Irony pervades the story of Finnish education. The Finnish National Board of Education abolished its school inspectorate in 1991, dropped the widespread practice of grade retention that same year, replaced a dense national curriculum with a loose set of expectations conferring on teachers significant autonomy in 1994, and never followed the rest of the world in implementing a heavy regimen of standardized testing. Yet Finnish students have repeatedly posted top results on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) since the triennial exam in reading, math and science was first administered in 2000.
Yet the most telling irony may be the commitment of Finnish educators to play. This struck me while observing recess outside the Kallahti Comprehensive School, on the eastern edge of Helsinki, on a cold day in April 2009. I asked Timo Heikkinen, the school’s principal, if students go out when it’s very cold. Heikkinen said they do. I then asked him if they go out when it’s very, very cold. He smiled and said, “If minus 15 and windy, maybe not, but otherwise, yes. The children can’t learn if they don’t play. The children must play.”
The storied Italian Renaissance schoolmaster Vittorino da Feltre saw to it six centuries ago that all his students at his school in Mantua, called Casa Giocosa (The Pleasant House), played outdoors every day, no matter the weather (Woodward 1996, 32, 35). Similarly, Finnish educators regard recess as an essential part of learning and mandate that elementary schools throughout the country schedule 15 minutes of recess for every 45 minutes of instruction, for a total of 75 minutes of recess per six-hour school day. By contrast, the focus in the United States on testing in reading and math since the enactment of No Child Left Behind in 2002 has led 20 per cent of the country’s school districts to eliminate or significantly reduce recess, according to a Center on Education Policy (2007, 10) survey. The survey also found that US schools allocate on average 26.6 minutes a day to recess (p. 5). In Alberta, the prescribed allocation of time for play is no more than 30 minutes a day.
As much as the Finnish rejection of standardized testing constitutes an explicit rejection of the accountability movement, the Finnish dedication to play amounts to an implicit rejection. Assigning so much time to play—as well as to arts and crafts—without regard to time lost to test preparation implies a level of trust in teachers that is anathema to the reigning demand in nations around the world for specific indications of academic progress.
There is ultimately nothing heretical about the Finnish dedication to play. In addition to acknowledging the need for a balance of mind and body, it displays a sophisticated understanding of intellectual development. Academic activity itself, after all, constitutes a particular form of play. Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga made precisely this case in 1938 in Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Contrary to the rationalist claims of the Enlightenment and the name of our species (Homo sapiens), Huizinga contended, man is guided by more than reason. And contrary to the conventions of the Industrial Revolution and the use of the term Homo faber (“man the maker”), Huizinga argued, man is defined by more than productivity. As a creature driven as much by the challenge and joy of proving himself as a teammate or an opponent, Huizinga concluded, man is Homo ludens (“man the player”), in fields as diverse as art, poetry, debate, philosophy, law and commerce (Huizinga 1955).
In describing debate as play, Huizinga cited the drumming and singing contests laced with invective staged by the Inuit. In describing philosophy as play, Huizinga grounded his analysis in the sophists’ practice of regaling audiences with creative solutions to complex riddles. In describing law as play, Huizinga recalled the ancient Greek conception of litigation as agon and the court as its forum with sundry procedures to guarantee fairness. And in describing poetry as play, Huizinga provided illustrations from a range of societies but turned for its consummate expression to Finland, citing the withering wars of verse in place of physical battle waged in Elias Lönnrot’s Kalevala as well as the longstanding rural practice of singers sitting “face to face on a bench, holding each other’s hands and rocking to and fro as they compete in knowledge of the stanzas” of the ancient tales from which Lönnrot’s epic derived (pp. 76, 85, 120, 124, 146).
If man is as much Homo ludens as he is Homo sapiens or Homo faber, then surely the child is as much Puer ludens as anything else. In prescribing significant time at school for play, the Finns have exhibited their deep understanding of this aspect of human nature.
Like Vittorino da Feltre long before him, Timo Heikkinen puts this understanding into action. True to his word, Heikkinen didn’t keep his students inside because of the cold when I made a return visit to his school in December 2010. It was not minus 15, but it was minus 10 and windy, with more than a foot of snow on the ground. With joyful abandon, Heikkinen’s students, nearly anonymous in their puffy snowsuits, were swinging through a jungle gym, playing soccer or tag, and taking turns sliding down a steep icy chute they had cleared through the snow.
Center on Education Policy. 2007. Choices, Changes, and Challenges: Curriculum and Instruction in the NCLB Era. Washington, DC: Center on Education Policy.
Huizinga, J. 1955. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Boston: Beacon. (Orig. pub. 1938.)
Woodward, W. H. 1996. Vittorino da Feltre and Other Humanist Educators. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. (Orig. pub. 1897.)
Samuel E. Abrams is a visiting scholar at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is writing a book for the Harvard University Press on school reform. In September 2011, he gave the keynote address at the Alberta Teachers’ Association’s planning meeting in Banff.