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  • Skribentens bildSuzanne Axelsson

One step at a time...

Since my visit to Anji, China in May I have been sharing posts containing images of the settings for 3-6 year old children.

These posts have been met with excitement and also apprehension... this idea that it feels impossible... that level of risk, that kind of play would never work here, people are too afraid. I want to point out that this is very much the case in China too.

The kindergartens in Anji that are using the AnjiPlay pedagogy are very divergent from the norm of play and learning.

It is not common in China to give children this much free play, access to this much risky play. Ms Cheng, the founder, and her staff, have been brave and made a stand for what they believe and know is right for children.

it has not happened over night.

They did not wake up one morning and decide to simply get all these materials and offer them to the children. The materials have been added to over the years. More and more loose parts, in various sizes... with careful observations to ensure safety while providing freedom of play.

Observing that the large loose-parts are too much of a challenge for the youngest children... either physically or what they psychologically feel confident to engage with... This allows the educators to feel confident that the children are going to choose activities that will suitably challenge them and not endanger them (and the educators are always there observing to prevent children getting into a situation that is dangerous).

The many many films and photos that the educators have taken are used as collegial learning - to discuss what is learning through risk and what is dangerous... how do they make the call? How do they stop themselves from going in too early without risking coming in too late. By having regular dialogues together they can discuss their own personal fears, so that these do not limit play... that it is common sense and informed decisions that form the foundations of the children's freedom to play.

The more the children played, the more the educators got to see the competence of the children. The educators with the most years of experience could share this wisdom and confidence with the new teachers... and also with the parents. The parents have very much been a part of this learning process too... so that they could see the benefits of free play and not fear it. Parents with the wisdom of time and experience of seeing their children engaged in risky play, BIG play and the learning that came from this through personal observations at the school and workshops (including playing with the loose-parts themselves) could then teach the new parents about the benefits... Everyone was learning from the children... by the fact that Ms Cheng made those first steps to trust the children... And this is something that we can all do... We can make those first steps... it does not have to be on a grandiose scale... start small and keep taking steps forward, forward, learning from the children... one step at a time discovering what the children are capable of and also what it is about yourself that you need to deal with... your fears, your worries, your limits, and what kind of support do you need to overcome them?

it is not as simple as hands off... it is about learning how to create a balance of hands off and hands on.

AnjiPlay is not a full day of hands off free play - there is a lot of teacher interaction and care; but there are 1-2 hours of time for the children to dig deep into their own play that is sacred... where the children become their own teachers, the teachers of their peers and the teachers of their teachers... Then they become co-teachers, interacting together and learning from each other... the teacher facilitating the learning. No "sportscasting" or narrating the play when the children are engaged in play... but time afterwards to reflect on the play through drawing, writing, reflecting over films and photos together in group dialogues and individually with the adults...

So be inspired by the posts with photos of lots of loose parts... but don't feel overwhelmed. Choose something that excites you... just one thing... and let that be YOUR first step...

I observed this child for a very long time... trying and trying to get up onto the cylinders without success. She then went onto other equipment, inspired by children jumping and managed to get up, with great effort onto the first cube, then onto the next bigger one next to it, and finally the biggest one next to that where the older children were jumping. She sat on the top and looked down (it had been a slow careful process to get there) and then just sat there watching the others, smiling. After a while she went back down to the middle cube and looked down, and sat wondering... then went down to the smallest cube and stood at the edge for a long long time. After a while the child asked the adult for help... the adult did not. The child started to get anxious, as she stood looking over the edge down to the big soft cushion... she stretched out her hand to the adult... and the adult made the decision to hold her hand and the child jumped. Feeling proud she climbed up again, stood at the edge and reached out her hand again... the adult smiled and signalled with a small gesture that the child could do this. She took a breath and then jumped, squealing with delight. She then went on to do this numerous times, before going to the middle cube again. She looked down, then went back to the small cube and carried on testing her limits there. The adult here made a judgement call to offer the slightest help to keep the child safe... but still allow the child to experience risky play by allowing her to feel the confidence of knowing that this was possible.

My observations of this child also lead me to think that this child was not as familiar with the resources as all the other children... and when I asked about it, I learned that this was a child of one of the teachers rather than one of the kindergarten students, that sometimes came, and was slightly younger. To me it really proved the competence of children... and also how with the smallest of scaffolding to ensure safety, children are able to make excellent decisions about risk if we give them the space...

It's not just about getting to the destination directly... it's about the journey...

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