Jan. 18, 2021

Pasi Sahlberg — What We Learn When We Let Kids Play

Pasi Sahlberg — What We Learn When We Let Kids Play
Apple Podcasts podcast player badge
Spotify podcast player badge
Overcast podcast player badge
PocketCasts podcast player badge
Google Podcasts podcast player badge
RSS Feed podcast player badge
Amazon Music podcast player badge
TuneIn podcast player badge
Stitcher podcast player badge
iHeartRadio podcast player badge

Pasi Sahlberg puts forth the case as to why play is an essential part of every child’s life. We discover the benefits of children and young people when they follow their own ideas and interests, in their own way, and for their own reasons. What's the most convincing evidence in favour of play? Also, a tribute to Sir Ken Robinson.

Pasi Sahlberg is a Finnish educator and a global leader in education reform. As a policy advisor in Finland, he has studied education systems and advised education leaders around the world. Pasi was  awarded the Lego Prize in 2016 for his dedication to improve the lives of children around the world. As an author, his book “Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland”  won the 2013 Grawemeyer Award.   In 2019, he and William Doyle co-authored Let the Children Play: Why More Play Will Save Our Schools and Help Children Thrive.

He is currently a Professor of Education Policy and Deputy Director of the Gonski Institute at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

Episode Structure

  • 0:33 - At a playground in Finland, children play 
  • 1:50 - Observation: what happens when you just let kids play 
  • 4:41 - Ezra's introduction:  can we rethink how children learn 
  • 6:11 - The challenges of defining 'play' 
  • 8:57 - Structured learning vs. unstructured free play 
  • 12:30 - The importance of conversations between parents, children and educators 
  • 16:47 - How do we develop the pedagogy of play 
  • 22:15 - Understanding more about children's resilience 
  • 28:00 - Developing executive functions in early years 
  • 30:04 - Where is the most convincing evidence in favour of play? 
  • 36:35 - Realigning the understanding of  'play' 
  • 41:04 - Great ideas are being blocked due to  lack of conversations 
  • 45:13 - Outro and credits
  • 46:54 - Postscript: tribute to Sir Ken Robinson 


Article by the the American Academy of Pediatrics: The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds.

The Power of Play - 2018 Clinical Report

Book by Pasi Sahlberg and William Doyle: Let the Children Play: Why More Play Will Save Our Schools and Help Children Thrive.

Research by the LEGO Foundation on why learning through play is important.

Do Schools Kill Creativity by Sir Ken Robinson

Book Recommendations 

  1. Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen
  2. Moving: A Memoir of Education and Social Mobility by Andy Hargreaves


Contact :

Pasi Sahlberg: Twitter, Website
Gonski Institue of Education: Website

See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.


Note: The Ezra Zaid Project is proudly produced by a crack team of audiophiles and the best way to enjoy it is to listen to it. This allows for greater nuance and emphasis that sometimes may not translate as well to the written transcripts that are available to download for each episode. It would be best to cross check the corresponding audio, before quoting us in print.




You asked me a kind of a personal episode, I remember when I was, when I was still in Finland, this was a few couple of two, three years ago. 


This is Pasi Sahlberg. 



Our apartments we live just in the center of the city in one of the apartment buildings. And there's a beautiful park, just on the other side of the busy main roads there. 


And as an educator, he's been making the case to help schools and children thrive. How? By simply letting children play. 



And in that park, there are a number of playgrounds. I used to take my children there. But one of these playgrounds was often used by the kindergarten or preschool. 


There would be about 50 kids that would be at this playground. And they were young: aged between two to five years of age. But every day, rain or shine, they would be there.



When I was working from home and you know, writing my stuff and reading, my desk was by the window, I couldn't see the playground, but I could see when these children were walking, going out. And it was always like, my first thing [that I would say] was why the heck [were] these kids going out when it's minus 15 degrees centigrade. But they go. They have their own mittens and hats and they eagerly kind of walk like duck's you know, they go one after another led by a teacher and then followed by a teacher. And often, when I had a bad day, for any reason I couldn't get my work done. I have got a bad idea of something. I put my things on, clothes on, and went to [go] see what's happening there in the playground. 


Pasi makes his way to the park. And he starts observing these kids playing with each other with absolutely no regard to anything else. And that's when he starts noticing something, a pattern. 



