If you know anything about me, it is that I absolutely adore babies. In fact, I would prefer to spend most of my time hanging out with children. This baby-less summer has me really missing my preschool job at home and all of the children that I babysit. Thankfully the family friendly biking culture in Denmark means I can see cute toddlers riding in bike seats behind their parents and the stroller-accessible public buses help me sneak a few glances at precious infants – so I guess I am not totally deprived.
Fortunately, this summer abroad has given me an opportunity to experience and learn about early childhood practices and education models in cultures that take drastically different approaches than what I am familiar with in the U.S. The Child Development course I am currently taking gives me great opportunities to interact with young Danish children in the Copenhagen area and we recently spent a week in Helsinki, Finland learning about why the Finnish education system is so successful. This study tour has made me become particularly interested in Finland’s approach to Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC).
For means of comparison, Danish childcare is based on a socio-educational approach that focuses on free play, relationships, outdoor life, and children taking an active role in their social interactions and learning. I talked a little bit more about how this plays out in educational programs in my last blog post. Conversely, the U.S. system is focused on school-readiness with the main goal of early education being to provide children with skills that will ensure they are “school ready” when they begin primary school. This means that there is an emphasis on planned curriculum, structured activities, and achievement. In Finland, they seem to have figured out a successful balance of education and care, which is demonstrated by their consistently high scores on PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), the well-known evaluation of global education systems and economic progress.
As a welfare state, Finland focuses efforts on promoting equality in children’s growth, development and learning. This philosophy is present before children are even born when expectant mothers are given a “baby box” from the government. This maternity package contains a starter kit of gender neutral clothes, sheets, bathing products, toys, and the cardboard box it comes in provides a first bed for the baby. This means that all Finnish babies, regardless of socioeconomic background, start life with their basic needs met.
These boxes are a symbol of Finland’s strong value of equality that persists after infancy. For example, the 1973 Child Day Care Act in Finland guaranteed the right to daycare for all children from low-income families. And as of 1997, all Finnish children under the age of seven have the right to government-funded daycare.
The Finnish approach to ECEC encourages curiosity, play, compassion, and self-expression while resisting the school-readiness approach I described earlier. Compared to the Danish emphasis on little adult interference in child’s play, Finland’s philosophy encourages adult-initiated activities in the form of active free play. For example, a Finnish pedagogue would put themselves at the child’s level and actively participate in imaginative play while integrating learning through interactions like “can I have the red pot?” or “I would like three french fries.”
Another unique characteristic of Finland’s education system is the strong emphasis on quality teacher education. Teachers of compulsory schooling, that starts at age seven, must hold a Master’s Degree. Additionally, subject teachers in lower and upper secondary education (the equivalent to middle and high school in the U.S.) must hold a Master’s Degree in one or two subjects as well as in Pedagogy. Those in ECEC are required to hold at least a Bachelor’s Degree in Education or Social Science. These high standards consequently lead to a high level of respect and trust from the community as teaching is a considered a highly valued profession in Finland.
There is also a focus on intentionality and parental cooperation. All ECEC workers are trained in designing activities and programs to ensure that everything has a meaning and purpose behind it. In Helsinki, we talked to a woman named Nina who works in a Finnish kindergarten and gave us a guided tour of her facility and a nearby play park. She explained that before carrying out any plans, she always asks herself “why am I doing this as a teacher?” and “how will this benefit the children?” She also explained the importance of communicating with parents because they are viewed as “coworkers to raising the children.” Parents and teachers are viewed as a team dedicated to ensuring healthy growth and development of Finnish children.
Nina expressed that above all else, ECEC workers want the children they care for to feel loved. For example, they are taught to never lose their temper or yell because they don’t want to intimidate and instill fear in the children. Furthermore, rather than trying to change the child to fit into the institution, the staff changes the institution to fit the needs of the child. They want every child to feel success so they make accommodations for inclusivity and do everything they can to avoid bringing unnecessary attention to children with special needs. For example, if a child is having trouble holding a crayon, Nina will show them how to digitally finger paint on a tablet.
The social pedagogy tradition that exists in Nordic countries like Finland and Denmark suggest that the goal of early childhood care and education should be more about supporting families and the broad developmental needs of children than academic success. Therefore, the focus is more on free play, independent development, self-management, and outdoor activity.
It is fascinating to see how parents and cultural norms and values shape the way children in different countries are raised and educated. While the success of these different models and approaches depends on a variety of cultural factors outside of the classroom, I have been given the opportunity to reflect on my own practices as a childcare worker in the United States. I am constantly reminded of how important it is to invest time, energy, money, and resources into future generations. I fully intend to continue to follow my calling to work with this vulnerable and impressionable population.