Finland’s Finest: Why We Need to Take Note of Finland’s Approach to Early Education

In recent years, Finland has been consistently at the top of worldwide rankings by nation for 15 year-old academic performance.  They’re obviously doing something right.  And in my biased informed opinion, if we want to know why their 15 year-olds are so bright, we need to look not only at what they’re doing in high school, but also (and perhaps more so) at what they’re doing in their early education programs.

While here in America, we seem fixated on the “earlier is better” philosophy, Finland is staying at the top by honoring early childhood for what it is.  In fact, Finnish children don’t even enter formal schooling until they are seven years old.  That’s right.  Finland is getting ahead by starting later.

Before seven, however, young Finns don’t just stay home watching cartoons all day.  The period of early childhood is revered and respected in Finland, evidenced by their commitment to providing access to high quality early education to all of its citizens.

In these preschools and kindergartens, you won’t find the country’s next crop of top students drilling through flashcards or poring over worksheets.  More likely, you’ll see them singing, playing, and painting.  In Finland, the focus for early education is on learning how to learn.  Children are encouraged to experience, explore, and play.  The Finns value the development of curiosity and social competency in the early years.  They know that the “academics” will come more easily later if the foundation is there. 

In addition to Finland’s developmentally appropriate approach to early education, it is interesting to note that its teachers — including its primary teachers — are required to have master’s degrees and generally come from the tops of their classes.  Teaching — even teaching preschool — is highly respected as a profession and recognized for the important and influential work that it is.  Finns realize that teaching preschoolers is more than babysitting and that early educators are intelligent and valuable members of their community.    (Oh, I could tell you the stories of comments like, “Do you have to go to college to teach first grade?” and “So your job is to fill up the paint?”  I’ll save it for another day.)  When valued in this way, teachers are not only more likely to live up to the standards created for their positions, but are more likely to find satisfaction in their profession as well.  And as many of us can attest, a happy teacher is a better teacher!  These highly trained and respected teachers are given a great deal of autonomy and are allowed to teach as they know they should.

While Finland also has many other factors contributing to the favorable outcome of its students (including a high adult literacy rate among other things) it’s impossible to deny the value of its strong commitment to developmentally appropriate, high quality early education.  And yet, in our effort to get our 15 year-olds closer to where theirs are, we seem to be moving our 4 year-olds further away from where theirs are. 

Unsatisfactory test results and “failure anxiety” have led to more academics earlier, and less time for play-based exploration and social interaction.  But from looking at the Finnish model, it seems we’ve gone about “improving” in the wrong way, throwing DAP out the window.  How can we expect to get the same results as the Finns by preparing our young children in the opposite manner?

Continue the discussion about developmentally appropriate practice.  Read about the Gesell Institute’s recent study, and comment with your questions for its executive director, Dr. Marcy Guddemi here.

Read about Developmentally Appropriate Practice and Why We Don’t Push Kids Down the Stairs.

To learn more:

Early Education’s Top Model: Finland – The Globe and Mail

A World of Opportunity – Video by Economic Opportunity Institute

Top photo by Arsel Ozgurdal.
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Filed under Child Development & DAP, Uncategorized

68 Responses to Finland’s Finest: Why We Need to Take Note of Finland’s Approach to Early Education

  1. Hey!
    I’m a stay-at-home mom that was once a kindergarten/first grade teacher back in the day. I’ve got my masters in early literacy but you’d never know it with the dried oatmeal in my eyebrows! I stumbled across your blog while doing a Google search for something else. I 100% agree! I have a 3 year old and 1 year old at home with me and I am so saddened by how parents push their babies. Thanks for your input in educating parents in the treasures of being a child….and reminding me of the importance as well. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that when you’re “in the trenches”. I could get sucked into all of it if I wasn’t reminded how important developmental play is!

    • notjustcute

      I love (and can SO relate to) the dried oatmeal comment! I so glad to have you as a reader and would love to hear more input from you! Please share your expertise with us!

