(Beginning in mid-March 2020, when the world shut down, I began a bi-weekly conversation with the parents who had been in my RIE classes. Since not every family could make it to these conversations, but each conversation touched on important elements, I would often write up a summary of the conversation. What follows is one of those summaries.)

Play has been on my mind this week and not only because I’m creating my toy kits (for those who got them, I’d love to see pictures!!). No, it seems to have been creeping into my life in so many other ways. (Isn’t the universe interesting that way?) I’m playing with my family (we’re having a virtual family reunion!). I’m playing with my cats (new toy: flashlights!). I’m playing with my friends (virtual happy hour!). I’m playing with my city (Let’s Go Dodgers!). And as you all know, I was thinking intently about play because I spent the week listening to many well-known and well-loved early education specialists talking passionately about play.

As I mentioned in an earlier email, most of what I heard wasn’t new to me, but it was very satisfying to listen in anyways…but on Friday, I saw a name I’d never seen before talking about something I’d never heard before. Ms. Cheng Xueqin speaking about her program and philosophy, Anji Play. I started to listen. I stopped and googled her. I looked at her website. I looked at her Wikipedia page. I started the webinar again. I stopped it again to grab my notepad. I emailed some colleagues to see if they’d heard of Anji Play (no word yet). I kept watching. I took notes. I’m kind of in love.

Anji Play was developed in a county in China (Anji) in the mid 90’s. It is for children ages 3-6, and Ms. Cheng seems to be the Chinese equivalent of Magda Gerber, at least for preschoolers. From what I’ve learned, the emphasis is completely on child-led learning and discovery. Just as our role in RIE is to set the stage with open-ended toys and equipment and let children play and explore, Anji Play teachers also set their environment and then ‘shut their mouths, put their hands down, and open their ears, eyes, and heart to discover the child.’ They strongly believe that it is the child’s right to determine the how, what, when, and with who of their play and to be free from the worry that an adult will control or interfere. The role of the adult is to create human and physical environments that embody trust in the child as a capable learner, that are safe, accessible, consistent, honest, open, predictable, and are defined by clearly articulated, simple, and reasonable expectations. The end result is a feeling of safety and full engagement of the body and mind for a deeper and more complex learning.

Teachers then extend this learning by recording children at play, and then, on the same day, sharing the videos or photos with children and engage children in discussions about their play and exploration. They are careful to let the conversations be child-led using open-ended, clarifying questions during group and individual reflection. And teachers work to avoid leading children to specific insights, discoveries, or learning outcomes. It feels like a very pure form of a developmental play program…but I am so very curious to see what these dialogues and presentations actually look and feel like in classrooms with preschoolers.

One of the reasons for my googling and emailing of colleagues is that so much of this resonates so much with RIE. In her webinar, Ms. Cheng even said that part of the goal was to prepare children for an unknown future. And the guiding principles of Anji Play are love, risk, joy, engagement, and reflection, which resonate strongly with RIE’s Basic Principles and guiding philosophy. I thought: surely Ms. Cheng must have met Magda. Maybe came to a RIE Conference in the early 90’s? Apparently not! According to my research, she didn’t have any Western influences, coming to this Approach through strict observation of children. Like Emmi Pikler. Like Jean Piaget. This truly excites me…the idea that self-initiated play and exploration within the context of a loving relationship is universal. That when we stop trying to teach children, when we start looking at what they are learning and how they are thinking, we are constantly blown away by the complexity of their ideas and the depth of their learning…their joy and sheer drive to play and thereby to learn.

I started this by saying that play has been on my mind and in my world a lot this week. And even my father-in-law got into the act, emailing me about something he read in a book about architecture, of all things. He stumbled across this description of play by Bruno Bettelheim*: an activity “characterized by freedom from all but personally imposed rules (which are changed at will), by free-wheeling fantasy involvement, and by the absence of any goals outside of the activity itself.” The author also stated that this is a very good description of an architect at his drafting table.

*Bettelheim was a psychologist who wrote about the importance of fairy tales…I’m not familiar with him, but am quite intrigued!

He was surprised, and I guess I was at first, too, but then I thought more deeply. I realized that I truly love my work…whether I’m creating a playspace for children to explore or crafting an article for parents to explore, I’m playing. Sure, my goal is for children to play and for parents to think, but ultimately I can’t control how children will play or what parents will think…so my actions are my own. My play. And I think that anyone who does what they love, be it for work or a sustaining hobby, would call it play. The difference is, I’m an adult and I’ve created my own world…my own environment to support my play. As parents, your job is to structure your children’s worlds to allow for their play.

To do that, I want you to first think…

What is your deepest memory of play as a child?

When you think back to your childhood, what do you remember about your play?

What did you do?

Who were you with?

What was in your hands and where were you?

Where were your parents?

75. Space and Time
If parents are always intruding
into the world of their children,
the children will lose their independent spirit.

If parents impose rule after rule
on the behavior of their children,
the children will lose their self-confidence.

Keep your children safe,
but do not be afraid
to leave them alone.

I once heard a child counselor say,
“You can never spend too much time
with your children.”
Yes you can.
Children need, of course,
the assurance of your presence.
But they also need,
at every age,
plenty of space to play the games,
to imagine the futures,
and to dream the dreams
of childhood.
Too much time spent together
may be serving your needs,
not theirs.