Books

'Lego' Is Danish for 'Play Well'—Danes Prioritize Children's Playtime, a Key to Happy Development

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.

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The following is an excerpt from the new book The Danish Way of Parenting by Jessica Alexander & Iben Sandahl (TarcherPerigee, 2016): 

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 seven. 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 play. Even now, children age ten and under finish regular school at two p.m. 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!

Play and Coping Skills

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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. What they found was that there was 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.

The Truth Behind Lego and Playgrounds

Almost everyone has heard of Lego and played with the famous colorful building blocks at least once in their lives. Ostensibly 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 the 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 her master a new level. She can play on her own or with friends; countless hours have been spent playing with Lego all over the world.

The interesting fact 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.

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Jessica Alexander is an American expat, author, columnist and cultural trainer. She graduated with a BS in a psychology and went on to teach communication and writing skills in Scandinavia and central Europe. Married to a Dane for 13 years, she lives in Rome with her husband and two children, Sophia and Sebastian. Her new release is "The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids," (TarcherPerigee Paperback) co-authored by Iben Sandahl.