In Finland, children don’t start formal schooling until age seven, aren’t subject to standardized testing, and always get at least one hour of physical activity a day, broken into 15-minute free-play breaks every hour, which take place outside no matter the weather. Finnish parents and teachers espouse mantras like, “Let children be children,” “The children must play,” and “The work of a child is to play.” Yet despite this emphasis on play, Finnish students still achieve enviable academic outcomes, and grow up to become some of the happiest adults on earth.
My guest today says that the Finnish model of education and parenting, with its heavy emphasis on play, is worth replicating in other countries. His name is Pasi Sahlberg and he’s a Finnish educator and researcher currently living in Australia, as well as the co-author, along with William Doyle, of the book Let the Children Play: How More Play Will Save Our Schools and Help Children Thrive. Pasi begins our conversation by sharing what the data says as to how much less kids are playing today than they did in the past, and the factors that have led to this decrease both at school and at home. We discuss the fact that even the play kids do now engage in is more structured and adult-directed, even sometimes involving something called a “recess coach,” and how this has led to the sad phenomenon of children who no longer know how to play on their own. We then discuss what is lost when kids don’t play enough, from a decline in physical and mental confidence to a decrease in creativity. We end our conversation with the elements of healthy play that educators and parents who want to revive it can look to incorporate in their children’s lives.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- AoM Podcast #300: How to Raise Free-Range Kids
- AoM Podcast #532: How to Create a Neighborhood Where Kids Play Outside
- AoM Podcast #599: The Science of Physical Intelligence
- AoM Podcast #320: The ADHD Explosion
- AoM series on the causes and solutions to overprotective parenting
- Sunday Fireside: Is It Safer to Be Cautious Than Brave?
- Sunday Fireside: The Secure Base Philosophy of Parenting
- The LEGO Foundation’s research on the state of children’s play
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Read the Transcript!
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. In Finland, children don’t start formal schooling until age seven, aren’t subject to standardized testing, and always get at least one hour of physical activity a day, broken into 15-minute free-play breaks every hour, which take place outside no matter the weather. Finnish parents and teachers espouse mantras like, “Let children be children,” “The children must play,” and “The work of a child is to play.” Yet despite this emphasis on play, Finnish students still achieve enviable academic outcomes, and grow up to become some of the happiest adults on earth.
My guest today says that the Finnish model of education and parenting, with its heavy emphasis on play, is worth replicating in other countries. His name is Pasi Sahlberg, and he’s a Finnish educator and researcher currently living in Australia, as well as the co-author, along with William Doyle, of the book, Let the Children Play: How More Play Will Save Our Schools and Help Children Thrive. Pasi begins our conversation by sharing what the data says as to how much less kids are playing today than they did in the past, and the factors that have led to this decrease both at school and at home. We then discuss the fact that even when kids do play today, it’s often more structured and adult-directed, even sometimes involving something called a “recess coach,” and how this has led to the sad phenomenon of children who no longer know how to play on their own. We then discuss what is lost when kids don’t play enough, from a decline in physical and mental confidence to a decrease in creativity. We end our conversation with the elements of healthy play that educators and parents who want to revive it can look to incorporate in their children’s lives. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/play.
Alright, Pasi Sahlberg, welcome to the show.
Pasi Sahlberg: Thanks, Brett. Good to be with you.
Brett McKay: So we got this book, Let the Children Play, and it’s all about encouraging parents and teachers to let kids play, which is… It’s weird that you have to have a book to tell, “Hey, kids play”, which is this thing that all mammals do.
Pasi Sahlberg: Yeah.
Brett McKay: And it’s just sort of natural. So let’s talk about the state of play in the west, particularly in the United States. And I think you can say generally in the west, ’cause it’s sort of… It’s been spreading. You make the case that children in the US are playing much, much less than children a generation ago. Do we have any numbers on this? Do we know how much children played, say, the start of the 20th century compared to how much play they’re getting now?
