, is that we haven’t been pursuing partnerships. Instead, people that come to us that want to work with us, we kind of figure out how to get it done together. So, at Madison Public Library, it wasn’t the head of the library or the head of Madison County who came to us and made this happen, it was one librarian who wanted to do this and who knew, “If I can make it happen, if people can see this happen, then I can persuade them that it’s good, because there’ll be enough people that were with me at the beginning, who can then talk to those people and explain to them why it works.” 

Rafiath Rashid Mithila: We work with the LEGO Foundation, and they work a lot on systems and play with the Lego bricks. And I saw that happening in Anji, when they brought out all of those wooden blocks, and they were coming up with their own designs and they were building it. It was basically a system in play. I mean, they were their own, I mean, they were the architects of their own systems.

And in terms of self-regulation, I mean, if you plan your own play, the amount of self-regulation that requires, it is really quite striking. 

And what we tend to do, especially in our part of the world, what we tend to do is, we try to spoon-feed everything—not only food—everything, starting from, even when children get homework from school, we sit with them and then guide them. It’s not that they cannot do it, it’s just that we just spoon-feed everything. So being in Anji was a big learning moment for me, that children can do. I mean, they’re so capable. It’s just that we don’t trust them; we think, “They are kids.”

And so we came back from Anji, and my team brought in ideas of how they can better utilize outdoor spaces with very simple, locally available materials. They have already done this in their own spaces in the play labs. I can send you a few pictures of the outdoor spaces. For my part, I’ve learned to, or not entirely, I wouldn’t say that I have been able to do it completely, but I have learned to step back a little as a parent, as a practitioner as well. I do now stop and step back and observe, and that’s, that has helped me in terms of understanding a situation. So whenever I go to the play lab, I talk to the play leaders and I say, “Don’t always go in and try to do the things yourself. Let them do. Just step back and see what the kids are doing.”

We don’t have smartphones and recorders, but I have suggested that our play leaders try to take a few notes in their journals, whatever stands out, whatever you think you want to see more of. This is something that I’ve learned from Anji. I’m trying to do it for myself as well, as a parent. For Ayra, I don’t help her with her homework. She does that by herself. Yeah. So I have brought that practice into my own life. 

Being in Anji was one of the best travel experiences for me, not just because Ayra was with me and was able to take part in the love and joy that I saw in the schools in Anji, but also because I spent so much time with so many different children and in so many different schools there. 

One more beautiful thing that I experienced and took away from my time in Anji is the way the head teachers took ownership. They’re observing, and they are able to explain what’s happening. What the kids are doing in which play, what they’re learning, what they are actually trying to communicate. So, this power of observation, observing something and then being able to learn from it, and understand it. This is something that is missing in most regular teaching and learning situations, especially in Bangladesh. And I know that, in many places throughout the world, teachers are trying to do things, but are not observing what the kids are doing, or reflecting on what they are doing themselves.

So unless or until you observe or see it carefully, you’ll not be able to understand what’s happening there, what the kids are trying to do. 


Mike Petrich

Director, Informal Learning Center, Exploratorium

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Date of visit to Anji: December 2016

Interview conducted on February 14, 2019

Mike Petrich: Play memories for me are social. And so it was . . . our street was filled with activity and kids of all ages from the neighborhood. We knew each other; we trusted each other. Parents trusted us to play, and roam, and pursue our interests, and trusted us to take care of each other while doing that.

We collectively and imaginatively filled our time with what we felt was worth doing, work-like strategies. And we didn’t call it play; it was just what we did. And I think what’s important about these play memories is that we were never told, “It’s time to play,” or “Here’s a toy for you to play with.” We would look at anything that we found as a potential plaything. And whether it was a found object on the street corner, or some new toy that a neighbor received, we asked ourselves, “What can we do with it?” rather than, “What does it do?” I think that’s a lost art today. I feel like so much of our experience is pre-programmed, or pre-purchased, and offered to us to engage with, rather than as something to think with. So we would make little Super 8 movies using our toys, in sort of a stop-motion fashion. Or we would pull together a neighborhood carnival (and usually, the only people who would come to the carnival were those of us who were running the games and activities). There was a lot of physical play, in terms of being out in the woods, and riding a bicycle, or finding an old skateboard and trying to figure out how we could transform it into something that each of us, in our own way, could ride or personalize or play with. So it was very much a self-constructed early play model that we had.

Jesse Coffino: You describe a spirit of self-determination. And really, what you said resonates with me, because I think of how “recess time” takes on this sense of frivolity. You’re being told, children, that this is your play time, and it’s structured, and the time is limited, and transitions aren’t built in.

Mike Petrich: In many places, recess time is the time to “burn off some steam,” instead of looking at recess as a self-constructed series of experiments that children are leading themselves, making with what they can, and working with what their friends are interested in. This includes paying attention to how they communicate with each other and negotiate this time and space. I wonder what we are doing to drive our own imagination in the things we offer to children today, instead of waiting for somebody else to tell us when we can be creative and when we just need to sit still. 

Jesse Coffino: There’s a whole piece of how you communicate with parents, and how parents can be more attuned. And I’ve been thinking about that a lot as a parent. I have a four-year-old in the Bay Area, and seeing how parents relate to their children in public spaces, and in their relationships with each other, and then in their expectations of organizations that provide care or education . . . however they conceive of the time that their child spends in somebody else’s care.

Mike Petrich: And I think the trick there is that . . . I don’t know that parents know to trust themselves in terms of making a value judgment about how children should be spending their time.

Jesse Coffino: And I think that in a more institutional setting around schools, systems are not really communicating to parents to trust teachers, because the system isn’t necessarily trusting teachers. Accountability and things like that. So there’s kind of this distortion of trust and expertise. Expertise is not in the hands of the parents or the teachers, and they’re looking for answers outside of—

Mike Petrich: Often parenting models and teaching strategies come from the way you were parented or the way you were taught. These are not always the ways that are best for children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development. So there’s a disconnect, where, if you teach the way you were taught, rather than teach the way people actually learn, there is often a wide chasm between what looks like learning and what learning actually is. How, then, do you provide professional development experiences to really uncover what teaching and learning could look like in valuable ways? And that takes some doing.

Jesse Coffino: Yeah. And I think a lot of it has to do with, how do you foster intentionality around respect for a child’s capacity? And then what you do with that. And that kind of, I think, gets to the core of a lot of what’s happening in Anji.

How did you hear about Anji? What was your first interaction?

Mike Petrich: I was working with colleagues at the Lifelong Learning Group at the MIT Media Lab and was told that I might like to meet Ms. Cheng. When she started sharing the work of the teachers and students in Anji, I was impressed by my perceptions of a profound faith in children and their ability to be fully capable of learning and creating and constructing together communally. Not only did it tick every box that I value, but it was a nice blend of educational vision, principles, and practice. I felt like Ms. Cheng had held up a mirror to what I believed education should be. Her work transcended my own, in that we often try to offer children a collection of things to think and play with at the tabletop, but Anji was demonstrating these qualities through large-scale group interactions and materials.

I thought this was somebody living in a parallel universe. What was great about it is that each of us are using our own histories, our own materials, our own natural abilities, and working with the communities that are participating in them, so I was not only impressed by Anji and their educational values, but I felt like it confirmed my own inclinations about our pedagogical approach.

Jesse Coffino: So you had a chance to meet us; you heard Ms. Cheng speak; you saw probably some videos and images. What happened between then and coming to Anji, and how did you get to Anji?

Mike Petrich: Well, there’s practical, but there’s also philosophical, questions that we had. The first philosophical question is, all right, we often hear people talk about their approaches, and they sound interesting, but it’s not until you actually see it that you can trust in the possibilities. Looking at the videos to see that the rhetoric matched the experiences captured on video seemed like a good first step. But we are always compelled to want to be there in person. To see what’s happening around us. To ask what the community impacts are. To inquire about the scale at which the program is operating. I wanted to know: Does this happen inside the classroom and outside the classroom? What are the pedagogies that support the external physical-based play and what the reflection and discussion and other examples are happening inside the school? I wanted to visit, and experience it for myself.

Jesse Coffino: And so then, when you got to Anji, where did you go, what did you see, what did you feel?

Mike Petrich: What I saw at first seemed to be kind of business as usual. Normal town, normal-looking preschool buildings (in terms of the entrance, classroom layout, and the overall design). But the first thing I noticed was the evidence of activity the minute we started walking through the courtyard. I saw the evidence of lots of loose parts, and discarded tires, and ladders, and planks, and it seemed like they were used often and regularly, because they were sort of prominent in the experience of walking into the courtyard and looking at some of the activity or material stations. And it looked like there was an organizational scheme to all of them that had been considered for the children. Or maybe with the children. The moment I walked through the gates, the value of loose parts, of reconfigurable materials, and of access and organization was a key driver toward sparking fruitful investigations and play. But then the children came out, and the courtyard came to life. The materials came to life. The materials sparked creative uses. I saw the children start to work with the materials in ways that they were comfortable with, and in ways that seemed tentative or developing. The children had an innate sense about what it took to balance the ladder, or how to move large, heavy things around, and they had a sense of what it took to navigate and negotiate with a friend or group about what we’re going to build, or how many blocks we’re going to get, and how we’re going to get them from the storage device to what we’re building together.

So I saw play patterns, strategies, and a comfort level with the children in using these materials. It made me feel like this was part of their daily routine. I saw a lot of tentative uses of the materials, and tentative interactions between children. Some of them were solving interpersonal problems, and many were solving construction problems when their materials were falling down or falling over. The children seemed to know the kind of boundaries that could be pushed in terms of their current abilities and their imagination. And I saw that in everything from the dress-up performance play to the painting and image-making to the construction with the larger materials.

I felt that the children were in charge. And I don’t mean that the children were making the rules. But I felt like this was a place for and by the children. That the atmosphere, the energy, the choice in what was done, was determined by the children navigating and negotiating that with each other. I felt like there was very little time when the children were waiting to respond to an adult. And so when I say it was run by children, I mean that they were actually creating their reality in the most physical, visceral, and educational, emotional sense.

Jesse Coffino: Wow. And then, so, you were with a lot of very interesting people who were part of the PlayFutures group visiting Anji, as you kind of mentioned. Were you all having conversations after you were there?

Mike Petrich: The group of educators and researchers that I was visiting with seemed to be challenged by what we were faced with when visiting the Anji schools. Challenged by acknowledging what learning looks like. Challenged in a way where what the role of the teacher was was less predictable than expected. We were challenged in a way where our preconception of what documentation and discourse with children might look like. Challenged in a way where the abilities of children are not something that’s dictated by an adult, but demonstrated by children themselves. It let us look at these aspects of teaching and learning with new eyes.

I’m always encouraged by environments where children are doing things that challenge an adult’s notion of what it means to be a child, or to be learning, or to be playing.

