Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Reflections on Swedish preschools

Reflections on Swedish Kindergartens.

In June, I joined a group of nursery managers, teachers and an inspector to visit three Swedish pre-schools organised by Tracy Seed[1], and on returning home I have been reflecting on my experiences. The practice of early childhood education (1-6 years) in Sweden embodies different ways of engaging with children in educational contexts when compared with the UK. How adults plan and construct experiences for children is a complex business that can reveal much about who we think the child in front of us is, and by implication, who we think the adult organizing those experiences is and what is the relationship between them. I have therefore been thinking about the practices of the pre-schools and reflecting on the theoretical frameworks that seem to inform how they organize and manage the settings. I hope to raise some issues that everyone involved in providing educational experiences for young children will be interested in. Recently I have been working with settings that support 1-4 year olds and we have explored our thinking about child and childhood and acknowledged how this influences our interactions with children and shapes the experiences we make available to them. In light of this I was particularly interested in finding out how the adults in the Ängbybarnens Preschools in Stockholm talked about the concept of child.

Before I go on to discuss what I observed and talked about, it is important to say something about my own thinking about child and childhood. This is important because the lens that we use to look at practice will shape our interpretation of what we see. I bring to my observations the idea that there is not a thing called childhood that all human beings experience, but rather many different childhoods. My own experience of childhood is very different from those of the Swedish pedagogues, partly because of differences in where, when and with whom our childhoods took place. Our individual experiences influence how we look at childhood from our adult perspectives, and at the child inside us all. Childhood also varies according to historical time as well as geographical place, which in turn are influenced by social, political and economic circumstances.

Childhood is therefore a socially constructed phenomena and I am interested to reflect on how ‘child’ is constructed in the Swedish context and the impact this construction has on the practices in the preschools, and on the relationships between adults and the 1-6 year olds they interact with, whilst being aware that my own lens of experience influences my interpretation of what I see. As a teacher, academic, educator, mother and grandmother, I also bring theoretical and practical ways of looking at the world and this influences how I interpret the settings I have visited. In the Swedish preschools we discussed the theory that informs their practice and those discussions also influenced how I interpreted what I saw as I tried to see things through their eyes. Having said this, my reflections are my own, and this is not an attempt to provide a truthful or accurate account of what goes on in Swedish preschools from the snapshot I was privileged enough to experience.   

Feeling inspired!

The first thing that struck me was the outdoor areas of the schools. They were much bigger than anything I have seen in the UK, (not surprising as the Swedish government mandates 7 square metres per child (almost double the amount the UK government requires) and the overall teacher-child ratio is 1-5. Children are taught in age-groups, and each group is led by a teacher who has a BA/BSc degree plus a childcare qualification that involves a further three years study. I was slightly surprised at this kind of grouping, it suggests that the pedagogues work with a developmental model of childhood linked to ages. It influences what activities are available to the children and impacts on the kinds of interactions they can have.

Empathic communication

How adults and children interact with each other is central to how relationships are constructed in the schools and this is certainly the case here, the communicative and relational approach followed in Angbybarners is based on empathic communication. This means focusing on listening to the child’s experiences rather than making assumptions about a child’s meaning.

“By using an empathic approach inspired by Nonviolent Communication, we increase the possibility of meeting each other with respect, understanding different needs and desires, and interacting in a way that leads to a shared development”. Preschool Brochure.

The staff assume that children want to cooperate and be part of the community. When they ask the children to do something, they tell them why so that it feels meaningful for them. They want the children to feel free when they play and create, and not be hindered by the fear of failing. Staff also express genuine appreciation for whom the children are and for the things they do in order to build their self-esteem and self-confidence. The staff do not assess or judge the children against pre-determined criteria or compliment them on their achievements as they believe this can block their ability to evaluate their experiences themselves. They want them to be independent and not dependent on other people’s approval, to feel good about themselves and their behavior.

This vision of the preschools is driven by a commitment to strengthen children’s self-esteem so that the children have the self-confidence to be happy with their actions. Empathic communication informs all interactions and structures the relationships not only between children and adults, but between the adults and between the children. The decision to follow this approach comes from a commitment to non-violent communication as important for achieving the lofty goal of world peace. Staff are all trained in empathic communication and this influences how they theorize their role as pedagogues.  They are concerned to hear the child’s voice and time is always found to listen to the children and their ideas, aiming to be response-able in their communications with children and in their recording of the pedagogical practice. I have deliberately hyphenated ‘response-able’ to emphasis that not all adults are able to respond to children empathetically and staff here all has training.