Pasi Sahlberg: Yeah, the first piece of evidence that we need to mention here is the kind of bold facts that come from parents, and we have been asking the same question in the United States or my colleagues have there… I speak to you now in Australia, we’ve done recently the similar type of study and service here, asking parents, particularly mothers, that if you look at your own children today, how much do they spend time playing outdoors and inside the house compared to what you did when you were that age, which is kind of an interesting question to compare yourself, your own experience to what you see in your own children. And in the United States, North America, and here it’s exactly the same. It’s about 90% of parents respond that if they compare their own play experiences when they were kids, that they used to play much more, often significantly more than their children. This of course, is not a kind of a scientific proof of declining of playtime, but it’s an interesting indication.
But you’re asking for numbers, and I know if we go back in history, now looking at the United States, people often refer the 1960s as a golden era, or decade of many things, freedoms and civil rights and many other things. But that was also the time when recess and play in the US, particularly primary school, elementary school, was considered as part of the formal good education. So you were a good school if you were giving your children enough time to play, not just under the supervision of teacher and adult, but just play with other kids in the schoolyard. So until the 1980s, and now we come to the numbers here, it was a common practice in the US schools, and it was a common practice almost anywhere else, that the schools typically had about three or four, 10 to 20-minute recess breaks every day throughout the schooling. When we came to 1990s in the United States, and now we come to the kind of a part where there’s… The data and evidence is a little bit more mixed because they are not exact numbers, it’s hard to get the exact numbers, but some indication that in the early 1990s, almost all of the school districts in the United States reported that they have a practice of recess in their schools or that they have the policy in place. So this was in the 1990s, so we’re talking about 30 years ago.
Now, what has happened ever since, and this is where the story gets interesting, depends a little bit what type of data or surveys or research you look at, but in the beginning of the 2000s, around 2005, there’s one survey, a larger survey that indicates that 57% of US districts or school systems had recess, so it had declined significantly in about 15 years. Five years later, about 10 years ago, 2010-11, 40% of the school districts in the US reported that they have a policy of recess and play in school in place, but only about 20% were implementing that policy according to their own information. In 2016, we are coming closer of the situation today, only 16% of the US states required recess in primary schools, and now the situation is that… We know that about 40% of the school districts in the US have either significantly reduced or completely eliminated the recess in their schools. So that’s what we… So we see this evolution of coming from the kind of an ideal situation where recess and play were considered as a normal part of education and learning in school, to the situation where it’s becoming a kind of a very rare thing. But now we’re talking about the United States.
Now, I don’t know if you wanna hear any good news, but the good news now is that there has been a recent turnaround in many states. Many US states have begun to understand that this has been the wrong thing to do, and they have gradually introduced legislation and regulations that will actually mandate that the school should have at least 20 minutes every day for recess, some states have done it more. So we have seen… During the last 50 years, we have seen this kind of a curve of seeing recess and play almost disappearing from schools to now then gradually, luckily coming back.
Brett McKay: What was driving the decrease of recess in primary school?
Pasi Sahlberg: Well, if you’re an experienced teacher or principal listening to this conversation here, you know the answer immediately, because you see that something happened in the 1990s and particularly in the 2000s, in the beginning of this century, that probably has something to do with this decline. And in the 1990s, if you’re an American teacher or principal, you’ll remember the 1990s was the time when the standardization began to take place in the schools, meaning that all the schools were expected to follow the similar standards and expectations, and then came the ways of standardized assessments and tests that were used to check whether these standards were met. And these were not the standards for play, or recess, or creativity, or arts or social sciences, they’re mostly standards for mathematics and reading and science.
So the more of the education systems in the United States began to get standardized and the more the schools began to be held accountable for those standards, using these standardized tests, particularly following the No Child Left Behind legislation in early 2000s, the kind of a less focus and opportunities there has been on recess and play. And so that’s… Obviously, we can prove exactly that there is a kind of a causal link between those two things, but it’s very clear that the more schools are seeing education as a high stakes game that they need to play in order to survive and keep things moving, the less focus there has been on those things that have been considered as less significant for these stakes.
