ICDI Keynote Address at first “True Play” Conference in China

In May, ICDI’s Nico van Oudenhoven and his wife, educational sociologist Rona Jualla van Oudenhoven participated in the first “True Play” Conference in Anji, Zhejiang Province, China. The meeting was organised by Anji Play organisation, which is both the initiator as well as the engine of a movement that has the potential to revolutionize current thinking and practice about preschools and children’s play in particular. 

The methodology and underlying philosophy developed by the local government education civil servant/Educator Cheng Xueqin and sustained by the US-based educator, Jesse Coffino, seeks to create opportunities for children for completely free, or in their words, completely ‘true play’. Boys and girls in the age group of 1-6 years are encouraged to play in whatever ways they choose, aided by a selection of set of simple open-ended materials, such wooden blocks, access to water and clay and lots of paper and felt pens. Teachers hardly interfere, if not at all. 

The results are phenomenal and without exaggeration makes Anji Kindergartens very much the best among the best. All children are active, non-stop; appear to be happy; interested in and focused on what they are doing. They take risks, stay long at a task, collaborate, talk a lot, explore new venues, have a sense of purpose and are self-directed. It is rare that a child cries or looks distressed, and if it does, it is over in a minute. Children guide, teachers follow.

A crucial part of the Anji approach is that teachers video tape the children’s play and the children report their play in drawings. Both will then be reviewed, commented upon and analysed in groups. In this manner children’s reflections are captured as narratives that shape and dictate the pedagogical learning.

The conference was attended by some 300 local and 80 international ECD specialists and viewed, via satellite by some two million people.

In her address, Rona framed the discussion around equity in play and highlighted play as the ultimate equalizer and breaker of barriers allowing for the navigation of interconnectedness among children of varying degrees along the ability spectrum. She noted that that the elements of play included safe play, risky play, true play and most of all play as powerful! Nico noted in his address that the long-term beneficial effects were inherent and felt that the Anji True Play would have mitigating effects on current childhood threats such as obesity, depression, bullying, myopia and allergies. It is likely that these hypotheses will become part of Anji’s research agenda. He also stressed the importance of informal and nonformal settings -outside formal kindergartens-on the overall development and well-being of children, a vision that ICDI strongly advocates.

The Anji True Play approach is spreading throughout China and establishing outposts in the US and some East African countries, among others. It is very likely that others will follow suit. It is a true revolution from the bottom up.