The leader of the schools explained that empathic communication works in a cycle. First of all the adult is concerned to make a connection with the child. The underlying expectation is that the child wants to cooperate and wants to be helpful. When they enter into dialogue with a child they begin by observing what the child is doing and describe what they see without feeling or judgement. They then try to recognize and connect with the feelings of the child and from this consider what the need of the child is in order to meet those needs by helping the child make a request to indicate what they want.

Teachers practice responsive listening by asking themselves, “What is she experiencing? What do I think she feels and needs right now?” They believe the children learn about consequences of actions when shown care and understanding, and they use rational authority to explain why they want a child to do something, for example, a child hits another child who is playing with a car.

T: You can be angry, but you mustn’t hit people because it hurts. Did you also want to play with the car? You can try saying, “Can I have the car when you’ve finished playing with it.”’

If a child is doing something they consider dangerous the staff use rational authority to explain why they want the child to do something else. In this scenario a child is climbing on a tall stool:
T: Do you find climbing exciting?
C: Yes!
T: You can hurt yourself and I don’t want that to happen.
Child cries
T: Come! Let’s find somewhere else where you can climb.
The above illustrates how staff pay attention to children’s experiences, to show them that they see and understand what they are doing and seek to understand why. Empathic communication requires them to connect with the child and acknowledge their feelings before they offer advice or teaching and in this way they show respect for the learning process and reduce the risk of hindering the children’s curiosity to learn.

Reggio Emilia inspired practice

The preschools are inspired by the practice of the early education approach from Italy that is frequently referred to as ‘Reggio’. Like Lorus Malaguzzi, the founder of Reggio, the teachers see their settings as a place for democratic practices and conversations. Following the ideas of Reggio Emilia and the idea of the 100 languages of children, the school places great emphasis on the arts and its capacity to promote creative learning. The physical space, both indoors and outdoors is a place that is expected to promote thought and action in children through play. The indoor physical space makes careful use of light and colour augmented by light boxes, projectors, cameras, and all kinds of artist materials to support curiosity and imaginative learning. The adults seek to be present for the children, they listen and connect with the children’s needs and take an active part in the exploratory learning of the children. To support their creative endeavors, one day a week all the children spend the day with a trained arts and craft specialist.
Talking to staff about day-to-day practice we were told that the environment is planned so that the children have the chance to do things themselves and use their abilities and skills as much as possible. They want the children to get the chance to practice thinking and choosing for themselves within limited and safe boundaries. There was an underlying expectation that the children’s thinking would develop automatically and naturally as they engaged with the materials and experiences on offer. Teachers I spoke to described children as naturally curious and questioning, filled with the desire to learn, to find out and to explore the world. Choice is important here; teachers believe children grow when they get to choose what they like and what helps them develop.  This extends to eating. Children from two years old can decide to go on playing at lunchtime or go and eat in the dining room. They serve themselves lunch and therefore choose what they want to eat from the buffet and then choose where they want to sit. Even very young children poured their own water from large water jugs
The Reggio approach was also evident in the pedagogic documentation that is used to track each child’s journey into meaning-making. The photographs and commentaries accompanying children’s drawings, paintings and three-dimensional constructions were used to document each child’s activities and provided insight into their interests and learning pathways. The child’s interests were of paramount importance; we were also told that children continue with whatever they are interested in as long as it holds their interest without adult interference. The children’s work was visible around the school as ‘work in progress’. Everything the child did was valued; there was no emphasis on displaying excellence that is a common practice in UK nurseries and preschools, children’s experimentation with all sorts of materials was visible for all to see.

Learning outside

In Sweden there is a huge emphasis on learning out-of-doors through children’s engagement with natural materials and with living nature. As well as the outdoor areas around the schools, children regularly visit the forest regardless of the weather. As we observed the children playing outdoors and in the forest all of us from the UK were struck by the apparent lack of attention to health and safety and risk-taking. Discussing this with staff it became clear that the model of child held by the pedagogues was of a robust child who needed to take risks and explore, who might get hurt, but that was expected as part of the rough and tumble of growing up and necessary for their development. The adults trusted that children were capable of assessing risk for themselves and would learn from their experiences. The early years practitioners from the UK liked what they saw and were critical of our system with its preoccupation with health and safety which impacts on where children are allowed to go in school settings and often results in children being indoors for most of the time and wherever they are, always in sight of an adult. We saw many things going on in the Swedish context that would have required complex risk assessment if they were taking place in the UK.