Then there’s another issue. I think that this is kind of a strictly educational reform movement issue that is probably explaining this, but then there’s another one that is simply the safety thing, that there are schools… I remember in my time… I spent about almost 10 years living in the United States, and I saw tens or hundreds of schools, and I was always kind of surprised about the safety concerns that were increasingly there, particularly whenever there was these horrible incidences of violence in the schools that the school gates were closed and locked and all the kids were kept inside. And I think that in some places, some districts or schools, and particularly the urban area schools that they kind of learn to live with this fear and danger and thought that we’d rather keep kids indoors during the school days in case something happens. So there are those two kinds of a major things that have really negatively affected the time that kids have for themselves in the school for play and do other things, and this implementation of recess policies overall.
Brett McKay: And you also talk about even when schools do have recess, you gave an example of this in the book, it’s the nature of it has changed. So when I grew up, recess was… The teacher’s like, “Just get out of here, go play, jump on whatever, do whatever you wanna do. It’s free play.” There was one school you highlighted where there was a coach, there was a recess coach, and you’re like, “Well, it’s a gym class,” and he’s like, “No, no, this is a recess. I’m the recess coach.”
Pasi Sahlberg: Yeah, yeah, that’s the… That’s not only the US phenomenon, and I think this is something that my co-author Will Doyle saw in New York, that he saw a lot of kids playing in a schoolyard, but not as they normally do, if they have the recess and play freely, do whatever they want to do but there was an adult there that was called Coach, recess coach, that was doing all kinds of activities, often physical activities. And for us, it looked more like a typical gym class that was just taken outside of the schoolhouse, and that’s… But I must say that here in Australia, I live in Sydney, and it’s a very common thing here as well, that after school, when children sometimes need to stay in the school a little bit longer after the school hours that rather than allowing them to play and self-organize and figure out what to do with the other kids, that they have these almost like a teachers or coaches there to make sure that everybody has something to do.
And in most cases, I think the reason is also that they, the parents and the schools, they want to… They kind of think that kids are safe when there’s an adult watching over and asking them what to do. I think this… The William’s story in this book is also interesting because I think the coach there responds to him that… When William is asking that, why do you just don’t let them play and watch over, and the response is that there are so many kids now who don’t know anymore how to play that they haven’t been experiences as a kind of a free self-directed play that much that they would know what to do, and that’s a kind of a sad part of the story.
Brett McKay: It is a part of the story. Okay, so in schools, there’s less recess. What’s driving that? It’s hard to say, but the hunch is whenever the increase in standardized testing in the United States, the pressure on faculty for the students to do well on those tests cause them to spend less time on recess, more time in the classroom, getting ready for the test. And also the safety is an issue, parents just being worried about that. That was a factor. But besides decreasing recess, you also talk about just in the classroom, play has been reduced. You talk about in the ’60s, even in the ’50s, pedagogy in the United States, really for primary age students, it was very play-based. Can you give us an idea of what that looked like and then what does school look like now without play?
Pasi Sahlberg: Yeah, I think it’s more about… Mostly about understanding what the play is all about, and that’s something that is often kind of a narrowly understood by many… Particularly parents, not so much of teachers. I think all the teachers understand it. But for example here, when I asked parents about play, the very common view still is that play is something you do when you’ve done all the serious stuff.
If they look at their parents or adults, they say that, play is something you do when you’ve done your work, or when you completed your work. And this is unfortunately how play is often still used in schools. It’s almost like an award that you are given if you’ve done your homework, if you’ve been successful in school, if you’ve done well in a test, that you are awarded a little bit of extra time to play. Unfortunately, sometimes you are also punished by that. If you’re not a good boy in school that you don’t… When the others are having their 20 minutes to play, you don’t do that. But I think that in a… Kind of a good school, for me, the play manifests itself in a way that is seen as it was in the 1960s, in the US schools as you described, as a normal, natural part of the way of life for young children. And it’s seen also as an integral element of good learning, that this is how children naturally learn, particularly when we’re looking at the young children, how the children learn about themselves and learn about the world is primarily through play, different types of play activities.
And so if the school is kind of a well designed and well thought around this idea of learning through play and having play as an important element, it should be there everywhere, and not just that we give children little playtime when they have done the serious work, but that the play would also enter into the classroom and these teaching and learning situations whenever that is kind of sensible. I’m not saying that the school should be play all the time, but it should be designed in a way that the kids would also learn to understand that play is actually an important way of them to learn about the world and learn about other people and learn about themselves.
