Last September, I was fortunate enough to travel to Finland to study the Finnish education system after winning the Public Education Foundation’s First State Super Teacher Scholarship. Motivated by my passion for play-based learning, I wanted to gather evidence to support my continued advocacy for play to be considered a 21st century pedagogy that should be firmly established within the foundation years of schooling in Australia.
When we hear about Finnish education, the common catch-cry is: “Finnish children don’t begin formal schooling until the age of seven!” This is simply not true. Children in Finland attend a full year of compulsory play-based education – in classes, at schools, with their peers – at the age of six. Children are in classrooms with teachers and school assistants, following schedules of learning activities. As a primary school teacher and early childhood educator, I consider this to be formal education.
There is an option for families to receive a small payment for having one parent remain at home until their child is four. However, every child from the age of one has a ‘right’ to a place at their local early childhood education and care centre. At these centres, each child has an individual learning plan, and play-based learning experiences are planned by a team of teachers and school assistants. Educators document their observations of children’s interests and skills and extend their learning using this information.
There is a multitude of research that indicates the long-term benefits of early intervention and quality early childhood education on student outcomes. When children play, they are developing their oral language and communication skills, curiosity, social and emotional skills, gross and fine motor skills, critical thinking, collaboration, literacy and numeracy skills, and are able to engage in personal interest projects.
So why, when we discuss Finland’s PISA results, are we not linking these to the high-quality early childhood education its children receive?
Early childhood education is free for most families in Finland, with cost determined on a sliding scale according to income. The most any family will pay for full-time childcare is around AUD$600 per month. For children of families with low socio-economic status, this means accessing entirely free early childhood education from the age of one.
In Finland, the attitude is: “A child does not choose the family they are born into.” As such, each child deserves full access to the support and early interventions they require to be healthy, happy and safe. From birth, families regularly visit community health centres for regular check-ups. If a child is exhibiting challenging behaviours, developmental delays or signs of special needs such as autism or a speech and language Impairment, families can access free psychological assessments and consultations with specialists.
Staff-student ratios in Finland are low in comparison to other countries, including Australia. In Finland, it is common to have 20 students in most classes. The common view is that: “Of course class size makes a difference – we know this as teachers.”
Every pre-primary class (six-year-olds) has one teacher and one school assistant. In early childhood education and care centres, staff student ratios are one adult to four for babies (0–2) and one adult to 8 for three- to six-year-olds.
It is typical for a class to have the same teacher throughout primary school, except when a teacher specialises only in the early or later primary years. This way, teachers come to thoroughly understand how each of their students learn and – with families aware they are going to be in this together for the long haul – there is strong incentive to build positive and respectful relationships.
Maintaining the same cohort also eliminates the time-consuming process of determining new class structures year by year, and the problem of spending much of the first term of getting to know your new class and working out how to best accommodate individual and family needs.
From the age of seven, when children begin Year 1, they attend school for four to five short, sharp, well-structured lessons, with a 15-minute play break after each – putting on their jackets and shoes or boots (children don’t wear shoes inside the classroom) to run outside. They also share a free, hot, healthy lunch. Most children in the first years of primary school finish their school day by 1pm and spend the afternoon playing or engaged in after-school activities.
No bad teachers
Another Finnish view is: “There are no bad teachers.” If a teacher is having trouble, I was told they are asked: “What do you need and how can we support you?” In Finland, instead of blaming teachers or labelling some as ‘bad’, it is accepted that individuals may require more support and/or development at different times in their careers, which is provided in a positive, non-judgmental way. I noted that families who are struggling for whatever reason are approached in a similar way.
“All teachers in Finland have to have a master’s degree” is also commonly pointed out as central to Finland’s educational success. Teachers do need a master’s degree in a subject area. However, an individual can teach a class or be a relief teacher without a teaching qualification – including, at the principal’s discretion, university students studying to be teachers – though those without a degree are not paid the equivalent wage of a qualified teacher.
The teacher training school I visited in Rovaniemi was connected to the local university and welcomed approximately 80 practicum teachers at a time each term. Student teachers completed their practicums in groups of three and four per class, observing and providing feedback to one another with the support of their mentor teacher. The collegiality and professionalism I witnessed was commendable.
The biggest take-away for me from my study tour was the recognition that in Finland there are no benchmarks for a child’s education. There is an understanding that each child will develop differently and so there is no pressure to force children to learn faster or earlier than they are able. In fact, there is a strong drive not to cause educational stress for children by pushing them to work at levels for which they are not developmentally ready.
As such, teachers are not caught up in trying to meet specific benchmarks to justify their own performance as educators. Each child is taught at the level they are at and celebrated for what they achieve. Learning is made fun – and encouraging a love for learning and cultivating positive attitudes towards learning is clearly documented within the Finnish curriculum.
All children are provided with the opportunity to play regularly throughout the day during their early childhood and care, pre-primary and primary education. Integrated with explicit, structured lessons in the foundation year of school, play can deliver all of the 21st century learning skills in the most effective, child-friendly way: enhancing communication, creativity, curiosity, collaboration, critical thinking skills, literacy and numeracy and even digital technology skills.
My experience in Finland only confirmed my instincts and knowledge about the benefits of play-based learning in early years education. Running two-hour play-based learning sessions each day, followed by explicit lessons in literacy and numeracy – and providing children with frequent breaks in quality play environments – has resulted in outstanding academic achievement for my own kindergarten students. Their play has become richer, their communication and social skills have improved, and we have fewer behavioural problems.
The Finns protect childhood. They see childhood as a time that should be joyful and stress-free. They understand the research behind play-based learning and recognise that providing quality play (indoors and outdoors) for children in the early years will have a strong positive effect on children’s academic and social outcomes in the future. So, given all the evidence, why are we still not embracing play-based learning consistently across Australia throughout the foundation years of schooling?