The Atlantic has an interesting article on by Tim Walker on How Schools in Finland Keep Kids Focused Through Free Play.
Having come from the US, Walker was surprised by the Finnish school timetables:
Normally, students and teachers in Finland take a 15-minute break after every 45 minutes of instruction. During a typical break, students head outside to play and socialize with friends while teachers disappear to the lounge to chat over coffee.
It appears that To Walker, this seemed like typical European laziness. So he decided to fix it:
As a teacher in the United States, I’d spent several consecutive hours with my students in the classroom. And I was trying to replicate this model in Finland. The Finnish way seemed soft and I was convinced that kids learned better with longer stretches of instructional time.
The results were not what he expected. Students started rebelling and their performance went down. So he decided to embrace the Finnish way, and was surprised by the results:
Once I incorporated these short recesses into our timetable, I no longer saw feet-dragging, zombie-like kids in my classroom. Throughout the school year, my Finnish students would—without fail—enter the classroom with a bounce in their steps after a 15-minute break. And most importantly, they were more focused during lessons.
At first, I was convinced that I had made a groundbreaking discovery: frequent breaks kept students fresh throughout the day. But then I remembered that Finns have known this for years; they’ve been providing breaks to their students since the 1960s.
But is anecdotal evidence like this conclusive? Thankfully, we don’t have to rely on just Walker’s story. There is actually research by Anthony Pelligrini—author of Recess: Its Role in Education and Development and emeritus professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota—who has praised this approach for more than a decade.
Not satisfied with anecdotal evidence alone, Pellegrini and his colleagues ran a series of experiments at a public elementary school to explore the relationship between recess timing and attentiveness in the classroom. In every one of the experiments, students were more attentive after a break than before a break. They also found that the children were less attentive when the timing of the break was delayed—or in other words, when the lesson dragged on.
Sending children out for recess and then having to collect them again in a 15 minutes might not be practical for all schools. But, the interesting point is that the break does not have to be outside.
Although I favor the Finnish model, I realize that unleashing fifth graders on the playground every hour would be a huge shift for most schools. According to Pellegrini, breaks don’t have to be held outdoors to be beneficial. In one of his experiments at the public elementary school, students had their recess times inside the school and the results matched those of other experiments where students took their breaks outside
And the most important fact, that some people need to realize is that the converse is also true: Just because you give kids breaks, they are not going to be useful, if the activity during the breaks is directed by the teachers:
What’s most important is not where kids take breaks but how much freedom we give them from their structured work. When break times are teacher-directed, Pelligrini found, the recess loses its value. It’s free-play that gives students the opportunity to develop social competence. During these times, they not only rest and recharge—they also learn to cooperate, communicate, and compromise, all skills they need to succeed academically as well as in life.
Read the full article