Brett McKay: Well, I think back in my own early childhood education, the memory is very foggy, so this is like the ’80s. So kindergarten, first grade, second grade. I remember there being a lot of play, like you’d sing songs and clap your hands, you’re singing the ABCs, that’s playing. It didn’t feel like it was work. Dressing up, there’s like a dress-up section, I remember in kindergarten, you dress like a policeman, or a doctor, or whatever.
Pasi Sahlberg: Yeah.
Brett McKay: And like math, it’s a lot of just like you’re playing with blocks and you’re counting and… But now I guess it’s… The push is, we have to get kids at an early age… There’s a pressure, I guess, and parents are worried about this too, it’s like, “Well, I gotta have my kindergartener doing math as soon as possible ’cause we gotta get ready for them to do well on the SAT in 18 years, and I need my five-year-old to know how to read because the earlier they read, they’re gonna do better on these standardized tests.” And so there’s this pressure to… That’s another pressure. Taking play, in order to do that, you have to sort of have this drill mentality with your teaching. But you’ve highlight research that this concern that parents have, or teachers have about making sure your kid can do all this stuff, math, reading really early, it doesn’t really do much for them.
Pasi Sahlberg: No, there’s no evidence that would support this argument that you made, if you learned to read younger, that you will do better in school and life in general. Or, let alone that the younger you learn to read, the better you will do in school. That’s not the case, not even mathematics. And I think all of these correlations between the academic abilities that are learned younger and how they correlate or explain your success or failure later on, have no kind of research, evidence-based, so we should not believe in these things. The good example I often… When I think about the US schools, I often say that, “Go and see what the parents in the places like Silicon Valley do with their children, what type of schools they go. They often go to this alternative pedagogy, Montessori and Steiner Schools, where there’s a lot of play and music, and hanging around. Learning in your own pace and own ways, rather than insist that kids learn to do these things earlier on.”
So I think that parents need to be very careful and mindful with that. I think what is predicting success in school and life much more than this early learning of academic stuff is to learn to understand who you are and learn to value your own capacities, and skills, and curiosity that you have. And this is exactly where the play comes into the picture, let alone the other kind of non-academic skills, like social skills, with being able to be with other kids and solving problems collectively in a sandbox. That often is a kind of interesting thing to follow. And also the physical development of yourself, that you grow up healthy and happy. So those things are often much more important for children, young kids than at what age do they learn to read or write.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.
And now back to the show. So okay, there’s less play in school, what about when kids are out of school? I guess it is kind of harder to figure out if they’re playing less, ’cause you can’t look at recess data. But I guess the data we have is you ask parents or mothers, “What are your kids doing out of school?” and I guess kids aren’t really playing that much.
Pasi Sahlberg: Yeah, there’s a lot of evidence that indicates to that type of conclusion, that children are playing less today than they did even 10, 20 years ago. And as you say, the research is quite difficult to find that would show this entirely. You know LEGO Foundation is one of those that is kind of both doing and coordinating research on play around the world, and they often look at the state of play globally, and their conclusions from different countries around the world have been exactly the same. Interestingly, in one of the most recent state of play reports by LEGO Foundation, they realized that 20% of children, themselves, in these surveys report that they are too busy to play, that they would love to play, but they have too many things to do. And I don’t know how the 5-year-old can say that “I would love to play, but I’m too busy,” other than being busy because of the things that they are asked to do by the school. But I think, Brett, there’s an important factor that is often linked to this conversation about children playing less when they’re not in the school, when they’re spending their time at home. And its the very rapidly growing time that very young children, from early on, that they spend with technology.