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Adam Yukelson

Action Researcher, The Presencing Institute 

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Date of visit to Anji: June 2018

Interview conducted on February 8, 2019

Adam Yukelson: I don’t actually have a real clear title right now, so we’ve been saying I’m the action researcher at the Presencing Institute. I think, probably, “learning designer, curriculum designer, and some form of researcher” is fairly accurate. My experience with education goes back, at least professionally, to some time teaching in classrooms in Costa Rica when I was just out of college. So that was early 2005. And then I took an interest in international education, started reading up about it, felt really, you know, idealistic and passionate, but wasn’t really sure how to make a difference. I ended up on a fellowship in India for a year, where I worked with an organization that was doing after-school programs and a variety of different things, and then, in 2008, that was when I was there, ended up then at a second organization called Dream Catchers in Mumbai, and they had independently developed a curriculum that was, it turns out, mapped very closely to Theory U that Otto Scharmer and his colleagues at the Presencing Institute at MIT had developed.

So I actually learned about Theory U and I learned about Otto’s work while I was in India, and it became an interest to figure out how to, you know, explore the application of something like the U Process, which was a process connecting inner transformation and agency doing things, you know, creating . . . creating the world you wanna create. Either as an individual or collectively. So I’ve been sort of on a search for where something like that exists, both the honoring of the inner experience of the individual and the orientation towards active creativity in the world, and there’s plenty more in the story between then and ending up at Anji. But when I met you and Ms. Cheng, there was a sort of immediate recognition that this was something deeply aligned with what I had been searching for in the world. 

Jesse Coffino: In the development of Anji Play, there was this moment when they were trying to understand what play was or what play should be or what play is, and they started reflecting on their own memories of play as children. Do you . . . Do you ever ask people about their memories of play? Is that something you had been doing before you’d heard about Anji Play, something you’ve thought about since?

Adam Yukelson: I can’t say it’s something that I ever did before, nor is it something that I’ve actively asked people about since. But it is something . . . it’s something that’s crossed my mind, because I can’t particularly access many memories of play. I have a few, a few vignettes that come to mind for myself, but I found that to be a powerful and provocative question when I heard it, but it hasn’t translated into something that I’ve actually used in my own life.

My own memories of play are sort of incomplete, but I’m happy to share them. They’re sort of incomplete vignettes, but they generally have to do with being outdoors. They have to do with being out in the woods. Not too far away from home, but certainly with other friends, probably elementary school age. Parents were not around, and it was . . . They’re just sort of images of building things and running through the woods and not being like . . . not being so far away that I felt like I could get lost, but being far away enough where I knew I wasn’t going to be seen, at least by the adults. So there’s a few particular vignettes that come to mind just generally, but not like particular situations, just flashes of images, I guess more so than vignettes.

Jesse Coffino: So you have these vignettes, outdoors. Which brings up this other question, the definition of play. Some people might have memories where they remember deep engagement in something. That, if I framed it as a question about play, they might not access, but if we think of play more broadly defined as depth, engagement, passion, joy, or something, a risk, that these memories might not be in a “play” context.

Adam Yukelson: That does change it for me. My mind, hearing you say that, it goes more towards sports. Because that was a huge part of my childhood, and so much of the time that I spent outside of a classroom was spent on a baseball field or on a basketball court. So there was an element of, you know, my own self-determined structure to that kind of play, or maybe it’s not self-determined, in the sense that it’s part of a, you know, a game that’s been predefined. But nevertheless, there’s so much more that comes up in that regard, so then it triggers memories of my parents dropping me off at different, you know, basketball courts and leaving me there for hours with friends. And that . . . Yeah, interesting. So play brings up kind of younger memories, and then this is a slightly older, maybe, like, early teenage years, and just extensive amounts of time, either one on one with friends or playing at an intramural building with older college students at the time. So yeah, that’s . . . I wouldn’t have necessarily thought of that as play, but when you asked about deep engagement, that was one of the things that I was most deeply engaged in when I was younger.

Jesse Coffino: And so it’s interesting, because then, the first thing I heard from you . . . and I might be totally off the mark here . . . you talk about your parents dropping you off, and all these hours, and so, on the one hand, there’s this sense of love, right? That consistent presence, they’re bringing you to a sports event, to take part in a kind of play. I know that for a lot of . . . You know, having parents dropping you off, picking you up, that means they’re there. But there’s also freedom, in a sense. You’re determining your social interactions.

Adam Yukelson: I don’t know if I would’ve framed that as an important part in my own experience, but listening to what I said, and listening to you mirror it back, that is, that’s a consistent theme in both of the things I talked about. The sort of outdoor thing, of parents not being there, and same with athletics. It’s interesting because my parents were there sometimes when I was playing sports, but those are not the memories that come up.

Jesse Coffino: Yeah. And then when you were outside you were close to home still.

Adam Yukelson: Mm-hmm. It’s . . . I don’t know how, I don’t know what it means, I don’t know to what degree that’s relevant in consideration of other factors, too, but certainly, you know, it’s certainly interesting to hear myself say those things and then think about what that means.

In the early spring of 2018, I remember there was an email that was passed along from Mitch Resnick at MIT to Otto Scharmer and from Otto on to me. And so I don’t remember the specifics of what Mitch said in the email, but I think there were some fairly glowing words about this being an important example of the future of education in the world and that Otto should come and see it. I remember looking at the website briefly and I . . . there was . . . it’s an odd thing, I don’t remember what it was, but there was something, like, it’s before I even really read that much about it . . . it may have been the picture that was on the homepage. There was something that signaled to me immediately that this was different than other things that I’d see.

So there was, I was feeling sort of predisposed to this being . . . How should I say it? It’s like when I have interactions in the world of education, I’m fairly well attuned to whether an educator really is sort of deeply in service of students or whether there’s . . . Actually, let me say that differently. It’s not a matter of being deeply in service, but there are some people who feel like they are on this planet to somehow protect the rights of the child, or something like that, and something about that came through, even before meeting her and meeting you. 

The first interaction was at the MIT media lab where she and you gave the presentation, just giving an overview of what Anji Play is, and asking some of these questions about play, and showing photos, and I think I was really struck by the story, her story of what it took to discover what she has discovered, but also to keep, to fend off the different elements of the system that would’ve tried to shut this thing down. I was particularly struck by her willingness to learn throughout the process, too. That she could reflect on the fact that there might be a distinction between true play and false play. That she might not know necessarily what’s best for children, but she had an instinctive recognition that there was something going on that was not the fullest expression of childhood joy or play or whatever it may be. So those were, you know, it was sort of something that I felt in my gut, even more so than I felt in my head, when I was listening.

In watching the presentation and then in speaking with you afterwards, there was the, just the awareness that there was a pretty distinct similarity to the U Process in terms of the emphasis on listening, not as a passive act, but as an act of creation in some sense. And there was also the context of the time; we were working on a program where we were looking for the most innovative examples of education that are going on in the world, and I had just, I think the year before, I had spent a few weeks in China with a few people who were taking me around to show me different examples of what they said was really interesting stuff in education, and I didn’t see then what I had seen in those few pictures and what I picked up in our conversation that day.

So I was particularly interested and excited about, perhaps, the overlap and the connection to the U Process, and how there might be ways in which the U Process could help as a language and its framework inform and make visible some of the more difficult things to make visible and to talk about in the Anji Play method. But also, likewise, what seemed exciting about that at the moment was that we were looking for, how does this stuff actually work in practice, whether people know the U Process or not, how do we demonstrate the power of these sorts of principles. And so, through our conversation and through the presentation, it sort of became clear to me that I needed to come and visit.

We do a . . . it’s now mostly an annual capacity-building program for business leaders and some other civil society folks in China. Just a four-day, three- or four-day training in the basics of the U Process. So we had been in Hangzhou prior to the visit to Anji. We had been in Hangzhou for a week, and we hadn’t seen the sun in six or seven days, and I think my internal state of being was a little bit gloomy at the time. So we got in some sort of black minivan and drove for maybe an hour and a half to get to Anji. I remember feeling good about getting out of the city, and then starting to see the landscape change, and that’s one of the first things that becomes apparent, the rolling green hills and the bamboo and . . . So there was this sense of the transition of the external environment, but I guess I also had in my mind that we were gonna be somewhere that was much more rural than it was. So when we got into Dipu there was a little bit of noticing that my expectations and reality were not totally aligned at that point.

We came with a bit of an entourage. I think there were somewhere between eight, 10, 12 of us; maybe it was even more who came. Chelsea was there, and Lilly, yeah, the principal from Jiguan, and there were a handful of other people there to meet us. I think Ms. Cheng was . . . I don’t remember whether she was there immediately; I know she was there at some point within the first part of the day. And it was kind of, it was rainy outside, and we walked through the gates, and I remember a couple of things. I remember . . . So there was the . . . I could sense a little bit of annoyance on the part of the hosts, Chelsea in part, and some others, that some of the people in our group were paying attention to their phones more than they were paying attention to the kids. I remember that. I remember being in the front of the school and the . . . I think, because it was raining, the kids were in their little blue or yellow raincoats. And they were just running up and down the side of the school with paints, just smearing paint all over the side of the wall. I remember just, I remember the vibrancy of the inner spaces. Some of the kids were still inside because it was raining, and so I remember just the visual display of the work that they had been doing for days, weeks, or months. And so, seeing, not fully understanding, of course, but seeing, kind of the trajectory of different inquiries that they had been holding. And then I remember, we came back inside after watching play outside for a little while, and the kids got back together for play sharing, and so I remember being in the classroom, the kids sitting first at the desks and then in semicircles, and there was just . . .

The one memory that comes to mind is, these two little girls were sharing something with each other, were looking at each other’s drawings, and one of them just reached over and grabbed the other’s face and gave her a big kiss right on the lips. And there was just, like, this, there was this sense of just, it was almost like the moment of embodiment of love that there is in the school. And it was just a really, just . . . It’s not, if I think of that in contrast to how I often experience school, which is, like, “sit still and don’t move.” There was a sense that the kids could do whatever they wanted in there, almost. 

I was there, what, five, six days, maybe it was a week. And I don’t know that I have the right word for it, but the feeling was sort of being immersed in an environment where . . . I mean, there was something about freedom but it wasn’t my own freedom; it was the, like, something about the freedom of the kids, that had a certain kind of impact on me. And then I was really just continuously struck by the adults, and I think what I was, what I was intrigued by, and what I was struck by, was the very active way in which they were not-doing things. And that was, I don’t know how to translate that into an emotion that I felt, or a felt sense, but there was a deep respect, I think, for it. Like, a respect and an appreciation that their active non-doing was quite a profound skill to have, to have learned. There was sort of an appreciation that that probably was not how they were educated themselves and that . . . There was a sense of “this took real discipline.” Like being, the sort of sense of respect that you have when you’re around people who individually have accomplished something, but to see that happen sort of at a bigger, collective level, and for that something to not be an egotistical thing of, “Oh, wow, that’s such a great performance as a teacher.” It was more of their ability to hold space, or to listen, or to inquire, or to ask questions, and to do so in a way that was not projecting their own ideals or their own assumptions onto a situation, as far as I could tell. So I think that was a pervading feeling that I had, was a sense of just real respect that that’s what was happening, but also a simultaneous feeling of wanting . . . I’d almost call it a duty, but not in an obligated sense, but a duty to share what I was seeing in a way that represented it, in a way that might help the world become a little bit more aware that such a way of holding space for young people is possible. That is what I was feeling on a mostly continual basis in the schools in Anji.

