At first glance, it did not look much different to the preschools I’ve seen. There was an art corner, a reading space, fun, colourful edutainment on the walls. There were a few jungle gyms outside which the kids used with great enthusiasm. Swings seem to be winners around the world.
The differences I saw were small but added together, probably create a very different experience for the preschoolers in Finnish preschools than in other schools with the same resources. Something you must keep in mind when reading this is that one of the main tenets of Finnish education is that it should not matter which school you go to, you will get the same education. Your corner school will be the same as the one on the other side of town. That’s the theory anyways. Another thing to remember is that this is all free to parents as the municipality pays for preschools.
Layout of the school
The school had an entrance hall where boots and outdoor clothes were put (on labeled pegs); a kitchen; bathrooms (that looked just like adult bathrooms); a big room subdivided into smaller areas; an office for the teachers; an indoor play room which had cupboards that folded out to become beds for sleeping time; outdoor jungle gyms with swings; a small fence and beyond that, a forest.
Ok, so they had everything they need but that was not the interesting part for me. It was more the placement of the resources. For example, the scissors, pens, felt tip markers (“kokis” in South African English) were all laid out on the top of a small cupboard… easily within reach of any child who wanted to reach them. Not only that, but they are reachable at all times, not just during art times. I’m not so sure how other preschool school settings that I know of would do that… I think that they would pack away the resources in cupboards so that children could not get to them when they were not supposed to. It’s like they trust the kids not to be crazy – not to start a mutiny armed with blunt nose scissors and permanent markers.
The age of the children:
School for children in Finland starts in the year in which they turn 7. So, that means you have 5 and 6 year olds in preschool. 6 year olds still playing imaginative “putting your horsie to sleep” games. 6 year old doing art that is not marked or graded (in an official way). 6 year olds who are still spending an hour outside making mud pies and swinging on those beloved swings. [I need to clarify something: South Africans who are reading this may be thinking… “Oh! This is just like grade R”. No, it isn’t.]
It has all sounded like fun and games til now, and in a way, it is meant to. But there is a method behind this. Parents and teachers meet to make a personalised plan for the child. This plan is “a tool for the day care personnel and the parents to create common goals and agreements on how to support the individual growth, learning and well-being of each child both at home and in daycare”. Here, they discuss everything about the child and they look at areas they would like to work on so that the child will be ready for school: co-ordination, feeding, reading readiness, interpersonal skills, expression emotions, tolerance, being able to wait your turn, artistic expression. I went to the school on the day that they were doing school readiness assessments. (A big misconception about the Finnish education system is that they never test. They do test… it’s just a bit different) From what I could see, it was more like play therapy with the assessors engaging the children in conversations and games. Coming back to the idea of parental engagement, it seems to me that while it is the job of the teachers to teach the children, the parents are seen as a very important part of this too. What happens at home impacts on what happens in school and parents know this.
This was Finnish speaking preschool. Some children could also speak English because they had an English speaking parent at home. During story time, the teacher read an English book, in English, translating it sometimes and other times asking questions in Finnish about what as happening in the book. I found this a very interesting way of including English into the daily life of the preschoolers. They also sang some English songs and on Thursdays, they have “English morning” (The role of English in Finland is for another blog post).
I think the thing that surprised me the most was the patience level of these 6 year olds. For example, they are not allowed to go play outside without a teacher with them. To go outside they all have to get dressed in their outside clothes (quite a palava) which takes times. So, maybe the first child dressed is waiting outside, not going to the jungle gyms, for maybe 10 minutes. Also, I saw no grabbing or snatching or tantrums because they could not do what they wanted to do. I’m not sure if this is patience, maturity or an early onset of hide-all-your-feelings-because-otherwise-you-are-weak but anyways it was very interesting to see.
It was a fun morning in the preschool and all kids seemed happy and confident. Finnish preschool however are also coming under financial pressure and are not immune to cost cutting in the name of efficiency. For instance, before, they had a cleaner and a cook. Now, the food is brought in from a central school kitchen, already prepared and the cook just serves the food and does the work of the cleaner too. Personally, I think it is these small cost cutting ventures that will ultimately change Finnish education because they reflect a change in beliefs around the experience of education. Previous it was “home cooked” meals (well, relatively speaking probably) because schools were meant to be an extension of the home and now it is more centralised and industrialised.