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Free Play, a Cost Benefit Analysis

If you are an educator and the term “free play” does not ring a bell, you have probably been enjoying your summer vacation and have avoided any and all educational media sources. Free play, or the notion of allowing children time to play in an unstructured sense, not surprisingly, comes to us from Finland. For those individuals in favor of the education reform that has characterized the past twenty years in the United States, Finland may be synonymous with any number of curse words. Finland’s education system makes headlines often for its innovative approaches as well as its students’ consistently impressive level of academic achievement.

In Finland, the teachers and students typically stick to a 45/15 schedule with forty-five minutes of instruction followed by fifteen minutes of unstructured time for free play. The students are allowed to socialize with their friends and engage in game play of their liking either within the building or on the playground, depending on weather conditions. Adults do not structure this time and learning objectives are not given in order to justify the time away from curriculum, rather the fifteen minute breaks are seen as a necessity. The children are allowed the freedom to use the time as they see fit. Observations: as evidenced in numerous studies and standardized test scores—more focused students with higher levels of academic achievement.

In the United States, time allowed for free play has been on a rapid decline. As a child attending public schools in the late eighties and early nineties, I enjoyed three recesses during my academic day—which still far undercuts the number of breaks that have been common place in Finland since the sixties. Today my elementary counterparts generally enjoy one fifteen to twenty minute break midday. Any additional time that does not appear to follow the typical delivery of instruction likely needs to be directly related to a learning objective, meaning that it is structured by the teacher and can be clearly linked back to one of the many state mandated educational standards for the specific grade level. Observations: (please see previous posts)—record numbers of children being prescribed ADHD medications and continually being academically outperformed worldwide.

In my opinion, there is no need for a formal cost benefit analysis on this matter and I do believe it is time for a break.

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