Jesse Coffino: Yeah, and we had a lot of chance to talk while you were there, and there were other people there, Chris was there, and I think Krystina was there.

Adam Yukelson: I’m not sure if Krystina was there, but Chris was there.

Jesse Coffino: It was interesting that you talked at first about the image you saw on the website, how it felt different. And there are kind of concentric circles of difference, maybe. There are people who visit Anji and say, “This is so different than what I’m used to in China,” so their difference is how this compares to what happens in China, or “This is different than how I understand early education.” Which is a difference in that sense. 

Adam Yukelson: My experience in India 10 years ago was a really direct experience of what it means to really, profoundly trust in children, to trust that they don’t need us to hold their hands and give them vocabulary. I mean, to help them . . . They have a way of making sense of the world, and if we can create the space for that to arise and come out, that something really profound happens that not only is significant in their lives but also transforms the adults. So when I say “different,” that, to me, stood out as an experience in India 10 years ago that I haven’t really seen since. And there’s a sort of recognition, right, that you see on the faces of young people, that sort of indicates that something like that is happening, and it’s just the absence of that for a really long period of time. So on the website it was just the sort of, the joy, and the sense of freedom, and it’s . . . I think maybe what went through my head was, “That’s not something that an adult could’ve created for that child,” at least not in the sense of imposing their will or their ideas on a child to make something like that happen. They could certainly create it by creating the conditions.

So difference for me, or the comparison between Anji Play and other things, is not necessarily to many different things specifically, but it’s to that one experience where I felt, over the course of a few months, through my work in India, I had seen what that nature of freedom could do for young people, and then it sort of gets, like, what’s the word? It gets imprinted on your soul somehow, and you know that it’s not something you’re gonna see very often, and so when it does come up, then you say, “Oh, I know what’s going on here.” In some sense. Before even having to know the details.

Jesse Coffino: So you’re sort of more attuned to this authentic experience that’s possible where freedom is given to children. It’s like a marker of it, an image that speaks to you. You have that eye that’s been developed.

Adam Yukelson: It’s hard to recall many specific memories. Part of it comes from spending a lot of time behind a camera, and so some of my memories are less specific because half of my attention was on trying to capture particular moments. But I remember the last, I think, the last day that I was there, I don’t remember the name of the school we were at, but there was a boy, I think I showed you the video, the boy who was trying to build sandcastles of some sort, and he kept failing. And the teacher was just sort of there with her phone, and she was just smiling at him. And he didn’t look to her for answers. It was clear in that moment, it was clear that this, he was used to the way that this was going to happen, to the point where . . .

It’s strange, as an observer, by seeing what wasn’t happening I could sort of deduce that, because he wasn’t turning to her for help, he already understood that that’s not her role, her role is not to solve the problem for him. That stands out. It was a simple moment, but then you consider all of the things that must have gone into it before then, over days, or weeks, or months. For him to understand that this was his process to continue to figure out is an indication that the teacher was not there to interfere with his learning process or to cut it short. I could feel the quality of interactions that had existed before then.

What really stood out to me were the presentations by the teachers and the numerous ways, some of which I wrote about and others which we didn’t put into writing or video . . . But you know, there was the water pearls that I wrote about in an article about my experience in Anji, about play sharing, and then there was also the story about the children who were burning things with magnifying glasses, and how, I think, what struck me about that story and the way that the teachers presented it was, in a normal—quote, unquote, “normal”—school, or in a different school, let’s just say, if kids were running around the playground starting fires, the teacher would tell them to stop because that’s dangerous. But instead, before getting into that part of the lesson, it was the teacher asking, “Where did you learn that?” And, “Isn’t it great that something that you learned in a magazine or from your brother or wherever it was, you were able to actually replicate it?” Like, “That’s fantastic.”

And so, I think not looking at whether something is good or bad, harmful or not harmful, getting to that, I would imagine, eventually, but first recognizing and acknowledging and rewarding the fact that there was a learning process that took place there, in Anji. There’s something about that that really sort of drove home to me the ways in which teachers have respect for the child as a learner, as a human being, and will, even in those sorts of circumstances, put the learning and growth and development of a child ahead of the sense of, “Don’t do that, that’s risky, that’s dangerous.” Which is, of course, what many of us hear in the world from the moment that we have memories, right? So what happens when you have a whole society of people who were told all of the things that they’re not supposed to do, that are a reflection of the adults’ insecurities and fears and whatever else? What is it that gets lost in broader community societies and so forth, because of those minor interactions that happen across the world at a small scale, but multiplied by hundreds of millions of times?

And, in Anji, just the flow and also the fun of a day in school, with music coming on, signaling the time for young people to clean up. The boundary between play and cleanup was . . . It wasn’t necessarily clear where one began and one ended, and at the same time it was clearly a change of activity. And so something did change, and things did happen, and things did get put away, but not in a way that disturbed the sense of attentiveness or presence or, you know, learning or joy or whatever it may be that was going on.

Jesse Coffino: So, in this flow, you saw so few interactions that centered around struggles for control between adults and children. You’re talking about the adult’s role vis-á-vis the child. Getting a child to a certain place, or this kind of struggle around what, whether you should burn something down or say, “Stop! Put that down, stop, I am going to take that away from you.” And then you start actually pulling on the magnifying glass with your hands.

Adam Yukelson: The lens of control was not there. It was more of, it was more of curiosity about what and why the child was doing what they were doing.

I haven’t had a direct outlet for continuing my experience in Anji, but even as you ask me questions, it is obviously still very alive in me. The process of writing about it, which took longer than I wanted to, felt like it was a way of giving back. But there’s, you know, my day-to-day work is sort of moved into other realms or moved back into other realms. And I don’t have children of my own at the moment, so there’s . . . Well, okay, let me break this into two different parts. Because I think that there was, there was a sort of resonance that lasted for a couple of weeks, where, when I would see children back in the US, I would, you know, I would look at them, and I would look at the adults that they were with, and I would sort of see it through the lens of what was or was not happening and how I’ve experienced those moments of freedom and trust and exploration and joy and everything in Anji. And so, as naturally happens, that happened less and less over time.

But having this conversation with you brings it back alive a little bit and it reminds me . . . what comes up is, other than writing about it and other than keeping an internal memory alive, not having kids of my own and not working in a school directly, what can one do in order to continue to help the thing that exists there in Anji be a thing that stays alive on the Earth at this time right now? That is my overall bigger interest; this is something that matters, that deserves to expand and be well known. But I don’t necessarily have a direct way of doing that in my day-to-day life right now. 

One of the things that I found really helpful, just in prepping my own perceptions and understanding, was the book, A Treatise on Efficacy, that Chelsea recommended. And the lenses—and maybe for people in early education it’s totally obvious, but I think that there’s something in the lenses afforded by that book for people who are not spending their time—and who are not steeped in these sorts of frameworks and thinking about education. Just how to, how to pay attention to what’s going on in Anji, because I’m fortunate to have had experiences that have primed me to be able to notice . . . because you could go to Anji and might not necessarily have the right lenses to see why something was significant, or how that translates back into their own life in one capacity or another.

So these framings around looking at the conditions, rather than what I do as an individual to create something, is helpful. And those are principles that extend far beyond just the realm of education, of course, and that’s where . . . Maybe that’s a further area of exploration for us . . . if these are the “results,” quote, unquote, that get created in schools using these sorts of principles and working on building the conditions in a place, what would that look like in a business, or what would that look like in government if that were to be . . . What are the principles that could be applied, and how would the outcomes perhaps look different if it was less about the hero individual who needs to fix something and create something and more about, what does it look like when the leadership team sees themselves not as driving the change that need to happen, but being in service of those who are typically most marginalized or excluded or not listened to in their system? In this case, in the schools, that’s the students. In a different setting, in a corporate setting, or in a government setting, that would be somebody else. And that’s a thought that I’m sitting with, of the significance of what’s going on in Anji for the broader world, and how do we make those principles visible and accessible for people to learn from.

I was also interested to see the use of technology in Anji. You summed it up better than anyone else I’ve seen in the piece that you wrote about Anji . And I think that perhaps my experience was colored a little bit through your lens, but I thought it was an accurate one, too. What was provocative to me about the piece you wrote, and what I then saw there, was that the same devices which the world is completely up in arms about at the moment, or some parts of the world are, as being sort of a destructive force, and you probably know, better than I do, some of the studies that have been going around about screen time and social media . . . But what was interesting to me in your framing was that these things can be either instruments of disconnection or of further connection. And I thought it was one of the most powerful examples I’ve seen in the classroom of using technology in the service of self-reflection, in the service of helping people . . . When you become the object of attention and these things are used on you, to say, “Your experience matters, and I’m gonna pay so much attention that I’m going to record this and we’re gonna look at it together, and that’s how much this matters to me” . . . There are ways of sort of shifting something that is typically used as a way of not paying attention to something that is being used not only to pay closer attention, but also to make the . . . Like it’s, I don’t know how you would create the curriculum that you do at Anji without this type of readily accessible technology. I mean, 10, 15 years ago, it might not have been possible in quite the same way that it’s possible now. So, to me, it’s just a great example of the way that form follows awareness, as we would say in Theory U. So if the awareness is coming from a place of “What’s happening in front of me with these children is the most important thing going on right now, and how do I use the tools that I have in hand to get the most out of this experience?” that, to me, it’s a way of using technology that I haven’t seen so fully and clearly and coherently and consistently applied in other parts of society.


Ryan Mather

Ryan Mather, Designer

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Dates of visits to Anji: June 2018 and May 2019

Interview conducted on February 4, 2019

Ryan Mather: I’m an interaction and product designer, focused on the relationship between play and learning. I was a student of Cas Holman’s when I was a student at RISD, and after being a student at RISD, I started as a product designer at littleBits, which makes educational toys that have a focus on science and technology. I also started a company that makes a game called FlipTale, which has a play-based approach to exploring literacy through role-playing games. Yeah.

Jesse Coffino: You have been sharing your experiences in Anji in different ways with your coworkers and your peers and your friends and your larger community network. In that process, do you ever ask people to share their memories of play as children?

Ryan Mather: When I met my partner the first time, she came over to my apartment, we talked about our early childhood memories of play, and it was one of my tests to determine whether or not I was gonna move forward with the relationship, if she felt comfortable talking about that. I use it to talk . . . that was one of the things I used to introduce it to my coworkers, and I also wrote about it on my blog . . . because . . . when you introduce Anji in abstract terms, everyone kind of has this furrowed brow. They are thinking, “What do you mean? What do you mean, love?” Then, when they start talking about their childhood memories, their brow becomes relaxed, and they start smiling, and then they have that physical memory that can be used as a foundation.

I find that it’s pretty common for people to say, “I don’t have any memories of play” immediately. Then you, sometimes . . . I’ll share one, and they’ll say, “Oh, wait, now I know what you mean, I actually have one.” I think Emily, my partner, her memory centered on climbing in trees and just sitting there and spending a long time in the tree, and not doing anything there but just enjoying the tree for all of its glory. 

I usually start by asking, “What’s your deepest memory of childhood play.” Sometimes people immediately have an answer. I asked this question to the audience at a talk I gave at Universe, which is a technology company. Usually a couple people bounce out with a memory very quickly, and then after . . . if there isn’t an immediate answer, then I’ll talk about, “Oh, intellectual . . . it doesn’t necessarily need to be physical play; you could be taking an intellectual risk, for instance.” Because a really shy kid might just stand near a group of friends, and that could be a really significant, deep memory for them because they’re taking that really big social risk.

If their first response is to think of play as a physical activity, then you can open it up to emotional and intellectual risks, and then usually people find those memories.

There’s one really deep memory I have in Connecticut, where I lived in a cul-de-sac, and there were four houses in the cul-de-sac, and they all had young kids, so we were just always getting in trouble doing stuff. One day we decided to have a race down the cul-de-sac, which I remembered being really, really steep. I actually went back recently, and it’s just, like, just the slightest, barely noticeable incline. You could easily walk next to a soccer ball and keep up with it. At the time it felt really, really long. Really, really steep. Really, really dangerous. And I at least felt that I had a reputation of being a scaredy-cat and a bit of a wuss. I thought, “Today I’m just gonna go for the glory. I don’t have any reason to, but I’m just sick of this reputation, and how hard could it possibly be? I bet, if I just try harder than everyone else, I’ll win.”

My bike was broken, so I borrowed a neighbor’s bike. He said, “Oh, we have an extra one.” I said, “Okay, fine, I’ll use that one.” So we went up to the top of the cul-de-sac and, ready, set, go, we all went down. It was all five of us. I start to get maybe to the halfway point, and I see there’s this big boulder at the bottom of the cul-de-sac, and I thought, “I don’t want to hit that boulder, but I’ve got to beat everyone. I’m just gonna keep on going full . . . I’m not gonna think about stopping until the race is over.”

So I got to the end of the race, I had won, and I slammed on the brakes, but I had not tested the brakes . . . I didn’t realize that the brakes were actually switched, so the front brakes were on the right and the rear brakes were on the left. So I slammed on the brakes, and actually the bike lifted into the air, and I have no memory of exactly what happened, but everyone around me said that I went six feet in the air, and I did a front flip and landed on the front wheel, and actually, I kept on going, like, another three to six feet, but because all of the kinetic energy had transferred into going up, I wasn’t going forward very quickly anymore, and I was in shock, because I was thinking, “What just happened?” And I just slowly came to a stop and went sideways. Everyone said “Ahhh, oh my god, that was amazing. Did you do that on purpose?” My neighbor Jack’s parents were sitting on the stoop, and I remember her mom said, “I can’t believe I just saw that.” From that moment on, I stopped being a shy kid, because I realized that there’s nothing special . . . you can just choose to do it.

There was this joy in a physical experience that I could never conceive of at all, this idea of doing a flip. I think there was a great joy in feeling that, oh, your body can do this crazy thing that you haven’t thought of, and it’s gonna feel like this, and that feeling is really good. Which gave me a reason to do more risky things in the future. 

I didn’t flip the bike again, but I did go on to do a lot of backflips off swings. I was a big fan of doing backflips . . . and off of diving boards, big on front flips on diving boards. And I feel like it’s probably related, because being upside down can be really frightening.

One day, I was looking at Cas’s website, just to see what she was up to, and I saw the Anji Play logo, so I clicked on it, and then I saw the page and I thought, “This is too good to be true. How are they actually doing this?” I was thinking it aligned with all of my ideas about what I hoped education could look like, and I was frustrated at littleBits, just because I was working and working under market constraints, and also, trying to meet educators where they are sometimes can be a challenge, despite your appetite for change. So I clicked the “contact us” thing and then I was in touch.

When I saw the photos online, I was immediately struck by the spaces. I could just immediately feel a sense of optimism in the spaces. This mentality of, “If we do build this, the children will take advantage of it and really get as much out of it as we’re putting into it.” A lot of things were just very whimsical from the trenches . . . there’s this picture of these labyrinthine trenches and elements like that. Growing up in the US, every playground looks exactly the same, and it’s swing sets and mulch, and maybe you get this icosahedron made out of rope if you’re really lucky. So seeing the level of care in the spaces was immediately apparent to me. And there’s one picture of a girl jumping off a ladder, and then you just see that and immediately think they’re gonna get sued. That’s the immediate thought from an American perspective. I’ve never even seen anyone get sued, but I just know that, that’s what . . . in my family, my mom and her sisters are all big worriers, and so they wouldn’t even let their kids play contact sports. That’s probably smart. Contact sports are dangerous, Anji Play isn’t.

Jesse Coffino: Sam is a pediatric neurologist. I don’t think Rosie’s going to be playing football.

So you have this girl jumping off the ladder, that really just captures your imagination, in some sense, because you’re imagining a place where there isn’t a lawsuit for that. And now you’re reflecting on the question of whether those lawsuits ever actually happen. Last week, Chelsea and I were talking to Dr. Mariana Brussoni, at the University of British Columbia, in the medical school there, and my understanding from our brief conversation with her is that she’s working with one of the largest insurance underwriters in Canada, because it turns out that the schools actually are insured for many of these things that schools are afraid of being sued for. And it’s not the companies themselves, because their insurance covers these things, but it’s the agents not really communicating to schools that fact.

And so what she realized is that it’s on the larger underwriters to educate those agents, so she’s designing a program to educate insurance agents to communicate to schools these facts. At the same time, as part of her really important work on risk and play and child safety, she went and looked, she said, “Well, what are the statistics on injury?” She said, I think, they could get seven years from across Canada where it was coded with the cause. She’s doing research . . . She’s not a medical doctor, she’s a PhD, but she’s doing quantitative research at the University of British Columbia, and she’s at the medical school. Her work researches injury and death in children. In that seven-year stretch of data, or whatever it was, not one single child died from falling out of a tree in all of Canada. I think there was one fatal playground accident that was death-causing, and it was something where it wasn’t caused by the child’s decision-making. 

And we said, “You know, licensing agencies need to learn, they’re relying on bad science.” She said, “It’s not that they’re relying on bad science. They’re relying on nothing. They’re relying on no science.” 

Ryan Mather: So I see these images of these spaces and this place that gave space for risk, and at the same time my manager at littleBits is encouraging me to think about how I want to grow as a designer, and I think, “The best way for me to grow as a designer is to spend time in Anji and watch kids.” So then I set myself up to take two weeks off of work, and then two weeks working remotely, so that I can be in Anji for a week . . . It’s interesting because I think that when I first . . . before I knew that I could come to Anji and I was already helping you guys with design, you would tell me, “You should come, you should come.” And I remember thinking or saying, “Yeah, sure, sure, I bet it’s great.” But I was also thinking, “I’ve seen the videos, I’ve seen the pictures, I kind of get it. I’m sure that I can just talk to you about it.”

I couldn’t help but feel a little . . . not annoyed . . . like, whenever someone says, “You’ve got to go there,” it kind of just sounds like blind faith and not reason.

Now, in retrospect, I realize that the experience of being there really is transformative. And I feel like my depth of understanding of what’s happening in Anji is directly proportional to the amount of time I spent observing kids there. I remember following one group of children uninterrupted for twenty minutes. That was the most important experience I had there.

I had been to China twice. Once for travel and then once as an intern working at a tech startup. I’ve been to Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Guangzhou, and Hangzhou, Sichuan, that’s it.

My first memory when I arrived in China to visit Anji is crawling out of the car to go to the bathroom on the side of the road while you smoked a cigarette. Then after that I don’t quite remember . . .

Then I remember eating breakfast downstairs at Zhonghui and meeting everyone. Kaleem Caire and Joe Krupp and Susan Ochshorn, who were with us in Anji. Then we went to a training, a teacher training with Chelsea. I was fascinated because, to me, it felt that . . . I was just blown away at how engaged the teachers were in their professional development, because I’ve never seen . . . it was just so impressive to see how deep they were going in this video analysis that they were doing, and how much they would debate about milliseconds worth of information. “Oh, no, he looks to the parents first, and then he looks at his friends.” Or, “No, he looks at his friends and then the parents.” “Yeah, but at what point, where was the ladder in that point in time?” “Oh, rewind, rewind, rewind, where was the ladder?” It was really . . . a lot of the time, when I explain Anji Play to people, I like to frame it as this hypothetical conversation between an idealist and a skeptic, and the idealist says, “Oh, I think kids learn on their own. We could just . . . support them and they’ll naturally sort of research the world.” And then the skeptic says, “Yeah, okay, maybe, but you’d have to spend all day, every day, sort of researching it and developing a practice. You’d have to work so hard to understand it to articulate that learning.” And then the idealist says, “Well, if I’m not grading papers all day, then I suddenly have my whole day back, so I can go ahead and do that.”

So that was the first time that I actually saw educators doing that work of, okay, what does it look like if you take the time you would spend doing outcomes-based assessment and instead spent that time trying to understand. I think that was also when it clicked . . . one thing you have said is that this is an anthropological model of knowledge instead of a psychological one. Which had never made sense to me before. But that suddenly started to make sense.

Do you remember the name of the first school we went to?

Jesse Coffino: I think it was Jiguan.

Ryan Mather: I’ll go look at my phone. My phone is . . . it’s funny, because it’s pretty easy to scroll through the first couple of months, and then you get to the Anji block of hundreds of pictures over a one-week period of time. It’s funny, because I go to my albums and then there’s a people sort. Different people. I have 10 friends and then 100 children from Anji. Some of them, I have multiple pictures of them, but I didn’t even realize that it was the same kid. Yeah, I’m just looking at the pictures I took at Jiguan. I remember that there’s a shipping-container building. That was something that I immediately drew in my sketchbook.

