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.

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

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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.

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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.

Global Learning: How Swede It Is

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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This article originally published on 1/11/2008

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Comments (14)

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Ragnar (not verified)

Completely incorrect article from a very small minded perspectiv

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I am a Swede who has lived and has children in both the Stockholm suburbs and Arizona. The facts are as I have experienced them:

The current state of many or most Swedish schools is an embarrasement.

1) Swedish parents don't have a right to raise their own children. Due to high taxes (=gov't control) both parents are required to work, turning over child raising to strangers at dagis. The gov'ts allocating (more control) 1.5 years of mamma/pappa ledig financed by other workers is at best a tiny kickback. Here is where the gov't begins its relationship with the citizenry, at 1 years old.

Why shouldn't parents be able to plan their lives no limitations on child leave? The concept of taking a 1 or 2 year old baby, handing him/her over to strangers at dagis for 6, 8, 10 hours per day, then the parents being forced to work, then can only spend 2 to 4 hours per day with their own children is unimaginable.

2) Many (some would say most) of Swedish schools represent a continuation of a dagis environment even through gymnasium. Basically day-care for teenagers. There is often not much order in the classrooms, much bullying, students' overwhelming focus on appearance/fashion/style over and above accomplishments.

3) Socialization of children should be one of the highest priorities of parents (people who love their children) and not a state run institution (made of people which no interest in building character, but moreso passing on a socialdemocratic mentality). Parents have turned over child raising to the gov't

4) In the US there are many people who choose (and some who don't have the choice) to send their kids to day care, prioritising their careers above their children upbringing. It is very possible in most cases for one parent to stay home and actually raise the kid, see to his socialization and care. A child needs the encouragement that only a loved one can provide.

Personally I find the concept of raising another child in Sweden sickening. They will not be raised as free individuals, but another personnummer in the system.

Louige (not verified)

Proud to be a Swedish father

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Hi all,
I have to say that reading this article and the following comments section has been a thrill. I am from Sweden and my wife is German, now living here in Stockholm with me. We have a wonderful little daughter at the age of two and a son five months old. Amélie our daughter is about to start in a bi-lingual Swedish/English preschool or Dagis/förskola as we call it here. She talks Swedish, German and is now picking up the English as it was no worries to it at all. This Since her mother and I speak English between our selves. We can see and experience the fact that she has had some advantages by this in comparison to other children. Advantages which we are discovering now. But the fact is that the more languages a child has in its portfolio the better the child will be at learning. And the best part of it all has been what I my self had as a child,the socializing skills that one had for free growing up in our society. It has been proven that children that learns some of the most important and basic values of humanism and social competence will eventually have it easier in life when it comes to pragmatic development. The more a child has time to learn about who it is and where in this world it has its base and comfort, the better its mental and inner self will develop. and THAT has been the show case of this Nation. if one looks to the amount of patented inventions done by each Nation on earth one could get a bit scared by the amount that we Swedes have been claiming on behalf of one of our inventors. Looking at Scientists this country shows the same high level per capita. There are only about nine million people living in a country that de facto do not have much of anything that could be called National resources. There is no oil, no mining any more. and the forests are protected and so is the fishing on its shores. So what is it that we Swedes have developed to such a fantastic level that have been able to trade in it for so many generations? The answer is, Know how. We Swedes educate our selves to such a level that we then can outdo most other countries in a vast areas. THIS is the secret behind the whole debate. And for decades they were world leading in it. As just one of many examples: This is the tiny country that enabled our selves to become the third largest Nation in Music development and export. It has had the most famous artists from the US and around the world come here to record with us Swedish Producers or have had us been contracted to go where they are to help their hit making procedures. So when I read this article I can do nothing else then feel pride of my country. There are reasons behind the why we have and are so protective of our agenda on humanism and this which we call "ett Nationellt socialt ansvar och humant samvete" (transl: a Nationally social responsibility and Humane consciousness)The main reason for that can be seen in our schools and nurseries, it spells "the future of our Nation", and they are nothing less then our children.

Louige Lovgren (not verified)

Proud to be a Swedish father

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Hi all,
I have to say that reading this article and the following comments section has been a thrill. I am from Sweden and my wife is German, now living here in Stockholm with me. We have a wonderful little daughter at the age of two and a son five months old. Amélie our daughter is about to start in a bi-lingual Swedish/English preschool or Dagis/förskola as we call it here. She talks Swedish, German and is now picking up the English as it was no worries to it at all. This Since her mother and I speak English between our selves. We can see and experience the fact that she has had some advantages by this in comparison to other children. Advantages which we are discovering now. But the fact is that the more languages a child has in its portfolio the better the child will be at learning. And the best part of it all has been what I my self had as a child,the socializing skills that one had for free growing up in our society. It has been proven that children that learns some of the most important and basic values of humanism and social competence will eventually have it easier in life when it comes to pragmatic development. The more a child has time to learn about who it is and where in this world it has its base and comfort, the better its mental and inner self will develop. and THAT has been the show case of this Nation. if one looks to the amount of patented inventions done by each Nation on earth one could get a bit scared by the amount that we Swedes have been claiming on behalf of one of our inventors. Looking at Scientists this country shows the same high level per capita. There are only about nine million people living in a country that de facto do not have much of anything that could be called National resources. There is no oil, no mining any more. and the forests are protected and so is the fishing on its shores. So what is it that we Swedes have developed to such a fantastic level that have been able to trade in it for so many generations? The answer is, Know how. We Swedes educate our selves to such a level that we then can outdo most other countries in a vast areas. THIS is the secret behind the whole debate. And for decades they were world leading in it. As just one of many examples: This is the tiny country that enabled our selves to become the third largest Nation in Music development and export. It has had the most famous artists from the US and around the world come here to record with us Swedish Producers or have had us been contracted to go where they are to help their hit making procedures. So when I read this article I can do nothing else then feel pride of my country. There are reasons behind the why we have and are so protective of our agenda on humanism and this which we call "ett Nationellt socialt ansvar och humant samvete" (transl: a Nationally social responsibility and Humane consciousness)The main reason for that can be seen in our schools and nurseries, it spells "the future of our Nation", and they are nothing less then our children.

Louige D Loevgren (not verified)

I am a Swede and reading this makes me utterly proud

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Hi all,
I have to say that reading this article and the following comments section has been a thrill. I am from Sweden and my wife is German, now living here in Stockholm with me. We have a wonderful little daughter at the age of two and a son five months old. Amélie our daughter is about to start in a bi-lingual Swedish/English preschool or Dagis/förskola as we call it here. She talks Swedish, German and is now picking up the English as it was no worries to it at all. This Since her mother and I speak English between our selves. We can see and experience the fact that she has had some advantages by this in comparison to other children. Advantages which we are discovering now. But the fact is that the more languages a child has in its portfolio the better the child will be at learning. And the best part of it all has been what I my self had as a child,the socializing skills that one had for free growing up in our society. It has been proven that children that learns some of the most important and basic values of humanism and social competence will eventually have it easier in life when it comes to pragmatic development. The more a child has time to learn about who it is and where in this world it has its base and comfort, the better its mental and inner self will develop. and THAT has been the show case of this Nation. if one looks to the amount of patented inventions done by each Nation on earth one could get a bit scared by the amount that we Swedes have been claiming on behalf of one of our inventors. Looking at Scientists this country shows the same high level per capita. There are only about nine million people living in a country that de facto do not have much of anything that could be called National resources. There is no oil, no mining any more. and the forests are protected and so is the fishing on its shores. So what is it that we Swedes have developed to such a fantastic level that have been able to trade in it for so many generations? The answer is, Know how. We Swedes educate our selves to such a level that we then can outdo most other countries in a vast areas. THIS is the secret behind the whole debate. And for decades they were world leading in it. As just one of many examples: This is the tiny country that enabled our selves to become the third largest Nation in Music development and export. It has had the most famous artists from the US and around the world come here to record with us Swedish Producers or have had us been contracted to go where they are to help their hit making procedures. So when I read this article I can do nothing else then feel pride of my country. There are reasons behind the why we have and are so protective of our agenda on humanism and this which we call "ett Nationellt socialt ansvar och humant samvete" (transl: a Nationally social responsibility and Humane consciousness)The main reason for that can be seen in our schools and nurseries, it spells "the future of our Nation", and they are nothing less then our children.

Paula (not verified)

Hello, I am considering

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Hello,

I am considering moving to Sweden, marrying, and raising children there. Thank you so much for your comments on the article. I was wondering, why did you leave and move back to the United States?

Therese (not verified)

Montessori

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No, the Swedish daycare/preschool is not based on Montessori, although Montessori and other methods and theories on learning of course will influence the teachers. When you study for years to get your degree as a daycare/preschool teacher you will naturally learn different teaching techniques and theories on the development of children. However, if you want your children to attend a Montessori preschool, there are many to choose from, especially in the main cities like Stockholm or Gothenburg. You are free to choose whatever school you think will suit your child best.

Marianne (not verified)

Schools in Sweden

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My husband, children and I lived in Sweden for 8 years. While I homeschooled my children there for all but the last year, Sweden has a much more commonsensical corriculum then we have here in the US. The US should send people to countries like Sweden who have such success in their social systems to find out what their secret is. One of their secrets is respect for their citizens, even the children. The American Government is really very authoritarian with her citizens. Swedish schools make socializing children a priority. They use kindness and psychology rather than threats. Children who know how to behave and who have Universal values will naturally do better in school. Chidren are not asked to compete. They are not made to feel bad if they aren't able to keep up. They are reasured. While Swedes believe in freedom, they don't give freedom to perverted people to pervert the nation by allowing just anything on TV or in their libraries. Sweden isn't perfect. There are things I objected to, but at the same time, I hate to say it, because I love our country, we have the best constitution in the world, but something is wrong, I think we spend too much time with our electronic sedative. I have come to think of the US as third world since I have lived in Sweden. We can do better than we are doing!
Can we afford what Sweden is doing? The American people are paying and estimated 2 trillion dollars anually on crime. We are loosing money trying to save it. We can't afford not to.

Mike (not verified)

Cramming information into students

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Maybe this is why many of our families in the States are entertaining "home school" education now-a-days. I agree that our education system tries to cram information down the throats of our children. As a teacher, I believe I have seen this first hand. I taught 6th grade math and science, as well as 7th & 8th math and science. There was a tremendous separation of information in math that many of these kids had. I had 40+ kids in my 6th grade math class and it was impossible to keep up with all of them and know where they were in the subject matter. I had kids in my 8th grade class that were doing high school algebra and even geometry, then I had students that were struggling with basic math in the same class. I blame this problem on the system and the parents, who force the information on their children. I had parents verbally attack me in front of peers, because of grades and how they felt the kids weren't learning enough. I have never been more stressed out in my whole life.

The dis-interest the kids had in math was disappointting for those that struggled, but when they took the time, asked for help, and I was able to slow down and help them, they acquired some gratification. I felt more gratification and excitement when the kids were involved socially in their assignments. They could help each other and learn how to interact. When this took place the grading and pressure was so much easier. I believe kids all learn at different levels, but we put kids in classroom settings, catagorized by how old they are, not by how much they know or understand. If you think about, our school system is setup just like a job setting. You get to school, we have a break or nutrition for 15 minutes, go back to the classroom, then take a lunch for approx. 40 minutes, and then back to the classroom again. Once, that is done many us take our kids to tutoring. Doesn't that sound like a typical 9 to 5 job where we not only make a living, but put money into the governmemt's pockets? Sounds like herding the cattle. I believe we have to stimulate the minds of our children and cultivate them to be positive human-beings.

Melissa (not verified)

I'm thrilled to hear this is

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I'm thrilled to hear this is the state of affairs in Sweden. I'm not sure if they can claim to have invented it, however - this story seems to be describing Montessori.

Terri (not verified)

I couldn't agree with you

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I couldn't agree with you more! I hold a Bachelor's degree in Developmental Ed and a Master's in EdTec so I feel strongly that your comments are on target. In my work, I train new teachers to enter the increasingly restrictive field of education, so I see possibilities of what can and should be done with education. Then I come home to my own three daughters who are overloaded with useless, repetitive worksheets and assignments designed to help them score higher on standardized tests. They've had the joy of learning pushed aside in the race for better scores. The "No Childhood Left" Act is working perfectly to suck the last breath of anything interesting out of our schools.

A move to Sweden is starting to look more appealing all the time!

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