Free to play and free to learn at Finnish pre-schools

At first glance, Finnish pre-schools do not look that much different from those in Singapore.

The classrooms are spacious and open to allow children to move around easily and freely. The walls are plastered with children's drawings and numbers and letters of the alphabet.

But one thing that surprises visitors, especially those from Singapore, is how much the children play and how little they are drilled in the alphabet and numbers.

Dr Christine Chen, president of the Association for Early Childhood Educators ( Singapore), recently led a group of teachers on a visit to Finnish pre-schools and recalls: "We would enter a kindergarten and most of the classrooms would be empty. The kids would be playing in the playground, in the sandpit and so on.

"They also have what they call a forest kindergarten where pre-schools regularly take children to the forest for activities."

Education professor Lasse Lipponen, who heads pre-school teacher training at Helsinki University, says pre-school years, from three to seven, emphasise play, and free play at that. This is unlike Singapore's emphasis on purposeful play which involves teachers guiding children to make meaning out of their experiences.

"In the Finnish formal schooling system, the teaching of the alphabet and numbers starts at seven. Before that, it is all about socialisation and play to give children the foundation for learning.

"A play-based curriculum stimulates physical, social-emotional, and creative development and lays the basis for cognitive development."

He also defends the use of more free play as opposed to structured play or purposeful play.

"We believe strongly that free play nurtures creativity and independence.

"Children must decide which game to play, what the rules should be, and wait to take turns.

"This builds qualities such as self-awareness, self-regulation, and flexibility," he says.

He adds that Finnish children under age seven have, by law, a "subjective right to childcare", regardless of family income or parental employment.

If a child's parents want him or her to attend a childcare centre, the municipality in which they live is obligated to provide them with a slot in either one of its public kindergartens or a private childcare programme.

Childcare is not free, but is heavily subsidised. Fees are charged on a sliding scale based on income, with a maximum monthly payment of over 200 euros (S$338) a month.

Pre-school teachers are required to have a basic three-year degree and many go beyond that to master's level. They are supported by allied educators who hold credentials as "licensed practical nurses", a vocational degree roughly equivalent to a high school diploma with specialised education and training to work with young children.

The teacher-student ratio for pupils between three and six years old is 1:7. So for every 21 children there are three teachers who each boast a university degree in early childhood instruction.

Pre-school teachers' salaries lag behind those of primary and secondary school teachers by about 20 per cent, but about 10 applicants vie for every place in the pre-school teacher training programme.

"There is a push now in some quarters to raise the minimum qualifications to a master's level," says Professor Lipponen.

Principal Malla Antilla, who heads a 24-hour childcare centre in Malmi, a half-hour drive from Helsinki city centre, agrees that teachers need to be highly trained to do the difficult job of caring for youngsters from nine months right up to six.

Her 24-hour centre caters to parents on shift jobs, such as nurses and policemen.

"I have mothers who work as stewardesses and tour conductors and sometimes they are gone for two, three days. We are very flexible and cater to their needs."

As with other pre-schools, play dominates the curriculum and most of it is outdoors in the centre's sprawling grounds.

Ms Antilla says parents never raise concerns about whether their children will be ready for learning mathematics and the languages in primary school.

"There is no rush for formal schooling. We believe that it will come naturally when they are of the right age. Meanwhile, we focus on helping a child discover the joy of learning."

Sandra Davie