Whenever the great and good chat education, sooner or later someone mentions Finland. Finland does very well in the ‘PISA tests’, in which the globe’s children compete in academic subjects. Singapore and China top the table (education’s equivalent of the Messi-Ronaldo debate) while the UAE performs best in the Arab region. Finland is in the top five but it does something conspicuously different: homework is banned, school doesn’t begin until aged seven and when it does, it’s overtly play-based.
Other countries are eager to join the Finnish party with institutions such as Harvard University even sending experts there on fact-finding missions. But it shouldn’t take the finest educational minds to see what’s going on. Children have been hula hooping and pretending to be mummies and daddies since time immemorial. The word kindergarten (meaning ‘children’s garden’) was coined by its German inventor, Friedrich Frobel, in 1837. Even then, Frobel believed that “Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood”. This was 180 years ago so why in 2021 are we flying professors to Finland to remember how to hop-scotch?
Maybe because we had a long time in the wilderness. The second half of the 20th Century saw many governments take control of schools for the first time, while at the same time dealing with multiple international crises. Ministers wanted children to become a “well-prepared workforce of the future” says Gunila Dahlberg of Stockholm University. Since college was all about reading and writing, it seemed only logical to get a head-start on this in kindergarten. The increasingly competitive landscape drove a huge boom in testing: in America, teachers still spend roughly 30 minutes each day preparing kindergartners for tests.
We know now that this approach backfires. It’s vexing, but a Finnish seven-year-old (let’s call her Leah) is getting much better at maths by doing, well, precisely less maths. The science isn’t complicated: play develops the whole child, and as the psychologist and educator Dr Spencer Kagan says, at this age “the need to boost academic achievement runs a distant second to life skills”. Leah is better at maths because all that time swinging through pine forests (analysing risk and controlling impulses) has taught her the self-regulation to sit still at her desk. Dubai Cares, big advocates for play, puts it very simply: “If you want your child to read, allow them to hang upside down”. This is especially relevant as we enter the ‘creative economy’ in which Forbes magazine estimates that among the top ten skills employers will need are creativity and emotional intelligence. In many ways, the argument for play has been won: schools and governments know it and want it. So why hasn’t someone put it in a bottle and rolled it out globally? Because it’s not easy. It’s no coincidence that the most play-based educations (whether Reggio Emilia, Steiner or even ‘forest’ schools) remain the preserve of wealthy parents around the world. It can require high adult-to-child ratios and it can only be delivered by teachers who don’t need to rely on textbooks. In many ways ‘play’ and ‘mass education’ resist each other. Public schooling is done at huge scale and requires standardisation, but child-centred learning is not, by definition, one-size-fits-all.
So, the question now is: how can we make this happen for the majority of the world’s teachers? These are people who teach (at least) 30 children at a time with scant training and resources. Here are three initial thoughts to get us going. The first is technology. The UAE leads the way here, properly funding its own e-learning while being an international hub for EdTech start-ups. Secondly, big investment — and then trust — in teachers. And finally, not a ‘re-think’ but a remembering: let’s shake off the last 70 years, and return to those early practices which supported children in becoming well-rounded, successful and healthy adults.
Oscar Wood is an educational entrepreneur, teacher and Co-Founder of Seenaryo, a leading regional specialist in participatory theatre and play-based learning.
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