And it’s not at all uncommon in the US that you have a tween, somebody who’s a 10-year-old who spends six, seven, eight hours every day with an iPad or gadget or smartphone or computer at home, and it’s obvious that if somebody… All of a sudden, if the kids are spending hours and hours every day on something new that they didn’t use to do, that this time is away from something else. Often it’s away from sleep, that they sleep a little bit less than they should, but in most cases, this time that you see kids spending with their digital gadgets, it’s often… Often this time is away from them being outdoors, playing basketball or games with their friends or just playing indoors their own way. But as I said, this an area where we have much less of a solid evidence and data to say anything exactly.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think it’s a lot of antidote. I think everyone understands that the kids are spending a lot of time on screens more, and I think the other issue too, it’s keeping kids away from play, which is… Just sort of traditional play, open range, free range, kid-directed. So a lot of kids are just in organized events, whether they’re playing sports, or doing piano, or they’re, I don’t know, Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, whatever that is, that’s a lot of their time is being spent doing that.
Pasi Sahlberg: Yeah, yeah, and this is one of those trends that we have seen, certainly here in Australia, and in the United States, and many countries in Europe, as well as… It’s the time that children have spent on what is called play is now much more kind of a controlled and directed by the coach, somebody, a coach or music teacher, or somebody who is leading the stuff rather than seeing children outdoors, leading their own learning and play, and that is the… It’s not necessarily a seriously bad thing, but it’s a significant change of the children’s experience that they have had before when they have been playing by themselves. And the condition that is missing in this kind of a new form of playing where it’s much more supervised and controlled by adults is that the children have much less opportunities to experience that they are in control of something. And that’s, for me as a father of two boys here, is an extremely important thing that I give my children opportunities to experience what it means to have a control of your own… Your own doings for a while, every day.
And at the same time, if you look at the typical in the city… Here, for example, here in Sydney, they have very very few moments and opportunities to have this experience that… How does it feel to have this kind of a sense of controlling your own life and doing it for a while, and that’s such an important skill to learn, to take this responsibility and understand what happens, but we still give our children less and less opportunities to do that. So that’s why I’m so much favoring this free outdoor play as the… I often call it the highest order of play, that when parents ask me here, “So what should I do with my kids to really make sure that they get the most of the benefits of play time?” I say just take them outdoors and step aside, just let them find a way to do these things, because that’s where the likelihood that these miracles would happen is the highest.
Brett McKay: Well, I’d like to talk about the consequences of this lack of play, and I think this is a good segue, you’re talking about this… What play does. When kids are doing self-directed play, they’re training their executive function, they’re in that really vital period in their life when they’re in their childhood years and going into their adolescents, they need to learn that skill of making decisions on their own. And like you said that there’s kids they… Who don’t even know how to play, they can’t even do that. So if there’s a kid who doesn’t know how to play, what’s he gonna be like when he’s 20-30 and he has to make big important decisions on his own? That’s sad. I don’t wanna… I just think about that. There’s a kid who doesn’t know how to play, it’s like an adult that won’t be able to make decisions on their own very well.
Pasi Sahlberg: Yeah, yeah, that’s right. And this is really good news for parents and teachers as well, who often feel that it’s difficult to teach my children or my students how to play, or it’s difficult to make sure that they get all these benefits, but it’s actually very easy because as I said earlier, that the easiest thing to do is just to give these children the freedom to play and exercise this kind of a sense of being in control and step aside and just see that… You know what happens, and often people come with the comments like, but there’s a hazard there, there’s kind of risk of getting hurt and even more. And of course, it’s a responsibility of us parents and teachers to make sure that all these kind of serious risks are somehow controlled. And that’s why I think it’s important that we parents don’t provide all the kind of a safety that is possible for kids when they are… For example, when they’re playing in the forest, or outside, or in the park, but we make sure that all the necessary safety measures will be considered so that they don’t seriously hurt themselves. But that’s exactly… If we don’t ever have our children in a situation where they have to consider risks or think about whether they get hurt if they do something, how do they learn to live their lives that is full of these hazards and risks around them if they haven’t learned that in the younger age?
And when we were working on this literature on playbook, we went to see some of these risky play schools and the risky playgrounds and parks here in Sydney. And it’s the same story we hear all the time from these people who are running these places, is that the kids actually experience much less incidences of accidents or harm because they are allowed to consider themselves what is a safe way to play or use this place, that often when we adults, when we do this and we give these kids a list of things that they must not do in this playground or in this camp, that they don’t think about this risk anymore. They try to remember all these rules that we have given them, but they don’t actively think about what they mean, why this is not allowed, compared to the situation where they should just be left alone and think about… Consider yourself what it’s safe here, and that’s why this free play outdoors is so important.
