Playing is an integral part of childhood but what about giving it an academic tweak? Many researchers believe that during a child’s early years, play can help develop cognitive skills, laying a strong foundation for a lifetime of learning.
In our first report we go to China where traditional teaching methods and rote learning have characterised school life for a long time. But one woman has developed a completely new approach that puts play at the heart of early childhood education.
In AnjiPlay, chidren from 3 to 6 choose how they play and with whom. They can to do things other pre-schools wouldn’t allow, like painting real cars.
The concept, named True Play, was found by Cheng Xueqin 15 years ago. Since then, it has been extended to the 130 public kindergartens of Anji county.
“Traditionally, in Chinese education, teachers teach, and students listen. Now we’ve given the kids the right to play. They’ve free to move from indoors to outdoors,” said Cheng Xueqin, AnjiPlay founder and director of pre-school education for Anji County.
“Our children are happy, and I think happiness is very important for one’s life. They can also focus on a task. They need it during the games. It’s a valuable asset for their future studies.”
In the playground, teachers film every child during the activities. They’re specially trained to observe the kids and learn about their behaviour. Everyday, play time ends with a debrief in class.
“They want to share what they’re doing and they do so with confidence because it’s something they’ve experienced. It’s also something which develops their language skills. What’s more during the construction process, they encounter problems, like mathematical problems,” explains Ma Chunjuan, AnjiPlay preschool teacher.
The preschool stresses the importance of autonomy. Children organise the lunch area on their own and help themselves with food. After it’s nap time. Soft music helps them to relax, and in 10 minutes, all is quiet in a school of 500 pupils.
The Anji Play concept is attracting lots of attention across China and even in the United States: “This year, I went to San Francisco, Boston and Madison. In Madison, there’s a kindergarten for disadvantaged people, mostly Afro-Americans. They really want to implement Anji Play in their school,” said Cheng Xueqin.
But in the beginning, Cheng had a tough time convincing Chinese parents. They were afraid of the dirt and the risks. It took them a while to realise the benefits of learning while playing, especially for a generation of single children.
One parent Jin Zhichang says is extremely happy with his decision: “My son has no choice but to play with other kids, to cooperate with them in order to finish the construction. He’s bad-tempered, even violent sometimes. Thanks to the games, gradually, his behaviour has improved.”
Around 14,000 children, aged between three and six, are taking part in AnjiPlay curriculum in China’s Zhejiang province. According to the organisation, AnjiPlay is set to become part of China’s National Kindergarten standards,.
All the world’s a stage
Can you prepare your child for university studies from a very young age? Does it make sense to teach Shakespeare or chess to a 4 year old? If all this sounds strange to you then you might be surprised by our story from a unique school in the US.
In New York, the city that never sleeps, some parents have decided to accelerate their children’s education. Juliet Weissman is a mother with high hopes for her son Jonas. And she’s betting a special school in uptown Manhattan will make her dreams come true one day. Jonas is only four years old, but Juliet has a clear view of his future.
“I expect my son will go to college and to, you know, be successful, not necessarily, Harvard or Yale, whatever universities he wants to and is right for him, but absolutely I have aspirations for him to pursue high education and use this education as a foundation for that,” said Juliet Weissman.
Here, every single play has an educational goal.
Normally in the US, students first study Shakespeare when they’re 14…and not with glove puppets…but there’s a higher purpose…
Actor David Andrew Laws is a member of “Hamlet is not dead”:
“This cliche of going to high school or going to university and hearing how we will going to learn Shakespeare and the students going, heeeuuuuh, I dont want to do that, I don’t like Shakespeare, even if they have never read it, even if they have never read or seen Shakespeare, they still have an aversion to it.
“But by making this association so early, they remember: Oh Shakespeare! I know that name, I remember I had a really good time…You know, the story we are telling here, it’s not an adaptation, a distillation, it’s still the same story, and they still have Shakespeare text in them,” said Laws.
And the technique also works with chess. In New York, Tyler Schwartz’s Chess at 3 organisation is very well known. He often comes to the Goddard School.
His promise to the families is to boost the capacities of children in mathematics and logic. To convince them to play this game usually dedicated to adults, Tyler actually tells the story of King Chambers. Who for food needs to eat pawns.
“The children’s literacy goes up ten and fifteen percent because they’re coming across this story, they have never heard something so complex before. At Chess at 3, you get the benefits of playing chess and having your memory get better, having your calculation get better, having your executive fonctions get better, the literacy is also getting better, said Schwartz.
There’s a high price to pay though for all these methods. Goddard School costs around $20,000 per year. But for parents, it’s a vital investment that will pay off in the future.
Are you a teacher or a parent? How do you think play is important for a child’s education and development? We always love hearing your thoughts on social media, so keep them coming.