Theoretical frameworks

My discussions with the teachers suggests they were influenced by constructivist theories of child development and Piaget was mentioned several times. Piaget saw children as ‘little scientists’, discovering the world for themselves through exploration and experiment. However, this naturalist model of the child who unfolds naturally according to a biological blueprint if in the right environment is not the only model that influences practice. Staff are also influenced by the social-constructivism associated with Vygotsky. This is apparent in their emphasis on empathic communication which depends on the belief that a young child is capable of empathy. Such a view is a direct challenge to Piaget’s conclusion that the young child is unable to empathise with other points of view. At the heart of the interactions between the staff and the children is the desire to support the children to explore and to understand different points of view and ways of seeing the world. The children are given opportunities to practice empathy in situations that make sense to them because they arise either from their own experience or vicariously through story. From what I observed and from conversations with staff, it seems that the child is primarily seen as a social child embedded in social relationships that are of central importance to the pedagogic practices of the preschools.

The model of child is of a competent and active meaning-maker with a voice of their own that needs to be taken seriously and a 100 languages. Teachers had clearly embraced the Reggio model of the child as rich, resilient and resourceful. In their engagement with the children the adults told us they treated children as active and collaborative partners, as subjects acting in the world. The rights of the child were respected, their views were sought and taken seriously and this was expressed through staff commitment to ensuring children’s rights to freedom of expression, which is placed at the heart of what goes on each day.  Each child is valued as an individual with their own capacities that needs time for exploration with the right to play, make choices and participate. Despite this emphasis on the rights of the individual, the need for rights to be exercised in relationship with others also underpins the empathic communication approach, showing consideration to others is expected. Empathic thinking is encouraged not just in the ways adults relate to the children, it is also modeled through the use of puppets with an emphasis on feelings. To assist this with pre-verbal children the staff use feelings emoticons that depict key emotions: sad, happy, angry, grumpy, scared and proud. The role of language in communication is so important to the staff that the children are taught sign language as soon as they join the kindergarten at one year old. They are introduced to signs to express feelings and children quickly learn how to sign to each other and the teachers. This helps them to express their needs, e.g. feeling hungry or tired, or their wants, e.g. food, to sleep, or their emotions, e.g. sad, angry or happy. Expression of needs and emotions provides the basis of empathic communication. The feelings cards and signs also accompany stories that are shared with the children. In this way they give the children a chance to acknowledge and identify the actions and emotions of story characters.

Language however, is not the only medium for communication or knowledge construction. There are many opportunities for children to communicate through play, through manipulating materials, through interaction with the environment, through arrangements of artefacts. It was not just language and the social that was important, but the material. I was particularly struck by what I immediately thought of as an installation created by a group of children who were thinking about travel. Following up on children’s expressed interests the teachers had provided artefacts that could be associated with travel including suitcases, shoes and clothing. The children had laid out fabric that appeared to represent a road and placed pairs of shoes to indicate travel. This appeared to be an example of children using one of their 100 languages to express the concept of travel, of movement, of direction. I don’t know which children created this representation as they had left the room for lunch and had not been supervised during its creation. I was struck by how their representation made their ideas visible to us as we passed through the room. I think this indicates children who are confident in their own ability to make sense of the world and to share this with others. Empathic communication requires adults to look at children’s creations and think about what they might be expressing, whether it be through body language in their play or through the artefacts they create. The teachers we spoke to fully expected to learn from the children, as much, if not more than they expected to teach them. The important thing was to follow the children’s interests. Opportunities for this to happen abounded in the schools.

Looking at the pedagogical documentation we were shown and observing the children engaged in various representations of their thinking through a wide range of artist and natural materials it was clear that the children’s own creations were valued as part of their meaning-making processes. The creation of opportunities for visual representation of their thinking and seeing what they produced as a window into the meaning-making process was at the heart of what goes on here.

Things that surprised me

I turn now to reflect on things that surprised me. Top of this list is the lack of storybooks and of the poor quality of picture books available to the children. Perhaps this is not surprising considering there are much less that a million children under six in Sweden so the audience for Swedish language books is small – not a lot of profit for publishers here. This goes some way to explain why the libraries in the kindergartens were not inviting and didn’t seem to attract the children. During the three days I only saw one child sitting outside with books and no children looking at books. That doesn’t mean children don’t engage with story, there were story boxes with puppets and artefacts that teachers used to tell stories to the children. I wondered if the fact that formal literacy in Sweden doesn’t begin until children start school at age seven might explain why there was no apparent emphasis on using books to promote literacy.

