The New Republic article, “Why Children Must Play: what the US can learn from Finland about ed reform,” captures a critical difference between attitudes in the United States and Finland about using play to power up learning. Samuel Abrams defines a key difference in how we approach education – a focus on children at work as learning in the United States vs. seeing the nature of children at play as core to learning in Finland. An excerpt from the story speaks to the Finns’ philosophy of play and learning:
“While observing recess outside the Kallahti Comprehensive School on the eastern edge of Helsinki on a chilly day in April 2009, I asked Principal Timo Heikkinen if students go out when it’s very cold. Heikkinen said they do. I then asked Heikkinen if they go out when it’s very, very cold. Heikkinen smiled and said, “If minus 15 [Celsius] and windy, maybe not, but otherwise, yes. The children can’t learn if they don’t play. The children must play.”
If we adults ourselves don’t value play, why would we see it as valuable to children as learners? I recently heard Dr. Dieter Breithecker of Germany speak about his research that bodies in motion lead to brains in motion – true for both adults and children. “You need to carry out daily physical activity … including in classrooms. When children have the chance to move, it helps their attention…. movement activities help children organize their development… “
A friend who decided to operate an ice cream truck shared with me that it was a waste of time to drive through neighborhoods- no children out of doors in the summer. She ended up making her money at places where senior citizens gather. Recess is on the endangered species list in our schools along with open-ended creative activities- arts, drama, blocks, sand tables. Inventing, building, making things through play in the creeks, trees, basements, and garages of our children’s lives seldom occurs as it once did, even three decades ago. Some parents fear unorganized, rough and tumble play – swings, slides, monkey bars, and merry-go-rounds have all been challenged as dangerous and a liability in a playground or park.
Play, a critical element of learning for adults and children, is becoming a rarity in today’s hurried and harried school and work worlds.
At what cost? David Elkind’s book, The Hurried Child, made sense years ago and still does today. We schedule children’s lives, building their resumes to set them up for adulthood. Or, are we? We allow, even encourage their avoidance of heat in summer and cold in winter. Screen time fills their afternoons and evenings and they live in isolation of adults, and often their siblings.
What are the implications for the loss of play in our children’s lives, anyway? Collaboration opportunities and team-based learning are key to kids building pro-social skills through the power of informal play that serves as an emulation of what children need to become successful adult community members both as employees and civic-minded and socially responsible citizens. The collaborative opportunities we offer in the United States most often occur outside of the “core” or regular school day; through arts, athletics, and extracurricular activities. We’ve created school structures that do not parallel natural environments of learning.
Natural environments as learning spaces remain congruent with mammalian neural systems that process new inputs in the moment, scaffold onto foundational learning from the past, and evolve with plasticity throughout our lifetimes. Scientifically managed education creates a faux metaphor for something our brains never were – blank pages to be filled as people work in isolation of each other, often “trapped by sitting” while tuned out by the drone of a teacher’s voice. The human brain alerts to motion, indeed, needs motion to be at peak performance.
There is a difference between the spontaneous play of children and the planned play of soccer leagues for children. Dr. Jaak Pansepp speaks to the rough and tumble, playing tag and hide and seek “real play” that helps children develop the brain. His lab staff at Washington State University studies the science of play. He found that play links mammals together – indeed, even rats whose play makes them”better” adults.
Pansepp’s delightful and brief video takes us to a place of laughter and joy- among children and among the rats he studies in their playrooms. If we restored “real play” in the lives of children, I can only wonder if we wouldn’t be restoring a slice of humanity that’s being lost as the endangered species list of “real play” grows longer.
Finally, how do you play? Lego’s Serious Play was developed to help adults get in touch with how play becomes learning that can inform even a corporation’s strategic thinking work. As Robert Rasmussen, a key leader of Serious Play once said to me, “everything you need to think is in your hands. You just have to build to get your ideas flowing from your hands to your mind.”
Watching adults engage with Legos, creating in playful ways, reminds us how much children need time inside classrooms to create and build through play. And, if we adults need to play to learn, why do we keep taking time to play away from our children?