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One City Schools is implementing a child-led, play-based educational approach for its preschool-age students, known as Anji Play. Students will transition to the Expeditionary Learning model in elementary grades that emphasizes comprehensive, community-based projects.

A Chinese approach to teaching preschool students has made its way to Madison.

One City Schools, a Madison charter school founded by former Urban League president Kaleem Caire and authorized by an office within the University of Wisconsin System, was the first school in the United States to practice Anji Play and is now among a handful of early learning centers and schools in the country using the approach.

The early childhood education model, developed and implemented in kindergartens throughout Anji County, China, allows young children to determine how and with whom they play and encourages them to analyze and reflect on their play.

“It’s very much focused on the materials that kids have available to them to help build their cognition, their social-emotional skills, their intrinsic motivation, their creativity,” said Caire, founder and CEO of the independent charter school.

One City, which runs a public charter serving 4K and kindergarten students and a private preschool for children ages 1 to 3, is using Anji Play as one of its two major teaching models.

Caire said it will act as a “demonstration school” in the United States for Anji Play, which has five values of love, risk, joy, reflection and engagement.

Sufficient padding is important to allow children to participate in the “risky play” encouraged under Anji Play, Caire said.

It is being adopted in One City’s preschool and 4K classrooms with some elements included in the kindergarten curriculum.

Firsthand view

Nine staff members and the chairman of the school’s board of directors, Joe Krupp, have traveled to China to learn more about the approach. The trips are paid for through private donations and a federal charter implementation grant, Caire said. He is taking another trip there next week to speak at the first international conference on Anji Play. The conference will be held in Madison next year.

The charter school also plans to use the Expeditionary Learning educational model for students as they get older. The model was developed by a nonprofit group and the Harvard Graduate School of Education and implemented in five U.S. cities in the early 1990s.

It focuses on three areas of development — mastering knowledge and skills, developing character and creating high-quality work — and is taught through comprehensive, community-based project learning.

Continual process

As an example, Caire said students could be tasked with examining the historical context of the loss of grocery stores on the South Side, listening to community members and offering solutions to ensure a grocery store continues to serve the South Park Street corridor.

“It’s not enough to just hand something in. You might hand it in four or five times. Your peers will critique it. You will critique it,” Caire said of the Expeditionary Learning approach. “At some point, there will be people in the community who will come in and critique it, because you have to produce great work, and you have to get used to people critiquing your work.”

“It’s not like we’re pioneering in any of these. The Anji Play is being used extensively in China, and the Expeditionary Learning, I think has got quite a history of success,” Krupp said. “We’re just trying to put the puzzle together and put a program together that improves the outcome.”

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