What I always saw there was this. The first 15 minutes of complete chaos. It's like nothing [is] happening. Some people-some kids are crying, and some people are pushing one another. And there's nothing happening there. And then all of a sudden, it's like a-


(finger snap)


… and you see how things began to self organize. And this is a powerful thing in the young people.  [And that’s] when you realize that  they kind of get tired of this kind of a disorder and chaos. And then somebody said, “Okay, let's play something like this, let's put this here and you come here.” And you see this leadership taking place there. And then in a few minutes, it's a beautiful place, beautiful harmony, and cooperation and exploration, you know, kids are doing things, they cannot do it for a long time.

But it happens as an educator when I asked myself that, you know what type of things these kids were exercising, they're in a kind of a cognitive-their thinking level or social things. You know, absolutely brilliant things. Oftentimes in schools, we take all of those things away. That when these kids go to school, in a kind of a normal school, or traditional school, they don't have-there's always somebody to tell them what to do. This long list of things that you can [and] must not do when you go to school, if you throw those rules, you're in trouble. And then there will be somebody at the end of the day, who will say whether you were good or not good in these things. So school is often a very different place than this type of open, chaotic, self organized playground. For me, it was kinda like-I needed that type of real evidence of the power-of not just the power of young people [and] what they can do if we let them do-but [the] power of play really. That has this kind of an internal dynamic that is often turning out in a way that we can only dream about.


On the Ezra Zaid Project, we'll hear from someone who's figuring out how children can explore, discover and flourish by unleashing the power of play. I'm Ezra Zaid on the programme, Pasi Sahlberg. 


Lots of kids, be it here in Malaysia or abroad elsewhere, aren’t in classrooms right now. Parents across the country have had their plans disrupted by the pandemic, again. The Coronavirus has forced us to figure out how else children can learn. If you're a parent, an educator or a student listening to this episode, I'm hoping that it lends perspective about education and learning in these strange times, at the very least, for us to think about it in another way.

And that's the setup. And as you'll notice from the timecode, this is a deep dive from something I care a lot about, with someone that's an innovator in his field. This recording took place in August 2020. He spoke to me from his home in Sydney, where he serves as Professor of Education Policy, and is the deputy director of the Gonski Institute at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. As you heard, Pasi Sahlberg is from Finland, he has worked as a school teacher, teacher-educator, researcher and policy advisor. His CV, as you'll see in the show notes, is impressive. More recently, he's been studying the impact and benefits of play, what that means for children, and how it benefits the natural way in which they learn. Pasi and his co-author William Doyle wrote a book on this; “Let the Children Play: How More Play Will Save Our Schools and Help Children Thrive”. 



Yeah, you know, this is one of those questions that when we were working on the Let the Children Play book. It was one of the first questions that we started. How do we define play? What does it mean? And we [would] spend weeks reading literature and talking to people and you know, asking play experts and parents and teachers to give us [the] definition of play. And they all gave us a kind of a little bit of different meanings. In the book, we actually write that trying to define what play is, it's a little bit like trying to give a definition to love. How do you define love? Everybody knows what it is. You recognize [it] easily if there's two people who are in love-that you see that there's love in there, but how do you define [love]? How do you explain what it is? And it’s a similar thing with play, that play has so many different forms, and it manifests itself in different ways, with different people, in different situations. It's hard to define that. But often we define play by linking some of the attributes. One is [that] it's an active engagement by those people who play and I'm not only going to say children, because we adults, we should play as well. So it's a kind of an active engagement. The other important element is joy, of course, that is, that emotionally, the positive emotions [that] relate to this. That the people who are play[ing], they smile, or they laugh, or they kind of enjoy what they do. And people often also include, in play, something that is close to discovery or experimentation of things or [the] direct experience. Then, of course, there's a whole range of a different way of play. 


  • There's free play. Unstructured play where the children are, you know, playing in a forest or sandbox without any adults and they can create their own rules and do the things as they have decided to do even very young children. 
  • And then we have this much more structured, guided play. That can happen in a classroom and there's a teacher setting the rules, and it can be a play-a game or something that the kids don't have much freedoms to kind of break the rules or decide what to do. 


And that's also the play and everything in-between. And so, that's why it's a very kind of a diverse set of ideas.



Even prior to COVID-19, and against some generalizations here so that we can sort of, keep the conversation going. I mean, parents were, perhaps of the belief that children would benefit more from sort of the structured and processing activities of school, right, as opposed to unstructured, free play. Now, given that the pandemic has bulldozed through every structure that we've built in so carefully, what would you say right now as to the opportunity, as to what it represents in terms of the argument for play, especially in this uncertain time.



