The Importance of Play

Originally published at on 3rd September 2015

On Friday August 28, Thailand’s Education Minister Dapong Rattanasuwan announced that the Office of Basic Education Commission (OBEC) would pilot a scheme to shorten the academic school day for primary school students, with classes at the 3,500 pilot schools finishing at 2pm, instead of 4pm. Thai students’ overloaded study schedules have long been considered a major flaw in the Thai education system and one that has had a detrimental impact on student achievement. A policy to align class time in Thai schools with international averages is a welcome development, although there are already ominous signs that this initiative may be derailed by an education system uncomfortable with change and innovation.

Dapong, who was made Education Minister just two weeks ago during the latest cabinet reshuffle, explained that this initiative was being introduced in response to Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s suggestions that students should have more time to spend with family and participate in extracurricular activities.

The school year in Thailand consists of 200 days and students are currently required to attend formal lessons for 1,200 hours per year, six hours per day. This new initiative will see the hours of instruction reduced to 840 hours per year, just over four hours per day. These changes will more closely align Thai learners with students in North America, Europe, and Japan.

Shortly after the pilot scheme was announced, concerns were raised that many parents would be unable to collect their children from school at 2pm because of commitments at work. In response to this, OBEC announced that the length of the school day would remain unchanged. Schools would finish at 4pm, as usual, however extracurricular activities would be arranged between 2pm and 4pm to occupy the students’ ‘free time’ – a move which threatens to undermine the innovation’s original intentions.

OBEC has since released details of four programmes that schools are being asked to develop in order to meaningfully occupy the students’ ‘free time’.
The four programmes are – extracurricular project work to reinforce academic studies; clubs such as music clubs, art clubs and sports clubs; occupational training and career preparation activities; additional classes for student students with poor academic results.

Now that students’ ‘free time’ is to be directed by individual schools the success of this initiative will be determined by the quality of these extracurricular activities. Students at schools that create opportunities to engage in art, music and sports could genuinely benefit from this project. However, there is a concern that with pressure to raise academic standards, some schools may hijack this initiative by focusing on extra academic classes. What Thai children need more than extracurricular project work, occupational training and additional Mathematics lessons is time to be children and time to play free from the rigid conformity of the classroom.

The value of play has been long recognized by Western thinkers. As far back as the 18th Century French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau championed the importance of play, and his theories continue to influence present day researchers. In the early 20th Century, Sigmund Freud argued that play was the means by which children accomplish their first cultural and psychological achievements. Present day researchers have established a wealth of evidence that proves time spent playing enhance students’ social, emotional, physical and creative development.

Alongside emotional and creative development, play can also improve academic achievement. A U.S. report found that school principals, “overwhelmingly believe recess has a positive impact not only on the development of students’ social skills, but also on achievement and learning in the classroom.” This belief has been reinforced by research which supports the argument that brain development may benefit more from time on the playground than time in the classroom. Applying the findings from this body of research would help ensure OBEC’s new initiative had a positive impact on student achievement.

Too much time in the classroom isn’t always a good thing. Pic: Daniel Maxwell.
Too much time in the classroom isn’t always a good thing. Pic: Daniel Maxwell.

According to Sergio Pellis, from the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, the link between academic performance and play can be seen in international education rankings: “Countries where they actually have more recess tend to have higher academic performance than countries where recess is less.” The Finnish school system is considered by many to be the most effective education system in the world and schools in Finland ensure students have ample opportunity for free play. Primary school students in Finland are given a 15 minute break every hour during which they are encouraged to play outside.

If Thai students are to genuinely benefit from the Education Minister’s bold move to reduce class time, schools will need to acknowledge the overwhelming evidence that supports the importance of play and provide students with more opportunities to enjoy free play. Unfortunately, it will require a paradigm shift before many traditional schools and teachers accept that play during school hours is more beneficial to student achievement than additional classes in Mathematics and Science.

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