The Five Principles of Anji Play

Part two in my five-part series on true play will focus on the five principles of Anji Play. Founded by Ms. Cheng Xueqin, the Director for the Office of Pre-Primary Education in Anji County, Anji play is a true play approach that promotes self-determined play for children ages 3-6. Located in Anji County, Zhejiang Province, China, Anji Play is in 130 public kindergartens and is rapidly spreading to other parts of the China and the U.S. At the first True Play conference we visited Anji kindergartens and heard from Ms. Cheng and other Chinese and international early childhood experts who adopted the Anji Play philosophy.

​As Ms. Cheng and her colleagues spent 16 years observing and researching children engaging in true play, they identified five principles that are the foundation of Anji Play: love, risk, joy, engagement, and reflection. Below is a summary of what I learned about each principle along with some photos to help explain how these concepts are rooted in Anji Play.

Love is the foundation for all the relationships in Anji Play. The teachers love the children, their families, and the community. The children love their teachers, each other, their families, and the community. The families love the children and the teachers and the community.  And the community loves the children, their families, and the teachers. Love is all around in Anji kindergartens. Only with love can the children be free to engage in self-directed true play.

Risk is probably the hardest principle to accept for those of us who feel that it is our job to keep young children safe. First, safety is a big issue in Anji Play, and the teachers are there to keep the children safe. But safe does not mean risk-free. Risk is a natural component of true play. Only through risk do children learn how to problem solve and truly express themselves.  The first time I watched a video of Anji Play, I must have reached out to grab what I felt was an unsafe structure about a dozen times. However, the teacher who was there the whole time only had to provide extra support once. The children knew how to assess the level of risk and how to make sure the structure was safe. I saw this with my very own eyes at the Anji Experimental Kindergarten. A little girl was climbing on a structure that did not appear safe. As I watched her, I noticed how she was the best person to determine if it was safe. She stopped several times to reorient the structure, and finally, she called in reinforcements to make sure she could make it across safely. I was impressed with her ability to engage in a self-assessment of the risk.

When the children are loved and allowed to take risks, they experience joy. This joy can only come from self-determined uninterrupted true play. Joy is abundant in Anji Play. Even with all the adults watching and taking pictures, the children are expressing pure joy. Their eyes smile wide, and laughter is the universal language of true play.

Because they are experiencing true joy, the children are fully engaged in Anji Play. They have hours to explore with the materials as they see fit before they go inside for play stories and play sharing. The concentration level of these children was mesmerizing. Whether they were painting outside, playing with water, or building complex structures, these children were fully engaged!


Reflection happens at the end of the play, and I think this is one of the unique aspects of Anji Play. Children come inside and draw pictures of their play. Then the teachers select pictures from the children and photos and videos that the teachers captured and engage the children in play stories. Although I could not understand the discussion because I do not speak Mandarin, what I saw were a group of children spending 40 minutes with their teacher discussing one play story. The children were attentive and focused on the discussion. Not once did the teacher had to remind anyone to keep their hands to themselves or pay attention. Perhaps when children get hours of true play, they no longer have a problem sitting in a group! Watching the reflection was truly inspiring because it was obvious that the children enjoyed talking about their play and problem solving together!


My next blog will delve deeper into the true play revolution and why it must be the centerpiece of our pledge to protect childhood!

​Interested in learning more about advocacy to protect childhood and ignite the true play revolution? Join DEY at our Early Childhood Summer Organizing Leadership Institute July 7-10 in Washington, DC!!! For more information visit