Well, you know, I would say, if I had enough time, I would explain 


  • first of all that, according to the research that we have done [until] now, during the last 50-60 years, we do know that only, kind of, a minor part of what children are learning about [are] the things that they need to learn in school. They learn because of the school. That's it. The share of variation of students-the differences in students learning in mathematics or reading, for example, [are] score[d], or [the] variation between students [are] only about less than one-third is related to the school. Meaning teachers and curriculum and principal, and other things. And most of those things are outside of the school factors. So that's why, what happens when children are not in school is critically important. 
  • Then the other thing is that play is one of those few activities that comes with the wide range of benefits for children, according to the research, and it's not only education researchers [but] also the medical and health people that have done a lot of research on this. So we often say that play benefits the cognitive development, in other words, slow learning, knowledge and skills that kids learn in school, emotional development, physical development, as well. And, of course, the social aspects, these are all very well documented and researched, related to play. 



And that's why, and it's a natural way, you know, it's a natural way of people to do things, it's a kind of accessible to all the children, unlike, you know, many of those things that happen in a classroom, like mathematics and science, there are many kids who think that, you know, this stuff is not for me, and I don't, and even if it was that they have this kind of a feel via feeling that they don't want to be part of this, but play is a different, different thing. I think it's surprising in a way, that how much we know about the benefits of play around the world, really, in different cultures, and contexts, and situations, and different age levels of kids. That how often we still hear these questions that why children should play, what was it good for? And that is another conversation that is important to take place, particularly between schools, and parents, when they are considering how to organize the work in the school, so that it would be [a] good place for all the learn[ing]? 



What are the questions at the forefront of that conversation between parents and children? 



You know, I think that this is a good time also to, you know, raise this fundamental question of, you know-start from learning, what is learning? That will be probably [a] more important conversation between children and adults, and educators as well. What is learning? How do we learn things? And why is it [that] sometimes [it’s] more difficult to learn some other things, than [to] learn something else? And then [do we] talk about how is the school currently helping me to learn this way. Is the school a place where I can really learn these things? Because, if we avoid this conversation of “What is learning?”, we often don't see all these opportunities that we should be thinking about when we get into these larger questions like, what is the purpose of education overall? So why do we have education? What is the role of that nowadays? Because it's very different for, in many cases than that [of] when the parents were [of] the age of their own children. When they went to school, it was obviously, you go to school to get good education, and higher education or professional education. And then you get a job and life is good. But it's not like this anymore. And this is something that people are becoming more and more aware of. Particularly in an economic and health crisis like this one. Now, for example, if you look at the people who are losing the[ir] jobs, like millions of people are losing jobs. You know, it doesn't matter what your degree is, it doesn't matter how high [your] higher education [is], or what did you study? Now those people who are important to the business or company or team or whatever it is, will keep their jobs and they're not always those who have the best marks and grades than others. So we're going to see this also, when we are looking at those people who have been made redundant in airline companies or travel agencies or even universities, you know, they're not people who come with the best grades. Those are the people who can do different things. Who can respond to this uncertainty. Yeah, so I, that's why I think that the conversation about learning what it is, and how do we learn and what is the best way to do that is critically important. And that's actually where, which is the entry also to the conversation about play. That we do not only learn when teachers are teaching us in a school [and] that kids-young people learn a lot of things when they do things by themselves. And play is the most natural and simple way of providing all the young people [with] these opportunities to self organize, and self direct their own activities, that is one of the key elements of good play when we let the children lead. And the teachers and parents are just kind of scaffolding or observing or making sure that the things are happening that way. So that's why this conversation about learning and what is school, how do we learn these things is critically important. 



Pasi, I guess, you know, when we talk about play it’s sometimes construed as when we think about players, it's that sort of surface-level gamification type experience. But you know, there's a deeper set of engagement when it comes to the use of imagination or the orientation of how one processes and solves problems. Is there that distinction that people seem to misunderstand about the bandwidth of what play can do in terms of its impact?



