Finnish children start school at the age of seven, whereas in the UK children start school at five, and in Canada at age five or six. The relatively late start for Finnish schoolchildren often surprises people, especially those who follow the global educational comparisons in which Finland often ranks near the top.
It seems that part of the key to the Finnish school system’s success—educationally and otherwise—is the nurturing day care and preschool system. There, kids are allowed to be kids, play together, and have naps; they are not aggressively prepped academically.
Many of the skills my son learns in day care and preschool instill a sense of practical sisu, an attitude of not quitting or giving up when faced with a challenge, whether that’s putting together a difficult puzzle or resolving a dispute with another child by talking it out. Early on, a sense of independence and autonomy are fostered, which can be as simple as carrying your own plate and cutlery to the dirty dish cart after you’ve finished eating or putting on your own snowsuit. Creative DIY skills such as making a ring as a Mother’s Day gift out of a discarded button and leftover small metal hoops fosters a recycling or up-cycling way of thinking and encourages a mindset that first explores ways to use discarded items rather than throwing them in the garbage and rushing out to buy a ready-made gift.
What I observe during the years that our son is in day care and later preschool is a commitment to equality, which means that every child is treated as an individual with a commonsense preventative approach in mind. The latter means that from an early age—three, four, or five years old— children and their parents are offered any extra resources or help that they might need, ranging from speech therapy (useful for many kids, including those who are bi- or more lingual) to physical therapy.
Educator, author, scholar, and international speaker Pasi Sahlberg writes in his bestselling book Finnish Lessons 2.0: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change?: “Kindergarten in Finland doesn’t focus on preparing children for school academically. Instead, the main goal is to make sure that all children are happy and responsible individuals.”
Sahlberg, a former director general of the Finnish Ministry of Education, is synonymous with Finnish education on the international stage. Just about any article or report discussing education and Finland has a reference to Sahlberg and/ or his extensive body of work.
On a rainy autumn Saturday afternoon slick with bright orange, yellow, and red leaves dotting the sidewalks, I meet Sahlberg in the atrium of the Helsinki Music Centre. The glassy modern masterpiece houses the Sibelius Academy, the country’s top music education institute, and the headquarters of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra.
Against the backdrop of an open-house music session, I ask Sahlberg how the early childhood education and preschool system contributes to the success of the Finnish education system.
“Preschool is often defined as the year before a child goes to school, but in Finland it’s broader than that—actually from prebirth to the moment when a child starts school. And that’s an increasingly important factor behind the successful educational performance of students after-ward,” says Sahlberg.
He outlines three key areas of focus: play, trust, and health.
“What makes the Finnish approach unique is the emphasis on free, unstructured, child-centered play. We understand that play is important for growing up, building identity and self-esteem. We also understand that children need time to do that,” says Sahlberg, whose next book will focus on the importance of play in education. “Children will grow healthier and happier if we adults consider play an important part of the overall teaching in schools.”
He tells me, “We also trust people and trust our children much more than anywhere else; we can let them play in the playground outside with other kids and just hang out.”
This of course is possible as Finland is a relatively safe country.
“And another key issue is health: prenatal health, the health care of mothers and the infants when they are born. We still have a social policy system that allows one of the parents to stay home with the child until they’re 3-years-old, if they choose. These are much more health-related than education- related issues, as we have this comprehensive approach in understanding the importance of childhood,” he says.
“We have all sorts of rights for children regarding their learning and well- being and health: for example, children have the right to fifteen minutes of each school hour for themselves, during which they often go outside,” he says. That means for every forty- five minutes of school instruction children are given a fifteen-minute break.
I ask Sahlberg if children are taught sisu in school in Finland.
“Finnish schools don’t teach sisu as a topic, rather it’s part of the culture in many schools. My experience is that children in Finland are taught early on that you need to finish what you start regardless of how hard the task at hand is. I believe that our schools focus on resiliency and perseverance in teaching and learning, we probably value more complex and open-ended learning experiences that often come with the sense of sisu. I also think that the key aspect of Finnish schools to teach children to take responsibility for their own actions and learning early on is an important factor in growing up with the sisu ethos,” he says. “Some suggest that this old mentality of sisu would be in decline now in Finland among young people. If it is true, then perhaps teaching sisu more directly wouldn’t be a bad idea at all.”
I also meet up with Sanna Jahkola, the outdoor guide who I first met in Lapland.
For in addition to studying to be a teacher, Jahkola is part of an outdoor education component to Finnish Schools on the Move, a national action program aimed at promoting a physically active culture in comprehensive schools.
I’m curious to know how the government’s guidelines relate to someone who is in the field.
“The new school curriculum is terrific because different learning environments such as nature are emphasized big-time—it doesn’t have to be only the classroom. It can be a schoolyard, shoreline, beach, or city park, not necessarily just a forest,” says Jahkola, who is writing her PhD dissertation on outdoor learning.
“For children, it’s a totally different learning environment; there’s more room and space. We know that we feel better outdoors and children develop fine and gross motor skills as they move on uneven surfaces such the forest floor,” says Jahkola. She adds that kids who move a lot in nature are often in better physical shape than those who don’t. “It also shows in their other activities and hobbies; for example, they choose to walk or bicycle as a form of transportation as opposed to children who are chauffeured around by car,” says Jahkola.
The outdoors neatly combines three different skill sets, she says. Learning by doing—for example, identifying and counting different types of trees—strengthens cognitive skills. Movement, whether walking from one place to an-other or keeping active to stay warm during the cold months, encourages kids to be active, and in the process of being outdoors children develop a relationship with, and respect for, nature.