What is the Power of True Play? Play as Freedom, Play as Liberation

A young boy plays with large tunnels and other makeshift toys

A young boy plays with large tunnels and other makeshift toys

For my final reflection from the 1st True Play Conference in Anji, China, I want to discuss a theme that I recognized throughout the presentations and visit to Anji Play schools.  After the conference, I continued to think about how play leads to freedom, and this freedom becomes the foundation for liberation. In Anji Play, children are loved and allowed to take risks; both create a space for freedom. As children take risk, they experience joy, engagement, and reflection which leads to liberation. They are liberated as the teachers’ view of their abilities grows, and the teachers are liberated as they learn to learn from children. 

At the 1st Annual True Play Conference in Anji China, as Ms. Cheng and other early childhood experts from China spoke about their work regarding true play, I noticed a theme embedded within their stories and pictures.  Ms. Cheng spoke about the need to create an environment that would give children agency over their play. This led her team to invest in loose parts and play materials that had no functional limit so that children could explore to the maximum. As they made these changes to the physical environment, they noticed a change in their conception of children and their capabilities.

What struck me most as Ms. Cheng shared the philosophy of Anji play, was how true play meant giving children more freedom. Instead of providing children with toys and materials that had a limited function, children received the freedom to explore materials in ways that only they could conceive. This freedom to explore often leads to the construction of sophisticated and elaborate play structures.  During our visit to the schools we could see children freely manipulating materials to create obstacle courses that allowed for a range of activities and experiences.  Environments that seek to foster true play ultimately foster a place for freedom and freedom leads to risk and joy.

Other speakers, Professors Feng Xiaoxia, Hua Aihua, and Li Jimel also spoke about the freedom inherent in true play.  As they shared how teachers and policies connect to the true play movement, the theme of liberation emerged.  Professor Feng Xiaoxia from Beijing Normal University talked about deep learning and how teachers had to fight against the traditional image of the child that often negates their ability to engage in deep learning. She said true play frees the role of the children and provides unlimited time free from interruptions to focus on children’s play. This speaks to the liberatory qualities of play. As children are free to engage in true play, they are liberated from the constraints of a world that fails to value children as capable decision-makers with a slate full of experiences and knowledge.

Professor Hua Aihua from East China Normal University spoke about how the teachers change in role to observers and researchers of children play led them to recognize high levels of development within the children. As the children experienced the freedom to play the teachers developed the freedom to observe. Deep observations led to discussions that formulated a deeper understanding of the child and the ability to learn from their play.  Once the teachers and children experienced freedom they were both liberated from traditional roles; thus, the teacher became the learner, and the children were the professors! On a policy level, Professor Li Jimel from East China Normal University noted that policymakers must be convinced of the value play to give children the freedom of play. They too must be liberated from their narrow conception of children to one that sees children as capable of guiding their own learning and development through true play.

The value in true play lies in both the ability to provide freedom to children and teachers that ultimately leads to their liberation. As we strive to protect childhood, we must remember that play as freedom and play as liberation is the greatest protection we can provide to all children.

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.

The Anji Play philosophy is built on five principles: love, risk, joy, engagement, and reflection.  After spending 16 years observing children engaged in true play, Ms. Cheng and her colleagues recognized these principles as the foundation for work as implementers of true play (for more information the five principles you can read my previous blog here).