Yes, I think it's a very good question Ezra. I think that you know, one thing is that for example, the pedagogy of play, when the play [is] used for learning or learning through play, as some people say, it's not very much developed yet conceptually. So in other words, these questions that what makes a good or deeper play in a learning situation, for example, in the school. There are some research, you know, Lego Foundation has done probably the most advanced work in this learning through play. Looking at, again, this different elements. In our book, we offer a five-dimensional view to this deeper play, that includes some of those things that you mentioned. Probably the most important there, of those dimensions, is the degree of what we call self-directedness from the learner's or child's perspective. Meaning that, to what extent [does] the individual have an opportunity to lead the play and vis-à-vishow much is controlled by somebody external, like a parent or child. But then, of course, the imagination and how much the motivation is driven by an inner intrinsic motivation to do these things and some other things. And you know, I think that the next step in this developing the pedagogy of play or play as a, almost like a teaching method, a set of methods of teaching in a school will come up with these types of dimensional aspects of this playful activity that will help teachers, and parents as well, to kind of design these play settings for children so that they are most likely to give the best benefits. This is very important to understand, for every parent, that just by simply saying that, when the children are playing, if they're doing a play, in general, doesn't necessarily lead to all these benefits and outcomes that we can find in our research. It's the same thing as with teaching. If it (teachers) just teach stuff, learning doesn't necessarily happen. You have to do certain things; in a classroom, when the teacher is teaching, you have to keep in mind some of those important aspects of pedagogy and learning and other things, and do those things so that the kids will learn. It's the same with the play — that if we are not aware of those, if we don't think about these things too much. So just to give you an example, if the play for a parent or teacher means that I as an adult am always there, and I'm telling these children what to do and you're going to do this or you must do that or now move this little brick over there. It's taking a lot of these powerful experiences away from kids, that would probably trigger some of these outcomes that we have been measuring. So that's why, just if you've got [time], just go to the playground, I'm sure that, you know, many of the people who are listening to this, that you have probably a playground or place for children to play, just go there and see how differently parents behave with their kids. Some parents that just let their kids go there and do things and you know, [let them] figure out. If you get hurt, I'll come and fix you. Or, you know, you can climb a tree, if you fall down, you probably won’t do it again. Then there are those parents who don't let their kids go anywhere near to the places where something like this would happen. They’ll sit with them, with every equipment there in a playground or sandbox, and make sure that the child doesn't get dirty, the child doesn't hurt himself, the child doesn't be annoyed by other kids there, and many other things. So the parents have very different views on what is play and what is a good play. And, these views often either kind of enforce some of these good behaviours and actions that are included in the play, or they simply remove most of those things away, that leaves children playing in a kind of a fairly shallow or low-quality play that doesn't necessarily bring these good outcomes that we often read about.



I think there is that moment where adults and parents and teachers intervene to help and assist at the wrong time of that chaos right? Just-it's almost [like] we can't help ourselves, but [to] put ourselves in and involve ourselves. Is there something interesting or unique about that interruption that is not helpful to the children's development? Whether it's in the class or on the playground? Like, we seem to allow ourselves to sort of be involved at probably the wrong time? 



Yeah, you're absolutely, absolutely to the point Ezra. You know, it's an understandable thing as parents, but if you see your own child playing, again, if we use this playground example, and she or he is not able to, for example, this child is-your child is left out, or she cannot do something, she cannot climb up something then you go as a parent, you know, this is good parenting, you go there and help and it’s like, do that. And of course, you know, in many cases, that's fine. But, you know, when the child-if the child learns this thing, that if I cannot do something, my father will come and help me. And again, of course, this is a good thing. But we need to understand that these kids also learn this certain type of behavior in this [type of] situation that I don't even need to try, because I can just call my mother. And it's the same in school, that if we overdo this ‘helping behavior’ as teachers in school, that we always [help]. If a kid can kind of do the math problem-I used to be a math teacher for many years, and I know exactly what I'm talking about. If somebody is not able to do a math problem, then I’ll go there and say, “Don't worry, I'll do it for you.” It's that-what the kid is-, it's not about helping the child-the student to do the thing, but they learn how to cope with this situation when I have this feeling that I cannot do these things. So that's why it's an opportunity for parents, and some teachers also, to learn more about how we can trust more in this children's ability to, in many cases-not always-but in many cases, to figure out how to solve these situations where they are in. This is an extremely important skill in life. Because you know, as soon as you leave your parents, and you go and be by yourself, you go to study in the university or go and work, your mother is not there, your father is not there. And if you haven't learned this thing [about] how to come out in a difficult situation. You know, this is close to this resilience idea that “How do you come back from a situation that is hard for you?” If you haven't learned that, but you know, those kids are finding it much harder in life, whether it's the studies or work or relationships or something like this, to come out of those things. So that's why, often these things are related to very early behaviors of children. You know, there's a thing that we write in the book called executive functions. You know, it's an important set of thinking skills and metacognitive skills of everybody, you know, some of us, we have more developed executive functions and some, some are not. And, you know, these executive functions have three categories; 


  • Working memory is one. That we can recall things and then use those sorts of things for a moment later for something else. 
  • Flexible thinking. This is about being able to think about situations from different kind of a step-outside-of-the-box type of thing in life that you are not just fixed to your point of view, but you are able to see your situations and problems and things from different perspectives. 
  • And then there’s the self control. That you are able to control your own emotions, and you can stop, when things are hard, you can stop and think. 


