Anji Play

Have you heard of Anji Play nurseries?

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Choosing a nursery for your little one is the first major decision you must take for your child in terms of education. It is a big moment, isn’t it? Of separation, of trust and commitment. You are replacing the safe place called home with a completely new environment. And it’s scary!

I have been researching and reading a lot about various curricula around the world and found 4 which truly value the child and his interests: Reggio Emilia, Anji Play, Te Whariki and forest schools

Today I want to talk to you about Anji Play in China!

Why Anji Play?

  1. because of the new approach they take
  2. because they value children
  3. they allow children to play freely
  4. they encourage children to be themselves

Disclaimer: I have no personal affiliation with Anji Play, this is my opinion based on my research as a masters’ student.

What makes Anji Play different?

Anji play is a philosophy and an approach, perfected for over 18 years by Cheng Xueqin. And at the heart of it is the concept of true play. True play is described on the Anji Play website as ‘observable experiences of risk, joy and deep engagement’. What does that mean?

To put it in more words,  true play is described as

  • risky play because children are allowed to push boundaries and may even seem at risk at times. A toddler climbing a tall ladder? You would panic, wouldn’t you? Don’t worry, teachers observe and are there to offer help and prevent dangerous situations during risky play episodes.
  • joy because true play gives power to the child and agency;  he is the one in control, able to choose his activities and play partners and create his own games which leads us to the next point
  • deep engagement happens when body and mind are truly in the process; when children are actively doing an activity that they chose, playing/learning becomes meaningful and they are completely engaged

Isn’t risky play dangerous?

I know what you are thinking and how you might be feeling at the thought of allowing your child the freedom to test boundaries . Combining this with the word risk doesn’t really help, it actually makes it worse, doesn’t it? Isn’t that too much? Do you mean allowing my chid to get hurt?

No, because if you assess the situation fairly and rationally, you intervene when it is dangerous. Risk is part of the learning. It might seem hard to see it though, but risky play is very valuable!

I will write more about risky play and its role in children’s development in my next article, there is a lot to be said.

But if they play all day, are children really learning

I believe that when children are really playing, they are truly learning. Not the  ‘let me teach you a new game now, but I secretly want to teach you numbers’ type of play. Although guided play has its own role as well. No, free and open play!

Like the one you used to do when you were little and almost missed dinner. “Dinneeeer tiiiime!” my mum used to scream at the top of her lungs while I was somewhere in the garden, minding my own mucky yucky business.

By allowing children to freely play without interfering, teachers are able to truly see the child!

Not as the curriculum wants to shape your child’s skills and personality, not as the teacher thinks she/he might be, but as the child truly is.

Teachers record the child while playing and these recordings and pictures are used later in the day, during the reflection period which is a part of everyday routine.

Anji Play

Children get involved in play stories and reflect on their play

Another important part of the day is the play stories and play sharing episodes through which children reflect on their experiences of the day, express their learning, their emotions and views of the world.

These reflections help children think about thinking and develop strong skills (metacognitive skills, critical thinking).

Through play stories, children are given the chance to process and organize their mathematical and scientific discoveries, while building their literacy and language abilities as they explain and describe what they draw, see in the pictures/videos or share with others.

Teachers offer open-ended questions (with to particular answer in mind) and help children expand their understanding of the world by building on that which the child already knows and taking it further.

What does an Anji Play nursery look like?

Most of the day the children will be outdoors, engaging with open-ended materials, which are very different than I’ve seen in any other nursery.

These materials are large, minimal, easy to be manipulated by children, sturdy, inter-relatable so children can use them together in various ways, drawn from life and proximate to nature.

So, you will find planks, carts, storage systems, barrels, ladders, logs, loose wooden parts, tyres, and thousands of other recycled materials, as well as highly-designed materials.

By offering such variety of open-ended materials children can construct, design, combine, recombine, imagine, revision, and express themselves freely and uninterrupted every single day.

Extraordinary, no?

They are entirely engaged, body and mind, in their play which involves problem solving, risk taking, collaboration, decision making, observing and analysing cause and effect, planning, documenting etc.

There are also notebooks and pens for children to document or observe, tools to measure, reading corners in the classrooms and animals and plants to engage with.

The natural environment is an essential element in Anji Play, as children can explore ditches, tunnels, hills, trees, bamboo, sand, water and mud.

