Is the Danish secret to happy children hidden in the word Lego?

We have all thought about what it means to be a parent from time to time, but have you ever wondered what it means to be an American parent and how our culture affects the way we view what we think is the right way to parent? In Norway, parents regularly leave children to sleep outside in -20 degree weather, in Belgium children are allowed to drink beer and Japan kids ride the metro at 7 years old. While these behaviors may sound bizarre to us, to these parents, they are the “right way”. 

These implicit ideas we have about the right way to raise children are what Sarah Harkness, a professor of human development at the University of Connecticut, calls “parental ethnotheories”. These beliefs are so engrained in us that it is almost impossible to see them objectively.  

But what if we could take off our cultural lenses for a moment and try on another perspective? What if we could look through the lenses of one of the happiest countries in the world for over 40 years in a row and see what they believe is the right way to raise children. Is there anything we might learn? What if one of the secrets to their success was as simple as child’s play?  

Denmark, the land of Lego and Hans Christian Andersen, is currently the happiest country in the world and one thing they do differently is they see free, unstructured, non-adult led play as one of the most important activities a child can engage in. It is considered an educational theory and has been since 1871. Danes don’t believe in over programming their children’s lives with afterschool activities because play is the most important teacher.  

“Free play is seen as crucial, not optional in Denmark” says Dorthe Mikkelsen a Danish teacher of a Fritid skole or “Free time School” (where children are only encouraged to play after they finish regular school for hours). “Play helps children process all of what they learn with others. It builds empathy, negotiation and skills that are so important for building the child’s self esteem, not just in academics.”  

Scientists have been studying play in animals for years trying to understand its evolutionary purpose and one thing they have found is that play is crucial for learning how to cope with stress. Hanging from bars, play fighting, chasing each other, and learning how to negotiate are all things that occur in play.Children practice putting themselves into fight or flight positions and stressful situations to see how much they can handle and then they manage how far they will go with it. Play helps children develop coping mechanisms, self-control and resilience, which has been proven to be a key factor in happiness.  

The loop we get into as parents is that we feel like we have to enroll our children in more and more activities to believe we are “doing enough” for them. We believe this is “the right way” to parent. You rarely hear parents say “my child is just playing this week”. We feel pressure from others, and then we pressure ourselves, which creates a loop of more stress.  

Somehow we feel lazy if we let kids play freely. Despite all of research backing up it’s educational benefits and the fact that the happiest country in the world and Finland, a global leader in education see it as a fundamental learning tool for children.  

There are no pedestals, no special praise or trophies in play. Children aren’t constantly trying to obtain something from an adult created environment like a grade or parental approval so they develop an internal drive and sense of control over their lives. They are motivated by their own desire to keep the game alive and their imaginations. If we stand back and relax and give them more trust they will learn to trust in themselves. And this is the basis for real self-esteem, which becomes a solid foundation for a happier life.   It’s interesting to consider that Lego, the worlds biggest toy company was invented by a Danish carpenter in 1932 watching children play and use their imaginations. The word Lego is actually a contraction of the words “leg godt” put together or “play well”. Even then, Danes knew that being able to “play well” was a building block for a future empire of happiness.   Like the internationally loved Lego blocks, Learning by “free play” seems like a Danish parental ethnotheory worth importing.

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