BAMBINA BELLISSIMA (“beautiful baby”)! Que bella (“How beautiful”)! Piccola (“Little one”)! Italians went gaga over my 7-month-old daughter during our weekend trip to Rome. Her cheeks and thighs might even be swollen from all the pinching she received from strangers. Out of all the countries I’ve ever visited—England, Estonia, Canada, Sweden, France, Greece and Russia, among others—no place showers affection on children like Italy. My wife Johanna and I were completely blown away.
But the strangest thing is that Italian schools are not so child-friendly, especially for young children. The warm affection on the streets doesn’t seem to match the policies in the schools. On Friday, I gave a presentation on life at a Finnish public school to a crowd of Italian teachers and school leaders, and I had the chance to learn just how different schools are in this Mediterranean country.
I told them about how Finnish first and second graders have about four hours of school every day, which is more like a half-day back in the United States. Not only that, but kids in Finland have a 15-minute break built into every hour of instruction (more on that later); this means that a 4-hour school day involves just three hours of classroom time for first and second graders! This is incredible news to American parents and teachers, but it’s even more amazing to Italians. I spoke with one parent who told me that her daughter, a student at a public elementary school in Bologna, does 8-hour school days (8:00 am to 4:00 pm) with barely any time for recess. Oh. My. And I used to think that a typical schedule at an American elementary school was too much for kids!
The Finnish approach of providing less academic instruction to young kids is sensible. As students in Finland grow older, they generally spend more hours at school. For example, my sixth graders are in school about six hours every day compared with the four they used to have as first and second graders. 7- and 8-year-olds thrive on shorter school days because they need lots of time for free play. Sixth graders, not as much.
When you are in school for eight hours (or even six), there is little time and energy to play afterwards. School this long can easily kill creativity, not necessarily by what happens during lessons, but by the space it takes up in the lives of young children. Research has shown that kids only start to enter a deeper level of play—where creativity and problem-solving skills develop—after 30 minutes of uninterrupted free time. If you’re a young American and Italian student, these long stretches of free play are non-existent in schools, so the only hope is that you’d have time after the school day. But that’s unlikely to happen when you’re flat-out exhausted, your homework is burning a hole in your backpack and your bedtime is just a couple of hours from when you return home.
Finns—who are typically reserved—may not be pinching and coddling babies on the street, but they’re making sure that their children are getting what they need at school. Sometimes this looks like keeping the school day short for young kids. Of course, my argument hinges on the assumption that 7- and 8-year-old Finns are spending their after-school hours engaged in free play, not structured tasks like private tutoring and organized sports (as is common practice in the United States).
In January of this year, I wanted to see how most of the first and second graders at my school were using their free time after school. I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t just thinking wishfully that Finnish kids were playing deeply after their last class. I wasn’t disappointed. For three hours, I attended their iltapäivä kerho (“afternoon club”)—a subsidized public program that enrolls 70% of the first and second graders at my school—that was exclusively play-oriented. The adult supervisors told me that they don’t even encourage the kids to complete their meager amounts of homework before they head home at 4:00 pm because they believe young children just need time to play with their friends. And that’s exactly what I saw these 7- and 8-year-olds doing: playing dress-up, building with legos, and drawing.
As I mentioned earlier, Finnish kids are entitled to take a 15-minute break for every 45 minutes of instruction. Finland takes this so seriously that it’s even guaranteed by law. While I was visiting Rome, I was told that typically Italian high school students get just 10-minutes of break every day (and they’re expected to eat during this time)! On top of this, they will spend most of the school day in just one classroom; teachers come to them. Meanwhile, kids in Finland—young and old—receive 15-minute unstructured breaks throughout the school day and they have the opportunity to slip outside for fresh air during these times, even when it’s freezing.
Obviously, these 15-minute breaks are not long enough to provide young students with time for deep play, but they’re just long enough to refocus children. So, first and second graders in Finland are putting in three hours of high-quality classroom work every morning—because they’re paced by frequent breaks—and in the afternoon, they’re playing deeply throughout the entire afternoon. That’s a pretty sweet deal for kids.
But the case of Italy still befuddles me. They clearly love children but their schools—with their long and nearly recess-less school days—do not show evidence of their affection. I feel the same way about many American public elementary schools. We say we love children (and I know, deep down, we do) and yet, we send our kids to kindergarten at the age of five and they receive full-day academic instruction. We give young children just 20 minutes or so of recess for an entire school day. We throw dozens of standardized tests at our kids, starting in third grade or even younger, narrowing their curriculum and stressing them out, along with their teachers. We require young American kids to attend school each day for nearly twice as long as young Finnish children, leaving them with little time and energy for play after school.
By providing things like frequent breaks, shorter school days, and less standardized tests, Finnish schools are not doing anything particularly innovative. This tiny Nordic country is simply making sensible decisions that support the wellbeing of all children. And when you stop to think about it, this is exactly what all school systems should be doing.