Anji Play Province-wide Scaling: First Detailed Progress Update

Over the last week, principals and teachers from across Zhejiang Province traveled to Anji for the first conference and training focused on their progress towards an ambitious government initiative to scale Anji Play to all public kindergartens in Zhejiang. The teachers and principals represented over fifty schools that are currently implementing the Anji Play Approach, including schools in major metropolises like Hangzhou, Ningbo and Wenzhou.*

Province-wide scaling of the Anji Play Approach is currently underway with initial implementation at 103 Anji Play Practice Kindergartens in every county in Zhejiang Province. These pilot sites, selected through a rigorous application process, will become demonstration sites for future adoption of the Anji Play Approach at the local county level.

The first group of Anji Play Practice Kindergartens were formally announced in July 2018. Since that time, these schools have been working to make initial environmental changes. They have introduced Anji Play materials, and they have begun to shift their stance as teachers, stepping back with their “hands down” to observe children and create the conditions for children to freely engage in True Play. The implementation of this province-wide initiative is being lead by the Anji Child Education Research Center and it’s Director Ms. Cheng Xueqin, and is supported by the Zhejiang Province Office of Education.

The three day conference included presentations, open dialogue, school visits and reports on work progress by the Anji Child Education Research Center and by teacher and principal representatives.

During the conference, representatives from the highest levels of provincial early education governance, Ms. Cheng, Professor Hua Aihua of East China Normal University and an Expert Advisory Group comprised of core Anji County principals shared their experiences and guidance and responded to the concerns and questions of the attendee teachers and principals.

During the conference, teachers raised specific concerns and difficulties that are familiar to early educators across the world. Concerns included: top-down policy demands that shackle teachers to fixed and formalistic rules and expectations for practice, rules and expectations that conflict with stepping back and truly respecting the agency and capacity of the child; high costs associated with critical environmental changes and the introduction of robust materials that truly respond to the child’s needs in play; time and practice demands that come from curricular materials created by and required by the educational system; standards for assessing the teacher’s professional abilities that are based on performance in teacher-led or organized group learning activities.

The teachers expressed their hopes that the policy-makers in attendance would address these barriers to implementing Anji Play through policy change. Wang Zhenbin, who is in charge of the administration of early education at the provincial level, expressed his commitment to supporting the teachers’ work through policy. Professor Hua proposed the creation of an oversight mechanism that would hold local governments accountable for their support. Anji County principals, who personally faced similar challenges, constraints and resistance in their work to lead the development and implementation of the Anji Play Approach, suggested that teachers and principals should embody the stance of an Anji Play educator when taking part in assessments and responding to top-down demands. They believed that the teacher’s professional abilities and understanding of children and play is the best answer to these demands. And further, the principals felt that teachers should embrace every opportunity to communicate the value of their work, including in these settings.

Wang Zhenbin closed the conference by expressing his hope that all pilot sites would faithfully complete the full three year sequence of professional development; strive towards a goal of serving as a model for curricular reform and focus on taking action.

This conference marks the first formal progress report on a truly historic initiative to change the views, practices and experiences of an entire province of educators, children, families and communities. This initiative represents a significant development in Ms. Cheng’s revolutionary efforts to create and grow ecosystems of love, risk, joy, engagement and reflection for children and adults.

Ms. Cheng’s work has already had significant policy impact in China at the local, regional and national level. These impacts have included shifts in the way public kindergartens are managed, funded and regulated; how teachers are trained, assessed and compensated; what play materials are recommended for early childhood programs at the national level and what stance the nation should take towards the child’s experience of childhood.

This initiative, however, represents the first effort to implement the Anji Play Approach at provincial scale. The experiences, strategies, models and lessons that emerge from this process will provide a significant resource for educators and policy-makers around the world who are seeking to shift the stance and practice of their communities and create ecosystems of change focused on honoring every child’s right to True Play both within formalized and layered systems of governance, agenda-setting and policy implementation and within communities of educators and families.

Below I have included the official news report on the closing of the conference issued by the Anji Child Education Research Center. I have intentionally translated the text in a literal and direct style, which I believe provides the reader with a rendering that is more faithful to the original Chinese text. For that reason, the translated text below does not adhere to all rules of standard English grammar and punctuation.

* Note: In China, public kindergartens serve children ages 3–6 on a full-day basis. Zhejiang Province is located on China’s east coast and is home to over 55 million people.

