Enrico Strocchi / Flickr flickr.com/photos/strocchi
Two children playing after a wedding.

An experimental school in California teaches just about everything with hands-on play, echoing the highly successful Finnish integration of play and schooling. Is the intense focus on basic skills helping or hurting?

"When you teach math, basically, 90 percent of the kids just memorize stuff," Cyrus Shahabi, a computer science professor at the University of Southern California told PBS News Hour. "They don’t try to understand the reasoning behind it. But if you have something like a game, where these things are grasped naturally, right? Nobody is telling you, but you realize, oh, if I do this, that’s going to happen. That’s why I need to do it this way."

PBS describes the Playmaker school, a hands-on, creativity-centered curriculum that gets kids building things with tools, learning about gravity with their bodies, and building model software companies with their fellow students.

"Rather than with tests and quizzes," PBS reports, the program's directors "say they assess what kids are learning with constant observations and discussions during and after activities. They also have students create projects to demonstrate their knowledge and say they are tracking how well the program works overall."

The PlayMaker model, the report notes, is "relatively new and untested." It's too early to tell if this model can fly, so to speak, when scaled up to larger students' bodies with more constrained resources.

The notion that play could be a critical part of learning is an echo of the highly successful Finnish experiment, which has in recent years produces very strong test results from an education culture that does not focus heavily on testing.

"In Finland, people believe that children learn through play, imagination, and self-discovery, so teachers not only allow but encourage play," writes Sophia Faridi in Education Week. "Development of the whole person is highly valued, especially in the early years. Even at the high school level, you can see students playing foosball or videogames in the student center."

As the New Republic reported in 2011, "Not only do Finnish educational authorities provide students with far more recess than their U.S. counterparts—75 minutes a day in Finnish elementary schools versus an average of 27 minutes in the U.S.—but they also mandate lots of arts and crafts. ...

"This is a far cry from the U.S. concentration on testing in reading and math since the enactment of No Child Left Behind in 2002, which has led school districts across the country, according to a survey by the Center on Education Policy, to significantly narrow their curricula," The New Republic continued.

One American teacher who taught in Finland noted his own experience discovering the wisdom of recess in a recent Atlantic article.

"What’s most important is not where kids take breaks but how much freedom we give them from their structured work," writes Tim Walker. "When break times are teacher-directed, Pellegrini 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."

Email: eschulzke@desnews.com