by Achim Nowak

What Finland Knows About the Benefits of Play

August 12, 2019

This article in The Wall Street Journal (Sahlberg & Doyle, “Children Need the Power of Play,” 08/08/19) stirred me. It’s about education – but it made me think about how you and I “do work.”

Five years ago, Pasi Sahlberg and William Doyle switched countries.

Sahlberg came to the U.S. as a visiting professor at Harvard. William Doyle moved to Finland to study its school system as a Fulbright scholar. They brought their families with them. And they had radically different experiences.

Sahlberg took his young son to a preschool in Cambridge/Massachusetts. The school’s director asked for a detailed assessment of the boy’s vocabulary and numeracy skills.

“Why do you need to know this? He is barely 3 years old!” Pasi asked, looking at his son, for whom toilet training and breast-feeding were recent memories.

“We need to be sure he is ready for our program,” replied the director. “We need to know if he can keep up with the rest of the group. We need to make sure all children are prepared to make the mark.”

In Finland, Doyle entered the school system ranked as #1 in the world for childhood education by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the World Economic Forum and Unicef—a system built in large part on research pioneered (and increasingly ignored) in the U.S. Instead of chasing standardized-test data as the main benchmark of a successful education, Finland focuses on equity, happiness, well-being and joy in learning as the foundations of education.

Finnish parents and teachers widely agree on mottos rarely heard in U.S. schools: Let children be children and The work of a child is to play. A Finnish mother told William, Here, you’re not considered a good parent unless you give your child lots of outdoor play.

In Finland, William experienced an education culture that protects and cherishes childhood, one in which students are immersed in a play-rich education that goes all the way to high school.

“There are many reasons children must play in school,” explained his son’s school principal, Heikki Happonen. “When they are moving, their brains work better. Then they concentrate more in class. It’s very important in social ways too.” He added, “School should be a child’s favorite place.”

In the U.S., the notion of more play has a powerful champion in the American Academy of Pediatrics (with a membership of 67,000 doctors). The importance of playful learning for children cannot be overemphasized, it stated in its 2018 clinical report, “The Power of Play.” According to the report, play—including recess, playful teaching and discovery, as well as periods of self-directed intellectual and physical activity by children with minimal direct interference by adults—boosts mental and physical health and develops executive function.

Huhm. Are you beginning to think the benefits of more play might energize the corporate workplace, as well?

I approach the notion of play as former professional theatre director and acting coach. In any formal actor training, playful exploration is part of the schooling. In an MBA program, likely not. Instead, we are taught to separate work and play. This separation is deeply ingrained in how we talk about everything we do. When I go on a trip, someone invariably asks me: Work or play? We all know the phrase Work hard, play hard, right? Goes hand in hand with let’s have a drink after work at the barLet’s go and play some golf. Play time, after work.

Play is relegated to how we engage when the adult stuff is done. Activities like walking meetings, standing meetings and flexible work environments begin to include a basic tenet of play – getting the entire body involved. How else can we start to integrate a higher sense of play at work?

  • Make PLAY a conscious value.

This is the mindset part of life. The moment I decide that a sense of play matters, opportunities for playful engagement shout at me from every corner. The comment by my colleague Eric that really is quite funny and unexpected. The glint in Suzanna’s eye as she talks about a new product idea. Signals. Eric and Suzanna are ready to play. They are choosing to be split-second playful. My job is to notice. To respond in kind.

  • Embrace the metaphor of PLAYING A GAME.

In peak performance lore, the question of how we play the game is a well-oiled metaphor. How do we play the game of life? The game of success? The game of personal satisfaction?

I like the allusions that come with the notion of playing a game. On the dark side, the play metaphor can reinforce an obsession with always being the best, always beating others. Gotta win, gotta win. On the lighter side, it comes with the awareness that, well, we don’t win every game, but playing a game can be fun and exciting. An adrenaline rush. Yes, playful. What if we carried this sense into a meeting at work, a client phone call, a business lunch? After all, it is all just a game anyway, isn’t it? Even when it IS really, truly critical that we win.

  • Choose to PLAY ON WORDS.

Since language is our most prescient mode of expression, why not play with it a bit? Language connoisseurs love the play on words. They realize that words can be fun simply because of the way they sound. The layers of meaning in language can be fun, as well. Let’s have a great time at this meeting, someone says. Why not do a riff on that? What does it mean? What all could it mean? What does it definitely not mean?

Word Play take us into the realm of silliness and absurdity. To many folks this is terrific fun and welcome relief in a routine conversation. Word Play can also drop us into the world of nuance and unexamined meaning. To more folks, terrific fun, as well. Multiple wins.

  • PLAY when things get stuck.

When a conversation goes round and round, when the frustration rises, when the energy gets stuck, choose to get unstuck. In the world of Training and Learning, we do it by switching modalities. Lean into a different mode of expression. Go to the whiteboard and ask everyone to draw what their frustration feels like. Play some music and ask everyone to “shake out” their stress. Pull out some Lego blocks and give everyone 5 minutes to build something together that represents success. Yes, short breaks via a different modality. Shared PLAY. If you haven’t done it before it may feel like a big collective risk. Know what? The energy will shift. Always, always.

PLAY works. PLAYFULNESS is a choice. The moment we choose, opportunities for playfulness suddenly show up everywhere.

Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold. A quote from Joseph Chilton Pearce, author of the much-revered book “Magical Child.”

So PLAY. Reconnect a little with your magical child. The folks you’re with will be grateful. And guess what? You will get more done, with less exhaustion and a lighter bounce

I’ll take that.

(954) 921-3014
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram