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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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