Jesse Robert Coffino: “True Play, the Complex Mind of the Child and the […]” @ Talks at Google (Transcript)


Jesse Robert Coffino

In this talk, Jesse Coffino, parent and educator, provides an in-depth introduction to Anji Play, a revolutionary movement of educational change that began in rural eastern China and has begun to scale globally.


MATT: Jesse, who is our guest, has been working with Anji Play in China, which I think is a really awesome new way of teaching kids at an early childhood just to be better people, which I think is a good thing. I’m not going to steal his thunder, so I’ll let him go ahead and tell you what it’s all about.

JESSE ROBERT COFFINO: Hi, everyone. And thanks, Matt, for that lovely introduction. And it’s really quite an honor to be at Google talking to people that are part of a revolutionary endeavor to change how we think and interact and what we do. And so it’s a really, I think, fitting place to talk about what’s happening in Anji, China, what’s starting to grow across China, and what’s now coming to the United States in the form of Anji Play.

And so Matt gave you a brief introduction to me, but I want to give you some context about why I’m the person here talking to you, what my background is, how I’m involved in this project.

About three and half years ago, I get a phone call. And it’s from a close friend, a woman by the name of Dr. Chelsea Bailey, former professor of early education at NYU, somebody with decades of experience in the field.

And she says to me, “Jesse, I’m in Anji County, China. There’s a revolution taking place.” I think she used the word epistemological shift. She said, “the world is going to change because of the work that’s taking place right here, right now. You speak Chinese. You read and write Chinese. You’re about to be a father. You should stop whatever you’re doing, and you should become a part of what’s happening right here.”

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And I am 100% certain that in that moment, my thought was, “You’re out of your mind. This is why I told you not to drink the tap water. You need to sleep more.”

But I said, “I don’t know. I’m a little bit busy.”

She said, “Well, there’s a woman named Ms. Cheng Xueqin. She is the force, the mind, the drive behind what’s taking place. And I’m bringing her to the United States, and she’s going to give some talks. And I’ve got a PowerPoint, and I need you to translate that PowerPoint for me.”

It seemed like something I could stomach as a friend. I was interested. I’m a skeptic naturally, but I was like, OK. Let’s take a look.

So she sends me through a 200 page PowerPoint. And I opened it up, and immediately, within seconds, I see a clarity, a profundity, a depth of purpose, and I see what Chelsea’s talking about. And I spent the entire night translating the PowerPoint, and I stopped everything else that I was doing. And that’s why I’m here now.

And so in that period, I spent time in Anji, China, a lot of time with Ms. Cheng, who has developed this approach. I have worked as her interpreter. I’ve brought educators from the United States and Australia and Bangladesh and Sub-Saharan Africa. I brought them to Anji to experience this.

And so today I’m going to share my view as a parent, because one of the really lasting changes that Anji Play has made in my life personally — and this is why I’m sticking to this contextual, personal introduction — is it’s changed how I see my child. And what I expect of people that are going to be taking care of her and how they see her and how I see her and how my wife sees her is informed by this engagement with these ideas.

So my PowerPoint is going to be about 1/10 as long as the one that I interpreted and translated. If it has 1/100 of the clarity and depth, then I feel like this will be worth it for you guys to be here. So I’m going to start on that note, and I’m going to start with this.

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It says, this is your brain — or this is my brain. I want you guys to take a minute to take out your Pixel 2 or open a Google Doc, and I want you to write down or recall your deepest memory of play as a child — your deepest memory of play as a child. I want you to take a minute — the first thing that comes to your mind.

Think about where you were, what you saw, what you smelled, who you were with, what was going on. And really think about it. And why this is important will become clear in a few minutes.

All right, I hope everybody has a memory of play as a child. So Anji, China — this place that is the cradle of a shift in how we think about children, how we think about the role of the teacher, the role of the adult, the role of society, really, in supporting the growth, the development, the learning of the child.

I think of it as the Mendocino County of Shanghai. It’s about a three-hour drive. It’s beautifully forested in bamboo. It produces white tea. If you remember “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” it’s where those wire fighting scenes were shot. It’s mountainous, and it’s diverse.

You can see — if you could just go straight southwest from Shanghai, it’s a three-hour drive. It’s rural enough, and it’s originally disconnected enough that it has its own distinct culture — its own distinct way of being, way of living. It’s a really gorgeous, pleasant place to be, and I hope that all of you will join us there, because we do have opportunities to come visit and to see what’s happening there.

In 1999, Ms. Cheng is appointed to the position of director of pre-primary education for Anji County. In China, the way the system works is you have kindergarten, which is for ages 3 to 6. It’s not compulsory. It’s optional. It’s not a mandated curriculum. There are very broad guidelines, and it’s provided on a need basis. So tuition is calculated based on the financial wherewithal of the family.

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So when Ms. Cheng comes in to her position, she comes from a background of being an early educator, of being a preschool teacher. And when she was in college in the ’80s, when she was learning her profession, a lot of the focus was on traditional abilities — playing the piano, drawing, singing — approaches to entertaining children. And so she was put in this position.

She was seen as somebody who had great potential for administration. She moved over from the side of teaching to the side of administration, and her first and most pressing concern was access. She had a large rural county with a county seat that was fairly urban, and she knew that her responsibility was to provide a clean, safe, accessible space for every child in her county.

And I’m not going to go into the really long and detailed policy story of how she made this happen — and it’s brilliant, and I’m happy to share that with you if you’re interested.

But she went from a situation where they had four sites that were in the process of being privatized at the beginning of the 2000s when you had a shift in economic realities and the relationship between the free market and the government — she made sure that those schools stayed part of her administration, and then she grew it exponentially.

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