Too bad the Obama/Cuomo/de Blasio universal preschool proposals won’t actually do anything to help children and families. Let’s hope these political boondoggles fall through. Instead, if Americans really do want more preschool, we could take a page from the Scandinavian playbook.
Open kindergarten, common in Finland and other Scandinavian countries, is for the birth-through-age-five crowd and their parents. The program is low-cost, local, flexible, and does appear to help prepare kids for school.
Last fall I visited the Bluebird House in Rauma, Finland, the site of a popular open kindergarten started 28 years ago. It is one of two sponsored by the municipality. The Lutheran church also has open kindergartens, and many families attend both the municipal and church programs.
The Bluebird House is an old wooden house surrounded by a large fenced garden, which is used as a playground. Inside, the living room is just large enough for circle time, and later crafts and playtime, for twenty small children and their parents. The parents provide snacks which they prepare in the kitchen, and which are eaten around a large table in the dining room. There is also an office, bathrooms, and cloakroom.
The program is similar to the library story times common in the U.S., but longer, lasting all morning or all afternoon. There is such demand for open kindergarten that families are limited to one session per week. They may choose from sessions offering different age groupings–some are just for infants, some just for the older groups, while others are open to all children from birth through age five. The parents pay a small fee, about $100 per semester.
The Bluebird House is staffed by two trained kindergarten teachers and two aides, who make sure that all of the parents and children are given individual attention each session. The teachers explained that they informally serve as resources for parents with questions about parenting or child development. They are able to connect parents to other resources in Rauma, if needed.
The teachers model positive ways of interacting with children, help to transmit Finnish culture through the stories, songs, games, and crafts that they offer, and generally create a setting that highlights the joys of parenting and gives parents a break from the burdens. Families also connect with each other here, and many form lasting friendships.