Tyvestä puuhun noustaan
A tree is climbed from its base. (Finnish Proverb)
‘Oh I’m sorry I’m late, that’s not very Finnish of me!’ Kristiina hurried over to find me under the clock at the central station in Helsinki, just a couple of minutes after our arranged meeting time. Kristiina is a typical Finn in many other ways; modest, articulate, reliable and quite private, and yet she had taken a punt on me – an unknown English woman who wanted to come and teach at her school – and had given me the confidence that my trip was not such a hare-brained idea after all. We chatted excitedly about plans for my month there, including my teaching schedule and Zumba class, and were then joined for tea by Elsa, a friend of hers who was also a teacher. Both spoke perfect English, of course, and their only English-language queries were about the names of obscure plants that I hadn’t even heard of.
Back at the house, I was welcomed with a ‘show’ by Kristiina’s two blonde daughters, Elina, six, and Venla, four, who leapt around the sitting room, twirling and dancing. Later that evening, I had the first of my ‘Finnish lessons’ with Elina. Yes, she was six, and no, she couldn’t quite read yet, but she had a picture book of everyday objects with the Finnish name written under each one, and she traced the letters with her finger as she ‘read’ each word. ‘Sateenvarjo,’ (umbrella) she said, and then looked at me expectantly. ‘Sateenvarjo,’ I dutifully repeated.
Elina hadn’t been taught to read yet, because she hadn’t yet started school. In Finland, children don’t start school until the August of the year they turn seven (so the starting age ranges from six-and-a-half to seven-and-a-half). Before then, nearly all children attend a year of kindergarten, which is where Elina spent her day, and many also attend state-subsidised preschool in the years leading up to that. The next morning we dropped off Venla, Elina’s little sister, at one of these preschools, and I went in with Kristiina as she needed to have a chat with one of the teachers. The courtyard we walked through was full of sandy children in bobble hats, bright coats and wellies, running around, pouring water through little plastic windmills and digging holes in the sandpit with great concentration. On the door there was a sign asking a question, surrounded by lots of words that made no sense to me (despite my Finnish lessons with Elina), and I asked Kristiina what it meant when we passed it again.
‘It means, “You only played today?” and it gives all the reasons why play is helpful for children. Children don’t do formal learning at desks in preschool or kindergarten, they learn through playing.’
So I hit the books. First of all, the focus on play in the early years isn’t solely because they want children to enjoy their childhood – it is a deliberate strategy chosen by the Finns, based on research showing the benefits of play for children’s physical, cognitive, social and emotional development. The kindergarten year does aim to prepare children for reading and mathematics, but it does so through ‘preparatory activities’ rather than outright teaching. What does this mean?
In addition to a curriculum that aims to develop children’s social skills, positive self-concept and ability to reflect on right and wrong, Finnish children are introduced to activities and environments in which they can develop the understanding, skills and attitudes required for learning to read and do maths. The National Curriculum for the preschool age group notes that ‘the basis for emerging literacy is that children have heard and listened, they have been heard, they have spoken and been spoken to, people have discussed things with them, and that they have asked questions and received answers.’
They do this through discussions of fairy tales, stories, poems and rhymes, and through encouraging and supporting children in their own attempts to read and write.
One such fairy tale may be that of the Finnish Mother of Waters, who gave birth into the sea to a fully-grown man: Väinämöinen. She had been pregnant for 700 years, so her baby had reached maturity already, and from the day of his birth he had great wisdom, a well-painted forehead and a long white beard. He had no need of swaddling and no need of teaching. Normal children don’t have beards, and they do need formal teaching. But the question remains: when is the best time to start?