The following is an article contributed by a Singaporean parent with a preschooler living in Finland.
There has been much debate recently on the quality, quantity and organization of childcare centres in Singapore. Childcare is understandably important for any country and in particular, Singapore. Manpower and specifically talent is Singapore’s best as well as only natural resource (if you do not count our national reserves as one). Undoubtedly, this implies that children are an important factor in the nation’s survival. The role of childcare thus can encourage the national total fertility rate (TFR) to a certain extent; put existing parents at ease and better prepare children for a fiercely competitive globalised world.
Finland was ranked first in the world for preschool in recent Economist Intelligence Unit report commissioned by the Lien Foundation. There has been much written about the Finnish education system but what does it really look like from the inside? A picture tells a thousand words so hopefully these pictures give some insight into the Finnish daycare system.
Information privacy and protection are key cornerstones to Finnish individual rights. As such, no recognizable pictures of children can be taken without the permission of the parents in writing. Thus, the following pictures will be strange to viewers since there are hardly or no children in it. Incidentally, the pictures were taken when the children were out playing or in the gym. The pictures were taken from a typical Finnish district daycare centre, i.e. in Singapore’s terms a childcare centre. There are approximately 80 children in this daycare, managed by 16 daycare staff and 1 principal. The centre comprises of two levels. This is the ground level and there is another level below with its own play yard. There is also a kitchen and gym at the lower level.
The daycare opens at 7 every morning and closes at 5 in the evening during the weekdays. This is the front entrance. Incidentally, there is no lock on the front gate, only the main door is locked. The centre is fenced up but is accessible to all, including the outdoor play areas. This means that during the weekends, parents are most welcome to take their kids to the play areas.
There is a huge playground to the left (for kids aged 4 and above), comprising a junior sized football field, down slopes, a swings area and a “treehouse”. Singaporean parents would not dare let their children anywhere near this “treehouse”. It is almost 4 metres high, with a fireman’s pole and long slide down.
There is another adjoining yard, which is smaller (to the left) for the younger kids (aged 8 months to 3 years). Every Finnish play area always comprises of swings, stairs, slides and most importantly a sand pit. The sand pit is where kids learn to play together and share the toys. All toys for the sand pit are communal. This means that the spades and so forth are kept in a box, which is usually unlocked in the morning. After playing, the kids will return their toys into the box when it is locked in the evening. This is intended to teach them responsibility even for common things that are shared.
This is a typical sight as you enter through the main door a Finnish daycare centre. As it is autumn now, Finland experiences monsoon like weather where it rains most days. Kids are not kept indoors because of the rain. They just need “wellies” or boots so that they can go outdoors and keep their feet dry. To the left of the shoe rack is a wash area where boots or raincoats can be washed. The washing is never done by the teachers, always the parents!
The picture below shows the (aged 3 and under) kids’ individual lockers where their extra clothes are stored. Parents ensure that there is always an extra pair of short, trousers, socks, etc. Teachers help with reminders stuck at the top to remind parents of needed items.
Just opposite the locker area is the principal’s office, which is also used for all other administrative purposes. Just look at the amount of books on the shelves!
This is the locker area for kids aged 4 to 7. There are no locks, but nothing has ever gone missing! Learning integrity at a young age regardless of status or class is perhaps one reason why Finland is such an egalitarian state.
In front of every classroom, the weekly schedule is shown. This includes what the kids are doing each day as well as the menu for the week. Breakfast starts at 8am, lunch at 11am and a snack at 3pm. Other important notices are also put on this board. There is absolutely nothing on this board that is in English so foreigners are expected to learn the language.
On entering the classroom, one is usually surprised at the simplicity of the arrangements. The kids all have their designated seats. They draw, write, paint and eat at the same place. The only instance they are free to roam is when there is free play time. All the materials are neatly stowed away in the corner of the room. The kids all play a part in keeping the classroom tidy with guidance from the teacher.
The above picture shows a play room for the kids. The toys are neatly stowed away in the boxes. Again, the kids do the cleaning up once play time ends. The toys are very typical and normal ones, ranging from puzzles, lego blocks to plastic model cars.
The below picture shows the sleeping are for the kids. According to the daily schedule, the kids have a compulsory “quiet time” from 12 noon to 2pm. Kids who do not fall asleep, are still expected to be silent. For those kids that are uncontrollable, they are usually “escorted” to the play room with a teacher present. No kid has ever been “escorted” more than twice during their lifetime in this daycare.
A toilet designed and built for kids! All kids in Finland are toilet trained by the time they are 3 years old. The daycare staff together with the parents toilet train the kids with a routine that works like magic. There is hardly any supervision required from age 4 onwards since the kids take their own initiative.
Can Singapore replicate this? My opinion is that it will be very difficult. The lack of land space can be addressed. Attitudes, mindsets and cultural norms are high hurdles to clear and cannot be leapt over in one bound. But if there is a will, there will always be a way.