The Current

'That 15-minute dose of freedom and sunlight and joy': How more time playing improves children's learning

Play-based learning is an important part of Canada's kindergarten curriculum, but two experts argue it shouldn't be limited to younger students. Pasi Sahlberg and William Doyle talk about their new book, Let the children play: How more play will save our schools and help children thrive.

2 experts are pushing a movement for more unstructured play time in schools

Children play a game of ball hockey in Vaudreuil-Dorion, Que., west of Montreal. Starting this fall, elementary school students in Quebec must get a new mandatory minimum of two 20-minute recess breaks per day. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)
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When William Doyle visited rural schools in Zhejiang province, China, he was amazed by what he saw: children running around in the mud, building things with tires and loose planks of wood, organizing themselves and having fun.

The country has a reputation for its rigid educational system, but the schools Doyle visited were following the "Anji Play" curriculum, a method developed by a local educator who emphasizes risk, joy and engagement.

"This is like heaven for children," Doyle told The Current's Laura Lynch. "It's a very visible, extraordinary experiment in human freedom."

China was one of the places Doyle travelled to while he and co-author Pasi Sahlberg were researching their book, Let the children play: How more play will save our schools and help children thrive. 

While many school systems around the world are moving towards an emphasis on digital skills and test scores, Doyle and Sahlberg argue that more time playing — away from desks and screens — improves children's learning, concentration, mental health and happiness. 

This isn't just true for small children, they argue, but for teenagers and even adults. And it's an idea that is gaining momentum with a growing number of educators and policy-makers, including in Canada.

"Play is the cheapest and easiest way to help people to learn communication, problem-solving, negotiation, empathy," said Sahlberg. 

While many school systems around the world are moving towards an emphasis on digital skills and test scores, William Doyle, pictured, and Pasi Sahlberg argue that more time playing — away from desks and screens — improves children's learning, concentration, mental health and happiness. (Enrique Shore)

Inspiring Canadian educators

Starting this fall, elementary school students in Quebec must get a new mandatory minimum of two 20-minute recess breaks per day. One school in a small Alberta town has taken that even further, instituting four recess breaks a day. 

Paul McKay, the principal of Bruderheim School, northeast of Edmonton, said he was actually inspired by Sahlberg's writing on play in the Finnish school system, and that he is already seeing the benefits in his students. 

"They come into the classroom more ready to learn, and just more prepared," McKay told CBC last year. 

McKay is not the only one who has been inspired by Sahlberg's research. 

Doyle was so intrigued by the potential of more play in schools that in 2015 he moved his family from New York City to rural Finland to study it for himself. 

That 15-minute dose of freedom and sunlight and joy makes children learn more efficiently when they go back into school.- William Doyle

He was concerned by the emergence of the reverse trend in schools in the United States, where since the early 2000s many schools have reduced recess time and where, according to a 2016 report, just eight states require schools to provide daily recess. 

Doyle added that a focus on standardized testing in American classrooms is removing students' opportunities to play in the classroom and benefit from "passion projects and experimentation and discovery and failure." 

What Doyle found in Finland was just the opposite. Students take a 15-minute break every hour, all the way up through high school. And despite less time spent in desks than students in many other countries, Finnish education outcomes are some of the best in the world. 

According to figures from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, students in Finland outperformed students in the United States in every major educational indicator.

"That 15-minute dose of freedom and sunlight and joy makes children learn more efficiently when they go back into school," Doyle said.

'Play is the cheapest and easiest way to help people to learn communication, problem-solving, negotiation, empathy,' said Sahlberg. (Damir Klaic-Kljuc)

'What if we made school a child's favourite place?'

The benefits of play, though, shouldn't be measured by indicators like math and science scores alone, Sahlberg added. 

Even more important is "children's well-being and health and happiness as outcomes of school education," he said, and that is where he believes the success of the Finnish system really becomes apparent.  

Doyle's son who experienced the Finnish school system would be inclined to agree. 

He loved his experience in the Finnish classroom so much that at the end of his first day, "he was emotional and crying because he had to leave the school," Doyle said.

"And I thought, 'What a wonderful objective. What if we made school a child's favourite place?'" he said.


Written by Allie Jaynes. Produced by Alison Masemann.

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