Colorful walls. Low tables. Shelves of books, puzzles and games. An entry way with hooks and cubbies for coats and boots. A basket for skis. Pads and pillows for afternoon naps.
Parents are saying goodbye to their children for the day while the little ones work themselves out of their cold-weather padding. A sign invites all guests to take off our shoes, and, thus, our tour of the English Preschool was done in in our stocking feet.
Early childhood education is a valued part of child development in Finland. While compulsory education begins at age 6 (compulsory Kindergarten just went in to affect this January), it’s more common than not for children to attend preschool which are structured as places of play, social learning, and developmental growth. While a goal of preschool and kindergarten is to prepare students for beginning basic education, the emphasis is not academic. It is not expected that the children enter first grade, at the age of 7, reading. While there is rich exposure to literacy, it is done with the developmental readiness of the children as a group (age) and the child as an individual.
Because, we all learn differently. At different times.
This is the image that I’m formulating in my mind…
Think of a child as a beautiful cake. And think of Finnish Education as the bag of icing or the pastry bag used to decorate the cake. When we’re filling that bag, we open it to make a V. At the open end of the V is the Finnish National Curriculum - comprehensive about what children need to learn yet broad enough to be shaped. Lower on the V, there is local input. Municipalities take the National Curriculum and fashion it based on local factors (economy, culture, geography.) Further down, getting closer to the tip are the schools where teachers and administrators work together to articulate the National Curriculum + local priorities - how will the school be structured? Next, there is the classroom teacher. Over and over, I am hearing how the classroom teacher is trusted, respected, and qualified to manifest learning in the manner in which she sees fit. And it is she who individualizes and differentiates curriculum so that every child is learning.
So that icing that comes out of the tip - it creates a story unique to each child.
My pastry bag analogy is a working hypothesis (it’s even a metaphor in progress.) But I’m wanting to explore this idea more.
This particular preschool and kindergarten we visited is the only private, English-language early childhood school in Jyväskylä. I’m intrigued by the line between private and public education here; while my understanding is limited*, I think I understand this facet — private schools are entitled to public support. For example, since most families in Finland have both parents working, daycare is highly subsidized to make them more accessible to families. The free breakfast and lunch available to all Finnish children is covered by the municipality. In this school, the kindergarten is now free because kindergarten is now compulsory. Finnish children have the right to this education. Special educators and specialists - speech-language pathologists and psychologists, for example - work for the municipality and are deployed to schools as needs arise in support of children. This includes private schools.
The children attending this preschool and kindergarten may be from English-speaking families or even native Finns who want their child to have early exposure to English. Environmental print and instruction is primarily in English. At the same time, there’s a need for Finnish instruction - the children need to acquire Finnish as a second language for academic and societal functioning.
For me, it’s so easy to fall into comparisons between what I’m learning and what I know is happening back home. I read about the changing landscape of American kindergarten classrooms with dismay. Today, I was reflecting on how we are putting our 5-year-old children to tasks that Finnish children take on at the age of 7.
I’m also mindfully working to create a realistic picture of Finnish schools - not a glorified, pristine landscape. With every meeting so far, educators are humble and share their frustrations and challenges, many of which we have in common — limited funds, over-stimulated-by-media children, and facilities issues, to start. There is a sense of continual striving and a “there’s still work to be done” attitude.
As we were leaving, children were getting ready for lunch. Place settings were arranged at the classroom tables. There will be naps and outside play (young children spend 1 - 1.5 hours each day outside engaged in free and organized play. They may stay inside if the temperature is less than -15C/ 5F.) There will be painting and literacy and music. And, the children will go home having worked very, very hard all day - play is the work of children, yes?
Let’s let the children play.
*Questions I have:
1) How many private schools vs. public schools?
2) Why do parents choose private schools in Finland? A few discussions lead me to
believe that some factors include preference for religious education or a specific
methodology like Waldorf or Montessori.
3) This is not a question, but a recurring theme is that there is choice for parents on how
their child will be educated. But, by and large, it seems that families choose and are
confident with the Finnish public school system.
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This blog represents my point of view only and is not associated with the U.S. State Department or the Fulbright Program.