How Rich Environments Promote Learning

Students at an Anji Play preschool by Caterooni [CC BY-SA 4.0 ], from Wikimedia Commons

In Anji County, China, a rural area about three hours west of Shanghai, the lives of preschool children have changed dramatically. Compared to 15 years ago, they’re spending a lot less time sitting quietly inside and a lot more time getting dirty outside. They’re building bridges with ladders and planks, running across oil drums, and building sophisticated structures with bricks and lumber.

The wonderful world of Anji Play

These children are in the vanguard of a fast-growing approach to early childhood education known as Anji Play. The brainchild of Chinese educator Cheng Xueqin, Anji Play provides children with rich environments “designed to maximize opportunities for imagination, inquiry, and contact with natural phenomena and elements. Water, sand, mud, trees, bamboo, ditches, tunnels, and hills are among the environmental features that engage children in endless exploration, discovery, risk-taking, problem solving, and knowledge creation.”1

Research into Anji Play and similar approaches suggests that free play in rich environments, scaffolded by adults, is indeed a great way to for children to learn about the world around them, build social and emotional skills, figure out how to work with others, and experience the joy of exploration and accomplishment.2

Photo used by permission of Anji Play

Richer environments, bigger brains

A rich learning environment literally changes brains. We know this is true because, back in the 1970s, researchers did an interesting experiment.

They put one group of adolescent rats in a cage with lots of toys, tunnels, obstacles, and objects to manipulate — what you might call a “rich” environment. They put another group of rats in a sterile laboratory environment that offered little in the way of toys or stimulation — a “simple” environment.

At the end of the rats’ adolescence, the researchers measured the problem-solving skills of the two groups by exposing them to a new challenge (such as finding their way through a maze they had not seen before). The rats that had grown up in the rich environment solved the challenge faster.3

Bigger brains, more connections

The researchers also measured the thickness and weight of the cerebral cortices (outer layers) of the two groups of rats. The cortices of the rats who grew up in the rich environment were thicker and heavier than those who grew up in the simple environment. Also, the rats who grew up in the rich environment had more connections per cell in their visual cortices.4

Evidence from brain imaging studies suggests that humans are the same. Complex environments stimulate activity that literally changes the wiring of the human brain, beginning when children are very young.

The amazing thing: No teaching is required. Given time in a rich environment, children explore their surroundings and powerful learning happens all by itself.

Children are naturally motivated to figure out challenges

In another experiment, researchers gave a set of five nesting cups to children 18 to 36 months of age — with no instructions. Interestingly, most of the children didn’t just play with the cups, pretending to drink from them or building something. Instead, they worked hard to figure out how to fit the cups together. The National Research Council described the children’s learning process in their book How People Learn:

Overall, in their spontaneous manipulations of a set of nesting cups, very young children progress from trying to correct their errors by exerting physical force without changing any of the relations among the elements, to making limited changes in a part of the problem set, to considering and operating on the problem as a whole.5

The children persist in their quest to fit to the cups together not because they have to or are guided to, the researchers note, but rather “because success and understanding are motivating in their own right.”6

Even better: Complex and social environments

The researchers studying rats discovered something else interesting: The brains of rats who were placed in rich environments in groups grew more than the brains of rats who were placed in rich environments alone. There was something about playing and working with others that stimulated the rats to participate and learn more.

This is exactly how Anji Play works. Children learn the most when they experience rich environments with other children.

Sit back, relax, and watch them learn

The takeaway: Rich environments foster learning all by themselves — especially when children enjoy them with other children. One way you can take advantage of this phenomenon is to think about dedicating a part of your home to what the neuroscientist John Medina calls a “Chocolate Factory.” Gather into one place things like empty boxes, Lego, tubes, gears, dolls, dress-up clothes, duct tape, pillows, and some simple tools. Then have your child invite some friends over and watch them explore, create, and have a blast — all by themselves.

How Rich Environments Promote Learning
  1. See the Anji Play website at for an introduction to Anji Play. There are other important components to the Anji philosophy in addition to free play in rich environments.
  2. The research page of the Anji Play website links to a wide range of research studies exploring the impacts of Anji Play and related approaches.
  3. National Research Council, How People Learn, p. 120.
  4. Ibid.
  5. National Research Council, How People Learn, p. 103.
  6. Ibid.