I also remember being taken aback by how, everywhere you go, there’s little doodles on everything. Which is really nice, and it kind of just feels like another way that I . . . if I’m talking to architects and designers, one of the ways I describe the materials and spaces in Anji is that, instead of an architect designing a playground to facilitate a certain type of behavior, the child is seen as the architect of their own playground. They can have the experience of designing their own playground and seeing the outcomes of that. So when you walk around and just see the doodles everywhere, you get this sense that this place has been shaped by children. It’s funny because I think a lot of it . . . another thing that comes up, talking about Anji Play, is, it’s not Lord of the Flies. There is a definite . . . it’s a well-oiled machine. It does kind of have a little bit of that same atmosphere, though, that it was shaped by children. Even though it’s not chaos and it’s not barbaric, but they both do have that kind of . . . maybe, like, Peter Pan is a better reference point. Where it’s kind of this magical feeling of, okay, this wasn’t made by grown-ups entirely. 

Jesse Coffino: There’s a way in which the environment is responsive to the most basic . . . the basic needs of the child. The affordances of the space. Just those principles that it’s open and free and the child can shape that, build it, influence its construction, by playing in it a certain way, and then the observation, by the teacher, of the child’s use guides the contours of the environment and spaces. 

Ryan Mather: I remember, we got to Jiguan in the morning and Chelsea asked us to not take any pictures. To just soak it in. I remember the physical things there and I felt joy. Just seeing the level of freedom that the kids had. Clearly this is how it should be. This is what I would want as a kid. These kids have such a level of freedom. It’s interesting because, as an American, we hear people talk about freedom all the time, but I never related this concept of freedom to something of aesthetic value until I went to Anji, China. And I felt, “This is real freedom.” Then I really felt that strong sense of . . . kind of like the sort of . . . I don’t know how to phrase it, but the fact that this is a right. I felt a sense of responsibility, too, where, this is a right, this is how it should be.

I also remember . . . I don’t know if this was at Jiguan, or I think it was on the last day in Shuangyi, I was drawing some stuff, and some kids came up to me . . . I remember actually feeling very hesitant about interacting with kids, because a big part of Anji Play is, “eyes open, ears open, mouth closed, hands down.” I was thinking, “If a kid comes up to me and talks to me, am I supposed to not respond to them? Well, love is the number one principle, so you should treat people with love, which means, answer them if they talk to you, because it’s pretty rude to ignore people.”

Before I made that mental leap, I was hesitant at first, but then I started . . . The kid said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “I’m drawing.” And she said, “You draw very messily.” I guess I sketch loosely. I would say “loosely,” but it just immediately, suddenly, made me feel that all the time I spent studying Chinese in college was worth it all of a sudden. Because I was able to connect with these kids.

Another girl walked up to me and asked me, “Where are you from? Are you a foreigner?” I said, “Yeah, I’m a foreigner.” Then she said, “But you speak Chinese.” I said, “Oh yeah, I speak Chinese, but that doesn’t mean that I’m Chinese.” She asked, “Well am I not Chinese, then?” I said, “No, no, you’re definitely Chinese.” A language doesn’t . . . I didn’t say this exactly to her, but I said something along the lines of, language doesn’t mean your national or ethnic identity. That was . . . just really demonstrated to me this idea of kids building theories, and then also the social risk she took and the conceptual problem solving she was engaged in, in that moment of openness and curiosity and inquiry.

The same girl, she’s very inquisitive, she said to me, “Oh, your eyes are green.” I said, “Yeah, they’re green.” She said, “So does that mean that your daughter has green eyes too?” I said, “I don’t have a daughter.” If I have a future daughter she may have green eyes. But it was so interesting that . . . it did fill me with a sense of joy to see the level of engagement firsthand, and to see how eager she was to engage and ask questions and take risks, the intellectual and the social risk to interact with these people.

At Baofu, I saw kids running around holding planks of wood and pointing them at each other and making gun sounds. So I asked the principal, Ms. Dai, “Oh, do you allow gun play?” And she said, “Gun play isn’t always a matter of war and peace. Sometimes it can just be a way of playing tag. To me it’s more important what it means to the kids.” Then Kaleem said, “There’s people in our communities that have been affected by gun violence, and it’s a really negative aspect of our community, so we just don’t allow it.” Then Dai said, “It’s interesting: In China, we let kids play with fake guns, but we don’t let them play with real guns. In the US, you let kids play with real guns, but you don’t let them play with fake guns.” That moment helped clarify the idea that knowledge exists in the experience of the child and not in a measurement of that experience. So that left me feeling very inspired to study and learn more about the relationship between trauma and risk. 

I remember hearing teachers use really open-ended questions, and kids saying things that made me feel . . . I don’t know what the feeling is where . . . it’s hard for me to describe . . . kind of shocked and surprised that kids can actually be that engaged. It makes sense to me now, because they don’t view what they are doing as schoolwork. It’s shocking from my perspective, because they were so engaged in schoolwork, but they don’t see it as schoolwork, they just see it as life. This is just life. “I’m being a kid, so of course I want to talk to you about being a kid. What else do I have to talk to you about? I’m doing very important things here. You should be honored to talk to me about this.”

I don’t have kids and I’ve never been a teacher, but I think if I had kids I definitely would have cried during these experiences. I felt very emotional. I also don’t cry at movies, and I’ve never cried when my family members have died, so I feel like I just don’t really cry that often. It’s certainly . . . I felt really emotional. I did feel very moved. It was an experience of joy and hope. That was a very big emotion. It’s complicated, because, on the bright side, hope, and on the downside, there is anger too. Why aren’t we doing this? Why aren’t we doing this already?

Since returning from Anji, I have reapplied to grad school, in hopes of continuing to do work related to Anji Play and deepen my understanding. When I returned, I started reflecting; there’s a lot of reflection that has happened. I started writing articles on my website about my experience in Anji. I was really surprised. I expected the reflections to just be for me, but I was really surprised at how many people would reach out to me. Mostly people who are parents or have young kids in their lives, and they’d say to me, “Wow, this is really inspiring to me, thank you for posting your stuff.” When I wrote an article about gun play, a conservative friend of mine reached out to me who was thinking about it from a gun-control perspective. In relation to the concept of freedom and risk.

And being in Anji inspired me to move forward with FlipTales. It helped me . . . my approach to research with the products I designed . . . I just became so much more relaxed, and I was able to have real connections with the kids I was doing research with, because I stopped . . . previously I would have anxiety when I did research, because I would think, “Oh, I gotta hit this metric, this metric, and this metric, and here’s my rubric.” And I would think, “Oh man, I really hope this goes well.”

In the past, I would to go to user testing for littleBits and I would see kids using a bunch of tape . . . using the product in a way we didn’t intend, and I would think, “Oh, this is a failure of our product, it’s being used in this way that . . . they’re wasting time using it this way. We need them to really be really efficient. If we’re good designers, they’ll find the right answer efficiently.” But going to Anji changed the way I thought about it. I was much less concerned with the formalisms and the outcomes. I just felt like I was able to see so much more in the children’s play. Where previously I was just so bogged down by the formalism of it.

For the first month I got back from Anji, I was labeling everything as love, joy, risk, engagement, or reflection. Emily was really annoyed by it at some point in time, but everywhere in life, like on the subway, someone would . . . a parent would be nice to their kid, and I’d think, “That’s love. Number one.” Or, at work, someone would take a risk, and I’d think, “Oh yeah, that’s risk, number two.” So I was thinking about it all the time. It’s one of my things now. Anytime I talk to people and they ask, “What are you up to?” Anji Play is one of those important things in my life. 

So I’m always trying out new methods for communicating what Anji Play is. Slowly trying things out. One of the ways I like to explain it now, that has been helpful, is . . . I really like to use the phrase, “In Anji Play, children are seen as researchers of the world and educators are seen as researchers of children.” People seem to have a lot of “aha” moments when I use that framing.

I also sometimes say, if you went to a therapist, and you were in a bad relationship, your therapist wouldn’t tell you to break up with them, because the therapist’s goal is to help you develop a way of thinking things through so that you can come up with the right answer. So Anji Play is saying, yeah, okay, if that’s the right way to teach people emotional skills, then why not take that same approach with intellectual trajectories and kids’ understandings of the world? Let’s not tell them answers; let’s help them figure out how to find answers.

Now, I also, I remember one day in particular when Chelsea challenged us to sit down and observe one . . . look for one specific thing, so I challenged myself to observe one kid for 20 minutes. Going into it, I was really skeptical that I would really get that much out of it, because, up until then, I had been mostly observing kids on the one- to five-minute scale. Each time I felt like I was learning so much, and so I was pretty skeptical. Then I sat down and started observing, and eventually I noticed that, when you’re really focused on observing, you start to develop your own observational tools. And you start thinking, “How can I observe this differently? Oh, I could focus on the social interaction, or the body, or I could focus on the shape of the play or the motion of the play.”

Then I realized that observation itself is a creative discipline. There is creativity to how you observe. You don’t just stand there and look. It’s an active thing, and there’s many different ways you can do it, and you’ll . . . Just like any other creative thing, like drawing or painting, you can do it differently to achieve different ends. At that point in time, I thought, “Wow, there’s . . .” I was suddenly thinking of all these different ways I could observe. I thought, “Oh, I want to do an observation that is a motion study where I trace the body of the child through space and . . . obviously there’s another one where I’m going to play different music while I observe and see how that changes the way I observe.” All these different things. Filled with possibilities of all the different ways I could observe. That helped me understand how . . . it just added a lot of clarity to how an educator could stay busy in an Anji Play setting. 

I definitely encourage anyone . . . it’s kind like typography . . . I took a typography class, and the teacher had us draw a six-foot-tall lowercase “G.” It just seems ridiculous, but you do it and you realize, “Wait, there’s so much here.” Similarly, I think that, if someone wants to understand Anji, a really good way to do it is to get them to sit down and watch a kid play for half an hour without doing anything, just observing and drawing or taking notes or whatever their way of actively listening is.

Ryan Mather: This is one of those magical moments that feels unique to Anji. The incredible scale of the structure and the complete focus of the child are remarkable.

Ryan Mather: This is one of those magical moments that feels unique to Anji. The incredible scale of the structure and the complete focus of the child are remarkable.


Amy Kaiser

Founder, Hummingbird Developmental Services

Date of visit to Anji: April 2018

Interview conducted on January 28, 2019

Amy Kaiser: When I think about my play as a child, a lot of time was spent outdoors, and a lot of time was spent outdoors doing random things like climbing on a rock or swinging on the swing set that my dad built, climbing on stuff. I used to find salamanders in the . . . We had this ditch that ran through our property. I grew up in kind of a rural area. My sisters would get extra credit for them in science class; they would send me out to find critters and so I would go and muck about in the water that I was not allowed to play in.

I played in the creek with my friend; we would catch crayfish or, we called them, crawdads. Those kind of memories are what I have as my earliest memories of play at home, and I remember something that I experienced at my school when I was probably in the third grade, so I was a little older than Anji age, but my teachers sort of, I guess they supported us in this, but we decided we wanted to do this. We didn’t have a good playground; it was rocks and metal equipment. And so it wasn’t really high-quality stuff, and we were using our imagination.

