As I look back and reflect on my experience in Anji County, China and visiting the AnjiPlay kindergartens/preschools I wonder about my own approach to something new and i realise that it ties in with my observations of preschoolers at new locations...
When I take a group of preschoolers to a new space (whether it be a play-space, forest, museum etc) what I see is that the children have a desire to look around, the do not settle into deep play as they usually do in a space familiar with them but seem to have an intrinsic desire to check everything out first.
I found myself doing the same when visiting the various settings. I struggled to settle to deeply observe a child, a play... but felt an intense need to explore, to see and to know what was available. During the week i stayed in China, I visited a total of nine settings, four of them on the first day there. it was in the last visit that i felt settled enough to start a deeper level of observation.
I think it is not just about feeling more familiar with the space, but also the people that I have been with. Over time you get to know the people and interact more deeply and not in a superficial way of niceties that is appropriate when you first meet people.
Having autism means that these first social interactions are hard, as I find I need to observe people for a while to understand how I am supposed to interact with them - so in the first visits I wandered alone... observing not only the setting, the children, the teachers but also the others that were visiting.
In a way the recommendations of Ms Cheng (who started the AnjiPlay approach) of eyes open, ears open, hands down and mouth shut, is pretty much my survival strategy to understand the neuro-norm.
of course my head is often at the point of overflowing with thoughts and reflections and ideas and hypotheses that insist on being shared... blogging has been a great safe space to do that!! Sometimes they blurt out in real life too!
So these observations of myself needing time to feel safe to be able to learn connect with original learning and also with AnjiPlay. In Anji they have purposefully made the choice that children play in a specific area of the school outdoor area for about a month (they play for an hour outside in this way every day). This allows the children time to fully discover the area and to start playing on a deeper level.
I am told that the children are free to move around the school outdoor area as they choose... but I did not see any such movement across the various areas. The children tended to stay in their groups. I assume this is a cultural thing. My experience with young children in Sweden is that there is more movement between areas. I would love to find out more about why - both the Swedish and Chinese perspective.
On my last visit I managed to settle for a longer observation. What i noticed is that one of the children did not play like the other children. This child repeatedly went back to the teacher to "refuel" (if you read my post "The Story of... being Invisible" I explain how children, especially the youngest, need to refuel on love to feel secure in their play... and that a quick check in, a touch, the holding of a hand or a hug, can be enough to refuel on love and feel the safety needed for deep play.) My hypothesis was that this was the child of the teacher, or a new child that had started recently (it was in the three year old group, the youngest group at the settings which are for 3-6 year olds). I felt the first was the more likely of the two.
I mentioned this to one of the other participants, Carol Spoehr who works at One City Schools in Madison, Wisconsin who has visited several times and is implementing the AnjiPlay approach with others in Madison. Carol of course was comfortable enough to be able to ask what the situation was... and it turned out that this was the child of one of the teachers.
This child was the only child I observed that moved areas... there was no stopping, she was free to move around. And after she moved from one area to another, checking them out, but not participating she returned to the area where her mother was based.
I will write more about the interactions of this mother and child in a later post, as it was rather beautiful and is worth sharing.
But back to feeling comfortable. I had got to the place where I was comfortable to start observing, but not yet to the place where I felt brave enough to ask questions.
This is something I reflect a lot on. Asking questions. Who asks the questions?
Being able to ask questions comes from a place of power. if you do not feel empowered you will not ask questions. Many traditional schools it is the teachers that ask the questions and the children the need to answer them.. Some places encourage children to ask questions.. but then do not leave enough time to find the answers, this is really limiting the power of those asking the questions.
I will come back to this idea of asking questions later in this series about AnjiPlay.
I started this post exploring the idea that to be able to play deeply and learn we need to feel safe. That feeling safe can mean that we check out the whole space before settling down.
But this checking out of the space can be more than simply putting a mind at ease... it is also a learning strategy. As part of my research to better understand what I want to communicate with Original Learning I have been pulling out words that are important to me and digging deeper into what they mean and how I can apply them appropriately. Curiosity is one of those words. I started to look into the neuroscience of curiosity and I learned about a research on C.elegans, a roundworm that has a nervous system of only 302 neurons (thus making it easier to observe). C. elegans actively forages for food, mostly bacteria. The researchers would place the roundworm in a petri dish to observe and what they noticed was that when they placed it in a new patch it would take about 15 minutes to locally explore and then abruptly adjust stretegies and make large directed movements in a new direction (Calhoun, Chalasani and Sharpee, 2014). The fact that the roundworm uses an exploration strategy at first is more sophisticated and beneficial than just trying to find food randomly, instead it provides a better long time pay-off because it provides information as well.
So this flitting around like butterflies can be a way for a child to better understand what is available. Over the years I have heard many educators wonder how they can help children focus on just one thing, to sit down and settle, or focus on a specific play for a certain length of time. Maybe these children need longer to flit around as butterflies and check their surroundings, to create strategies of play and learning. Maybe these children need a smaller areas to explore at first in order to feel safe. And this AnjiPlay approach is affording children just that. A specified area to explore, to get to know, to understand and feel safe in, so that deep play can be achieved. They enter a kind of play flow, rather than butterfly flight. I feel both are needed. Being a butterfly is not just about feeling safe with the surroundings, but also with peers and educators.
Alison Gopnik also describes children as the butterflies and the adults as the caterpillars. As butterflies children are free to explore and test out things through play... as caterpillars we adults need to munch munch munch. We are the factory workers that enable the butterflies to be free.
This is something that I saw in AnjiPlay. The adults worked very hard to give the children freedom to play and explore. But I will go more into that in later posts too.
My next post will be about risk, as some of the images I have been sharing have already awoken thoughts and dialogue, which I feel needs to be addressed...
By being in the same space over a period of time, it allows the children the time they need to master skills... and as I will mention in the coming post about risk, children do not just get on the big rollers and walk on them... it is a process... the youngest children struggle to even get on them... so in this sense the materials are age appropriate... offering different challenges depending on size, age, maturity and what the child feels comfortable doing.