And these three areas of your executive function are the ones that mostly develop during the first five to six years of your life, okay? Of course we can develop those things later. But those people who have not been able to develop these executive functions, early years, will have [a] much harder time to learn those things later. Just think about somebody who is-when something unexpected happens, your first reaction is anger, or you break things, or you'll get angry with somebody. How difficult it is to learn those things (habits) away. But that's why the play, that is, according to the research and experts, is one of the best ways to help all the children to develop those executive functions in the early years [and] is so important. And if all the children would learn these executive functions, develop those things well enough in early years before they go to school, their life in the school and outside of the school would be much easier. And that is one kind of a, you know-if I had to give one reason why children should play more than they do right now, as we write in the book, I would say that high quality play, if you do it frequently, and frequently means all the children should play at least one hour every day in school, and another hour, when they are not in school. Every day, at least two hours of play, if you do that with your children, and give them opportunities for high quality play, free-structured play with other children, the likelihood that these children will develop these executive functions that are critically important for their future life would be much more advanced. That's a kind of a simple thing. Then the play has all these other benefits that we can very well report it, that it's good for your physical condition, it's good for your social relationships, and many other things. But this thing that is part of our brain, and is so important in helping us to cope and deal with life situations. [It] is the key thing that comes with play. And there's no question about it’s a very difficult challenge, say, the play would not be important for that. There's a lot of research that is done in a kind of animal experiments, but also human beings, where the play has been taken away from kids life, or it hasn't been present there. This is what we call a play deprivation experiments. And so we can compare the kids who have not played, who have not had access to play, and those who have done a lot of play and it's easy to see how these-particularly how these execute functions are very differently developed in these kids. So that's why that is the-for all the parents, that is one of the critical things in children's development. 



When punk, and rock and roll, and when hip hop was in the underground, before it's fully entrenched into pop culture, where is play in the pop culture realm of education? And because it's serious enough that over the past, I don't know, maybe 10 to 15 years that it's been sort of introduced. But is it sort of still kept at arm's length, either by administrators, or even maybe from the conservatism of parents and their upbringing? Where do you see it sitting right now? 



It's a great question Ezra. One of the important notions that we have made and we clearly realized this while doing the research for the book is that if somebody-if the parent now who is listening to this, ask me that “Okay, where does the most convincing evidence come for, in favor of play? Who are those people who are making the strongest and most understandable case for children that play is important? That every child should play two or three hours every day?” There's no question about it nowadays. It doesn't come from people like me, it doesn't come from my colleagues who have done, often 10s of years of research on learning through play and children, their development, and many other things. By far, the most convincing and important evidence for the importance of play comes from the pediatricians, the medical doctors now. And that is important, because firstly, because they are these people [who] come outside of the education community. So they didn't look at these children from, how do they do better in school. Pediatricians, medical doctors, have a kind of a holistic view on children. They look at their health and well-being and development in general for the future. And this is [the difference] that people often-when they look at somebody like me or my colleagues, they think “I'm only concerned about school, or learning or about what happens in the classroom type of thing. But pediatricians don't have this. They are seen in a different light. And the other one is that, and this is a simple fact everywhere, that when a medical doctor is telling you something about your own child's health and well-being like when when we have our GP or pediatrician tell something that we should do with our own children, to make them healthier, and happier and feeling better. Guess what? We're going to do it because it's a doctor's order. But it's the same thing that if an educator in a school says that it would be good for you to do this and that, it's like, “Yeah, thank you very much. But you know, I know better what to do with my kid. So there is still-it’s much-what I'm saying here is that, it's much easier for parents to challenge what the teachers are saying, what is good for your children than, you know “Who dares to challenge the medical doctor”, unless you are a medical doctor yourself, then you have something to say about this. But not all of us are. And that's why when we read what the pediatricians-like, in the United States, there's a thing called American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), that represents almost 70,000 children's doctors in the USA. So they have this association Academy. And they have done now, during the last 10 years, a stronger and stronger advocacy to promote the importance of play for parents and schools and everybody else. And if you read those, they have their 2018 clinical report that is calledThe Power of Playthat I recommend [to] anybody who wants to see how the doctors see this thing. When you read this brief document through, it takes about an hour, you get all the evidence and all the reasons why play is important for the children, but also, what happens to the children, if they don't play, you're only gonna come to one conclusion is that play is important. And I'm saying this, because there are many people, many of my colleagues who have done this work for the children's play for a long time, that they have not been able to tell the story in the same way. Or it may be that they don't have this kind of prestige or trust behind them, the status in front of the parents and educators to say these things. So this is really good news Ezra, that's what I'm saying here is that when the pediatricians and medical doctors are saying these things alongside with educators and teachers, things can change. If the pediatricians would be saying something completely different, for example, that there's so many risks and dangers related to play, that the kids should be rather going to school and learn well and take care of themselves that will be [a] different thing. But that's you know, that's not what [is] happening. For example, the medical doctors are really concerned now about the things around the world that kids have less and less time during the school day for recess and play. This is particularly true in the United States and here in Australia. That you look at the little children, what their school day looks like, that they really have a moment for themselves to do things, you know, play and do their own things.