We decided to build a town, but we did it by sweeping the rocks to the side and creating barriers with these rocks. And everything was done with rocks, and I think I thought about that a lot when I was in Anji, because all these little buildings that we created were just little rocks swept to the side, where we built up the walls. And we would find a flat rock to make a chair and a larger rock for the back of the chair, and we spent months doing this. It was our daily recess routine for four or five of us, doing it together.

Small rocks like Pami Pebbles, or whatever, that are on the bottoms of the playgrounds, but we did look around and find bigger rocks for the things that we needed to put inside the rooms. And our teachers sort of allowed . . . It was clear that you didn’t mess that up, right? That was clear. Eventually, I think some teenagers came on the campus during the weekend and messed it up, but it was months and months. And the imagination that took place . . . we created stores, and we created schools, and people had jobs, and it was like this big thing. I think those are really the earliest memories that I have of just playing, and all of those memories involved other children, and sometimes it was by myself, but usually it was with other children. And we were given the time and the space to do whatever we were doing. It wasn’t like, “Go out and do this.”

Our house was sort of the place where all the kids ended up. My neighbor, my cousins Lisa and Michelle, were at my house all the time. They lived close by, so we were often playing together. I had a friend named Mary, we are still friends, we still have a connection, but we were the ones who got in trouble in the creek. We were not supposed to go to the creek, but we did anyway.

I grew up in Idaho, and I have a lot of memories in all kinds of different weather and times. There’s one memory that I have where my cousins and I were running around our house. You could run from the front yard to the backyard, all the way around the house, and it was raining in the front yard, but it wasn’t raining in the backyard. So we were running around the house screaming, “Ah,” in the rain, and then running back. We did a lot of play in the snow, but I think . . . Mostly, like I said, the play that I remember the best is the play that was done outside.


I heard about Anji through PITC. They sent out an announcement before Ms. Cheng came and spoke to our graduate conference in 2015. That’s when I first really heard about it. I think she did something that was at Mills College also that year. I had also seen an email blast about a talk that was happening at Mills College, but I was going to the graduate conference that was a few days before that.

So that’s really when I had my first exposure, and I started looking at, what is this? What is it supposed to be? Why is she coming? And I was instantly intrigued, number one, because everything I have heard about education in China was so drastically different than what was being described. I could not wait to hear her, and then, of course, when I did, I was instantly hooked. 

I was there with my friend Debbie, who is also a certified PITC trainer. I think, for me, hearing Ms. Cheng speak was like, all of my entire career working with early childhood and working with children, I’ve heard people advocate for play, I’ve seen people talk about play, but I have never seen someone embody what I believed was true play for children the way that she described it. And it was almost like I was hearing her describe the things that I had been trying to figure out for years, and she was describing them in a nutshell.

Debbie and I have known each other for a really long time; we worked together in the classroom for five years. She and I are kind of yin and yang in some ways, and she couldn’t believe what she was hearing. I remember, we shared a room that year at the PITC graduate conference, and we just talked about it all night long, about what we had heard, especially about the intentionality that went into really getting to the Anji Play idea, putting feet on the ground in China for Ms. Cheng and how she did that. I think that was just fascinating, to hear how each little step that she took intentionally to get where she wanted to go next, and she didn’t get ahead of it. I thought that was fascinating.

I had several other friends who went to the Mills presentation, and one of them was Krystina, who you work with, and I found out that there was going to be a study tour. I don’t remember if I found that out from Krystina or someone else, or just through a bunch of things that people were talking about.

I wanted to go. I wanted to go that year, I wanted to go right away. But I was finishing my master’s degree, and the timing just wasn’t right. It was on my agenda in my mind: how do I get there? Krystina kept asking me to go with her, “Come on, go with me.” I just couldn’t. My husband was sick, and we had some family things going on, and so I just kept waiting for an open window, and it turned out that this past year was that window.

I hadn’t traveled internationally for, like, 15 years. First I thought, “That’s a really long flight.” I was nervous about that, and I really did not know what to expect, because I had seen videos, I had read newsletters, I’d seen Ms. Cheng, but I was just really excited to get there and to see for myself what was really taking place, and to be able to spend that time just digging into it and looking at it. I think I had a lot of excitement right before I left.

I had a very unique arrival experience because of the way that our flights were. Krystina Tapia met Emma Pickering and then Amber, and Jiang Wenjuan from Anji met me, and it was nighttime when I arrived, it was five-something in the evening. I got off the plane, I got there, and these two women that I had never met before, big smiles, excited faces, they had a sign with my name on it. I went with them, complete strangers in the dark, in a car, in a foreign country, I don’t speak the language. I got in the car for a four-hour drive. No big deal! And I felt completely at home. They said, “Oh, we have water for you, and here’s a snack.” They were really excited to meet me, and I was exhausted anyway, so I ended up sleeping for half of the ride. But that was an interesting experience, just having to really trust people, that they are the people that I should be with and that they’re going to take me where I should be going.

The first day I woke up, I realized, “Oh, wow, I am in China. I did this, I’m actually here, I made it.” That was like, 4 AM, it wasn’t really daytime, and we had that day planned. We met Principal Sheng for breakfast, and we had some time to look at the Anji Ecological Museum and go around Dipu City. That was really the first time I’d seen things in the light, because I had arrived in the dark. The city was very pretty. It’s just a small city, I guess, in China, I’ve heard. But Anji is the only place I’ve been in China, so I don’t know anything else. We went to the museum and I loved it. We saw the things that really had built the foundation of the communities and that region that we were in. We saw a lot of things, artifacts and kind of historical background to the culture that we were being exposed to. Our guide was really good at describing things, and the park surrounding the museum was beautiful. And I think one of the interesting things for me was noticing how many familiar plants were there, because, living in the Bay Area of California, our climate’s actually quite similar to the climate that they have, Anji seems like, anyway.

A lot of the plants in the gardens were plants that I see, some of them I had even in my front yard in my own lawn. And I was like, “Wait a minute, I have that at home.” It felt like instantly it was foreign and familiar, I guess, in some ways. I think also, for me, because I live in the Bay Area in California, and I live very close to an area that has a large population of Chinese immigrants in particular, I spend a lot of time with people who are Chinese immigrants, it was so much familiar, I didn’t feel I was a fish out of water, I guess, in some ways. There was a familiarity to it, and I have heard Mandarin spoken a lot. I didn’t feel the instant culture shock that I think others might. 

I understand the reason behind the approach, but it was a little bit of a shock going into the school, because on the first day of the study tour, because you’re embedded with one class for the whole school day to observe without a translator . . . You’re in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people. I was with a group of four-year-olds and spent the day going through the day with this group. And what struck me the most was . . . I think I even have a video that I took of myself, later in the day, where I say, “There are 500 children at this school.” And we didn’t feel like there were 500 children at the school. I kept thinking about why it didn’t feel like there were 500 children there. Why did it feel so calm?

And I noticed, that day, that . . . And I still hear it in my head. I still hear, when I think about it right now, the sound of the children. The sound of children playing on a playground, the sound of the joyful sounds of the children’s voices. And the absence of adult voices. And I think that still really sits with me. I feel that, and I think about the days that I’ve spent in classrooms myself, and outside with children, and how different that was from what I was used to. I really have held that and tried to understand the ability to run a school of that magnitude. And that harmony was in every school that we visited in Anji. Things felt in balance.

Something stood out at every school we visited, because each school has its own sort of . . . They all follow the Anji Play philosophy, but they all have their own personalities. The one thing that flowed, I think, from every space was that feeling of that underlying foundation of love that Ms. Cheng talks about and how it was exhibited, maybe, in each school a little bit differently, but it was still there. I could see it in so many different ways, even just the way that the teacher, when they did their video reflections with the children, and the way that each teacher gave the children the floor, to talk about their work and not overshadow them, that is a real act of love, to give the children that space and to step back and hear them when they’re offering that.

And I have a very distinct memory of Principal Dai at Baofu. She was showing us a video reflection. And there was a boy who was . . . It was a rope course or something like that, one low rope and one kind of higher rope. And the children were trying to climb up and down, and this little boy, he was almost four, and he was trying to get his body up onto the rope so he could balance on the rope and hold one rope and have a seat on the other rope. And he was trying pretty hard, but he was not very successful in the beginning and he kept asking the teacher for help. And she would send him back and say, “Try to figure it out and watch the others. Watch what the others are doing.” And he tried for a minute and then he’d come and try to get her to help him again. And she said, “Watch what the others are doing.” And she was very clear that she was not going to assist him in this endeavor.

And he tries, and he tries, and he tries, and eventually he gets up onto the rope, and it’s kind of precarious. Some other kid, on the other end, starts shaking it, and he’s like, “Oh my god, I’m going to fall off.” And he’s crying, and in that moment, he’s crying. And he’s like, “Ah.” He’s holding the pole, and the teacher starts walking over to him, the person who’s taking the video, and at that point in time I’m thinking, “She’s going to help him. She’s going to help him up. She’s going to help him.” Well, she helped him, but not in the way that I expected her to. Which is, I think, kind of the lesson of Anji in general, that you don’t always do what’s expected. But she came up to him, and she still had the video rolling in her hand, and she put her arm around him, and I don’t know what she said in Mandarin. She said something to him in a tone of voice that sounded very comforting.

He took a couple deep breaths. He kind of calmed down, and she stepped back and left him there. She stepped back and he was still on the rope, but the other kid was shaking still in that same spot, and he collected himself and he got down and he walked away from it for a few minutes. And then he went right back at it, and I’ll be damned if he didn’t get up the first time; he did not have to try again. And what she said to us that day has stuck with me more than . . . It’s one of the pieces that really stays with me. And she said, “When children are allowed to experience the challenge in something like this is, they understand the danger of it, or they understand the challenge and that it’s not dangerous. But when children are put in a space where they don’t experience the challenge, then when they are in that situation, they don’t understand the challenge, and that’s when it becomes dangerous.”

Basically, she was saying, if the teacher had put him on the rope, he wouldn’t have understood the challenge of getting there, and he would have been in a dangerous situation ’cause he may have hurt himself. He wouldn’t know how to do it. He wouldn’t learn how to use his body, he wouldn’t have learned how to balance himself, he wouldn’t have learned all of those things. I just loved the way that she presented that to us and the way that she walked through the whole process, and having come from a background in infant/toddler, specifically PITC and RIE [Resources for Infant Educarers], that is a very large tenet of what we talked about in those two philosophies, to allow children to experience their own bodies and to allow children to experience how they learn because they experience it. They don’t learn because we show it to them.

And I just love the way that she described that, if they understand the challenge, it’s not a danger to them. Her words really stuck with me. What still really stands out for me is the level of engagement that the leadership has with their teachers and the children and the families. The leaders at these schools are deeply engaged with their children and their staff and their families. It’s undeniable, even if you don’t speak Mandarin, you can feel it. That has to be one of the reasons why Anji Play has been so successful and why everyone wants to understand it better.

