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Finnish Education and Play

Recently, I went to an Open Day event at a local Finnish school near me.  I was excited to learn about their pedagogy, their way of doing things and their routines.  What I found were more questions.  

When I arrived, the school was set up well.  There were kids playing in the playground, there was a dress-up area in the yard, there was a table with all the lunches the children would eat, there were teachers and staff standing around in black and white striped shirts to answer anyones questions.  I asked a staff member a  few questions about new young students starting school and what type of support they will receive.  However, I really wanted to dig the brain of the Head of School who had been with the school since almost the start.  I went up to her and asked her what the difference was between the  Finnish style of teaching and Reggio Emilia.  I felt my answer was not too clear, but she said that the difference was that the Finnish style is always doing research and keeping up to date with the newest trend in education, where Reggio Emilia is very old and has a set way of doing things.  When I heard that response, I felt like there was something missing.  That can’t just be it.   

I walked around stealing pictures of their classrooms, documentation and portfolios.  However, I was not too impressed with these items as they were all pre-made and cookie-cutter to me for this brand of schools.  

During the Q & A for parents, the parents asked many questions trying to get answers about how the school would prepare their children for the bigger schools.  Bigger international schools have tests and are more academic and there seems to be no alternative but to pick one of these schools after they leave the Finnish school.  When the Finnish school is so open to play and seemingly less academic.  The parents asked if the school tested the children by benchmark or by reading level for example.  The Head of School and the Head of Pedagogy were very loose with their answers.  There are no testing and we focus on the learning targets in the classroom activities.  But why don’t they offer academic support in Literacy or Math?  It seemed as though they didn’t even know.  

This left me hanging with many more questions.  I left the school with even more confused than I had thought.  So, I went home and did my research.  

What I found was eye-opening!  According to Nathan Wallis, a neuroscience educator from Australia, the research shows that children who receive literacy or math lesson and tests regularly instead of play-based learning, are more likely to become anxious or depressed in their teenage years.  It has to do with the dispositions connected to it.  Dispositions are the emotional attitude one feels connected to a topic.  For the frontal cortex, this isn’t ideal because according to Piaget, that area of the brain isn’t ready for this type of development until children are at the age of 7-8 years old.  So assessment driven curriculums are low quality curriculums.  

Since Finland's education system is known for its focus on holistic development, which includes emphasizing play, creativity, and emotional well-being alongside academic growth. This approach may explain why the school that I visited might prioritize other aspects of learning over early literacy advancement.

The research suggests a connection between early academic pressure and an increased risk of anxiety and depression in teenagers. Encouraging play and creativity in the early years fosters overall development, as it promotes social skills, problem-solving, and emotional intelligence. Literacy is undoubtedly important, but it must be balanced with other crucial elements of childhood development.

Jean Piaget's theory highlights the importance of different stages of cognitive development in children. He suggested that around the age of 7 to 8, children enter the concrete operational stage, during which they develop logical thinking and reasoning abilities. Before this stage, children's cognitive abilities are still developing, and focusing on play and creativity can help nurture these skills.

Children experience the world through emotion. According to Wallis, if a child is upset and tells their parent, and the parent responds with, "Did you tell your teacher?" the child may feel that the parent isn't genuinely listening to them. What they need to hear is, "I'm sorry to hear that. How did that make you feel?"

Balancing play, creativity, and literacy is key to fostering a well-rounded educational experience for children. Providing a nurturing environment that supports both academic and emotional development can help minimize the risk of anxiety and depression while promoting overall well-being and cognitive growth.

In closing, I understand the reasoning behind the play-based approach to Finnish learning.  Like the Head of School said, the school is up-to-date in research, but it wasn't explained to parents with the examples from the research so thats where the confusion started.  If this was done, then there would more understanding of why the Finnish education holds play highly. Additionally, play-based learning is not unique to Finnish style of learning.  Reggio Emilia is up-to-date in this same concept using the purposeful play and teachers as co-constructors of the knowledge. All the approaches to education are unique and carry a huge amount of importance to the field of education. Let's embrace them as we navigate through what works best for us and our children.

Wallis, N. (2023). Engage your Brain. [Webinar]. Free to Play Summit. Accessed on May 18, 2024.


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