Brett McKay: That reminds me of something. We’ve had guests on the podcast, psychologists who are specializing embodied cognition, and they talk about old people who fall, and they said one of the reasons why you see old people fall more is ’cause as you get older, you tend to choose environments that are less complex, so you’re gonna avoid stairs or curbs or being outdoors where there’s a lot of complexity in the environment, and basically your body and mind forget how to navigate that, and so when you do encounter a crack or a step, you don’t know what to do and you trip and you fall, and that cause a lot of problems. They said it’s happening to children too, ’cause kids are not spending time in outdoors, this really complex environments, and they don’t learn how to navigate different… Their body and mind can’t… They don’t develop like they should, and so you’re seeing kids, they fall down more, and you’re showing kids who play in dangerous areas, they actually are less prone to trips and falls ’cause they know how to navigate those complex environments.
Pasi Sahlberg: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And this is the good way to further develop your executive functions that you mentioned, and that’s why many of the pediatricians, for example, in the United States, the American Academy of Pediatricians is so… Kind of are strongly encouraging parents and schools to make sure that children have time to free play outdoors, because it’s a good way to develop these functions exactly, as you mentioned, that people… For example, when the kids are in the playground and they have to pay attention to different things simultaneously, like they might be walking without their shoes somewhere and where there are kind of a risky things that they have to look at the situation where they are in and think about where they’re going and all these other things that is so important to develop these abilities. But if you’re always walking holding somebody’s hand and people are removing all these things for you, then you need to… You cannot really experience these things. And again, this goes back to this… The importance of free outdoor play and the power it can have on your overall growth and development.
Brett McKay: Alright, so outdoor play or the lack of outdoor play, free play, can hinder executive function development, it can hinder mind-body development. Let’s go back to grades in school. One of the reasons why we’re… Kids are playing less in schools or doing less recess is that teachers thought, “Well, this will improve academic performance.” Has that panned out?
Pasi Sahlberg: Yeah, again, kind of a strictly speaking, this is a question that is very hard, it’s hard to prove that less play would be the reason why the academic results have not improved, or actually they have gone down a little bit. But in the big picture, and we may take a look at the United States as a whole, but let’s take it the whole globe, just for the sake of curiosity here and as this thing that when the children are playing less than they used to. Let’s say 20 years ago, and also that the quality of this play has probably declined what has happened to the academic learning outcomes, and as you said that this has often been excused to play less is to have more time to learn these all important core academic skills. But the kind of a bold conclusion in this global scene is that the students are not learning better or more than they did 20 years ago. In many places, the quality of learning outcomes, the academic learning, has been declining. For example, in the OECD countries that you see, the wealthiest part of the world, the United States, and Finland, and Australia are part of that, students are…
Students quality of learning outcomes has been declining during the 20 years. And of course, at the same time, the time that they spend playing at home or in school has also been declined, but we cannot prove that there would be a kind of a causal connection between these two things. So it’s hard to argue anything about this, but I think the important question here is as well that what is this declining play time or play deprivation, as it sometimes called? What is it doing to children, is it good or bad? And as we write in the book that there’s ample of evidence showing that when we take the play away from children’s lives, whether it’s in the school, or at home, or degrees that that can have a serious consequences to their… Particularly their mental wellbeing and health, but also physical development that we see all kinds of… And I think the United States is a good example of this, that how the health of young children has been declining, particularly now the mental health because of the lack of opportunities to play.
So this is a kind of a conversation that is going on. If I want to have evidence from anybody to this question, I would definitely turn into the children’s medical doctors, pediatricians, to ask their opinion and their view on this, and they are very clear about what happens when the kids are not playing enough, and in turn, what the kind of a healthy and high quality play can do for children.