Teachers I asked gave different reasons for using books and this was mainly to support their commitment to empathic communication. Stories were used to help children reflect on the feelings of characters. Teachers use story boxes to tell traditional stories and then ask the children to consider the behavior of characters, to think about the needs of characters that behaved badly. The troll for example, in ‘The Three Billy Goats Gruff’ was ‘probably hungry’ and ‘had a need for food’. The teacher explained she would ask the children how being hungry would make them feel. As far as I could see the main purpose of books was to support teachers who were concerned to develop children’s self-esteem and extend their understanding of emotions and needs and the role they play in behavior. It is this that they primarily considered to be worthwhile learning when using books.

A second area I found surprising was the lack of intervention in children’s play and activities. I observed in one kindergarten in particular a lot of segregated children’s play. Boys dominated in the Lego area and in some of the outside areas, but teachers didn’t want to interfere with their choices. More girls were engaged with craft activities indoors than boys and there was little evidence of mixed gender play. I discussed the issue with staff and got the impression that they didn’t see their role extending to challenging systemic issues like gender inequality.

What would I do differently?

A very important aspect of this visit has been my reflections on what I would want to see introduced into the schools, what I would do differently. Top of my list would be greater attention to story-telling, role-play and imaginative responses to story. There was some evidence that this was taking place in one classroom where children, aged 5-6 had created a world of imaginary people that lived complex lives, where all sorts of unexpected issues cropped up and were resolved. The teacher, Veronica told me that each day the children come up with more characters, more settings and more problems to be solved. With her encouragement they created a miniature world in a fish tank and many characters and artefacts they have drawn and made using a variety of materials as the photographs show.

Such worlds of play can give rise to philosophical questioning and I would love to see a community of philosophical enquiry established in the pre-schools so the children can explore conceptual ideas together. Teachers in Sweden observe children in play and have the opportunity to listen in order to identify the philosophical and then plan a pedagogical intervention to facilitate children’s thinking. In Veronica’s classroom the children are naturally theorizing about the world they have created, it is a short step for the teacher to open up new ideas and themes arising from their story-making and creating to facilitate further meaning-making.

I have argued elsewhere as follows:

1: Narrative understanding is the primary meaning-making tool.  

2: Human beings make sense of experience by imposing story structure on it and in fact narrative is our way of experiencing, acting, living and dealing with time.

3: Story has a unique power to engage all human beings both emotionally and cognitively. Unless there is emotional engagement there will be no cognitive development.

4: Narrative Understanding depends on our imagination. Children live in their imaginations.

If all these premises are true then the implications are clear: we must create a curriculum that is shaped by narratives and use story to engage children in learning. My research has been interested in finding out what happens when children are immersed in stories – where their imaginations drive the curriculum they create for themselves. Part and parcel of this approach is the use of philosophy with children to support their play and meaning-making. In a recent chapter my colleague Sara Stanley and I have argued that it is through play that children experience in an embodied way concepts that are recognized as philosophical problems. Furthermore, as children give shape to their selves in the aesthetic space of play they can explore their moral selves.

In my practice and work with schools I use story to work with children’s imagination, to promote emotional engagement and inspire fantasy play. Drama and role-play provide further opportunities for children’s meaning-making and in the process they explore concepts that abound in children’s stories, for example, fear, anger, love, friendship, jealousy, kindness, cruelty, struggle, loneliness, deprivation, courage, determination, persistence, triumph and so on. The concepts are reflected in their play and Sara Stanley has identified a number those that frequently arise in the early years classroom:
It’s my turn (fairness)
You’re not my friend any more (friendship)
Not now (time)
No that toy is mine (ownership)
You’re the baddy and I’ll be the goodie (good/bad)
You’re not sharing (sharing)
Don’t scream at me. That’s not what friends do (friendship)
The fairy is here but she’s invisible (proof)
That’s going to be impossible (possibilities)
The dragon is going to get you back (revenge)
Only girls can play this game (gender)

These are philosophical concepts and when teachers are trained to work philosophically with children it has the potential to enhance the work that is already being done in Swedish pre-schools. Staff are already very attentive to the children and their needs, this could be extended to encouraging them to play the stories they are told, to create their own stories and help them to build on and develop them. Staff now are concerned to really listen to children and to respect their ideas. I think this could be extended to include their stories and exploration of the abstract concepts that are embedded in them.

We all know that the actions of adults shape the lives of children in preschool; the space that is created for the children in Ängbybarnens is one committed to the child’s interests and seeks to bring each child’s unique being into the world. I think this practice could be further enhanced with more use of story, supporting play arising from story and through philosophizing with the adults around the concepts that rise from the children’s story-play.