Play Well

Parenting: A new book about how they parent in Denmark offers lessons for overprogrammed American kids

In Denmark, dating back to 1871, husband and wife Niels and Erna Juel-Hansen came up with the first pedagogy based on educational theory, which incorporated play. They discovered that free play is crucial for a child's development. In fact, for many years, Danish children weren't even allowed to start school before they were 7. Educators and people who set the agenda for children's schooling didn't want them to engage in education because they felt that children should first and foremost be children, and simply play. Even now, children age 10 and under finish regular school at 2 pm and then have the option to go to what is called "free-time school" (skolefritidsordning) for the rest of the day, where they are mainly encouraged to play. Amazing, but true!

In a pilot study conducted on preschool children in a child development center in Massachusetts, researchers wanted to measure whether there was a positive correlation between the level of playfulness in preschoolers and their coping skills. Using a test of playfulness and a coping inventory, the researchers cross-checked the children's playfulness and the quality of their coping skills. They found a direct positive correlation between children's playfulness level and their ability to cope. The more they played — that is, the better they became at learning social skills and engaging in social/play contexts — the better they were at coping. This led the researchers to believe that play had a direct effect on all of their life adaptability skills.

Another study, conducted by occupational therapy professor Louise Hess and colleagues at a health institute in Palo Alto, California, sought to investigate the relationship between playfulness and coping skills in adolescent boys. They studied both normally developing boys and those with emotional problems. As in the preschool study, for both groups of boys there was a direct and significant correlation between the level of playfulness and their ability to cope. The researchers concluded that play could be employed to improve coping skills, particularly the abilities to adapt and to approach problems and goals in a more flexible way.

Play is so central to the Danish view of childhood that many Danish schools have programs in place to promote learning through sports, play and exercise for all students. Play Patrol, for example, is focused on the youngest elementary school students and is facilitated by the older ones. These student-led programs encourage both young and older students to play various activities such as hide-and-seek, firefighter or family pet — and to encourage shy, lonely kids to join in the game, too. This type of fun and imaginative play, with mixed age groups, encourages kids to test themselves in a way they wouldn't with their parents or teachers. It greatly reduces bullying and further fosters social skills and self-control.

click to enlarge Co-authors Jessica Alexander (top) and Iben Sandahl
Co-authors Jessica Alexander (top) and Iben Sandahl

Almost everyone has heard of Lego and played with the famous colorful building blocks at least once in their lives. One of the most popular toys in history, Lego was dubbed "the toy of the century" by Fortune magazine at the start of the millennium. Originally made from wood, Lego has never lost its fundamental building-block concept. Like the zone of proximal development, Lego can work for all ages. When a child is ready to take the next step toward a more challenging construction, there are Legos made for doing so. It's a wonderful way to play with your child to gently help them master a new level. They can play on her own or with friends; countless hours have been spent playing with Lego all over the world.

The interesting fact that most people don't know about Lego is that it comes from Denmark. Created by a Danish carpenter in his workshop in 1932, it was called Lego as a contraction of the words leg godt, which means "play well." Even then, the idea of using your imagination to play freely was in full bloom.

So the next time you see your children swinging from the branches, jumping off some rocks or play-fighting with their friends and you want to intervene to save them, remember that this is their way of learning how much stress they can endure. When they are playing in a group with some difficult children and you want to protect them, remember that they are learning self-control and negotiation skills with all kinds of different personalities to keep the game alive. This is their way of testing their own abilities and developing adaptability skills in the process. The more they play, the more resilient and socially adept they will become. It's a very natural process. Being able to leg godt, or "play well," is the building block to creating an empire of future happiness. ♦

Excerpted from The Danish Way of Parenting by Jessica Joelle Alexander and Iben Sandahl. For more information, visit

Empathy Cake

We all know what a Danish pastry is — that delightful caloric bomb of glazed breakfast deliciousness. But what about a Danish classroom cake? And moreover, how can this help teach empathy?

While researching our book, The Danish Way of Parenting, my co-author and I interviewed numerous teachers and students across Denmark to learn how they incorporate empathy in schools and at home.

The Danes' highly developed sense of empathy is one of the main reasons Denmark is consistently voted one of the happiest countries in the world. Empathy plays a key role in improving our social connections, which is a major factor in our overall happiness. What many don't realize is that empathy is a learned skill that many of us miss out on in America.

We describe several empathy programs for younger kids in our book, but one of the most interesting programs, that starts on the first day of school at six years old and continues until graduation at age 16, is called "Klassen Time" or "the Class's Hour."

"The Class's Hour" is set for a special time once a week, and it is a core part of the curriculum. The purpose is for all the students to come together in a comfortable setting to talk about any problems they may be having. Together, the class tries to find a solution. And this is where the "Klassen Time kage," or "the Class's Hour cake," comes in. It's a simple cake that students take turns baking every week for the occasion.

It's interesting to think what implementing the Class's Hour in the U.S. school system could do for our future. By dedicating an hour a week to teaching kids to put themselves in someone else's shoes, what kind of changes could we bring about? Looking to the world happiness reports year after year, I can't help but think that incorporating a version of the Danish Class's Hour in our schools and improving empathy could literally be a piece of cake.

— Jessica Joelle Alexander

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