Brett McKay: So grades have been declining, we can’t prove… It’s hard to prove that the lack of play is a causal factor. But when you talk to teachers who have been teaching for 30 years, and they start off where it was very play-based, the kid’s got a lot of recess, and they got moved to that period where they had to like… Less recess ’cause they gotta focus on the test, they would note that it got harder to teach, particularly younger kids, because the kids they’d… Kids are kids. They wanna move around, they’ve got the short attention spans, they’ve got a lot of energy, and by not letting them play, they just got harder and harder to corral them, make them focus on learning multiplication tables when they’re six years old.
Pasi Sahlberg: Yeah, that’s true. But it’s not necessarily just play. I think the teachers are right when they say this, but there are many other forms that are close to play, like physical activity, for example, that has been equally declining in many schools in the United States that the children don’t have daily physical activity as they should compared to the schools in Finland where the regulation… The national regulation basically is that every child must have at least one hour of physical activity, not the physical education but physical activity every day. And this is something that has been declining in the US schools.
Physical activity and play are… In many cases, it’s the same thing, but it can also have different different forms. So I think this movement in general, that the kids… If we keep children inside the classroom, staying on their seats and focus on stuff that the teacher is giving them, it’s no wonder that teachers see more and more children who are not able to concentrate. We often say that half an hour, 30 minutes is about the maximum time that a primary school student can concentrate on practically anything that requires a kind of a serious intellectual effort to understand or do something, and then they need to have a break to move around. And of course, the play is the easiest thing to do that just to let the children play a little bit or do something, but the physical exercise, physical activity is equally important. So we need to have… We need to have both of those certainly.
Brett McKay: And then another connection is mental health issue, you talked about there could be a connection with the lack of play or physical activity in schools contributing to… You’re seeing this increase in numbers of children being diagnosed with ADHD. And it could be… We’ve actually had a psychologist on this talking about… There was probably… And it’s probably gotten… He said… Maybe it’s gotten better, but there has been an over… ADHD has been over diagnosed.
Pasi Sahlberg: Yes.
Brett McKay: And the argument is that the reason why it’s been over-diagnosed is you have kids who, they’re required to focus on learning math, or reading, or science for long periods of time without any physical activity. They can’t do it, and so the teacher’s like, “Well, you go see the counselor” and the counselor is like, “Well, maybe it is ADHD” and they go to the doctor and then the kids on Ritalin or Adderall.
Pasi Sahlberg: Yeah, yeah, that’s true. Actually, in the book, we have a story about my own… My older son here, who was young when we lived in the United States, and there was American psychologist who were spending one morning with my wife when I was in a meeting at the same time, and the psychologist came back to me, after this morning session, looking really serious, and her question to me was that you didn’t know that your son has an ADHD and he was less than three that time. But this point that’s… When we look at the children, it depends on what type of experience or culture we have behind us, because for us, of course, as parents, when we look at our own son, who is… He’s a wild kid, like many young boys are that he cannot stand still, he wants to climb trees and collect plants and ants and those things, rather than sit and listen to boring stories of the adults, but in some other places, this is considered as a kind of a disturbing factor. And I must say… It’s just like you said it, I think that ADHD, in the United is highly, highly kinda over-diagnosed.
I’m not saying that they wouldn’t be individuals there who would need this. And I’m also belonged to those who believe that if only we would be giving children more opportunities to play and do the things that they want to do, that we would probably have less… Less of these cases where we really need to consider the kind of medical treatment for the kids.
Brett McKay: Another consequence, potential consequence of lack of play that I was intrigued by and also worried about, is there may be affecting… The lack of play is causing a decrease in creativity. What’s there? What does the research say there, and what do you think is going on?
Pasi Sahlberg: Yeah, I think it’s a similar trend that we see in the overall school achievements among kids that there are… There’re some studies that indicate that the creativity overall has been in decline during the last 20 years. Again, it’s a difficult… Creativity is even harder to measure than learning in general, but some indications say that creativity has been in decline. But again, it’s a difficult to prove that this would be directly linked to the declining time of play or experiences that children have, particular free outdoor play. So we cannot really speculate too much on that. But again, I think what we can say is that if you’re really concerned about the state of creativity among young people, then the one thing you can do is to ask yourself, are we allowing these children to experience free, unstructured play enough where they’re a good experience and exercise and further develop their imagination, curiosity and creativity?
