“We just think seven- and eight-year-olds should have free play in the afternoon. There’s no need for them to do an eight-hour workday.” As I listen to Juulia, an afterschool leader at my Finnish school, I’m shuffling my feet to keep warm in the bitter cold. Iltapäiväkerho (IP-kerho), “Afternoon Club”, has just ended and she’s about to head home. It’s 4:00 p.m.
Juulia is introducing me to a strange new world where seven- and eight-year-olds spend hours after the school day engaged in free play, pursuing their interests with friends. These children are welcome to complete their homework during this time, but this is never required of them. They get to choose what they want to do and when. Nearly 70% of the first and second graders at my school attend IP-kerho.
This afternoon club is subsidized by the City of Helsinki and parents only pay 80 euros (a little more than $100) per child each month. That’s about $5 each day for nearly four hours of childcare and a snack.
The IP-kerho model is common throughout Finland and municipalities often subsidize these clubs. Not all afternoon clubs emphasize free play, but many do. IP-kerhos can offer special programs to the children, too. At my school’s afternoon club, drumming, astronomy, and drama classes have been offered for a small additional fee. Private clubs also exist in Finland.
At my school, IP-kerho begins at 12:15 p.m. every day. Why so early? First graders often finish their school days by 12:00. Second graders have light schedules, too.
In Finland, first and second graders typically spend just four hours at school each day. At my American school, this would have been a half day schedule! For Finland’s youngest students, I’ve argued that half days happen every day.
Since having this realization, I’ve been on a mission to understand the other half of the day for these first and second graders. I decided that I needed to see my school’s afternoon club in action.
Chaos. That’s what I’m thinking when I take one step into one of the playrooms. It’s loud and crowded. Sprawled around the small room are more than 20 first and second graders, chatting and moving around boisterously. What I’m noticing contrasts sharply with my observations in a Finnish first grade classroom.
But the longer I stand and watch, the more I’m seeing that there is a sense of order here. Several first and second graders are huddled around a table, playing an Angry Birds board game. There’s another table where a handful of students are coloring and drawing. A couple of second graders are leaning against the wall and humming as they leaf through a large atlas. Below them, two girls quiz each other on math, scrawling addition problems on a small blackboard.
There’s a door along the back wall that leads to the “quiet room “, a place where students voluntarily choose to go if they need a peaceful spot to play. I find three girls whispering as they snap legos together.
The IP-kerho leader is hanging back and supervising from a distance. He’s available to the students, but he’s not dictating what they should be doing.
It may be loud and busy, but this is truly the kind of deep engagement that teachers and parents long to see. No one’s complaining of boredom. I’m not hearing bickering among the children. And there’s a refreshing absence of screen-time, too.
These are young children who are exercising their creativity, collaborating with each other, and naturally developing their blossoming academic skills. And to think, no one has forced them to do any of these things. They’ve made their choices freely.
Earlier this week, I asked Ritva, a bilingual first grader, if she liked IP-Kerho. She nodded. When I pressed her to say why, Ritva didn’t miss a beat, “I get to do what I want.”
Choice is at the heart of what I’m seeing during this afternoon club. These young children are given freedom to pursue their own interests when they play.
Although the act of providing time to play is important, it’s not enough in and of itself. The play space matters and so do the materials. Imagine the response of these children if they were told that they could only play in a completely empty room. Would anyone expect to see them engaged in deep play?
At this IP-kerho, the children have three different places to play and each spot has its own set of materials. They can go outside to run around on the playground or the soccer field. Another option is the gym where students can shoot hoops, swing on gymnastic rings, and play floor hockey. As I described earlier, the children can also choose to spend their time in one of the well-stocked playrooms.
There are eight IP-kerho leaders who spread out across these locations. The children choose where they want to go and when. It’s free play in the truest sense. As a first and second grade teacher in the Boston area, I never saw students this young look so refreshed after 12:00.
Tim Walker is an American teacher and writer based in Finland. He writes regularly about education and culture at Taught by Finland.
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