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Freedom with responsibility – the Swedish approach to education

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I have long been interested in the pre-school education system in Scandinavia so it was fascinating to be part of an educational study tour to Sweden organised by the inspirational coach, Tracy Seed http://tracyseed.com/.  We experienced first-hand some of the wonderful practice within the Angbybarnens group of pre-schools in the suburbs of Stockholm, which are recognised for their high quality early years provision.

img_1100Sweden is blessed with vast areas of woodland and forest. Even within cities and suburbs there are large pockets of woodland on the doorstep and playing in the forest forms an integral part of education. All the pre-schools I visited, and other schools in the area, routinely take children to the forest each day in all weathers as part of children’s play and learning experience. It was a joy to see such young children clambering over boulders and logs and exploring with a real sense of freedom. Children respect the one very simple rule – they are free to explore on their own as long as they can see an adult. This rule nicely sums up the Swedish motto embedded within all levels of education: ‘freedom with responsibility.’

img_1040Every pre-school has a large outdoor play area, and all those I saw had ordinary chain-link fencing which provided a boundary while enabling children to see out into their local community and indeed feel part of it. One group of children watched in awe as a refrigeration van made a delivery to a neighbouring shop. This simple observation created a fantastic opportunity for discussion and enquiry. Central to outdoor play is the fire pit and its surrounding log seating. 13315654_10154282493859923_2045175696528152684_nThis acts as a focal point on winter mornings as children arrive at pre-school and come together around the fire. Many of the playgrounds contain trees which children are allowed and encouraged to climb. There is a soft crash mat on the ground beneath but adults do not directly supervise or guide children as they climb. Children are simply allowed to find out for themselves how to climb and keep safe. When teachers were asked about this, they pragmatically replied ‘if children fall, they learn how to avoid the same mistakes next time.’ Clearly, Sweden does not have the same culture of apportioning blame and suing for compensation that we do!

In addition to following the Reggio Emilia philosophy, another key underlying principle of Swedish pre-schools is to develop the foundations for lifelong learning and their curriculum is based on fundamental democratic and societal values. In practice, this means nurturing children’s independence and self-esteem. The Angbybarnens group of pre-schools do this by using empathic communication, an approach inspired by the concept of non-violent communication founded by Dr Marshall Rosenberg http://nvc-uk.com/. At its heart is the principle of not causing harm and the belief that feelings arise from met or unmet needs. As someone who believes passionately in the importance of ‘tuning’ in to children, and adults, I was impressed with the apparent simplicity and effectiveness of this approach in helping to understand children’s, and adults’, feelings and needs more deeply and to help resolve conflict.

img_1158One of the unique features of practice is the Swedish approach to meal times building on the theme of self-sufficiency and independence. All the pre-schools I visited were fortunate to have a separate dining room so activities and tables do not have to be cleared in readiness for lunch and children do not all have to stop to ‘tidy up’. Instead, older children take turns as lunch monitors to tell their friends that lunch is ready. Children decide whether to eat straightaway or to finish playing, which gives them control over their actions and feelings. self-service-lunchChildren as young as two years use the self-service buffet set out on a low shelf and take their plate to a table of their choice, with adults on hand to assist only if necessary. Mixed-aged children and adults sit together in a very homely and unhurried environment with children returning to the buffet table for second helpings if they like. Food is undoubtedly nutritious. There is always a meat and fish dish with at least 6 bowls of mainly raw and seasonal salads and vegetables – and no desserts!

This desire to build children’s self-sufficiency and independence extends to outings where children carry a backpack containing a snack brought from home. They decide when they are ready to eat it and are expected to open all packaging themselves. If they struggle to do this they first ask a friend to help them and, only then, will an adult step in to help. This shows the very high expectations that adults have of children’s capabilities.