    • I’m in the trenches too, not as a Mommy but as a preschool curriculum director. I worked 22 yrs. at a preschool as a director living, eating and breathing DAP. I retired 2 yrs. ago and now find myself at a much smaller school as their curriculum director, music teacher, librarian, light office, etc. We are taking baby steps and I am loving the new opportunities and interaction I am experiencing with the staff and the children. Hopefully, here in America, we will look at models like Finland. Our problems in education were not created over night and will not be solved with any single, magic bullet. Hopefully, this is the second time I am useing this word, the adults making these important decisions will do their homework and in the end they will not rob our children of their childhoods.
      P.S. I am a proud mom of three grown children and playful grandma to four grandsons! :) joyce

    • Deb

      I recently saw a sign outside of a Montessori school that frustrates me: “Can your 4 year old read this?”
      My question is SHOULD they be able to read this, or should we be more focused on things in this article?

      • notjustcute

        That drives me crazy too! Some kids will read at 4 and that’s great! But I hate the implication that there’s something wrong with you or your child if they don’t. It’s well within the normal developmental range.

  2. Katrina

    Very interesting. More reason to learn from playing.

  3. So pleased to see this. I feel like I am fighting all the time for a less structured and formal environment for my 4/5 year olds. Sometimes when you are always swimming upstream you start to doubt yourself, so this was very timely. Oh how I wish I could convince parents of this – actually, parents and other teachers :(

  4. Carol

    WOW. I sometimes think that i am not doing enough, as far as worksheets and keeping them busy. But after reading this post, I feel that I am doing great with them because I don’t bombard them with all that and let them actually play, sing, and paint. Love your blog!!

  5. So, I realize this might be too late since I didn’t finish reading the blog posts until 5 minutes ago- BUT if there is a chance . . . . is there anyway to see the abstract of the study or find a description of how it was conducted? I fully support and agree with DAP I am just somewhat nerdy in that I like to know how a study is conducted. Plus, it helps to be able to defend my position and the research better when I am talking education with ultra-critical friends or family .. . thanks!

    And when I say ultra critical- I simply mean the “teaching isn’t hard/that important/difficult/influential” kind of criticism

  6. Oh, also wanted to say thanks for the discussion posts. I am enjoying the reading and the link-up references.

    As a mother of a 4month old and a 2 year old- I haven’t entered the world of school systems, but it is interesting to note what people think my children should be able to do because I am an educator and taught in the Public School System previous to staying home (some even want to know if -and somewhat expect- my two year old to be reading!)

  7. Also, I meant to include that I am really enjoying this discussion series and the link-up reading references you provide.

    As a mother of a 4 month old and a 2 year old, I am not in any sort of school system environment. It is interesting to note, however, the expectations people place on my kids because I am a licensed educator (some even have asked- and somewhat expected- my two year old to already be reading!) Talk about NOT Developmentally Appropriate.

  8. “Before seven, however, young Fins don’t just stay home watching cartoons all day. ”

    Yes!! (although ironically, as I nod my head in agreement, I must shamefully admit that Backyardigans is on in the background! sheesh).

    Growing up, EVERYthing school seemed to be worksheets and rote memorization. I spent my years teaching third and fourth grade trying to break out of that mold. Feel like I still have a lot to learn when it comes to the little ones … I realize it EVERY day with my 2 year old. My imagination skills are quite rusty! :) Looking forward to continue my learning from you!

    LOVE the requirements in Finland for the educators to have high education requirements and adore the fact that they are actually respected! … oh how I wish it were the same here!

    • notjustcute

      *We enjoy a little Backyardigans around here as well.* “All day” is the operative phrase. :0)

    • I’m not sure how it is around the country but, in NY state, teachers are required to have a Master’s Degree. I have mine in Literacy and have taught Kindergarten and worked as a Reading Specialist before becoming a SAHM…dried oatmeal eyebrows and all. :)

      • notjustcute

        That’s interesting to note! I may be wrong, but I believe teachers in Oregon also are required to get an advanced degree within a certain amount of time. I’m not aware of any advance degree requirement here in Utah, I’m sure it just differs state to state. And I don’t want to sound like degrees and certificates necessarily make the better teacher, just the recognition that early childhood education is an esteemed profession that requires preparation, intelligence, and skill. As I mentioned, I’ve encountered people who essentially think you only have to be “that much” smarter than your young pupils.

