Why We Might Send Our Child to Schools in Finland, Not the U.S.

By Kerala Taylor, Senior Manager of Online Content & Outreach at KaBOOM!

My husband and I have a 9 month old baby, and we just might be moving to Finland within the next few years–unless schools around here get better soon. And by “better,” I don’t mean that they start churning out higher test scores.

I want my daughter to go to a school where she can get her hands dirty. Where she can run around during the day. Where she can push her physical limits as well as the bounds of her own creativity. Where she can learn her reading, writing, and arithmetic but also essential life skills.

A schools in Finland sounds like just the place.

For years now, American schools have been busy eliminating art and music, cutting back on P.E. and recess, and narrowly measuring student “achievement” via standardized tests. Meanwhile, the Finnish school system requires arts and crafts; provides ample time for play and physical activity; and does not mandate standardized testing.

When it comes to education–and to childhood in general–schools in the United States and schools in Finland are sending very different messages.

We say, “The children must sit.” The Finns say, “The children must play.”

Whether in the car, in front of the TV, or in the classroom, American kids spend far too much time sitting. And when schools decide they need more time for academics, recess and P.E. are often first up on the chopping block. Meanwhile, children in Finnish elementary schools get 75 minutes of recess a day, venturing outside even in subzero temperatures. (“If [it's] minus 15 [Celsius] and windy, maybe not,” concedes Principal Timo Heikkinen.)

We say, “The earlier the better.” The Finns say, “Children learn better when they are ready.”

In Finland, compulsory schooling doesn’t begin until age seven. Meanwhile, even preschoolers in the United States can’t escape the pressures of testing, and some parents operate under sadly misguided notions that four-year-olds who learn their three Rs stand a better chance of getting into an Ivy League college. One New York mom even sued her child’s preschool because the kids there–I’m not making this up–played too much.

We say, “Pile on the homework!” The Finns say, “A bit of homework is helpful–maybe.”

If kids are doing lots of homework, that means they are learning more–or so we are led to believe. Yet the correlation between homework and achievement is minimal in elementary school and only moderate in middle and high school. In our work-centric culture, kids spend precious after-school hours hunched over a desk when they could be outside playing. Meanwhile, Finnish kids do little or no homework in the earlier years and only about a half hour a night in high school.

So, it’s clear that Finnish kids face far fewer academic pressures than American kids–and get far more time to play–but are they actually learning? If international school rankings are any indication (and we love our rankings!), Finnish schools are among the best in the world. That’s not to mention that Finnish children consistently score better than U.S. children on International Student Assessment Scores.

We prepare kids for tests. According to principal Kari Louhivuori, Finns “prepare kids for life.” And yet somehow, Finnish students are even out-testing us.

Already packing your bags? Perhaps I’ll be joining you six–no wait, seven–years down the road.

Since we can’t all pack up and move to Finland, let’s join forces to save play right here in our own schools! Sign this Back-to-School Pledge from the national nonprofit KaBOOM! and get a copy of How to Save Play at Your School, featuring 15 actions parents and teachers can take this fall to make school grounds and school days more playful.

Kerala Taylor is Senior Manager of Online Content & Outreach at
KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit dedicated to saving play for America’s children. She is passionate about getting kids unplugged and about building community through outdoor play. You can follow KaBOOM! on Twitter: @kaboom

{Photo by Seeveeaar}

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