Family life

Using free play to keep kids focused

A school in Finland benefits from shorter learner periods broken up with ample time for kids to play freely.

Jen

Isaac unwinds from class. Photo: Jennifer Pinarski

For three days during last winter’s cold snap, my eight-year-old son was a weepy, angry, fidgety mess. Upon getting off the school bus he’d immediately throw his backpack in the snow and pick a fight with his little sister. I was at a loss as to what could make my usually sunny son so sour, when it suddenly hit me: indoor recess due to the frigid temperatures. While the school tried its best to break up classroom instruction times, the fact of the matter was that the students were kept indoors either playing video games or watching a movie.

Indoor recess then became the bane of my existence. On the days when I knew Isaac would be kept inside on account of the weather, I made a point of including an after-school hike, a game of tag or even a kids versus mom snowball fight—anything to help burn off Isaac’s pent-up energy (and emotions).

Once the season of dangerously low temperatures passed, Isaac’s mood improved greatly—he was again able to play freely in the woods behind the school. Even on the days I volunteered at the school’s breakfast club program, I noticed a huge difference in the attitudes of all the students.

Read more: Are kids too scared to play outdoors?>

It turns out that the behaviour I was seeing in my son was the same as what Tim Walker, an American teacher working and living in Finland, was witnessing in his students when he tried to push a US-style schedule on his Finnish students. As he wrote in his essay in The Atlantic, the 90-minute lessons he was used to teaching in the States (broken up by a 30-minute break) were backfiring. After only three days of the longer lessons, Walker abandoned the US model and embraced the Finnish model (45 minutes of learning with a 15 minute break to play and socialize) and watched his students flourish.

Most elementary school students in Canada benefit from shorter instruction periods, much like Walker’s class in Finland. With a balanced school day, classes are divided into three 100-minute learning sessions, separated by two “nutrition breaks” of 40 to 50 minutes. In my son’s school, the two 40 minute breaks are split into 20 minutes for eating and 20 minutes for play. Personally, I don’t think that 20 minutes is long enough to either eat or play (and if you’ve ever peeked into an elementary school classroom at lunch time, you’ll know exactly what I mean). But with only so many minutes in a day, I understand the value of a balanced school day.

In his essay for The Atlantic, Walker also refers to Anthony Pellegrini’s research on the value of incorporating play into children’s days. Pellegrini’s research goes back decades, with many of his studies and experiments debunking the myth that active play only has deferred benefits.

“Physical activity levels may be important, not only for physical development, but also perhaps for cognitive performance subsequent to physical activity,” wrote Pellegrini in Child Development. “Physical activity may, in some senses, matter psychologically.”

Read more: 50 essential summer activities>

While all play is valuable, Pellegrini found that free play, and not teacher-directed play, had the most positive impact on students. At my son’s school, the teachers hang back when the recess bell rings, encouraging children to run, explore and build, only intervening if one of the very few schoolyard rules are broken (most notably, stay out of the poison ivy and don’t break branches off tree trees to build forts). The result is students who are confident in the outdoors with well-developed social skills.

Best of all, when the bell rings again, signalling the next block of lessons, the students race back to class—willing and eager to learn.

Read more: Confessions of a free-range parent>

Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences about giving up her big city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband, while staying home to raise their two young children. Read more Run-at-home mom posts or follow her @JenPinarski.