Music And Arts Being Squeezed From The School Curriculum

Graham Strahle
| September 24, 2019

In 2018, a leading Finnish authority on music education, Pasi Sahlberg, moved to Australia to become the new Gonski Institute for Education’s Deputy Director. This body, hosted by the University of New South Wales, looks at how to improve the quality of, and access to, education throughout the Australian school system. We wrote in an earlier story about Sahlberg, particularly on the views he holds on NAPLAN and how he believes it has diminished the place of music, social studies and sports in schools.

He has now written a book, Let the Children Play (Oxford University Press, 2019), in which he expands on these ideas. Co-authored by fellow Finnish education expert William Doyle, it takes the premise that play is a powerful platform for learning that comes naturally to children, but that it has been progressively overlooked in school systems around the world.

Let the Children Play quotes scientific and medical authorities who assert the importance of play in the early years, and the authors expand on this to assert that play, far from being idle or wasted time, is actually when the most productive, exploratory and creative learning happens. Play is when the mind is most nourished, they say:

“It is time we gave our children regular doses of indoor play, outdoor play, free play, guided play, and playful teaching and learning – and “deeper play”, which is our term for the high-quality, high-order forms of play characterized by a child’s self-direction, intrinsic motivation, positive emotions, process orientation, and use of the imagination.”

The problem that Sahlberg and Doyle identify is that play is has been squeezed out of children’s learning since the 1990s by the introduction of, and extreme focus being placed on, standardised basic skills testing – NAPLAN being the example they cite in Australia.

“For schools and children under intense government pressure to generate optimal standardized test data – and many other essential things like the arts, music, physical education, life skills, field trips, ethics, civics, and hands-on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) projects – is increasingly dismissed as a disposable, unnecessary luxury,” the authors write.

The driver behind this, they say, is a policy-driven transformation of the public school systems the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia that is obsessed with metrics. They even give it a name: the ‘Global Education Reform Movement’, aka GERM.

The book mentions music along the way, along with other arts and humanities, by way of how GERM has narrowed the curriculum and tended to exclude these subjects. Let the Children Play serves as a forceful manifesto against this movement and a plea to build teaching around children’s natural propensity to play. Along the way it gives some great tips, such as helping pre-K children learn their ABC’s by singing songs, and allowing school jazz groups to freely improvise at the conclusion of their formal music lesson.

It all adds up to a lot of sense, especially when we stop to think how ‘playing music’ is such a widespread expression.

Let the Children Play also gives useful insights into the Finnish educational system and how it works. The authors point out that in that country play is considered “the bedrock foundation of effective childhood education”, and that 15 minutes of free play is set aside in each hour of lesson time, “every day, all the way to high school”. It is things like this, they argue, that have made Finland admired around the world for having one of the best educational systems anywhere.

Every staff room should have a copy lying around, and it should be in the bookshelf of every government education department too.

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