Sunday, February 3, 2013

Lighting the Candle

"Isn't it interesting that America is based upon the value of the individual, but your schools are designed so that everyone is expected to come out the same?"

- Leena Semi, Finnish Fulbright Teacher -

There is a lovely tradition in Finland where they put candles out on their doorstep as if waiting for a guest to arrive.  I don’t know if this is true, but this is how it makes me feel.  One person told me that Finns do this simply whenever they feel like it because it helps to make the long and dark, cold winters feel better.  Whatever the reason, it is lovely.

When we arrived at the rural preschool/kindergarten there was a candle burning on the porch beside the front door.  It was 8:30 AM.

There was a dusting of snow on the toys and equipment but somehow it felt warm.

I was a guest of Sari Haru-Nuutinen and she is part of a European project studying the value of play for teaching science to preschool children.  Their project is called, "Creative Little Scientists" and she is visiting preschools to see how their teachers are engaging children in science. I was invited to come along.

We were visiting this school today because the teacher, Riitta Poikonen, is known for teaching her students science through play. Her students are wee ones, only 3-6 years old, and play is a great way to present new things - and the way we all love to learn.

This private, rural preschool/kindergarten is called Päiväkoti Hepokatti and it is surrounded by large forests, a lake, a field, and some horses for the children to ride. When the weather is warmer, this environment is used to help the children learn about science and nature. One might consider this the perfect mountain school.

There's a living/play room, another room where the children can draw and build and engage in  games, and an upstairs room for napping.

The school is filled with many things to inspire their imagination.

In Finland, children don’t start their compulsory education until the age of seven and any kindergarten or preschool before this is given with an understanding that young children learn through their natural desire to play, ask questions and work with other children in games.  Teachers believe in using the child's natural development as a tool to help them learn about society, rules, friendships, and problem solving.

Sari explained it like this:  "The role of the teacher is like being 'the leading car in a train.'  The teacher provides the environment and in this environment the children explore issues that inspire and engage them. The teacher increases what the child can do on their own.  Within this scaffolding, the teacher provides opportunities in science and math, and also uses language to help students be together as members of society and to learn that cultural issues are important to them."   Sari attributes this theory to the developmental psychologist, Lev Vygotsky.

We were there to see Riitta work with her students on a science lesson.  She had authored an environmental book to help preschool teachers lead their children toward environmental awareness; this lesson was about learning to enunciate names of the local animals with proper Finnish pronunciation.

Although most of the children knew the names of these animals from fairy tales and living in the forest, many had trouble pronouncing their names correctly or enunciating them on the correct syllables.

During the morning the children read, played games, had guided lessons from their teacher, completed some math and science work, played with trains, danced, swung on a rope, played basketball, colored with pencils, worked with beads, and the sun was now up.  The children were ready for the warm lunch that had just been delivered.

By visiting this and many other schools I was starting to realize the deeply compassionate viewpoint Finns have for teaching their children.  For them, education is not about what score their children can earn on a paper and pencil test, it's about how their children develop as young people - with interests, insights, curiosities and societal awareness.  It is child-focused with the teacher as the guide - working with the children and recognizing what the child needs for him/her to develop - but it is also group-centered, where the children learn to relate as a group.  (As opposed to the Montessori style, which they told me has less focus on group dynamics.) For the Finns, it's about realizing that each person has developmental phases they will pass through and unique challenges each will face.  The Finnish teachers aim to engage their students' interests, align them with the learning goals of their curriculum and community, and structure their lessons so the children can be successful.  This continues until the end of their compulsory education; a  very different model than what we currently have in America.


  1. Nice description of the workings of this pre-school. Looks like they have the opportunity for outdoor play through the winter too!

    What if any accommodations are made for children with learning challenges in this type of setting?

    1. Hi Anna;
      I get the feeling they treat every child as if they have their own distinct needs and helping them in their learning is expected. Many children are identified when they're young as needing individual help and they seem to give them what they need. I will be going to a special needs classroom next Monday at the secondary school to see how they work with kids. I also have a call into the primary school for the same type of learning environment but I haven't heard back yet. I'm on it! :)