There are folks who are listening to this, and, you know, they're listening to play as is this opportunity. It's an opportunity for positive change. And perhaps there are folks who are keen to adopt these things, but perhaps see play almost as a privilege? How do we speak to folks who are trying to bridge that gap? Of what play means in terms of its accessibility? Which is, which seems like such an oxymoronic idea? Because play is available for everyone. But there is that sort of that block?



Yeah, I see what you mean, and it's probably often starts with this conversation. Just like it's important to speak about [and] have a conversation about what is learning? But this is equally important, the conversation about what is play and what do we mean by that? And I think that often, some of these ways of thinking, that you described, maybe because we simply understand play in a different way. That we don't share the same-we're not talking about the same thing. And that's why I think it's-before any serious conversation that you were referring to, whether it's in a school or community or at home, I think it's good to have this conversation about what do we mean by play. For example, now, if there are parents listening to this, this is a great dinner conversation at home. Whether you have children or grandchildren, or no children at all, just to have a dinner conversation about just, “Tell me about what you think about play? Why do you think it's [an] important thing? And what does it look like? What are these different kinds of manifestations of forms of play?” So that we would be sure that we at least talk about the similar types of thing (play). But you’re also right that some people see it as a privilege. There’s somebody [who] wrote a review, a very kind of, a recognized academic in the United States who concluded that our book is dangerous. Because it's advocating things that can be harmful for the disadvantaged kids. And the thinking was that, if you're privileged, you often have less issues with the school education. Or you can afford to hire private teachers, private tutors to take care of your own children. But if you're not, you depend on school, and the school time should not be wasted on play but for a direct instruction to make sure that also these disadvantaged kids would be catching up and staying in the same boat than everybody else. Which is, one way to see this thing. But it illustrates that we have a very different idea of what play is. Because this type of thinking means that probably, this person thinks play as something you do when the serious learning or work is done. It's a kind of a entertainment, a waste of time. But when we talk about play in this book, and when I'm speaking about play right now, I'm thinking about something that has a wide range of expected outcomes, just like any teaching in a school. The difference is that when children play by themselves, the role of the teacher or school is very different. But it's the same. It's not a waste of time, it's not something that we just see that when the break is over, and we go to the next class, but it's the time for kids to learn these things. So that's why I think Ezra, that these conversations about “What is play?”, “What does it look like?”, “How is it important for people?”. “What we are doing now?”, “What are the practices in my family or my school, in terms of these are so important?” Before we can actually move into the practice, I'm actually warning people [not] to rush too quickly with any of these efforts to bring more play to schools or families and others without at first understanding why we do this.



Is that right, as exciting as it is there is that you're more comfortable with the notion that we sort of have these sort of larger and wider conversations about what play represents before even sort of putting it-bringing the tractors and the lorries to introduce it. And that's important, why?



Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Because while I've been here, I've been contacted by a number of, mostly, teachers in the schools who are really excited and interested in this play thing and they would like to change this school. The school schedules and playgrounds and curriculum, you know, all those things. And then they write to me and say that, I was so excited about this thing. And I prepared this proposal for the school principal and or the school counselor. And they came back to me as a no, no, not in my school. That this is a place for learning. And, this kind of illustrates this thing that probably those people who read these proposals had a different idea about what this person is meaning. That's why I think these conversations are extremely important. For example, you know, if there is a conversation between the parents counsel and the school about these things, [on] how to improve the school. Rather than rushing into, like you said, that, you know, bring bulldozers to the school yard and paved by new things. It’s to have this conversation that, why is it important? What do we really want to do? So that everybody would understand. And I'm absolutely sure that if you have a roomful of parents that they all have a different view of this. Here, for example, there are many, just probably like in Malaysia, there are many parents who think that, all of the time when the children are in school [that it] should be dedicated to a formal teaching and learning that that's why the kids are in school. They go to school to learn, okay. And if parents think like this, it's very hard to get them [to] accept, the idea that there should be a bigger playground and more breaks during the school day, or that we should integrate play as part of the regular teaching [system] in schools. If they don't see why people are making these points. You know, Ezra, so many of these good ideas have been blocked and killed because of the lack of these important conversations, and that's why I think it's critically important to do. And this is what I've been recommending here is that when you have these conversations, why don't you have one of your medical doctors, a pediatrician, children doctors, to kick off this conversation there and bring their perspective on what do the kids need today to grow up healthy and happy and learn well in school. And you don't even need to tell these pediatricians the placements of play because they will do that anyway, they will bring this [up] as first thing, the importance of play and [the] things related to play. And this can be the conversation change. These types of things that people really realize that “I never thought about it. This sounds like a good thing” or “I never knew that play has really [been] benefiting [in] so many ways what the kids are doing. So it may be that these types of proposals have more fertile ground when the good set of discussions and dialogues have been taking place. I would never recommend-just use power. Just to call the authority somewhere up there and say, can you help me to get this through, because it may happen, but it will never be good thing for the school or parents or the kids in the end if the people don't really understand why they are doing that.



Pasi, you know, it’s been a few years since we last saw each other and as much as this has been terribly enjoyable, I do hope to be able to see you in person, whether it’s here in Kuala Lumpur or in Sydney and I hope that you stay safe and good luck on all of your future endeavors including that book that’s coming out soon as well and I really appreciate your time, and I appreciate you having this chat.



So Ezra, thank you very much for having me in your programme. I really like what you do, and I wish you all the best in your campaign for a good cause that you have and I think that we need more people like you there and here and everywhere to have these conversations that as you probably saw during this time that we had together, that I have been returning to the same idea of having conversations and when I look at these many other countries here and particularly United States where people are… they’re not even in the same room. They’re just starting to one-another and accusing and blaming and saying bad words about one-another. That’s not a good way, the better way is to get to the same room, sit down even if you disagree with many things and have a conversation about play, and learning, and school, and politics and whatever. That’s the only way that we can help people to change their minds or think differently. And help us to change our way of thinking as well. That’s why I think that what you do and in this position that you have, to encourage people to listen to your programs and your words, and then have a conversation about that. That’s exactly the way forward. So thank you for what you do and stay safe and good luck with your work.




Pasi Sahlberg is currently based in Sydney, Australia. If you would like to know more about his work, I would recommend the book co-written with Michael Doyle.Let the Children Play: How more play will save our schools and help children thrive.


Do check out the show notes for links to all of the things we spoke about in the interview. I asked him for a couple of book recommendations. And here they are:

  1. Born to Runby Bruce Springsteen
  2. Moving: A Memoir of Education and Social Mobilityby Andy Hargreaves

The Ezra Zaid Project is made by me, Ezra Zaid. I host, produce and edit the show. Our team includes Raissa Nadine, Asper Goh, Sabrina Yusof, Rahmah Pauzi, Melati Kamaruddin and Chun Saw. 


Special thanks to my cousin, Raissa — she’s been with me from the start of this podcast and this is her last week at the Project; having completed her internship with us. And so we wish her the very best of luck. 


This episode was mixed and mastered by Meelz. Additional music for this episode is provided by Blue dot sessions.


Our handle is@projectezrazaidon Instagram, Twitter and FB. 


By the way, I’m looking for some help from listeners just like yourself - if you like or dislike what you hear on this podcast, I’ve put up a short survey to find out how I can improve. I’d love to hear what you think.The link is in the show notes or head over toezrazaid.com




Now, if you’re still there, hello. Or maybe you’ve just fallen asleep, and I’m a talking unicorn in your dreams. But anyway, this is the postscript — I wanted to share a little moment with you from behind the scenes.


