During my visit to Anji County in China and the nine preschools one of the (many) ting that stuck out was the use of clay, and the scale it was being used.
The children had access to huge amounts of clay... from beautiful, large, lidded pots to huge pits of clay that the children could climb into in order to collect clay...
Each day in the AnjiPlay preschools the children had access to one hour of "True Play" - where the teachers backed off with their "eyes open, ears open, hands down and mouths closed" - during this time the educators observed and documented the children's play and explorations and creations - to be used later on, both with the children and also with colleagues in order to better understand children, play and learning.
During this hour the children were in an area of the massive outdoor space which had many different kinds of areas for different kinds of explorations. The class had about a month in a specific area - which gave them time to really explore the materials in that area. I was told that the children were free to play in other areas if they so wished, as long as they told a teacher first. On the whole I did not see this, but I was only there for short periods of time in a few settings, so it was impossible to be able to observe everything. I did see, in one of the water play areas, children who had explored enough take of the waterproofs and play in an adjacent area, which was dry and they had access to other kinds of materials.
For those of you familiar with my blog, you will be aware that I write about time a great deal... both that children need more time, and also that children experience time in a different way to us adults... if you are not familiar and would like to read about that... then check out this post... The Story of Time
By allowing the children a long period of time to explore a specific area freely allows the children to deepen their experience... the children write "Play Stories" afterwards about how they interacted with the materials and then the teacher and the children will discuss one or two of these stories and how they could evolve, why they did not work, or why it did work etc... this means that the next day they interact with the clay they have new ideas to test from their peers - the children are teaching each other, not just the adult. The rest of the day is spent playing both inside and outside with the very many different areas of the school - so it is not merely that one area they have access to, but that the one area is made available to them over a period of time so that they can become familiar with the materials, feel a confidence with the materials, that will allow them to experiment more, to enter dialogues about the materials later in the day that allows them to return to them with new perspectives - basically it is giving the children time to enter a deeper level of play and understanding of the materials so that they can then experiment and engage with the materials in creative ways... the time allows their imagination to be fuelled, and then also to put that into action... to create.
I like to think that imagination is the process... creativity is the action that leads to the product... ie you create something from your imagination. So my focus is on imagination rather than creativity... as I strongly believe that imagination is the source of creativity. And that as a society if we continue to focus on creativity rather than imagination, then we are also focusing on the product rather than the process.
And PLAY is the champion of imagination... as Alison Gopnik wrote
"because we IMAGINE, we can have invention and technology. It's actually play, not necessity, that is the mother of invention".
Interestingly the image I used for this quote is a young child laying with clay - actually exploring how fossils are made with clay and dinosaurs after visiting the Museum of Natural History where they had seen real fossils.
So for the rest of this post I am going to share images of the various clay areas in the AnjiPlay preschools... As there is not just one way to present the clay. Some are outside connected to water, some are under a roof, some are close to areas where colour is used...
All of them allow the children to get their own clay from the large quantities provided, they have ample space for the children to create, as well as tools displayed for use. There are also areas to display the works in progress and finished pieces.
I also saw children working with dried clay, mashing it up, sieving and preparing it to be used again, but all part of a play process.
Close by there was amply space to clean up messy hands and also the tools before putting everything back in the right space ready for the next day, and for other children...
The environments are set up with great care... to maximise the competence of the child, to enable deep play and learning, to allow children the freedom to explore and not limited by the environment, to be inviting and also to challenge.
This means that the environments are not permanent, in the sense that as the teachers learn more about the children, play and learning, the environments will changed in order to include this new knowledge and understanding. At the end of the photo series there are two films... so it is worth scrolling to the end.
Above you can see how the clay area is several tables under a roofed area - but also right next to the other areas of play. There were about four large tables for the children to sit at... each with at least two bowls of clay and also shelves to place their work afterwards
above was another sheltered clay studio - with tables for work, shelves to display and shelves further to the right with materials... you can see in the foreground a wooden lid where the clay is stored. So the children are not just sitting still, they are moving to get the materials they need. I also saw pieces of clay laying around on the grass... clues that the clay did not HAVE to be used at the tables - that the medium could be explored in other ways too.
Not all work seemed to be on an individual basis, there seemed to be some group work/collaboration projects too.
In the above two photos you can see how mediums are getting mixed... not just clay... but paint, water and bubbles... allowing for further experiments and explorations..
There was time and space to get messy and fully explore the clay... and equally as important plenty of space and the tools to be able to clean up afterwards... hands and the tools...
The process of breaking down the clay and sifting... was very much done in the language of play...
I have permission to share images of the preschools, and I am extremely grateful that the teachers, children and parents in the AnjiPlay preschools are open to sharing their approach with others around the world, in the hope that ALL children have access to learning through play.