What do two kindergarten classes separated by an ocean, language, and culture have in common? In what ways do they differ? What are five-year-olds expected to learn while attending preschool in the US and Sweden? Are there any advantages or disadvantages to each kindergarten’s approach?
I interviewed two kindergarten teachers—one in the US and one in Sweden—and their answers may surprise you. Both kindergartens emphasize play-based learning, social-cognitive skills, and developing necessary skills (e.g., cutting with scissors and drawing) but the ways in which each teacher approaches these concepts differs broadly.
This is a peek into the work and energy that goes into teaching our children. When comparing two classrooms in two different countries, it is impossible to make broad generalizations.
These responses cannot and are not intended to represent all American and Swedish kindergartens as a whole but rather, to offer parents some insights to the cultural differences and approaches to education.
How many students are in your kindergarten classroom?
What is the student: teacher ratio in your classroom?
What is the age range of children in your class?
Describe your top goals this school year for children ages five to six years?
How long is your typical work day?
Describe any additional work you do before or after school.
How do you assess the children’s learning skills throughout the year?
What is your primary focus as a kindergarten teacher?
Describe the level of interaction you have with the parents of your students
USA: Very limited (face-to-face) interaction although, parents and I email regularly. Any parent with a question or a concern can call, email, or come in and I will meet with them. Formal parent meetings are twice a year for academic updates.
Parents come into school for parties (Halloween, Winter, Valentine’s Day, Field Day) but they are not regularly in the classroom. I send home a monthly newsletter with an overview of the month’s activities and then weekly bulletins with reminders of needs for the week.
Sweden: We meet parents when they drop-off and pick-up their children every day. At pick-up, we tell them about the day (activities, etc.). Otherwise, we strive for and support the children’s communication with the parents. The child should try to remember what they have done during the day and tell their parents themselves. It is important for us as teachers to have a good cooperation with the parents.
We also use Pluttra (a mobile/email app) (linked to the curriculum) where we often send pictures of the child doing various activities such as learning to cut with scissors and so on. We also send weekly letters via email and hold performance reviews. Otherwise, parents can call us if they want, anytime.
Describe some of the fun activities you do inside and outside of your classroom with your students
USA: I am trying very hard to put play back into our classroom. We are a highly academic district with a very strong emphasis on paper and pencil activities. With every unit of study, I make sure there is an engineering or physical building piece.
I make sure there are puppets for story retelling. We have art for expression using clay, paint, crayons, or 3-D pop art. I work to give my students whole body learning (physical activity while doing an academic task; ex. Hopscotch is sequencing numbers) and brain breaks (physical movement: dance, yoga, musical marching band) so that they can grow their brains in many different ways!
My science and engineering units involve outdoor/environmental piece. The kids love to be able to go bird watching, bug hunting, and seeing how structures are built for the function. Whenever possible being able to go outside and play is so beneficial for all of us, but unfortunately, this is not a regular occurrence.
Sweden: We take the children into the forest and walk through the neighborhood parks. We often travel on field trips into town. The children paint, draw, cut, do puzzles, games, group song, read books and free play. Two days a week we work in small age-related groups.
Describe how long and often the children have free play during the day in your kindergarten
USA: Each day, the kids have a 25-minute recess after lunch. Two days a week they have an additional 30 minutes of unstructured classroom play.
Sweden: The children have free play 8:30-9:00 am, and then again 1:00-2:15 pm. They have free play/games whenever we go outside.
Describe your three (3) biggest challenges as a kindergarten teacher
- Helping children and families adjust to the rigors of formal schooling.
- Balancing the need for active play against a Common Core curriculum.
- Time and space. My classroom is a very small space, so we are quite cozy which increases the need for students learning how to accommodate to others.
- To see and listen to all the children, both individually and in groups.
- Inspire all children to dare to challenge and try new things.
- Learning how to put into words, or understand what the child wants and desires. Communication is important.
Describe your three (3) biggest joys as a kindergarten teacher
- Watching learning happen in real time; the excitement that happens when they “get” a concept. When kindergarteners discover that they can read a sentence, or organize word cards into a sentence that others can read, they radiate joy and pride.
- The joy of small, commonplace activities. Students who create something that they are so proud of, whether it is a tall block tower, make-believe lunch, or a picture for a friend, each one is a special moment for that child in that moment.
- The absolute joy of seeing these 23 people work together and look out for each other. They are making lasting friendships.
- Following the child in his/her development and learning over the course of several years.
- The children inspire me in their curiosity to want to explore and try new challenges in everyday life.
- When I see and listen to the children’s cooperative giving and taking. Looking at and listening to each other—that social interaction is sometimes difficult. It is a joy to guide these children in a friendly setting and to be a good role model
Both kindergartens are of similar size (23 vs. 21) but the age range is remarkably different (5-7 and 2.5-6) and the expectations for learning vary widely between the two kindergartens. The Swedish kindergarteners experience more free play and outdoor play time than their American counterparts, something Erika Christakis of the Yale Child Study Center says is imperative to early childhood education. The Swedish teacher has more daily face-to-face interactions with their students’ parents than reported in the American classroom.
Both teachers are challenged and inspired by the children they teach and constantly come up with creative ideas to weave knowledge and life skills into their students’ days. How much does the culture affect the curriculum and teaching style? I think culture plays an incredibly important role.
Children at that particular Swedish preschool (and something I have seen is part of the overall Swedish preschool structure) is that children are eased into schooling over time while maintaining a few breaks a day for unstructured play.
The year a child turns six years old, they can begin formal schooling with other elementary students. As this article focused on what skills are expected of five-year-olds between the two countries, another article will focus on comparing similar grade levels regardless of age.
Kinstantly has some tips for how American parents can advocate for waiting an extra year before starting kindergarten.
To read more about how important play is for early childhood development, read NPR’s article, “What Kids Need From Grown-ups (But Aren’t Getting).”
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