Is the Danish concept of free play in danger?

Parenting expert Jessica Alexander worries that even in Denmark, where play is seen as a necessary part of a child’s life, free play could be pushed out by a focus on competitiveness.

Is the Danish concept of free play in danger?
Can 'play' be packaged and sold? Photo: famveldman /Iris/Scanpix
I recently took a tour around the International School of Billund, Denmark which is backed by the Lego Foundation and situated in the Lego capital of the world, so to speak. 
For those who don’t know, Lego is a Danish brand and it is a combination of the words 'leg godt' or ‘play well’. It’s one of the building blocks of Denmark’s firm belief that children need a lot of unstructured playtime to be healthy.
Rows and rows of Lego-based learning could be seen throughout the school along with tinkering walls, creative corners and design centres where kids were making clothes in Project Runway style rooms as part of their after-school programming. The school is built on a philosophy of learning through play, and teachers strive to incorporate play and creativity into the curriculum at every stage, from kindergarten through students' early teens. This is special even for Denmark, where play is seen as a necessary part of a child’s life.
While I was there, I ran into a group of Harvard researchers who were working together with teachers to investigate what it means to put play at the heart of a school’s curriculum and how one measures this.  The idea is to create an educational framework and tools that can be used by other educators interested in making learning more playful. 
While I think this research is truly fascinating, I also feel a little bit nervous about it.
When my book ‘The Danish Way of Parenting’ was first released, I did several interviews with my co-author about play and what the future might look like in countries where free play had declined in favour of scheduled, adult-led activities. 
Some studies, for example, show that the amount of a child’s free play in America has dropped 50 percent since the 1950s just to put it in perspective.
One thing I kept repeating in these interviews was my fear that free play might one day become an oxymoron or commercialized. I was afraid that, as soon as it was proven to be serious learning, someone would surely want to measure it, package it and ultimately sell it. 
Let me say that the International School of Billund is not interested in selling its findings or quantifying the “learning results” for any toy or technique. School officials know that they are investigating something that is almost inherently unmeasurable, but they believe that it’s worth it if it empowers children to see learning as a pleasurable lifelong pursuit. I think what they are doing is very interesting and the school is brilliant.
My concern, however, is that at some point, somebody will try to quantify the concept of “play” and sell it. And the idea of charging for play feels a bit like selling an overpriced apple and labelling it as a diet product. It defeats what should just be a natural healthy part of life, not a specialized technique or super food. 
I can already foresee parents cutting back on the violin, Chinese and organic cupcake making lessons to enrol their kids in free play courses where children could get score cards on how much their social skills, negotiation and empathy capabilities increase. Where they can get graded for their collaboration, self-control and resiliency. All of these things, unfortunately, completely defeat the purpose of why play is so good in the first place. 
Free play is a child’s way of making sense of their worlds. It’s their way of coping with anxiety and expressing themselves and feeling in control of their own destiny. This is where some of their sense of self-esteem gets developed and this can’t be controlled, coaxed or measured by an adult. 
I often wonder if that competitive edge everyone wants to buy for their kids is cutting away at the very self-esteem we want to build up. What if kids really just need more freedom to feel in control of their own lives?
All of this pressure is coming from an ever increasingly competitive society. It’s not coming from kids. They are just mirroring what we want. If we could relax ourselves, sand down our competitive edges, let kids be kids and trust them more to trust in themselves, we might see a drop in anxiety and a true increase in happiness down the line. And wouldn’t those be measurable results we could be proud of?
Jessica AlexanderJessica Alexander is an American author who co-wrote 'The Danish Way of Parenting: A Guide to Raising the Happiest Kids in the World'. She has been married to a Dane for over 13 years and has always been fascinated by cultural differences. She speaks four languages and currently lives in Rome with her husband and two children. Her book can be purchased via Amazon and Saxo

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‘I am not a runner’: Putting Danish resilience to the test

Columnist and parenting expert Jessica Alexander wonders if she can use the Danes' secret to success to turn herself into a runner.

