What Are True Play Environments and What Do They Look Like?

Multiple young children stand with overalls on playing with dirt

Multiple young children stand with overalls on playing with dirt

Welcome back to my five-part series on my trip to the 1st International True Play Conference in Anji, China.  At the conference, Ms. Cheng, the founder of Anji play, spoke about how her observations of children led her to change the environment. The shift from no play, to false play, to true play, happened when the teachers removed traditional play structures and introduced materials that had no functional limit. Loose parts and open-ended materials were provided for all children to explore freely which led to agency over their play. As the engagement in play deepened, the teachers were able to observe and describe children’s play as they became teacher researchers.  At the conference we visited six kindergartens located in Anji county. 

After visiting each school, I could recognize the intentionality with which each environment was created to foster true play. You could see evidence of each principle: love, risk, joy, engagement, and reflection in every part of the environment because the space was designed to foster each of these principles.

Each location varied in size with some housing as few as 12 children to others that had 500 children.  Some were founded in 1951 while others were created in 2000. Although the size of both the indoor and outdoor space varied, each kindergarten had a distinct environment that fostered true play.

Upon arrival to a kindergarten in Anji, I was immediately struck by the openness of the place. The front entrances were used for block play which created the feeling of an expansive play area no matter the size of the              school.

The Anji Jiguan Kindergareten has 480 students and was founded in 1983. The front entrance provides ample space for intense block play.

Past the entrance was more space for construction materials and a feeling the outdoors nestled closely to the indoors.

Once inside the space seemed to triple in size. Shaped in a square, the outside space was a sea of mini-spaces for the different classes within the school. Younger children had a dedicated space to explore while older children had larger areas to build and experiment. I was told that children come to areas as a class but are free to go to other areas if they let a teacher know they are leaving. Some children go and get materials from other spaces and bring them back to where their classmates are exploring.

Outdoor painting was common in every school we visited. As the children painted you could witness the high level of engagement with the materials and the environment.

Water play that often led to mud play was also common in each school. Children used different materials such as clay in different outdoor spaces.

The outdoor environment included materials for dramatic play alongside of places to construct a rest area!

The other side of the outside square included a vast space for construction with larger open-ended materials.

The indoor spaces filled me with a sense of beauty and order. Children’s work is displayed throughout at their level, along with materials for exploration and creations.

How do you create an environment for true play? Send pictures and your story of creating a true play environment to feature in a guest blog to denisha@dey.org.

For more information on true play, the five principles of Anji play, and why we need a true play revolution, you can find my previous blogs here.