The Chinese educational revolution with outdoor play as its beating heart

Anji Play – a public kindergarten service running in 140 centres for 14,000 children aged 3-6 in Anji County, China  – is gaining an international profile for its emphasis on outdoor play and its relaxed approach to risk. I first stumbled on it a couple of years ago, thanks to this widely-shared video on Facebook. More recently my curiosity was piqued by its inclusion in a superb episode of the Netflix TV documentary ‘Abstract’, on the US construction toy designer and play advocate Cas Holman.

Then I realised that an upcoming trip to China was going to take me literally to Anji Play’s doorstep. So I persuaded my Chinese clients to exploit this lucky coincidence and set up a visit.

My first view of the schoolyard at Anji Play

My first view of the schoolyard at Anji Play

This post shares some thoughts on what I saw and heard. It ends with a short interview with Anji Play’s founder, Cheng Xueqin, who has just stepped down from her role as head of service.

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A tribute to Frank Dobson

Frank Dobson MPI am very sad to hear the news of the passing of Frank Dobson. He was known to many as Health Secretary under Tony Blair in the late 1990s, but perhaps better known to UK play advocates as the author of the 2004 Dobson Review into children’s play.

As lead reviewer, I have very fond memories of working with Frank in the year or so of the review period. He threw himself into the task: chairing regional consultation events, visiting parks and playgrounds, bending the ear of ministers, and inviting senior civil servants to share their play memories.

Frank enjoyed telling how, at one early consultation event in his home county of Yorkshire, we asked the audience what they thought they were there for. After a few long-winded, woolly answers from grown-ups, a boy in the front row chirped up saying “we’re here to tell you how to spend t’money.”

Frank had a wicked sense of humour, was legendary/infamous for his plain-spokenness, and placed high value on clarity (as I learnt from his comments on my drafts!)

The impact and legacy of his report (which helped pave the way for the Government’s subsequent £235 million National Play Strategy) – and the positive response it generated from an initially skeptical play movement – are testament to his powers of communication and political persuasion.

As well as being a public champion of play throughout the review, Frank worked hard behind the scenes to overcome both bureaucratic and political hurdles and unlock the National Lottery funding that the play sector had been promised. He was also a longstanding chair of the flagship play facility at Coram’s Fields in Central London.

Frank Dobson and Rupert Everett Opens the New Sports Pitches for the 'Coram's Fields' Children's Charity, London, Britain - 12 Sep 2013

Frank Dobson and children, Corams Fields, 2013. Ray Tang/Shutterstock

It is Frank’s integrity, generosity and unwavering dedication to public service that will stay with me, especially when it came to improving the lives of the marginalised and disadvantaged. He also had a thoughtful and introspective side that belied his jovial public persona. I will not be alone in feeling that the world is the poorer for his absence.

My thoughts are with Frank’s friends and family.

Postscript 13 November 2019: Head here for an obituary in the Guardian.

Putting children at the heart of urban planning: a call for action


Authors: Tim Gill, Adrian Voce, Darell Hammond and Mariana Brussoni

Cities around the world are failing children. 30 years after the launch of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – which aimed to make children’s needs and views central in policy making – most cities are hostile if not life-threatening places for their youngest inhabitants.

The global death toll of children on the roads is surely the most shocking illustration of the failure of urban planning. Road traffic is the leading global cause of death among people aged 15–29, and the second highest single cause of death for children aged 5–14.

Dangerous hilly road with cars and pedestrians, Ciudad Bolivar, Bogota

Ciudad Bolivar, Bogota

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Why one city is undergoing a child-friendly revolution

Why would a mayor decide that talking about children is the best way to fix a fast-growing, underfunded, polluted city whose people have a deep distrust for politicians? I spent a week in Tirana last month trying to answer this question.

The Tirana context
First, some context. Tirana, the capital of Albania, is a city of around 1/2 million people (double that figure if you include the wider region). Physically, the city has both Eastern Bloc and Southern European qualities. The city centre is spacious and ordered, taking in wide boulevards, grand squares and buildings, and pleasant parks and green spaces.

Skanderbeg Square, Tirana city centre

Skanderbeg Square, Tirana city centre

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How to build cities fit for children

After decades on the margins, child-friendly urban planning and design is emerging into the mainstream. What does this mean for children, for cities, and crucially for the decision-makers and professionals who will shape the futures of both?

My new report Building Cities Fit for Children gives perhaps the first overview of the decisions and programs of those cities that are at the forefront of the movement to reshape their neighbourhoods with children and families in mind. Based on my Churchill Fellowship travels in Europe and Canada, the report takes as its starting point not what I think cities should be doing, nor what agencies like UNICEF are promoting, but what leading cities have actually done. Continue reading

Risk, fear and freedom: a plea to parents

Children hunger for a taste of freedom. They are strongly driven to get to grips with the people, places and things around them. To figure stuff out for themselves, to learn new skills, and to build their self-confidence and their sense of what they are capable of.

Much of this figuring out, this learning, this confidence-building, happens when children are playing, exploring, experimenting, and testing themselves.

Toddler walking on a fountain wall next to her mother

This ‘effort after mastery’ is an incredibly powerful, natural learning impulse. What is more, it kicks in right from birth, and can be seen throughout childhood. Just watch any toddler learning to walk, trying over and over to master the art of putting one foot in front of the other.

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An interview with… Tim Gill

A few months ago I was asked to do an email interview by Maya, a senior high school student from California, as part of her project. (She has asked me not to use her last name.)

The questions were smart, she knew her stuff, and she had read some of my writings. (Top tip to other students who ask for help with their projects: always do this.) So I agreed.

When I was finished I thought: Maya’s questions were so astute that maybe I should share the interview more widely. So I asked her. And she agreed.

Here is the interview, published just in time for the Child in the City conference in Vienna (where my keynote speech will give a sneak preview of the key findings of my study tour on child-friendly urban planning). As always, feedback and comments are welcome!

What would you say are the biggest health problems/hazards facing children living in large cities? Are there particular issues for children living in low income areas?

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