A typical day in Anji Play classrooms

This is how a typical Anji Play day would look like for all children:

  1. Children start the day with open play in the classroom, followed by a class gathering to reflect on the previous day and talk about the upcoming outdoor play.
  2. Children go outdoors. There, all the group will briefly engage in a movement activity, after which the children can freely explore open play outside.
  3. There is of course cleaning time before returning to the classroom for a snack. Then the children engage in play stories activities, read and do other indoor activities.
  4. They have lunch for 30 minutes after which children play freely with smaller open-ended materials in the classroom and the hallways. After they have their nap (2 and a half hours) children and teachers start the play sharing episode.
  5. After play sharing, the children are given the chance to freely choose where to play, outdoor or indoor.
  6. Following this last open play opportunity, there are short play stories activities before the parents pick up their children.


The teacher facilitates the play stories episodes (prepares the materials, videos, arranges the setting), but the child will lead his own reflection of his activities of the day!

The teacher will be offering open-ended questions and clarifying questions to help the child expand his/her understanding.

The Anji Play teacher is trained to avoid leading the child to a certain path or to certain views, discoveries or learning outcomes.

Why do I recommend this approach to teaching little learners?

As an experienced teacher I have seen many approaches to teaching young learners. However, while studying early years at UCL I discovered a new understanding of how teaching should be approached, particularly with little learners.

To my surprise, I learnt that around the world, there are very few curricula and teaching approaches that truly value the child, his interests, his abilities, his learning style, rhythm, his home value and culture.

Very few nurseries have the time to discover the child as he is, not because they don’t want to, although most of them try, but because the aim of education has long been misunderstood, narrowed down to quick solutions and fast results, to narrowing gaps, even when gaps are not truly there.

Anji Play is all about the child!That is the true aim of education!

The child learns in his own style and rhythm, takes his time without being pushed by a teacher, by the curriculum, by high stakes tests.

And this is something I truly love as a teacher. And a parent! For my child to be given space to engage in direct learning, experience the world and adjust his understanding of it constantly, in a safe, deeply engaging, open-ended environment, alongside teachers he can trust, because they trust him as well.

The true aim of education should be to create a mutual relationship in which both teachers and children learn.

It is essential to see the child not a means to an end: a good worker, a productive citizen, an effective learner, but simply see the child.

And let them be!

And play. Freely and truly play. Because play is without a doubt the equivalent of learning.


What if I can’t find an Anji Play nursery near me?

There aren’t many Anji Play nurseries around the world, I am sorry to say it! There are 1300 public schools in China, but there are many pilot nurseries in America, Europe (Hungary) and Africa (Tanzania).

However, the reason why I recommend this nursery is because everyone can be inspired by its principles: parents, teachers, policy makers, researchers.

There are a few important values in Anji Play that I think you can adopt in your home or nursery.

I will list them below:

1. give the child the power to choose and take responsibility for his choices

2. ’mouth shut, eyes open’ is Anji Play motto, meaning: do not interfere, guide, put words into the child’s mouth; simply listen to what he/she says, does, tries to say with gestures/drawings, play episodes

3. value open play– let children decide what to play, when, with who and what; offering open-ended materials and toys so that the child has more freedom in how to play and learn, even if it involves risky play

4. ask more open-ended questions to help the child express his thoughts and ideas; in a preschool classroom a study found that 93% of the time teachers were the ones doing the talking

5. offer open-ended materials: loose wooden parts, recycled materials, lego, arts and craft elements, natural materials, magnets, scales, or any toy that helps them experience science, math, physics

Read more about open-ended toys and materials!

Final thoughts on choosing a nursery

Choosing a nursery is very  difficult and I know how important it is to make sure the child fully and truly benefits from the experience.

I believe that no matter the nursery you choose, make sure they value some of the principles below:

  • true and open play
  • less teacher talk
  • more open-ended questions
  • open-ended materials and toys
  • value children’s choices
  • children are offered time and space to play
  • children can reflect on what they are doing through play stories
  • fewer yes/no questions, more questions to listen to the child

I am positive that your child will enjoy an experience in which he has a voice, has time to use it and form his opinions, freely, without anyone imposing on him/her what to think and do.That should be the aim of education in any institution working with children: helping children gain a voice and learn to use it proudly!

Would you try any of the Anji principles with your child?

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4 thoughts on “Have you heard of Anji Play nurseries?”

  1. Wow ! Very interesting to read about this ! I’ve never heard about it so I was very intrigued, thank you for sharing ! I also like the reminder to ask more open ended questions!

  2. This is the first time I have heard of this type of play. Its very interesting! Thanks for sharing. I am a teacher and I so often like to have everything so structured. I would like to work on using more open-ended materials and fewer yes/no questions!

  3. Very interesting! I had not heard of this before, but love fostering natural curiosity in my kids. We do a lot of open-ended play and exploration. Thank you for sharing!

  4. This is a fascinating read. As you mentioned my first response was no way to the risky play but as you read and understand the process it’s basically an early lesson to life. If you don’t take risks and explore the world around you how will you know what you are capable of achieving? Thank you so much for sharing.

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