The Essence of play

Early childhood education and care
Play and playful learning have been in media for past decade as an example of the excellence of Finnish early childhood education and as a notion of the nature of Nordic education. In the Children first - Designing sustainable early childhood education conference play and playful pedagogy are considered as an essential aspect of adapting and alterable learning cultures to face the challenges of future.

Jonna Kangas

Children eating packed lunches in the woods

In Finland the meaning of play as space of learning, interaction, wellbeing and creativity is emphasized in the level of national curriculum guiding the practices and shaping the teacher education programs. Play is noted to create joy and pleasure and thus is motivating activity that should not be used only as tool to achieve cognitive learning goals.  In Finland the curriculum adopts play as approach - a way of pedagogically interact with children - and states:

"The conception of learning is also based on a view of the child’s active agency. Learning is holistic and occurs everywhere. Children also learn by playing, moving, exploring, working on different assignments and expressing themselves as well as through activities based on arts… Play is significant for the learning of children of early childhood education and care age. It motivates the children and brings joy while allowing the children to learn many skills and acquire knowledge. In early childhood education and care, it is necessary to understand the intrinsic value of play for the children as well as the pedagogical significance of play in learning and children’s holistic growth and wellbeing." (The National Curriculum for Early Childhood Education, chapter 2.5. Conception of learning)

Every modern society recognizes the importance of play for children’s development. However how play is interpreted in the early education context; what type of role it is given in the everyday work or teaching method varies due to cultural, social and the political context of the country. In Finland we are approaching play through sociocultural approach to understood educational practices in a certain time and context and through that creating dialogue between educational cultures.

Therefor it is essential to define and reflect the conceptions of play and playful learning before setting the goals for it. Play can be described to be imaginary, dynamic, interactive, fun, relaxing, developing, motivating or creative. In general teachers and teacher trainers in Finland have been for years describing children in play to be more competent and more skilful than in other areas of their live (following Vygotsky naturally). More important however is to aim to understand what has play doing with learning and further on, with teaching. To understand Finnish teachers’ perspectives toward playful learning we have to first look the understanding and values these teachers have about children. The joint image of child in Finland views children as competent and active agents who shape their own learning, environment and social structures. Finnish people together with other Nordic education experts tend to see children as beings not becomings. This means that in early education context children’s self-initiated actions, their points of interests and their emotions and interactions are respected.

Children are scaffolded to make meanings, instead of giving right answers, to discuss and to show their conceptions (instead of listening and memorizing) and finally to be creative and design their own learning, instead of following teachers guidance. This all shapes the educational practices and makes Finnish kindergartens a space of playful learning. However – and naturally, but it needs to be mentioned – Finnish early childhood education is not free of academic, social and motoric goals, nor should it be!

Teachers are guiding their students to mathematic, language, natural science (we call it environmental science until the 3th grade), ethics, arts and physical education. The secret is that the teachers value children’s conception and previous knowledge and build the learning environment with classroom activities based on playful interaction and pragmatic experiences where children have opportunity to explore, create and make the learning to happen.

The learning process of individual children can vary in Finnish classroom activity and the process – not the learning outcome – is essential for both the children and their teachers.  In general, Finnish early childhood education culture is defined through the new national curriculum: “culture that encourages children to play recognizes the significance of play for a child’s well-being”.

 Very recent publication about play in different cultural context challenges teachers, directors, developers, pedagogical experts and research to define their notions of play for the process of reflecting the environment and culture of early childhood education:

  1.  The descriptions of play, free play and play-based learning may differ across countries because of variation in culture and context, as well as steering documents.
  2.  The planning of play in early childhood education activities over a day varies in countries, based on cultural understandings and steering documents.
  3. The role of the teacher and child in play may also differ. Some countries may advocate for more teacher involvement, while other countries may advocate for more child choice.
  4. Space and time are important considerations around play. Some countries may have fluid understandings around the role of space and time in play (such as Australia), while other countries may be more rigid (such as Finland).
  5. The role of parents in play in early childhood education may also differ. Some countries welcome parents to stay and enjoy activities with their child, while other countries don’t encourage parents to get involved in play.  
    (from Garvis, Harju-Luukkainen and Kangas, 2019).

Thus, Children First conference and other symposiums, meetings and conferences are important spaces for cultural discussion of play, play-based learning, playful teaching, and in general, to the joint meaning-making and critical reflections about early childhood education policies, practices and research. It is not only meaningful to let researcher debate and review each other research based conclusions about what, where of why play is important in education. Nor it is relevant to focus only on descriptions and narratives about pedagogical practices.

High-quality educational practices in the field of play and policies that support playful learning to take place in practice are not standards to be copied from other organizations, institutions, schools or countries. They emerge through processes of ongoing reflection, discourse and development in a multivocal and dynamic community. I am inviting you to join the shared cause that is based on a sense of community - education system as a learners’ community as the new Curriculum Reform of Finland (2016) states – and the shared meaning-making process of playful learning and play-based teaching as the core competence and value of early childhood education. I hope to meet you in Children First conference Helsinki May 2020 and share your dreams, values, children’s voice, critical considerations and pedagogical practices about play in the education.  

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Blog author

Jonna Kangas
University Lecturer, University of Helsinki