The winter darkness closes in on Stockholm as I
shuttle two small children home through the biting
cold, reflecting on just how I got here. What
exactly was it that convinced me to leave the charm
of Paris and a great job as a museum curator a few years back?
The short answer involves a persuasive Swedish husband and
our growing family. The long answer has some uncharacteristically
practical elements that include subsidized day care and
remarkable choices in public education.
I have never been much of a planner, which is why the
Swedish adage "There is no bad weather, only bad clothing,"
has always unsettled me. Though some people have a gift for
strategic thinking, I have always tended to make the biggest
decisions in my life only when the moment arrived.
This is not to say there was a lack of careful consideration, but
rather that projecting far into the future always remained
abstract. I prefer to adapt and react to what is, rather than
what might be. But now that I am responsible for the future
of two children in a foreign country, I find that I am changing
The learning curve is steep for any new parent, yet it seems
exponentially so when you decide to raise your children
abroad. Aside from the language pitfalls and other cultural
differences, there are also life's fundamentals to be tended to,
First, you have to try to figure out the educational system
and then resolve the fact that you will never have complete confidence,
simply because it is different from what you know. I've
spent considerable time on this latter phase, because in many
ways the Swedish approach to early-childhood education is so
different from the American.
The author (center) with her children and teacher Lena Magnusson.
Credit: Bronwyn Griffith
Everything starts later. Due to a generous eighteen-month
parental leave, children do not -- and cannot -- begin collective
care until after the age of 1. Most then attend a förskolan
(preschool) for children ages 1-5. At age six, most go to a
begins at age seven.
I was stunned by
this late start for school and, until recently, was concerned
about my children getting bored or lagging behind. Then I realized
that this was probably because my memories of early education
were all geared toward quantifiable achievements:
learning to count, recite the alphabet, and so on. There was a
focus on making "progress," on getting that gold star.
What I hear about American preschools today, including
references to new features such as prewriting, seems to confirm
this memory. I like the idea of children learning their
ABCs and 123s early, but rather than signing up my son for a
private international school with the American timetable, I decided
to look into why the Swedes wait longer.
What's the Hurry?
The Swedish philosophy behind a later start is to give children a longer
period of self-generated learning. Educators here believe that this period
encourages natural curiosity without requirements and tests. Rather
than sitting all of the children down together to learn the alphabet or
counting, teachers respond when a child expresses interest. This
approach allows children to develop in different areas at their own pace
and lets them get a better sense of who they are before they're judged in
relation to others. It also gives children more opportunity to learn from
each other, something not to be underestimated.
Curiously, the national preschool curriculum (Lfpö 98, thankfully
available in English) does not list quantifiable requirements; instead, it
places an emphasis on socialization. There is mention of democracy and
the foundation of individual responsibility to encourage children to
"actively participate in society." The phrasing is rather utopian, but I
have actually seen it applied at my son's school. Something as simple as
asking the children to choose an activity themselves or to vote on which
park they will go to gives them both a voice and lets them learn about
cooperation and decision making.
The curriculum also lists values to be instilled through example,
which include "individual freedom and integrity, equal value of all people,
gender equality, and solidarity with the weak and vulnerable." As
Swedish society becomes more diverse, tolerance of different races and
religions is increasingly important.
The fundamental practicality of Swedish preschool education
extends to the all-important matter of fees. American friends have told
me harrowing tales of day care and preschool fees in the States, so I was
astonished to learn that fees here are calculated according to household
income, with a maximum fee of 1,260 kroner (about $200) per month
As an art historian married to a musician, I was relieved by
this discovery, particularly when I considered that the fee is nearly covered
by the monthly allowance families receive for each child. The laws
not only state that all families with parents that work or study should
have access to preschool but also see to it, in concrete ways, that cost is
not a discriminating factor. And though preschool is state subsidized
and inexpensive, the quality of education remains intimate in scale; the
recommended maximum ratio of students to teachers is 5 to 1.
I like the concept of my children having more time just to be kids
without the pressure of performance-based exercises and tests,
though, as someone brought up in the thoroughly American, results-based
approach to education as practiced in Minnesota, I don't know
if I will ever be without some hesitation about the more relaxed style
here in Stockholm. And yet, I can see that a system emphasizing the
importance of family life through many months of parental leave, sick
leave to care for an ill child, and shorter, less intense days at preschool
sends a strong message to children that their needs and well-being
When I asked Lena Magnusson, my son's favorite teacher, to name
the most important things she taught, she replied, "To be a good friend
and to believe in their own abilities." This was not the answer I expected,
yet I cannot think of two more important building blocks for the rest
of my son's life.
Bronwyn Griffith is an art historian and gallery curator.