On Education: Let us play

9:09 PM , , 0 Comments

Education is something that has been an interest to me for some time, and with a child currently going through primary school in the UK, it's something that I think about quite a lot, so this is something of an open letter on the state of the education system in the UK.

First off, I should say that I am a strong believer in the importance of both the role of free-play in learning, and also of instilling a curiosity in children as an approach to ensure future success, rather than more structured didactic teacher and test driven approach. This belief is largely grounded in various things I have read on the topic, but appreciate there is undoubtedly a lot more depth to the subject matter than I know about.

Positive Examples

If we are thinking about the education system, it seems prudent to look elsewhere for success stories to see what we can learn from and improve on in the UK system, and a glaringly obvious example would be the Finnish education system. Finland's often cited education system has consistently been the top ranked system in Europe for the last 16 years, so what are they doing right?

The first notable difference is the age at which children start school: children will attend preschool from an early age, but primary school doesn't start until 7 years old - in other words, formal teacher-lead instruction on what we would consider core topics: maths, reading and writing, do not start until the age of seven. Before that, the education system is entirely focused on free, creative play.

This model also ties into research from some neuroscientists who believe that before the age of seven or eight, "[children] are better suited for active exploration than didactic explanation" - claiming that "the trouble with over-structuring is that it discourages exploration". Having witnessed this behaviour first hand, this very much supports my anecdotal data on the subject: trying to explain to a 6 year old a moderately complex process can be a challenge, but, let them watch you perform it a few time and they will often pick it up with much greater ease (case in point: using a tech device, playing a video game etc). Furthermore, it seems to me that encouraging exploration and independent discovery should surely be a key part of any process aiming to instil curiosity in children.

These results were also mirrored in the research by the Lego Foundation, who claimed children should learn through play until at least the age of eight (despite possible cynicism based on a report from a toy manufacturer recommending more play, that article is really spot on).

To put this schooling approach into perspective, in the UK, children will already have had up to three years of five days a week, full day, classroom based teaching by the age of 7. When my eldest son turns 7 he will be finishing his third year in school and will already faced the prospect of national standardised testing in the form if the SATs (thankfully the government have decided to scrap these, but they will only stop being compulsory in 2023).

That is heartbreaking.

Thinking of this child, so full of joy and enthusiasm for playing, whether it be running around outside lost in an imaginative world of play or sitting down playing with lego, having to spend something like 25 hours a week in a classroom seems unthinkable.

But it's not just starting late, either, even once more formal education starts, they make sure to keep play an integral part of the school day, and children are required to have 15 minute play breaks every hour. Aside from the potential educational benefits of regular playing, research has also found that outdoor play is linked to healthier and happier children (aside: have you ever tried to get a 6 year old to concentrate for 45 minutes? If so, you will probably see the futility in anything other than regular play breaks)

Once again, for some perspective, whilst visiting UK primary schools for my eldest son, one school head mistress casually boasted that the traditional afternoon playtime break had been dropped in favour of more classroom time.

Unsurprisingly, we didn’t apply for a place at that school.

But why?

The common thinking behind starting formal schooling earlier is that the earlier they start learning, the better prepared they'll be, and the greater the head start they'll have. But even if the Finnish school system didn't appear to disprove this theory, it's worth considering the difference in benefits of learning by rote/testing Vs independent learning (via play or other means) and the independent curiosity needed for the latter. I'd suggest that, in the modern knowledge economy in which we live, and with the quickening rate at which information and understanding is being changed by advancing technology, the most beneficial skill that someone can leave school with is curiosity and the ability along with the desire to learn independently. That is, to leave school as lifelong learners. I think it says a lot that a key topic on the Finnish national curriculum is simply “learning to learn”.

Beyond looking at success stories of other education systems, we can look at history. Current incarnations of the education and school systems are a relatively modern thing, so what did we do to learn before then? Of course, families and communities have long recognised the importance of amassing and passing on information to younger generations, if not through formal education, but in many cultures, children learn through imitation and experimentation (which, as I mentioned previously, is easy to believe if you have a young child that has grown up around adults using mobile devices and have witnessed the speed at which they become proficient through imitation and experimentation).

It might be tempting to think that whilst humankind were able to learn through such basic play techniques in time gone by purely because what we needed to learn was simpler, and that the as we have progressed as a society it has also demanded people have a greater understanding and depth of knowledge in order to keep up with industrial and technological advances, so the education system has evolved out of necessity.

However, I would argue that the opposite is true - firstly, as pointed out earlier, the speed at which science and technology is advancing means whatever level you leave the schooling system, within a couple of years understanding and techniques will likely have moved on, and your ability to learn independently and keep up with the fast paced changes is going to be essential to success.

Secondly, as I have written before, I would argue that play provides the essential understanding and building blocks for going on to study and understand computer science, engineering and maths.  As a computer scientist, I personally think the education that stood me in best stead for going on to learn - and be successful professionally - was playing with toys like Lego and puzzle solving games.

For example, let’s take a look at one of the Key Stage One goals for computing in the current UK National Curriculum:

“use logical reasoning to predict the behaviour of simple programs”

To be clear, Key Stage 1 is 5 to 7 years old - this is children who, some neuroscientists think, are of an age that is too young to be in formal taught education, who, in Finland, would still be enjoying creative play, and who may not all be capable of reading un-aided. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t like to have to teach that in any medium other than play.

However, if we just re-frame the problem and consider this goal in the context of playing with train sets, it becomes simpler: “use logical reasoning to predict the behaviour of trains” - give the kids train sets, let them build tracks and think about what happens when a train is added: what happens if we add two trains? What happens if we change the direction of trains? Or change the behaviour of a junction piece? Being able to reason logically about such behaviours and changes is a very transferable skill that is useful for thinking about a range of problem solving disciplines, including computer science.

And its not just computing - there is a growing group of mathematicians who posit that preschoolers are actually capable of understanding calculus and algebra. But not just that, but  by actually attempting to teach them maths the way we currently do, it is crushing almost all appetite or future interest in the subject, that is actually an amazing world of wonder and surprise, by taking all the playful fun out of maths and making it a boring case of memorising numbers and patterns - which obviously has the end result of killing their curiosity or interest in going out and independently learning.

Ultimately, I would love it if UK schools embraced free play more, if they embraced teaching STEM subjects through play, but I understand that it’s a huge shift that needs to come from the government. Recognising that the SATs test is not a positive thing for 6 and 7 year olds is a good first step, but the UK primary schools are still so governed by the national curriculum and expectations around performance that it seems impossible for any individual school to start to move the dial.


  1. The Atlantic: The underrated gift of curiosity
  2. The Guardian: The secret of Europe's top education system
  3. The New York Times: Let the kids learn through play
  4. The Guardian: Children should learn mainly though play until the age of 8
  5. Gov.UK: SATs practice material
  6. The Atlantic: How Finland keeps kids focused through free play
  7. The Play Return: An assessment of play initiatives
  8. Wikipedia: Knowledge Economy
  9. Gov.UK: Computing National Curriculum
  10. Fostering mathematical thinking through playful learning (paper)
  11. The New York Times: What babies know about physics
  12. The Atlantic: Five year olds can learn calculus