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.
Finns consider transitions of all kinds to be potentially traumatic for children and attempt to ease them as much as possible. Open kindergarten, in a school setting, but with the presence and participation of parents, also has the important purpose of preparing children for the transition to school.
In Finland school begins at age seven. It is preceded by what Finns call preschool, and Americans call kindergarten, at age six. Academics, including learning to read, begin in first grade, at age seven. Before that, Finns believe in the right and the need for children to play, especially free play outdoors. Even in elementary school, free play outdoors continues, with children guaranteed fifteen minutes of playtime for every 45 minutes of class.
About half of Finnish children do attend daycare programs, but families are encouraged to have one parent stay home with a child for the first three years, and many do. Employers are required to offer three years of parental leave, and the government provides a modest childcare allowance for the first three years for stay-at-home parents.
Finland is famous for its excellent school system, consisting of nine years of compulsory schooling, followed by three years of either secondary or vocational school. While Finland slipped a bit in the latest international ranking, Finnish schools are still close to the best in the world. The current school system was built through four decades of thoughtful, incremental reform, but it also depends on a society that brings most of its children through early childhood healthy, happy, and ready to learn.
I’m not sure that we can say the same for the United States. Maybe the open kindergarten model offers another way for American churches, libraries, private schools, and other nonprofits to reach and support families with young children?