Early Childhood Education

In Finland, high quality daycare and nursery-kindergarten are considered critical for developing the cooperation and communication skills necessary to prepare young children for lifelong education, as well as formal learning of reading and mathematics. This preparatory period lasts until the age of 7.

Finnish early childhood education emphasizes respect for each child's individuality and chance for each child to develop as a unique person. Finnish early educators also guide children in the development of social and interactive skills, encourage them to pay attention to other people's needs and interests, to care about others, and to have a positive attitude toward other people, other cultures, and different environments. The purpose of gradually providing opportunities for increased independence is to enable all children to take care of themselves as "becoming adults, to be capable of making responsible decisions, to participate productively in society as an active citizen, and to take care of other people who will need his or her help."

To foster a culture of reading, parents of newborn babies are given three books, one for each parent, and a baby book for the child, as part of the "maternity package". According to Finnish child development specialist Eeva Hujala, "Early education is the first and most critical stage of lifelong learning. Neurological research has shown that 90% of brain growth occurs during the first five years of life, and 85% of the nerve paths develop before starting school (n. b. At the age of seven in Finland)." "Care" in this context is synonymous with upbringing and is seen as a cooperative endeavor between parents and society to prepare children physically (eating properly, keeping clean) and mentally (communication, social awareness, empathy, and self-reflection) before beginning more formal learning at age seven. The idea is that before seven they learn best through play, so by the time they finally get to school they are keen to start learning.

Finland has had access to free universal daycare for children age eight months to five years in place since 1990, and a year of "preschool/kindergarten" at age six, since 1996. "Daycare" includes both full-day childcare centers and municipal playgrounds with adult supervision where parents can accompany the child. The municipality will also pay mothers to stay home and provide "home daycare" for the first three years, if she desires. In some cases this includes occasional visits from a careworker to see that the environment is appropriate. The ratio of adults to children in local municipal childcare centers (either private but subsidized by local municipalities or paid for by municipalities with the help of grants from the central government) is, for children three years old and under: three adults (one teacher and two nurses) for every 12 pupils (or one-to-four); and, for children age three to six: three adults (one teacher and two nurses) for every 20 children (or circa one-to-seven). Payment, where applicable, is scaled to family income and ranges from free to about 200 euros a month maximum. According to Pepa Ódena in these centers, "You are not taught, you learn. The children learn through playing. This philosophy is put into practice in all the schools we visited, in what the teachers say, and in all that one sees."

Early childhood education is not mandatory in Finland, but is used by almost everyone. "We see it as the right of the child to have daycare and pre-school," explained Eeva Penttilä, of Helsinki's Education Department. "It's not a place where you dump your child when you're working. It's a place for your child to play and learn and make friends. Good parents put their children in daycare. It's not related to socio-economic class".

The focus for kindergarten students is to "learn how to learn", Ms. Penttilä said. Instead of formal instruction in reading and math there are lessons on nature, animals, and the "circle of life" and a focus on materials- based learning.