So rather than wait for the evidence that would indicate that, I think it’s better to start action and try to make sure that the kids would continue to have these experiences over time. The other interesting thing is that, again, and there’s probably more research on that front, that is creativity as such seem to decrease also when the children are growing older. Sometimes people say that the more time you spend in school and learning in school, the less creative you will become, because you kind of learn to do things as they should be done in the school rather than figure out yourself, different things. But there is this trend. I think it’s equally important that the… When the kids are growing older, and this has been there for probably forever, so it’s not anything new that more the children are spending time in a school environment and exposed to teaching and learning as it is, the less creative they seem to become, at least their own kind of a sense of creativity declines.
And then there’s this other trend, is more like a over time, like evolution, what happens… What has happened during the last 20 years. And that’s why we need to do something about it, and if you wanna do something about it, just make sure that your students and children have enough time to exercise and develop these important elements of creativity that you can do equally, whether in school and also at home.
Brett McKay: So parents who are listening to this are like, “Okay, play is important, I wanna get my kid playing more.” Is there… I’m sure you’ve researched this, what does healthy play look like? What other factors that we know is like, “Well, if these factors are there, then this is good play?” Or should parents get really hung up on that?
Pasi Sahlberg: It’s a great question, and I think… My advice to parents who are listening to this, and are curious about their own children’s play or current children’s play is to really… At first, ask that, “What do I understand? How do I define play? What is play to me? And because that’s something that needs to be figured out first, but then, again, when we’re working on the Let The Children Play book, this was one of those hardest questions that we had in trying to basically answer the question that you were asking that, “What makes a good play?” So we were identifying some elements that, again, parents or teachers can consider, when they are thinking about how they want their children to play, whether it’s indoors or outdoors. And one of those important aspects is… And indicator or factors is the… What we call self-directedness, which means that the kids should be allowed to take a lead, and lead the way when they’re playing, rather than somebody telling them what to do or giving them the rules and regulations.
Sometimes this is good as well, but in a higher order play, this self-directed action and activity is a good one. And then the other thing is that I think the children should… When they’re playing, that they should really feel that they do it because they want to do it themselves, that they are not playing because their mother or father asked them to do or they’re not playing because the recess coach is asking or expecting them to do something like this. I think the play also has to have a positive emotion, that it has to be… The kids have to feel more of this positive emotions, joy and happiness, than they feel a negative excitement or fear, sometimes belong to the play as well. And then I think another important part that parents can also consider when they’re thinking about the children’s play is the… To what extent this activity will engage them in using their imagination? How much the children feel that they’re curious about things that they’re doing, whether it’s a play or something else? Because the curiosity and using… Actively using your imagination, are the key things for this creative action and creative thinking to take place.
So these are some of those things that… We describe this in detail in the book, those people who are interested in different qualities or different levels of play. And particularly if you want to make sure that your child, when she or he is playing, is really getting a good experience, that these are some of those questions that you can ask and make sure that they are included in this process of play well.
Brett McKay: Well, Pasi, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Pasi Sahlberg: Well, you can come and see me here in Down Under in Australia, happy to see anybody who is traveling this way, at some point when the borders are open. But I have my own website, it’s called pasisahlberg.com, where I try to keep all my work-related things. And obviously I invite everybody to read our book, Let The Children Play, that has… It’s like a longer story written for… Particularly for North American parents and teachers to have these conversations that we have been having here this morning. But take a read of the book, and if you like it, let me know. If you have any questions, I’m very happy to have a chat.
Brett McKay: Alright. Pasi Sahlberg, nice time. It’s been a pleasure.
Pasi Sahlberg: Thank you, Brett.
Brett McKay: Well, my guest here is Pasi Sahlberg. He’s the author of the book, Let The Children Play. It’s available on Amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, pasisahlberg.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/play, where you can find links to resources, where we delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast. Make sure to check our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, where there’s thousand of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad free episodes of The AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code “manliness” at check out for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad free episodes of The AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple podcast or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member, who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, it’s Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to The AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.