In Finnish, there is a special word to describe children’s play. When you say ‘leikkiä’, everyone knows what you are talking about, says world-renowned Finnish educator Dr Pasi Sahlberg.

“It is a word loaded with positive energy.  When children say, ‘Let me play!’ you can’t say ‘no’,” says Sahlberg, who has joined UNSW Sydney as a Professor of Education.

Letting children play is one of the core principles at the heart of the Finnish education system. Play encourages creativity and initiative, and physical, cognitive and emotional strength.

Sahlberg, who will work with the University’s new interdisciplinary Gonski Institute for Education (GIE), says there is a clear link between play and educational access and excellence.

“Play is important because by definition, it is something every child can succeed in. It is a natural thing they do unless we take it away, unless we ‘educate’ children out of play, which is what is happening now in many places,” says Sahlberg.

“People worry about their children getting into college, about their future job success, and they are starting their children at school earlier. In Nordic countries, we don’t do that. We think play is exactly what children need more of because all of those qualities we consider important in this modern and fast-changing world are the ones you develop when you play with other people.”

It’s just one of the ideas Sahlberg, a former director general at the Ministry of Education and Culture in Finland whose book Finnish Lessons has been widely read around the world, will explore at the GIE where he will lead international comparative research projects on education and equity.

Born to parents who were both teachers, Sahlberg began his career as a mathematics and science teacher in Finland, and teaching remains important to him.

“My role at the GIE will be a professor of research. I will be teaching, that is the core of who I am, so I want to have students, supervise research and have a strong role in research,” he says.

“My interest is two-fold: I want to continue researching what we know about education systems and education practises around the world. The other field is much more unexplored for me, looking for solutions to educational inequity in Australia.

“I think UNSW, and the [Gonski] Institute especially, is very well placed to do that research. I think we have a chance to really advance the understanding of inequity and find ways to solve some of these chronic problems that also occur elsewhere around the world.”

In contrast to Finland, where teaching is among the top career choices for young people, there is a worrying slide in respect for teachers in many countries, says Sahlberg.

But for him, teaching remains a precious vocation.

“If there is such a thing as being a born teacher, I think that is what I was,” he says. “But teaching is a hard profession. It is hard work, particularly if you care about all the children you teach and if you want to understand them and understand why they find certain subjects difficult and want to help them overcome those barriers to learning.”

The rewards can be rich, he says, but the best days of the month are not paydays.

“A beautiful day in any teacher’s life is when you walk down the street and from across the road you hear someone calling your name and you wonder who it is. They say ‘I was your student 25 years ago and you taught me mathematics’ and you hear the story about what this person did after they left school. Perhaps they choose a career because of your classes.

"Many people go into teaching to change the world and they never hear about the impact they had on their students’ lives. But when you do hear about it, that is the best day in your life as a teacher.”