'I am not a runner': Putting Danish resilience to the test
Photo: Colourbox
I’m not a runner. In fact, I hate running. I think it is one of the most boring sports there is after golf.
The thing is, my brain wanders while I am out there and if the song isn’t right, or my mood isn’t perfect, my thoughts take over and tell me my legs hurt and I end up walking, ultimately feeling frustrated by the whole process. 
Now, my Danish family runs the Rome-Ostia half marathon in Italy every year. For me, this is borderline insanity and I have never understood why anyone would want to put themselves through that kind of torture. 
However, one night last year, after way too much wine, I got cajoled (a.k.a bullied) into signing up to run it with my brother-in-law this year. There were a lot of heated discussions going on at the time so I thought the whole incident had been forgotten. That is until we opened up our Christmas presents this year: running gear. Oh no.
But it suddenly struck me how those words in my head and out loud were affecting me. “I am not a runner”. Why am I not a runner? Where did I get that belief? And more importantly, how in line is it with the book I co-authored?
In our book, ‘The Danish Way of Parenting’, we talk a lot about authenticity and Danes not overusing praise or labels with their children. Thus, kids are not boxed into one description or belief about themselves but know that they can master anything if they work hard. This builds resilience, a key factor in happiness.
The idea falls under the now very popular concept of a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset, terms coined by famous Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. What she has proven is that our brains are much more capable of learning throughout our lifespan than previously believed. And if we think we can grow and learn, we do. If we label too much we can develop a fixed mindset, which can be stunting.
Thus, when you tell children they are smart or talented all the time, they begin to label themselves accordingly and work to fit into that label. Her studies have shown that smart kids often stop trying if a task feels too hard for them because they feel it might prove they aren’t smart. But if kids are told they can learn anything if they try (not that they are smart or not smart) they indeed, keep trying. That’s because they have a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset.
Danes, in general, are much better at this as a culture. If a child shows a parent a picture they have drawn, the immediate response is not to say “That’s amazing! You are a great artist!” They might instead say “Wow, what is it? It’s very colorful. Could you draw me another one?” 
Praise is not handed out like hot cakes in Denmark and it’s not normal practice to constantly tell one’s child how smart and talented they are. Danes are also a lot less afraid to tell you the truth if something could be better, or flat out sucks. That’s Danish honesty at its finest.
And so, it got me thinking. Did I have the power to change my own beliefs by practicing a growth mindset for myself? I could talk the talk with my kids but could I walk the walk (or run the run) with myself?
I decided to put the “I am not a runner” statement to the test. I got my running shoes on and started training, both physically and mentally. I overrode my brain when it wanted me to walk. I told myself that I was in fact running right now so I am a runner. If I keep running that’s what I will be. 
They say that neurons that fire together, wire together so the more we build up a new belief, the stronger and easier it will come to us with practice. Even our thoughts have to be trained.  And truly, I could feel that old label breaking down one step at a time.
This morning I just finished a 10km run without stopping and it feels pretty amazing. It’s a far cry from 21, but at the same time a big leap from two. And I realize that it is precisely this “can do” mentality that makes such a difference in life. 
Who cares whether you win a medal or what grades you get or how much praise you receive if you don’t know how to challenge and push yourself for the sake of betterment? This is where real internal drive comes from and it is the wellspring of deep happiness.
Because none of us are just lazy, smart, athletic, artistic, slow or whatever label you are still wearing from your childhood. We are all capable of growing and learning at any time in our life. Science has clearly proven this now.
If we teach our children they can do anything if they try – not just for an external reward, but for an internal satisfaction – we are teaching them that resilience and perseverance is what breeds true success and happiness in the long run.
Jessica AlexanderJessica Alexander is an American author who co-wrote 'The Danish Way of Parenting: A Guide to Raising the Happiest Kids in the World'. She has been married to a Dane for over 13 years and has always been fascinated by cultural differences. She speaks four languages and currently lives in Rome with her husband and two children. Her book can be purchased via Amazon and Saxo