We were a small group. It was an ideal experience. The three of us on the visit to Anji shared so much in common, but we had our own specific backgrounds. This made our reflection during our time together deeply meaningful. I come from a background of RIE and PITC. Emma’s very knowledgeable and educated about the Reggio Emilia approach. Dominique is trained Montessori, which was such a gift, because I could say to Dominique, what does Montessori think about this thing we are seeing in Anji? She would frequently compare and contrast the things that we’d be seeing throughout the day with what Montessori teaching and philosophy had to say. Then, on our final day, when we came together to reflect on our experiences, Ms. Cheng surprised us and showed up, which was a gift. The thing that really stood out to me about the conversations that we had that day was that Ms. Cheng was there, but she specifically asked . . . She was asking us questions like, “What do you think of this? What does Montessori think of this? I want to hear your opinion about this.” And I think, for me, a lot of traditional Western learning ways, the expert is not going to ask other people questions like that. She genuinely wanted to know, and she was really interested knowing the answers, you could tell. I was really touched by that. And I appreciated the time that we got to spend together in that small group with her. I may never get that experience again. It was unique and it was amazing.

One of the challenges after coming back from a trip like that is to not overwhelm the other people around you with your excitement and your passion for what you’ve done. I think it’s permeating everything I do now. Even when I look at other groups of people . . . even within my church, we’ve been having a lot of different discussions over the last year or so. I’m a part of a small group who asked me to share some of my experiences, and I’ve been trying to apply the Anji foundations to other areas of my life and looking at my life through that lens. I’ve also been trying to help other people understand slightly what it’s like and that, what we have seen and been told about education in China, that it’s so, so different from the Anji Play approach. So people tend to not believe me. They’re like, “Wait.” They set that all up for you, and I’m like, “No, this is really happening.” So I have to put it in perspective, like, “China is a huge country.” We are talking really about one county in one state, if you compare it to the United States. I said, “Think about that.” It’s a small movement with impact, and it’s growing. More and more people are asking me questions about it, and so I get to describe different pieces of it as we go along. I think the most effective way to get it through is with small pieces of video that I’ve taken, video of children playing in that way, and talking about how the teachers in America or outside of China would want to know how does that video reflection go? What does that look like? What is that kind of nitty-gritty part of the day? What do the environments look like? I show a lot of the environment pictures that I took to people around me. But I think that love, risk, and engagement, and joy, those four things, they underline everything. And when you look at everything from that lens, you can see. If you do not have that level of love in your life, then you cannot fully engage and you can’t be joyful . . . I mean, it’s all related, and I don’t know if I can articulate that.

And my daughter is studying . . . she’s a freshman now in college. She’s studying early childhood education, and she prepared a speech, in her speaking class, about Anji. She said “Mom, I want to do a talk on Anji Play.” She interviewed me. She asked me for videos and pictures. And now she definitely wants to go to China, but I told her it will be a while. First I have got to pay her college tuition. But Anji Play has made its way into everything. I think of it all the time. When we were having a discussion at my church, we’ve been talking a lot about multicultural aspects of being a multicultural church and just race and racism. We’re getting down to the hard stuff, but I find myself, in those discussions, often saying, “Oh, this is so relevant to the Anji stuff.” And then I think, “I can’t really say that ’cause no one knows what I’m talking about.” Nobody has a clue what I mean when I say that, but it helps me knit together concepts that I couldn’t before like this.

The group at my church is called an inclusion group, but really, it’s kind of more of a social justice group, and honestly, I think that these concepts really are at the heart of digging deep into how we can be more just to everyone. And I do a lot of work around inclusion for children with special needs, and I’m an early interventionist. I have three jobs, and one of them is as an early interventionist. So I’m always thinking about, how do I integrate the people that learn in a different way? And these concepts of love, engagement, and joy are really at the key at the heart of any social justice movement.

And I think a lot about trauma-informed care and how often the lack of that base of love is really the piece that creates the trauma, and it’s the piece that, if it can be restored in some way, that you can mitigate . . . you can’t reverse it, but you can mitigate the effects of the trauma, because in order to learn and grow and be a fully engaged, joyful person, that love has to exist for you, and I think, in our society right now, especially in the United States, and the level of the lack of love in our society, I think, is driving a lot of what’s happening. It’s division. And I think the other piece is that love in the Anji philosophy, to me, really feels like it’s love for all; it’s the love that everyone can have all of it. Everybody is entitled to everything, and that’s the piece that doesn’t exist in our Western culture, because we’re so individualistic, and the underlying love in the Anji experience, I can really feel that it was there for everyone, it was under everything, in all the children, in all the families, in all the teachers, and us as visitors, we all experienced that deep sense of love, even if it was, “I’m going to bring new tea, I’m going to set the table in a way that’s beautiful for you, because it’s underlying as well. Welcome to my space.” That’s an act of love. Yeah.

One of the things that Anji is returning to children is that level of respect for their own ability, for their abilities to learn, the innate curiosity and drive of a child to know things. And we don’t put those things into their mind. They want to learn them; they want to find a way to do it. That’s the other thing that I have tried to point out to a lot of other people who I’ve talked to. They say, “All they’re doing is playing. What are they learning?” And I respond, “Well, here’s the way they break down that play. This is what it looks like when you do a play story. And this is what it looks like when they do a video reflection with the teacher.” I had someone that I was talking to, and they said, “Oh my god, look, that’s really high-level stuff, that’s high-level problem solving and high-level critical thinking.” And I said, “Exactly, that’s exactly what it is.” What they’re doing is they’re really fostering these skills in these kids, and if we don’t watch out, 20 years from now, our kids aren’t going to know how to be in a work world like these kids in Anji are because they have been educated in a way where they can solve problems and come up against a challenge and meet it and try to figure out what to do and deal with hard feelings with another child against whatever they’re doing, and deal with that and figure it out, how to work through it. It’s all of that. And this person wasn’t in education at all. They had just asked me about my trip to Anji, and we were talking about some really high-level thinking, and I felt, “Exactly. Yes, that is exactly what it is.” That’s really what I saw in Anji, teachers letting children figure out how to solve their own problems and think critically and move through, try and try again.

I talk to people about, the process of the play story can be learning how to sequentialize things. And in Anji, there are so many levels in their activities that seem so simple but are extremely complex. Even the routine of documenting the weather when the kids come in from outdoors. Watching the plants grow, and documenting the growth of the plants, that scientific research. Those things are just embedded in such a natural way into their day that the children enjoy every moment, because it’s part of their daily life, and yeah.

I’ve said this before: “Anji is like home for me.” I’ve never expected that that would happen. I’ve spent my entire life trying to find that home. PITC and RIE offer a lot of that, but there is an extra level that exists in the Anji experience that I just, I felt at home in, from the moment I was there. It just felt right. And watching the beauty in the transitions, in the intent, there’s intentionality that goes into everything, the why it is that way. And that’s why the transitions in Anji are beautiful for the children and for the teachers and for the parents. I never once felt chaos surrounded by 500 children. I did not feel chaos, I felt freedom, I felt light. It’s a spiritual experience. 

I’m not a crazy person. But it really was a spiritual experience in a lot of ways, and I want to continue learning, and I try to reflect whenever I can, because this is a movement for children that is absolutely necessary in our society, and if it doesn’t take hold, and if it doesn’t happen, if even a tiny piece of it doesn’t make it to our children, then our society is missing out.

It’s hard not to overwhelm people who haven’t had the experience. So I try to give it in small doses. But you do see pure creativity there. To unlock that is the key. They’ve set up the conditions that unlock that in every child and teacher that participates. There are so many situations that I’ve been in, throughout my career, that completely lock down or shut out that creative aspect for children or teachers. The Anji Play philosophy and the way that educators in Anji do things from the top to the bottom, or all the way around the circle, however you look at it, children, families, teachers, leaders, they all have that creative capacity unlocked. 

Amy Kaiser: This photo embodies joy and engagement, and it reminds me to be playful.

Amy Kaiser: This photo embodies joy and engagement, and it reminds me to be playful.


Marie Randazzo is a retired early childhood educator who taught in the field in a variety of settings over the course of 42 years. Her career began as a secretary in a Head Start Center in Chicago. She so loved the program at the center that she returned to school to get a degree in Early Childhood Education, so that she could become a teacher of young children. Marie taught in bilingual programs (Spanish/English) until she took a position at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, where she taught for 23 years. Throughout her career, Marie has been a staunch supporter of a play approach and has firmly resisted testing young children and imposing curriculum that makes no sense to children who, by nature must play. 

Peter Brown is the Head Teacher of the Velma Thomas Early Childhood Center, a Chicago Public School (CPS) preschool program located in the McKinley Park community. Starting as a classroom teacher in 1999, he moved into an administrative position in 2003 and led the program to its integration and inspiration with the Reggio Emilia approach. Previously he designed and implemented the first CPS early childhood home-based education program. He is a board member of Crossroads for Learning, a Reggio-inspired professional development program in Chicago, and chaired the board of Hug-a-Book, a nonprofit organization supporting literacy programing in preschool programs in Chicago. Outside of work interests, he travels the country and, when possible, the world in search of musical inspiration.

Dr. Chelsea Bailey is a scholar trained in the field of early childhood education, with experience in curriculum theory and design, teacher preparation and professional development, and the assessment of early childhood learning. She received her PhD from the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Wisconsin—Madison, in 1997. She was a member of the faculty of New York University until 2005, when she left the academy to focus on the design and development of outstanding early childhood education programs around the world. She began working with educators and schools throughout China in 2012. 

Cas Holman has spent the last 16 years immersed in play, early education, and designing for children’s imagination. Through her company, Heroes Will Rise, she designs and manufactures tools that allow children to transcend existing models of identity and the performance of play. These materials, including Rigamajig and Imagination Playground/Big Blue Blocks, are used in thousands of schools worldwide, and inspire constructive play, imaginative forms, and cooperative interactions between people. Cas is an Associate Professor of Industrial Design at Rhode Island School of Design, and prototypes her playthings on her five-acre retired summer camp, known as Camp Fun. Cas travels the globe to collaborate with thought and industry leaders in early education, curriculum design, public spaces, and childhood advocacy. Her inspiring brave collaborators and clients include Cheng Xueqin, founder of Anji Play (Anji, China); Friends of the High Line (NYC); the 14th Street Y Preschool and Jewish Community Center (NYC); and Lego Education (DK).

Krystina Tapia is a former early childhood educator and avid True Play advocate who dropped everything to help bring Anji Play to communities across the world in 2017. She was given the incredible opportunity to observe in a three- and four-year-olds classroom at Jiguan Kindergarten in Anji, China, for the first month and a half of a school year, to observe how the Anji Play philosophy was implemented with the youngest children in the program. Krystina earned a BA in Psychology from UCLA and an MA in Early Childhood Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. She also has a certificate in Digital Technologies and the Early Childhood Environment from Bank Street College of Education.

