“We have lost our minds in the United States when it comes to early childhood education,” said William Doyle during a panel discussion hosted by Defending the Early Years during their summer institute. Doyle has served as a Fulbright Scholar in Finland, where he also served as an advisor to the Ministry of Education and Culture of Finland. He appeared on the panel with DEY co-founder Nancy Carlsson-Paige and Pasi Sahlberg, noted Finish educator and author.
Doyle and Sahlberg were on the panel to talk about the value of play.
“I mean that we have forgotten,” Doyle continued, “to be mindful and one aspect of being mindful in this arena, I would say, is to listen to children, to pay close attention to what they are biologically programmed to do and what they enjoy doing the most and to examine the evidence and all of that will lead you to the opposite path [of what] we’re now doing about crushing them with academics much too early, of removing play from every classroom.”
Sahlberg speaks out against the notion of using school to “add value” to students and argues that the freedom to play is a matter of a human right. Finland does not begin academics for children until age 7, allowing them to be children until that time. “In Finland,” he says, “school readiness means that the school has to be ready for different types of children.” Not that the child must be prepared to be ready for the school.
Doyle points out that the children who suffer most from the US focus on academics are the students who already face challenges, and moderator Denisha Jones offers a specific anecdote about a district where leaders believe that students who face challenges need less play and more intense academics. They say “poor Black and Latino children don’t need play, they need academics. And that’s the mantra.” And yet everything we know says that’s incorrect.
Doyle and Sahlberg point out that even if one feels the need to focus on data and numbers and value, the science is there to show that play brings measurable, quantifiable benefits for children.
All of this is worth remembering as schools approach the fall. Expect schools that are worried about “learning loss” and students “falling behind” during the pandemic to advocate for doubling down on academics and cutting back on “frills” like playtime. Everything we know says that would be a mistake.
Doyle and Sahlberg are co-authors of the book Let The Children Play: How More Play Will Save Our Schools and Help Children Thrive, which explores all these issues in great and well-researched detail. The full video of the panel discussion is included below.