Monday, August 20, 2012

Preschool, quotations and a question

Today we were immersed in a preschool program in the morning.

I had the opportunity to observe, and have lunch at, a Swedish language preschool that is attended by children whose home language is Swedish. Because of the number of Swedish-speaking Finns, preschools like this are not uncommon.

A number of things the Directors of the Finnish and Swedish preschools said as they were setting the stage for our visit stayed with me such as,

"I know we don't have tests like you do in the United States, but we follow our children's development and we support them."

"Playing is the most important thing in Finnish early education."

and

"In Finland, we believe that playing is the way to begin to learn all things."

I was brought back to my own experience picking a day care and a preschool for my children. As a frightened, perhaps over-protective parent, I wanted to find settings where children appeared happy, safe and had joyful, serendipitous opportunities. I found those places. In hindsight, I realize that even as a a two-licensed teacher family, we didn't look for hardcore academics for our children's early years. We looked for hardcore playing opportunities. I was sold on a place in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood that was near a park they visited every day, had a huge backyard with toys ordinary and imaginative, and where there always seemed to be someone singing or signing, or sometimes even caterwauling to no one in particular. I think that experience is what gave me an instant affinity to these Finnish preschool directors.

One big difference: we financed our son's preschool experience with a home equity loan. In Finland it is subsidized for all families so that it ranges from free to 264 Euros/month maximum.

Because it is affordable for everyone, it becomes a near universal experience for all children, which means "Ready for kindergarten" is not so much a gamble as it is a guarantee.

Some impressions of this experience I want to keep exploring include:

->Annual individualized education plans for home and school created by teachers and parents together and then evaluated by teachers and parents together.

->One teacher per seven children for 3-6 year olds, with a maximum classroom size of 21 students.

->The intentionality of the partnerships between teachers and parents, among preschool teachers, and the effort of preschool and primary school teachers to strengthen their partnership.

->The deep appreciation for the critical importance of child's play (as illustrated above).

->Access: Because it is near-universal (approximately 98% of Finnish children attend preschool), there is a common experience of high-quality preschool for every child before primary school.

->The intentionality of teaching children to be autonomous.

At the end of the day as well debriefed our experiences and wrapped up Pasi Sahlberg, the Director General of CIMO(Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation) at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, matter-of-factly stated, "When we are asked where Finland got all its great ideas for education we have to say 'the United States.'"

If so, when did we stop practicing what we preach?

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