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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

How Swede It Is: Are Practical (and Affordable) Swedish Preschools Better?

For an American mother living in Stockholm, innovative preschool education makes the long, dark winters tolerable.
By Bronwyn Griffith

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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 tactics.

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, particularly education.

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 preparation year, and compulsory education finally 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 per child.

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 are significant.

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.

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Lauri Lee's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This was a great article; I wish it was longer! It underscores how the U.S. continues to miss the boat with preschool education. Rather than pushing down the curriculum and forcing six-year olds to sit in desks and write sentences during 1 - 2 hour L.A. blocks, we need to concentrate on making our education system more developmentally appropriate. We have a huge body of research that confirms the tremendous brain growth that takes place during the years from birth to age 5, and yet formal education in the U.S. continues to start at age 5 in most jurisdictions. When preschool is offered, it is often offered only to those considered to be "at risk." When will we give all children a "smart start"?

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Perhaps if American schools focused more on socialization at the younger ages and promoting the civic values important to a successful democracy, we would see fewer problems in our schools, like drugs, guns, violence, hazing, gangs, etc. Children will learn as they are naturally curious, but with the system we have, too many learn to hate school. I know; I have three incredibly bright children who have been encouraged and supported to seek a good education and all three hate school. My daughter's school was so bad that I pulled her out mid-way in her junior year to get her GED. While I study for my PhD in Ed Tech, I agonize that my own children have little desire to seek higher education. They see higher ed as being equally broken. I have moments that I even totally agree. The USA is wasting its greatest assets, its people. If we had invested the amounts of money spent on an unjustified war into education and supporting families, we'd not be worried about losing our place as the greatest nation on the planet.

Celia Bissett's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This article tugged at my heart because I too was in the same shoes as the author. We lived in Sweden for 6 years and all three of our children attended Swedish schools. I remember worrying about the same things (at first). My oldest attended preschool through 3rd grade in Sweden. Honestly when we moved back to the USA my daugther thought school was much easier here but with longer hours per day. The quantity of hours that American children spend in classrooms compared to what my daughter did in Sweden still baffles me. With our second daughter I was a little worried about her not reading to what we expected in 1st grade. Although this was a second language for her with two english speaking parents, her sister picked up reading swedish faster. The Swedish teachers were so relaxed and reassuring. Here in the USA my daughter would have already been put into some kind of intense reading program. By third grade she was reading well above reading level. We sometimes create many problems by rushing kids who are not developmentally ready and thus create anxiety (for parents also) and a negative attitude towards reading. The Swedes treat it more as a natural, innate curiosity that over time children learn. They learned how to sew, weave, cook, played outside several times a day, climbed trees, sang songs but they did not sit with a pencil and paper. Because socialization is an early priority when primary school starts they are READY to learn. I am forever grateful for that experience because without it my background knowledge and views of learning would continue to be as the author described as similar to her own childhood experiences. I also taught 7th and 8th grade English at a Swedish public school and it was an enlightening experience. My undergraduate degree is in elementary education and masters degree from Michigan State University in literacy and k-12 leadership. When I lived abroad I was always trying to learn and experience from their point of view. Their international scores in literacy and math are always ranked in the top threshold.

We also lived in Germany before Sweden. Our two oldest children attended a German Kindergarten (age 3 and 5) and that was a phenomenal experience similar to Sweden. A mother from Texas at the same school approached the teacher and said her children weren't learning "anything". The teacher was confused and the mother elaborated and said, in Texas they were writing their ABC's and 123's. This is typically rote, lower level cognitive skills. I on the other hand was extremely pleased by the constant board games that were teaching incredible number sense at an early age and collaborative social skills. The german teacher approached me as she was so concerned by these comments.

I do want to echo the affordability and quality of the schools in both countries was beyond my expectations.

Jutti Marsh's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Two of my sisters have taught kindergarten for a number of years. They comment how kinder has changed since they first started teaching it. It is a far cry from kinder=child garten=garden. Kindergarten used to be a chance for children to socialize, learn to function in a school setting, and develop oral language.

At one point I taught in a multi-age classroom: K-2. By the second year of the program it was apparent that giving children time to develop is very important. Things kinder students struggled to learn were a snap for first graders. Language and math skills that first graders spent weeks trying to master were easy for second graders. The big aha: children learn easily when they are developmentally ready to learn what is being taught.

I am currently teaching fourth grade. We are faced with teaching many concepts that are beyond fourth grade. The other day, during math, one of my students stepped back, looked at work we had done on the board and said "This looks like high school!" He was right!

Jutti
Los Angeles, California

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