IT seems like your average classroom, until a head pops up from behind the stationery station in the corner.
With a glare - understandably put out that her happy reading is being interrupted - the young pupil returns to her book in her private pad.
In a similar enclave opposite, two of her classmates joke and laugh as they try to beat each other at cards.
Welcome to school in Finland. Even by Finnish standards, this particular school - the Lauttasaari Primary School in Helsinki - is considered cutting edge, but other schools around the Nordic country are fast catching up with their own alternative learning spaces.
Finland is among the first nations to include in its national education guidelines an explicit requirement for schools to rethink not only how and why students learn but also where.
In its earlier experiment in a school in Oulu, northern Finland, tables and mattresses were put in the corridors to create independent learning spaces for students.
At Lauttasaari, mattresses are nowhere to be seen, but hammocks and cushions are scattered around the school for students to lounge on while they read, reflect or recharge.
Personalising learning spaces is only one aspect of the policy to innovate learning environments though.
In the last few years another feature has become a bigger priority: the integration of physical activities into the learning environment and teaching strategy. It even sparked its own national action programme called “Finnish Schools on the Move”.
Piloted in 2010 to 2012 with 45 schools across the country, the initiative is aimed at ensuring that students get at least one hour of physical activity in school each day.
“Our target is to increase physical activity and decrease sedentary time among students in school. This means encouraging more movement and less sitting,” Finnish Schools on the Move project manager Antti Blom tells a group of visiting Asian media recently.
He adds this programme is aligned to the guidelines by the World Health Organisation, which recommend that children and young teenagers aged between five and 17 should perform at least an hour of moderate physical exercise a day.
The Finnish Schools on the Move programme was conceived when in early 2010 experts raised an alarm – Finnish children were out of shape and it was impacting their learning.
Finland had prided itself on producing children with not only some of the highest academic results in the world, but also one of the highest fitness levels, says Blom, “So, even though we knew that it was a global phenomenon and Finnish children were not the only ones not getting enough exercise, that finding hit a sore spot.”
After various discussions and consultations, the government decided that the best way to increase students’ mobility and reduce their sedentary time was to create opportunities for physical activity in the traditional class scenarios, instead of increasing the number of hours for physical education (PE).
“It would cost a lot to get equipment for PE and train teachers as we don’t have that many PE teachers. But you can arrange for more physical activity in regular classes with less money,” explains Blom.
This, he adds, means varying working positions for students to reduce their sedentary time, by adopting active working and teaching methods such as group work, games, project work, role play and collaborative learning.
On the move
To stop students from spending too long sitting down during lessons, they are also encouraged to do short exercises or have energiser games in between tasks. Classes are slashed shorter to accommodate more breaks, with some marked for outdoor activities.
These measures – combined with the more conventional steps of revamping school fields, enhancing sports and outdoor game facilities, as well as upgrading gymnasiums and installing various indoor sports apparatus like table tennis – proved to be effective, and Finnish Schools on the Move was rolled out to more schools.
“The results speak for themselves: children who were more active were more attentive in class and did better in school. Exercising, playing and learning together also helped children to connect socially and develop their interaction skills.
“Unsurprisingly, after the pilot project, other schools were keen to implement the programme, and now it has expanded to over 1,900 schools out of 2,600 nationwide,” he notes, highlighting that around €14mil (RM66.9mil) a year is spent on Schools on the Move.
Key to the effectiveness of the initiative, Blom stresses, is the autonomy granted to each school to design and carry out its own plans in “activating its school days.”
Lauttasaari, which was already scheduled to move to a new building when it enrolled in the Finnish Schools on the Move programme, had its teachers and administrators working together with the architects, engineers and designers on their new school’s building layout and interior design to make it optimally conducive for physical activity.
Together they came up with open-concept classrooms with movable furniture to allow teachers to change the space according to the needs of their lessons.
Lauttasaari also maximised the utilisation of empty spaces and corridors connecting the different sections of the school by installing various equipment – which are seen more often in outside playgrounds than indoors, like plastic tunnels and bridges – to encourage students to jump, crawl, climb and balance in between lessons.
“Ultimately it’s about initiating a cultural change. We are trying to foster a physically-active culture in schools, but the idea is that if children don’t sit for too long in class now and move about more, they will be less likely to have a sedentary lifestyle when they are older,” says Lauttasaari headteacher, Johanna Honkanen-Rihun.
That is why many schools have adopted a simpler strategy – getting rid of the furniture in the classroom.
“It really started out as an experiment – some schools have made their classrooms completely desk or/and chair free just to see what will happen,” Blom concedes, highlighting that it has forced students to complete their work while standing or move about in the classroom as they search for a good “learning spot”, including lying down on the floor to do their work.
Then you have the unconventional chairs like exercise balls, bean bags and rocking chairs to promote active sitting.
“What is clear is that many children are fascinated by the changes and they like them,” he shares.
Unfortunately, a recent global analysis of children’s physical activity by Active Healthy Kids Global Alliance showed that despite the progress made by the Finnish Schools on the Move programme, a lot still needs to be done in Finland to boost its children’s physical activity.
In its 2016 Active Healthy Kids report card, Finland rated poorly against 37 countries – less than half of Finnish school children are found to have moved as much as national guideline recommendations say they should, while just one in five secondary school students are engaging in the recommended amount of physical activity.
This has led the government to recruit parents in the exercise while upgrading their recommendations for the hours of physical activity that kids should be getting – according to the Ministry of Education and Culture and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, seven to 18- year-olds should be physically active for at least one to two hours a day while children under the age of eight should be physically active for at least three hours per day.
“Parents should encourage their children to walk or cycle to school and play ballgames and other physical activity during breaks. But more important than break times and school commute, parents have to actively encourage their children to pursue hobbies and interests that require physical exertion,” Blom notes.