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Title: Zhejiang Province Anji Play Practice Kindergarten Practice Progress-Sharing and Interactive Q&A On-Site Conference
Publication Date: 18 October 2018
Source: Anji Child Education Research Center 
Translated: Jesse Robert Coffino 
Original Article: https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/xQJ40k1gxPztbAcFmp0shA

On the morning of October 17, 2018, Zhejiang Province Anji Play Practice Kindergarten Practice Progress-Sharing and Interactive Q&A On-Site Conference hosted by Zhejiang Province Office of Education and organized by Anji Child Education Research Center got underway. Wang Zhenbin, Department Head, Zhejiang Province Department of Early Education, Teacher Li Weihong, Teacher Hu Huafang, Hua Aihua, Professor, East China Normal University, Xu Zhangliang, Vice Secretary and Vice Director, Anji County Department of Education, Teacher Cheng Xueqin, Director, Anji Child Education Research Center, and the Members of the Expert Advisory Group attended. Meeting Representatives were principals and core teachers from more than fifty Anji Play Practice Public Kindergartens in Hangzhou, Ningbo, Jiaxing, Huzhou and many other localities in Zhejiang Province.

First, Representatives from Anji Play Practice Kindergartens presented their assignments for this training and reported on the development of Anji Play Practice at their schools. Haining City, Maqiao Sub-district Central Kindergarten, an earlier adopter of Anji Play Practice as a Practice Kindergarten, shared the distinct changes that had taken place in the year since their school has implemented “Hands-down Play” and their teachers have become deeply engaged in the discovery of the child. They also shared their work experience maintaining continued environmental change, for instance [changes included] the removal of large fixed play structures and the expansion of a sand area that could not accommodate one class into a sand area that can now accommodate two to three classes. Three days of school visit training and expert lectures have provided Maqiao Kindergarten with new inspiration for their next round of environmental improvement work, including the introduction of mark-making materials and other improvements.

Representatives from Hangzhou Gongshu District Zijing Kindergarten, which just began its work as a Practice Kindergarten over the summer holiday, shared their progress in terms of outdoor environmental change over the last two months. Under the guidance of the Research Center, through the expansion of the school’s sand area, the removal of shrubbery, the construction of hills and other changes, [the site] has already transformed into a fundamentally open, connected outdoor play environment. The next phase will be the introduction of minimally structured materials on the foundation of an open environment, and the implementation of “Hands-down Play” Practice.

After Representatives of the Practice Kindergartens shared, Teacher Cheng Xueqin summarized work initiated in July by the [Anji Child Education] Research Center to survey and aggregate information from the 103 Anji Play Practice Kindergartens.

From the summer holiday to the beginning of September, 72 Practice Kindergartens initiated outdoor play environment changes, for a total cost of ¥17,445,000.00 CNY [approximately $2.5 million USD]. The changes were primarily focused on solving problems like the unitary-purpose nature of outdoor kindergarten play spaces, lack of equipment for washing and for materials movement and storage. These changes were epitomized by actions such as the expansion or addition of sand areas, the adjustment of play space typologies (for instance, the addition of grass fields, hills, etc.), and the adjustment of hedges and shrubs to increase the range of use of the space.

From the summer holiday to the beginning of September, 76 Practice Kindergartens added outdoor play materials, for a total cost of ¥8,044,000.00 CNY [approximately $1.2 million USD]. In addition to foundational physical education materials,* minimally structured materials were also added, including a variety of outdoor building blocks, ladders, mats, barrels, etc.

Soon afterwards, Zhejiang Province Office of Education, Department Director Wang Zhenbin, Professor Hua Aihua, Members of the Anji Play Expert Advisory Group and Representatives from Practice Kindergartens took part in engaged exchange. The exchange was lead by Teacher Cheng Xueqin. Faced with this rare opportunity to engage in a direct exchange of questions and answers with leading experts, Representatives from Practice Kindergartens eagerly shared their difficulties and hopes in their work of Anji Play Practice:

1. Activities associated with provincial first level rankings* for public kindergartens have created a universe of shackling “fixed rules” for “daily self-record keeping” “teacher led group educational activities” etc. that are in conflict with the principles of “Anji Play.” The teacher is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Hope that Province Office of Education will provide policy support for the reform work of the Practice Kindergarten.