If I were to tell you as to one of my motivations about speaking to Pasi and his ideas on play, creativity and learning — it was spurred on by this video I and many others came across on YouTube in the late 2000s. This fabled speech, “Do Schools Kill Creativity”  by Sir Ken Robinson --  it has been viewed online over 60 million times and seen by an estimated 380 million people in 160 countries.In a nutshell, he makes a moving case for creating an education system that nurtures (rather than undermines) creativity. 


Anyway, the recording of this interview with Pasi takes place on a Friday. 2 days later, I was in the car and that’s when I came across the sad news that Sir Ken Robinson had passed away after a short battle with cancer.He was 70.


It came to me as a surprise. And it wasn’t lost on me that Pasi had a meaningful friendship with Sir Ken Robinson; we did briefly speak about him and of course, he did pen the foreword for Pasi’s book:Let The Children Play.And so, out of courtesy, I dropped an email to Pasi to offer my condolences. He replied back, it was a short note. It read:

“Ezra, the night before our interview, I wrote my farewell letter to him knowing that he will not last over the weekend. Heavy heart. Big loss. That’s why I wanted to have him in our chat.”


Well, I wanted to share that bite from our interview. In memory of, Sir Ken Robinson. 



What is the personal motivation here, when you speak to me about this idea. Because it sounds like, it’s beyond just piggy-backing on the evidence and the research.



I came into this play thing like, fairly late. I never thought that I would be having conversations like this with you or talking to thousands of people about the power of play, or how important it is. I’ve always been advocating and emphasizing the importance of all those things that come with play, creativity and children’s own leadership of the things. But the two episode that are important in why I think about more of those things.


  • About ten years ago, I had a huge honor and opportunity to meet for the first time, Sir Ken Robinson. Of course, millions of people have seen his TED talks and the way he is communicating these things. For me, it was kind of a moment of like, meeting with Bruce Springsteen, or somebody like that. But Sir Ken has this kind of charisma [and] at the same time, he’s a rock star of play and creativity and those things. But he’s an extremely humble and kind and loving friend and person to talk to. He left a huge mark in me in these first meetings when we had and I admired his passion to these same things that I think. The main thing really, if I go back to those conversations, I understood how intimately he clinged [to] this creative aspect of human beings and play together. I had always understood both of them separately, that play has always been important for-coming from Finland where everybody is playing, and that play is a natural thing, and creativity on the other side. But I didn’t see the connection in that way that you could strongly argue for this before I started to read Sir Ken’s work or get into these closer conversations afterwards. So I think that he really helped me to first of all, believe more in myself in thinking that way, and help me to see this real connection between creativity, overall-I mean in the lives of people, in general. When they’re out with someone, when they’re work[ing] and do these things and play[ing]. I couldn’t believe in these connections so strongly as what he and many others have been saying, that these early years of school in primary school, or school in general, is so important in unlocking, unleashing this creativity of the people afterwards. That was the important thing.
  • This came unexpectedly [in] 2016, when Lego Foundation awarded me with the annual Lego Prize in Denmark that actually Sir Ken Robinson received just before me. It was in the same line of these life experiences for me, that I knew that Ken was awarded the Lego Prize. That is a very prestigious recognition for one person a year who has done significant global work and contribution to the creativity and learning in young people. So, I received that in 2016 and it came with a good amount of cash money to continue working in this field. And this particular award or prize made me really think about [whether] I wanted to do a little more work in this field. And then I came-just by accident-I came across my friend William Doyle who lives in New York and is a first class writer. He’s a professional book writer. [He has] a beautiful way of writing quickly and nicely and understandably. So we met just after my award. I’ve known Will before, but we had a conversation about play and we both love LEGO bricks, and then in the middle of the conversation, he said-



(Finger snap)


-let’s write an article about play and learning through play in Finland and in the United States. So we wrote a little bit and the article appeared to be a 200 page manuscript. So we continued working, doing a lot of research and interviewed people around the world and visited [a] number of countries to see what play looks like around the world. And that’s how the ‘Let the Children Play’ book that was published exactly a year ago came about. But you know, if you asked me 10 years ago and you tell me that a few years from now, you’re going to write a book about children’s play, I would say that you must forgive me, I’m a serious academic and I would write about education policy and school reforms and teacher educat[ion]. It’s a coincidence to get into this space, but in a way, I mentioned Ken Robinson and there are some others who have helped me put these pieces together. There’s nothing really completely new that I have done. I’ve seen the connection of many of those things that I’ve been working on before much better now.