I am fascinated by how education works in different countries around the world. But learning about foreign schools is more than just interesting. We can learn a lot from studying the successes of other education systems.
A couple of years ago, I read a book called The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, by Amanda Ripley. The book (which I highly recommend) describes the lives of different students and the schools in which they are enrolled. One of the students is from Finland, a nation known for its successes in education.
One interesting component of the Finnish school day is free time. Children are given lots of time to play outdoors and socialize with their friends. I’m not claiming that this free time is the sole reason why Finnish schools are so successful, but I do think that they are on to something here. Keep reading to learn more about free time in Finnish schools, and how to maximize your students’ learning by providing free time in your own classroom!
In Finland, students have 15-minute recess periods between lessons (typically every 45 minutes). Kids go out to play even in very cold weather!
But free time in Finland seems to go beyond just outdoor recess. When I watched the documentary “The Finland Phenomenon,” I noticed students standing in groups and socializing (indoors) between classes. They weren’t tardy or misbehaving – they were being given time to relax and chat!
So why do Finnish schools allow students to have free time? From what I’ve read and watched, here are some of the main purposes of providing free time at school:
- Serves as a “brain break,” so kids are focused and ready to learn when they begin a lesson
- Teaches responsibility (not every minute of the child’s day is planned out for him)
- Encourages development of social and communication skills
- Supports students’ physical healthy and motor skill development
Unfortunately, free time is a foreign concept in many American schools. Recess is typically brief (once a day, twice if you’re lucky). And students are rarely, if ever, given unstructured free time indoors.
We often give our students brain breaks, and my kids have always loved participating in movement activities like GoNoodle. But can these brain breaks truly be considered free time? In my opinion, not really.
After learning a lot about Finland’s education system, I didn’t toss rigorous instruction or whole class brain breaks out the window. But I did decide to incorporate free time into my second graders’ daily schedule.
That year, my schedule was planned out for me by the school where I worked. We had to stick closely to the schedule, because students switched classes frequently. I definitely didn’t have a lot of “wiggle room,” but I made time for a 10-15 minute break each morning.
During that break, students were allowed to eat a snack and socialize in our classroom. I didn’t require them to complete work or do anything in particular. They could use the time as they pleased, as long as they were being safe.
It was such a simple routine, but my students LOVED having their 10-15 minutes of free time each day! They talked in groups, ate their snacks, and some even chose to read. It was their time that belonged to them, and they loved having that privilege and responsibility.
In addition to just plain making my kids happy, the break kept them focused during the morning. I taught all of the core subjects between 8:45 and 11:45, so having a break in the middle was essential. My kids still had outdoor recess after lunch, but that break helped keep them focused in the morning. We also still did whole group brain breaks, because these are also a good way to keep kids focused (and they’re fun!).
So how can you incorporate free time into your classroom? Well, just prioritize it. It’d be nice if you were able to convince your administrators about the importance of free time (show them this article!), but I know that’s not always realistic.
If you’re struggling to find time in the day (who isn’t?), rethink your bathroom breaks. Do you have all students use the restroom at once? If your restroom is close to your classroom, could you stand in the doorway and monitor kids using the restroom while the others enjoy free time in the room?
Or, do you spend a lot of time on morning work? Could you assign more jobs to students to cut down on your responsibilities in the morning? If you reduce the time kids spend doing morning work, that might free up more time later in your day.
If you’re really struggling to fit in free time, start timing your daily transitions between activities/lessons. Motivate students to spend less time goofing off – tell them that will be able to take a free-time break if they trim time off their transitions!
I know there’s so much that we have to squeeze into each school day. But I’ve seen firsthand that students learn better when we make time for them to have unstructured breaks.
Do you agree? If so, how do you fit free time into your day? Comment below – I’d love to hear from you!
If you’re a Kindergarten teacher, you might also like this post about how I fit 45 minutes of free choice centers into our daily schedule.
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