meEvery morning, Arja Salonen drops off her five-year-old son, Onni, at a nursery in Espoo, west of Helsinki, where she will spend the next eight hours doing what Finnish educators believe all children his age should do: play. .
School and formal learning do not start in Finland until the age of seven. Before, children’s preoccupations weren’t reading, writing or arithmetic, but rather, Salonen, herself a high school teacher in the capital, said “learning more important things.”
These include, he says, how to make friends, communicate, be active, be creative, explore the great outdoors, and manage risk. “In Finland we feel that children should be children, and that means playing, even, as far as possible, outdoors,” he said.
The main goal of kindergarten, which is attended by about 75% of children aged three to five, according to Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg, is “not to prepare children for school academically, but to make sure they are happy and responsible people ”.
It is a philosophy that is very widespread in the Finnish school system, which usually figures at or near the top of the world rankings for early childhood education. “Children should play at school too,” Salonen said. “It is important not only socially and physically, but also mentally. They … concentrate better. “
Finnish educators believe that teacher-led free play integrates life and learning skills, enhancing attention span, problem solving ability and perseverance. Outdoor play is especially valued, with a 15-minute outdoor break every hour until high school.
Considered such a fundamental activity that it is evaluated by teachers, play in Finland also involves learning risk and responsibility: competences that Finnish society promotes to the extent that it is common for even seven-year-olds to walk alone. school.
Soon, writes Sahlberg, “The vision of Finland can improve the grades and learning of all students, as well as their social growth, emotional development, health, well-being and happiness. It can be summed up in one sentence: let the children play. “
The need is particularly urgent in the reopening of schools after pandemic closures, argumentas play will alleviate stress, promote resilience, and allow children to rebuild relationships through physical activity: “They need much more than they need academic pressure, graded assignments, and excessive screen time “.
The pandemic has also focused minds on the importance of play in Germany, where, although playgrounds have remained open since the end of the first closure, many parents and pediatricians say children’s needs have been at the bottom of the agenda. of the government during the crisis.
Johannes Hübner, deputy director of the University Children’s Hospital in Munich, told RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland that the reduction in social interaction and lack of physical exercise meant that the confinement had brought “a lot of collateral damage” to the children.
The Deutscher Kinderschutzbund, a children’s rights lobby, successfully campaigned late last year against the government’s plans to restrict social interaction between children under the age of 14. A planned rule was later dropped to limit gatherings to no more than two children.
“Playing with children of a similar age is essential for children’s development,” said lobbyist director Daniel Grein. “Children need other children. It is good and correct that the health and education of children has been so widely debated during this pandemic. “
Not all education systems in Europe are like Finland’s, which places equality at its core, banning formal exams up to the age of 18 and avoiding parental choice, selection, transmission by ability, and leaderboards. But even in countries where testing and competition are the norm, the importance of the game is increasingly recognized.
Although school is not compulsory for children in Spain up to the age of six, most children start in kindergarten or nursery school much earlier so that their parents can work. Before the age of six, education is divided into two stages: up to three and from three to six.
“Generally speaking, there is a very important play component to both stages,” said Katia Hueso, teacher, author and advocate for outdoor learning. “But when the children go to the second stage, you see the introduction of the content and they begin to work in a more structured way. The game begins to be relegated. “
Free play is quite rare in the school setting, Hueso said. “It does exist, more obviously at recess, but it is not something that is seen much in the classroom.” Some teachers, he said, use textbooks to teach children as young as six.
However, the way people live in Spain, with many families living in flats with common outdoor spaces, encourages outdoor play. “We are an open-air culture,” says Hueso. “That spans all ages and the outdoor culture is something that kids benefit from.”
Elena Martín, a professor of psychology and education at the Autonomous University of Madrid, said that the Spanish educational system was generally “attached to the concept that learning has to be a ‘serious’ activity. So the idea of the game does not fit very easily into that, except when it comes to early childhood education. “
The game was “something that was missing in the first stage of primary school,” said Martín. “It is very difficult to find teachers who deliberately include it in their schedules for eight-year-olds.” The upcoming reforms were meant to put more emphasis on research and flexibility, he said, but “a lot will depend on teacher training.”
Some countries are still a long way from the debate. Italian children begin formal education at the age of six, and parents can choose a timetable in primary and secondary school from 8.30 am to 1.00 pm (with a 20-minute break) or from 8.30 am to 4.30 pm.
Those with shorter hours go home for lunch and are given homework every day, while those with longer hours, who also have a break in the morning, eat lunch in the school canteen and do homework on weekends.
“Full-time hours are preferable as children can learn at a more relaxed pace,” said Liliana Bonfiglio, a mother of two in Rome. “Then they can spend time after school on other activities.”
However, the burden of homework has often been a cause for concern, especially during vacations. Luca Barone, the mayor of the Sardinian town of Mamoiada, even banned homework during long summer vacations.
Instead, Barone said, he encouraged children to “take long walks and watch the sunrise … It was more of a symbolic gesture than a royal law. Children should have time to learn for themselves about the world around them. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism