‘Let children play’: the educational message from across Europe

While approaches may differ, the importance of free time to play is increasingly being recognised

Every morning, Arja Salonen drops her five-year-old son, Onni, off at a daycare centre in Espoo, west of Helsinki, where he will spend the next eight hours doing what Finnish educators believe all children his age should do: playing.

School, and formal learning, does not start in Finland until age seven. Before then, children’s preoccupations are not reading, writing or arithmetic, but, said Salonen, herself a secondary-school teacher in the capital, “learning more important things”.

Those include, she says, how to make friends, communicate, be active, get creative, explore the outdoors and manage risk. “In Finland we feel children must be children, and that means playing – including, as much as possible, outdoors,” she said.

The main goal of kindergarten, which about 75% of three- to five-year-olds attend, according to the Finnish educational expert Pasi Sahlberg, is “not to prepare children for school academically, but to make sure they are happy and responsible individuals”.

Two children play in Helsinki
Two children play in Helsinki. In Finland great value is placed on free and teacher-directed play. Photograph: Markus Mattila/Alamy

It is a philosophy that extends a long way up the Finnish school system, which routinely features at or near the top or world rankings for childhood education. “Children should play in school, too,” said Salonen. “It’s important not just socially and physically, but mentally. They … concentrate better.”

Free and teacher-directed play embeds life and learning skills, Finnish educators believe, improving attention span, problem-solving abilities and perseverance. Outdoor play is especially valued, with a 15-minute outdoor break every hour up to secondary school.

Considered such a core activity that it is assessed by teachers, play in Finland is also about learning risk and responsibility – competences Finnish society promotes to the extent that it is common for even seven-year-olds to walk to school on their own.

In short, writes Sahlberg, “Finland’s insight can boost grades and learning for all students, as well as their social growth, emotional development, health, wellbeing and happiness. It can be boiled down to a single phrase: let children play.”

The need is particularly urgent in schools reopening after pandemic lockdowns, he argued, since play will mitigate stress, promote resilience and allow children to rebuild relationships through physical activity: “They need that 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 lockdown – many parents and paediatricians say children’s needs have been at the bottom of the government’s agenda throughout the crisis.

Two children cross a road in Dusseldorf
Two children in Dusseldorf. In Germany, the pandemic has focused minds on the importance of play. Photograph: Hympi/Alamy

Johannes Hübner, deputy director at Munich’s university children’s hospital, told RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland that reduced social interaction and lack of physical exercise meant lockdown had come with “a lot of collateral damage” for children.

The Deutscher Kinderschutzbund, a lobby group for children’s rights, successfully campaigned at the end of last year against government plans to restrict social interaction among children under the age of 14. A planned rule to limit meetings to no more than two children was subsequently scrapped.

“Playing with children of a similar aged is essential for children’s development,” said the lobby group’s director, Daniel Grein. “Children need other children. It’s right and good that the health and education of children has been discussed so widely throughout this pandemic.”

Not all education systems in Europe are like Finland’s, which places equality at its core, outlawing formal exams until age 18 and eschewing parental choice, selection, streaming by ability and league tables. But even in countries where testing and competition is the norm, the importance of play is increasingly being recognised.

Although school is not compulsory for children in Spain until the age of six, most children start off in pre-nursery or nursery far earlier so their parents can work. Before the age of six, education is divided into two stages: up to three, and three to six.

“Generally speaking, there’s a very big play component in both those stages,” said Katia Hueso, a teacher, author and advocate of open-air learning. “But when children get into the second stage, you see the introduction of content and they start to work in a more structured way. Play begins to take quite a backseat.”

Free play is quite rare in the school environment, Hueso said. “It does exist – most obviously at breaktime – but it’s not something you see much in the classroom.” Some teachers, she said, use textbooks to teach children aged up to six years of age.

Children play with bubbles in Barcelona, Spain.
Children play with bubbles in Barcelona, Spain, which has a strong outdoors culture. Photograph: Jorge Burneo/Alamy

However, the way people in Spain live, with many families in flats with communal outdoor spaces, encourages outside play. “We’re an outdoor culture,” says Hueso. “That cuts across all ages and that outdoor culture is something kids benefit from.”

Elena Martín, a professor of psychology and education at the Autonomous University of Madrid, said the Spanish education system was generally “attached to the concept that learning has to be a ‘serious’ activity. So the idea of play doesn’t fit very easily into that – except when it comes to infant education.”

Play was “something that’s missing from the first stage of primary school”, Martín said. “It’s very difficult to find teachers who deliberately build it into their timetables for eight-year-olds”. Forthcoming reforms were meant to put more emphasis on investigation and flexibility, she said, but “much will depend on teacher training”.

Some countries are still a long way from the debate. Italian children start formal education at six, with parents able to choose a schedule in both primary and secondary of either 8.30am to 1pm (with a 20-minute break) or 8.30am to 4.30pm.

Those on the shorter schedule go home for lunch and are given homework each day, while those on the longer schedule, who also have a morning break, eat lunch at the school canteen and do homework at weekends.

Children playing football in Rome
Children playing football in Rome. In Italy children have the option of a shorter school day – with homework every day. Photograph: Alberto Lingria/Reuters

“The 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 dedicate time after school to other activities.”

The homework burden, however, has often been a cause of concern, particularly during holidays. Luca Barone, the mayor of the Sardinian town of Mamoiada, went so far as to ban homework during the long summer holiday.

Instead, Barone said, he encouraged children to “take long walks and watch the sunrise … It was more of a symbolic gesture than an actual law. Children should have time to learn for themselves about the world that surrounds them.”


Jon Henley, Philip Oltermann, Sam Jones and Angela Giuffrida

The GuardianTramp

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