2. To implement “Anji Play” there is a high cost of environmental changes and introducing materials. Requests for budget allocations to higher level public financial bodies can only result in the approval of a sum representing a small portion of these costs. Hope that the Province Office of Education can provide financial support.

3. The province requires the use of province created curricular materials. Can the Practice Kindergartens be given policy affordances, allowing us to create our own curricular materials?

4. Professional credentialing criteria* for teachers have long focused on the assessment of teachers in leading group learning activities, can this type of assessment standard be changed?

In response to questions raised by Practice Kindergartens about related policy and financial assurances for Anji Play Practice Kindergartens, Department Director Wang Zhenbin responded, “Provincial First Level ranking and the implementation of Anji Play are not at odds with each other, instead they are aligned. Every Practice Kindergarten principal must do their all to secure the support of local Departments of Education and report back in a timely manner. The Province Office of Education has issued documents; local Departments of Education must support every aspect of practice work for Practice Kindergartens to implement Anji Play, including financial investment and the allocation of personnel.” He clearly stated, “Practice Kindergartens are in the process of implementing reform, reform is given the affordances due to reform work. Practice Kindergartens have special rights as reformers. What are wanted are breakthroughs.” Related to the realization of policy support, Professor Hua Aihua added a suggestion, “the Province Office of Education should establish an oversight mechanism for the supervision of Practice Kindergartens, including assessing the strength of support from regional and county Departments of Education and the progress of Practice Kindergarten implementation to realistically assure the development of Practice Kindergartens.” Department Director Wang’s clear response provided a boost to the development of True Play at Practice Kindergartens, and Teacher Hua’s constructive suggestion earned the Practice Kindergarten Representatives’ warm approval.

In response to the question raised by Practice Kindergartens regarding province created curricular materials and assessment standards, when the Anji Expert Group shared the experiences that their own Anji kindergartens had personally traveled they expressed that: the training of the teacher’s professional ability requires time and that kindergarten spaces, following the growth of the teacher, will gradually discard the crutch of “curricular materials,” excessive urgency and immediate discarding are unnecessary. Regarding professional assessment criteria, the Anji principals suggested that Practice Kindergartens should discard utilitarianism, transform their attitudes, and positively use the principles of “Anji Play” to participate in all professional assessments, and thereby communicating through a variety of platforms to influence more people to re-recognize the meaning and value of play. Regardless of whether school or teacher, you are capable and you have status! The small rewards that the Practice Kindergartens abandon will, in the end, become great rewards!

At the close of the Conference, Zhejiang Province Office of Education, Wang Zhenbin Department Director delivered the summary speech. Department Director Wang first acknowledged the significant work undertaken during the summer period by the Anji Child Education Research Center, including providing training, surveying and guiding environments for the 103 Anji Play Practice Kindergartens, and praised the positive action taken by the Practice Kindergartens. At the same time, Department Director Wang also articulated three hopes for the “Anji Play” Practice of the 103 Anji Play Practice Kindergartens:

A hope that all Practice Kindergartens will, according to plan, complete, in sequence, their three-year training responsibilities, step-by-step.

A hope that all Practice Kindergartens increase their efforts, rigorously implement Anji Play Practice, and effectively act as a vanguard model for province-wide curricular reform.

A hope that all Practice Kindergartens can break through their difficulties, make their difference in these breakthroughs, and focus everything on action!

Here, the three day fall training for over fifty Zhejiang Province Anji Play Practice Kindergartens from Hangzhou, Ningbo, Wenzhou, Jiaxing and Huzhou comes to a close. We look forward to what follows under the support of higher administrative authorities in all counties and areas, that in the commited practice of all of the Practice Kindergartens, the True Play Principle of Anji Play will truly take root in the great lands of Jiangsu and Zhejiang.

*Translator’s notes: “Foundational physical education materials” include standard outdoor materials found in Chinese public kindergartens, including equipment like tricycles. “Professional credentialing criteria” include the criteria that are used to assess teacher performance by provincial bodies when ranking, grading and providing professional and honorific titles to schools and teachers in a variety of setting. This is distinct from teacher licensing criteria. “Provincial first level ranking” refers to a system by which public kindergartens are ranked throughout China at the provincial level based on quality. Schools ranked as “Provincial First Level” are regarded as the highest quality schools in the province.