Dr. Frances Rust is a Scholar in Residence at the New York University (NYU) Metro Center and Professor Emerita at NYU’s Steinhardt School, where she taught from 1991 to 2007. She is also an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Education of the University of Pennsylvania. Currently, she is developing, with Brooklyn College (CUNY), a NYC public school, and the CUNY-NYC Early Childhood Professional Development Institute, a collaboration around teacher education in Brownsville (Brooklyn), NY, that draws universities and schools together to situate schools as the loci of change for teachers’ professional learning. In her early career, she brought together the Montessori and British Infant Schools approaches to start and direct two multi-age preschools/kindergartens. Since 1985, she has directed undergraduate- and graduate-level teacher education programs at Teachers College of Columbia University; Manhattanville College; Hofstra University; and NYU. She has also served as Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean at the Erikson Institute in Chicago. She has published widely on topics related to teacher preparation, teacher quality, and teacher-driven action research and school improvement. She serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, Teacher Education Quarterly, Teachers and Teaching—Theory and Practice, and the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s Voices of Practitioners. She is a founding member of the International Forum for Teacher Educator Development (InFo-TED).

Dr. Peter Mangione co-directs the Center for Child and Family Studies at WestEd. Peter is one of the principal developers of the Program for Infant/Toddler Care (PITC), a national model for training early childhood practitioners. He has led the creation of early learning and development standards and curriculum, infant/toddler and preschool program guidelines, resources for supporting young dual language learners, and early childhood educator competencies. He is one of the lead collaborators in the development of the California Department of Education’s Desired Results Developmental Profile. Peter has served on advisory groups for the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and Zero to Three, and participated in meetings conducted by the National Academy of Sciences. In addition to giving presentations throughout the United States, he has presented at national conferences in China, Hungary, Japan, Peru, and Singapore. He received a PhD in Education and Human Development from the University of Rochester, and completed postdoctoral study at the Max Planck Institute for Psychiatry in Munich, Germany.

Mary Anne Kreshka is a California native, daughter of a gold miner, and was raised in the gold-rush towns of Northern California. She was educated in one-room rural schools where the children created their own playgrounds. She attended the University of California at Berkeley, where she earned a BA and an MA in Child Development. She has worked as a California public school teacher and administrator and a PITC trainer, and currently serves on the faculty of the Sierra College Department of Human Development and Family. Mary Anne is a wife, mother, grandmother, and community volunteer in nonprofit environmental groups.

Dr. Tran Nguyen Templeton is an Assistant Professor in Early Childhood Studies at the University of North Texas. Her research examines young children’s agency and the ways they co-construct their identities in and through their own photographs. Tran works with pre- and in-service teachers to consider their conceptualizations of curriculum for young children in response to dominant and reconceptualized discourses of childhood. She has been a teacher of very young children, as well as children and youth with special needs, since 2000. From 2006 to 2010, she served as the founding Program Director of Colegio Monarch Guatemala, the first therapeutic school for children with neurological differences in Central America. As a refugee from Vietnam, Tran earned a BS in Human Development from the University of Texas at Austin, an EdM in Teaching and Learning from Harvard University, and an EdD in Early Childhood Education from Teachers College, Columbia University.

Dr. Chris Moffett received his PhD in Philosophy and Education from Teachers College, Columbia University, in 2012. He is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Art Education in the College of Visual Arts and Design at the University of North Texas. His research explores art, play, and the role of the body and space in educational thought and practice. 

Dr. Julie Nicholson is Associate Professor of Practice and Director of the Center of Play Research in the School of Education at Mills College. She is committed to community-engaged scholarship, and her research, publications, community service, and advocacy emphasize social justice and equity for young children, families, and the early childhood workforce. Her research on play examines culturally responsive play across the lifespan, play memories, and amplifying children’s voices in play research and play advocacy. Her recent or forthcoming books include Emphasizing Social Justice and Equity in Leadership for Early Childhood: Taking a Postmodern Turn to Make Complexity Visible (2017), Reconsidering the Role of Play in Early Childhood: Towards Social Justice and Equity (2018), Trauma-Informed Practices for Early Childhood Educators: Relationship-Based Approaches that Support Healing and Build Resilience in Young Children (2019), Supporting Gender Diversity in Early Childhood Classrooms: A Practical Guide (September 2019), and Culturally Responsive Self-Care for Early Childhood (winter 2020). Previously, as Deputy Director for WestEd’s Center for Child & Family Studies, she directed and was lead author for three book projects, developed in collaboration with the California Department of Education, spotlighting housing-sensitive and trauma-informed practices for young children and families experiencing homelessness; responsive pedagogy with love at the center for young boys of color; and the power of play—including risky play—for young children’s learning. She is a Senior Advisor/Co-Leader for the California Race Equity Consortium for Children, Families and Communities, and a founding member of Gender Justice in Early Childhood, and she serves on several community advisory committees, nonprofit Boards of Directors, and collective-action cross-sector groups working for positive change for young children, families, and the early childhood workforce. 

Carissa Christner has served as a Youth Services Librarian at the Madison Public Library since 2006. She earned her master's degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Wisconsin—Madison in 2011. She has worked with the Anji Play approach in libraries since 2016, when she heard Ms. Cheng and Dr. Chelsea Bailey speak about True Play. With their guidance, she has designed an outdoor (summer) and indoor (winter) library-based Anji Play program. During that time, the program has grown to serve hundreds of children and their families and has received both the Program Wizard Award from the South Central Library System and Madison’s Mayor’s Design Award for Innovation.

Sandra Moore is Professor and Department Chair of the Early Childhood Education Department at Contra Costa College. Sandra provides training for the Bay Area Network for Diversity Training in Early Childhood (BANDTEC) on topics relating to implicit bias and racism. She is also a Certified Massage Therapist and has taught infant stimulation classes for Alameda County for the last 15 years. Before beginning her work at Contra Costa College, she worked with children and families in the field of social work for 12 years, and with children and families with disabilities at the Regional Center for the East Bay for two years. She also has many years of experience teaching preschool. Sandra received a BA in child development from California State University, Northridge, and an MA in early childhood education with a child life certificate from Mills College. 

Carol Spoehr received her bachelor’s degree in adult education from the University of Wisconsin—Madison and a Master’s of Professional Development from the University of Wisconsin—La Crosse. Carol worked for 29 years at Dane County Parent Council, Inc.—Dane County Head Start, as assistant teacher, teacher, resource teacher, director, and site director, and has worked for three and a half years at One City Schools, as Lead Teacher and Director of Curriculum and Training. Carol is mother to son Chris. She has one granddaughter, Madison, age 2, and lives with an orange tabby cat named Phoenix.

Dr. Lawrence Cohen is a psychologist and author living in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of the award-winning book Playful Parenting, and The Opposite of Worry, a book about helping children with anxieties and fears, and the coauthor of The Art of Roughhousing; Best Friends, Worst Enemies; and Mom, They’re Teasing Me. His books have been translated into fourteen languages. In addition to his therapy and consultation practice, he presents frequent workshops and lectures in the United States, Europe, and especially in China, where his Playful Parenting approach has developed a large following. His organization, Playful Parenting International, partners with the Chinese company Jian Geng to train parent leaders to promote this transformational approach to raising children with connection, emotional understanding, and, of course, play. He is also a member of the advisory board of the Blue School in New York. 

Rafiath Rashid Mithila is the Head of the Early Childhood Development (ECD) Programme at BRAC International. In her current role, she provides technical and strategic guidance in operations and resource mobilization for ECD programs in ten countries, in Africa (Uganda, Tanzania, South Sudan, Sierra Leone, and Liberia) and Asia (Nepal, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Philippines). As part of this role, Rafiath manages the implementation of the Play Lab Project in Uganda and Tanzania, which promotes learning through play for three- to five-year-old children. With more than ten years of experience in working in the educational development sector, Rafiath possesses extensive knowledge and skills in program development, research, curriculum development, and training. She has an academic background in ECD, education, and social science, and has authored multiple publications on issues related to ECD and education. Rafiath promotes women’s and children’s rights extensively, in Bangladesh and globally, through her work. She is a member of the Asian Regional Network for Early Childhood (ARNEC) and the South Asia Forum of Early Childhood Development Professionals (SAFECDP).

Mike Petrich is the co-founder of the Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, a space that blurs the lines between science, art, and technology while allowing visitors of all ages to think with their hands. The Tinkering Studio serves as a model environment for working with museum visitors, allowing artists, designers, and educators from around the globe co-development activities to foster creative thinking and STEM-rich learning. Mike leads learning research studies, an activity development team, and an international professional development effort, and has coauthored multiple publications about play and learning, including The Art of Tinkering, published by Weldon Owen in 2014 and now available in four languages, including simplified Chinese.

Adam Yukelson is an action researcher with the Presencing Institute, based in Berkeley, CA. Since 2012, he has helped bring the organization’s work with Theory U to scale. Most notably, he helped create and facilitate the MITx course “u.lab: Leading From the Emerging Future,” which has reached more than 100,000 people, from 183 countries, and is seen as a model for how to blend online and offline elements to create transformative learning environments. Currently, he co-leads an initiative called Transforming Capitalism: From Ego-to-Eco-system Economies, a collaboration with HuffPost that launched in April 2018.

Ryan Mather is a designer focused on play, learning, and technology. Most recently, he was a senior product designer at littleBits, where he worked on electronic construction sets. He is also the creator of the game FlipTales, which creates a space of playful literacy development through fantasy role-playing. He is a frequent collaborator with Anji Play, interested in the design of its community, materials, and experiences. 

Amy Kaiser has served children and their families for 30 years. She has dedicated the majority of her career to learning about and serving children from birth to three, as a direct care teacher, administrator, and trainer. Infants and toddlers are a never-ending source of curiosity and wonder for Amy. She approaches each experience with a sense of awe, and enjoys walking on this path of awe with children and their families, encouraging those small risks that lead to big results, the first step, the first word, and the child’s reactions to their own accomplishments. Amy also has a deep interest in the full inclusion of all children in educational and care settings. She works as a coach supporting teachers who are working with behavior challenges and special needs. As an early intervention developmental specialist, he also works directly with families and children who have developmental delays or special needs as an early intervention developmental specialist. 

Jesse Robert Coffino is the father of Rose Lin Coffino, husband to Samantha Coffino, son to Robert LaCour Greenberg and JoAnn Coffino, and brother to Eli Robert Coffino. He lives in Albany, California, and works together with many others around the world to share the work of Anji Play and true play. 



The editor would like to acknowledge Cheng Xueqin, Qiu Jianfu, Krystina Tapia, Sophie Wang, Chen Youneng, Li Huan, Jasmine Jiang, Yuan Qing, Ryan Mather, Julie Nicholson, Amy Kaiser, Samantha Wei-Lin Coffino, Rose Lin Coffino, and the educators, children, and families of Anji who have welcomed so many of us into their schools, homes, and communities.