        I’m glad to have such smarties sharing here! And enjoy the oatmeal in the eyebrows. I may start spreading mine around a little – I hear it’s good for your skin! :0)

  9. My heart sang as I read your post. As a former first grade teacher, mom of one and one on the way, and current Kids Yoga Teacher, I so agree that kids need less “academic” and more learning how to learn at these early stages. I think it is a thought that many who work with our youngest students agree with.
    Thank you for putting it into words so well.

  10. I’m still not sure how I got to your site, but am glad stumbled this way.
    I’d heard, or rather, read about Finland’s academic standards in the book, “Last Child in the Woods,” three years ago when we were starting our daughter out in preschool. It couldn’t have been read at a more fitting time, as we backed way off the flashcards and the handwriting practice and got back outside to play. We were completely guilty of pushing our little girl far before she was ready to hold a pencil. We’ve gotten a second chance with our son.

  11. kimberlymoore

    This study mimics my own experience with my eldest daughter. I unschooled her until she was 8. She is now 15 and top of her class. When she was 10 school was getting very interesting for her, and her peers were already burned out!

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  13. I’m so glad I found this! My two boys (3 and 5) are both in half day Montessori school, which seems pretty spot on to the Finland approach (and was the closest thing I could find to approximate the type of homeschooling I wish I had in me but don’t.) I’m struggling right now with how long to keep them in there (because a switch to public schools is going to happen at some point unless I win the lottery) and this blog post is very helpful to my internal discussion, so thank you! :)

  14. “My intellectual development was retarded, as a result of which I began to wonder about space and time only when I had already grown up.”
    Albert Einstein

    I found this quotation in Mirar al Niño, by Judith Falk, from Loczy Institute. We know we don´t expect our kids to become geniouses to find out quantum truths. And we also know certain children do need special educational attention to unfold their potentialities.
    But the fact Albert Einstein started “so late” his intellectual career is quite interesting, isn´t it?

    • notjustcute

      Great quote, and wonderful thought! Einstein wasn’t studying flashcards at three, but as he said, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” It’s that curiosity that I worry is being stifled in exchange for fact regurgitation or simple busy-work.

  15. ad65shorty

    LOVE this! I so wish I could send it to my son’s Kindergarten teacher!

    Thank you for the fabulous info! Your site continues to be one of my favorites because of the information/research you share.


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  17. I read this with a little fear – I’ve gotten my share of criticism for educating my 3yo daughter too young! But for me – it’s about Mommy & Me time – “school” is when we have fun exploring together – cooking, science, counting and measuring, storytime, art, and YES, phonics and flashcards and worksheets, too.

    Quite frankly, I see too many parents take studies like this as an excuse to neglect their kids’ learning experiences. I know when I leave my daughter to her own devices, it takes about 10 minutes before she’s begging to watch Strawberry Shortcake.

    But if I plan ahead, I can keep her engaged all day long with intentional learning activities, including stuff like a play dough station, legos, a freshened up dress-up basket, etc. It’s a combination of a learning environment mixed with teaching specific skills. And boy, is she learning!

    So I very much appreciate the inclusion of “not watching cartoons all day” in this post to keep it somewhat balanced.

    By the way, I taught myself to read when I was three and devoured books and workbooks as a kid. My mother didn’t “push” me in any way. Every child is different, and I’m a little annoyed with people who tell me I push my child too hard. She loves “school,” and I love being part of her learning experience.

    Just my own personal soapbox – thanks for allowing it and for bringing attention to early childhood education…

    • notjustcute

      You are always welcome to the soapbox! What you describe doing with your daughter is exactly the point I was trying to make. You are teaching in an engaging and appropriate way. The philosophy for early education in Finland is developmentally appropriate practice: learning through play, exploring a prepared environment, intentional teaching through mini-lessons and planned activities that are appropriate to the child’s age and developmental stage. You are right, too many people hear that Finland doesn’t have formal schooling until 7 and just check out for seven years, but the bigger point I was trying to make was what they’re doing with those early childhood years before formal school begins. They are being taught, engaged, and they are learning. They’re simply doing it in a developmentally appropriate way rather than following the trend that seems to be growing here in the US – to move out the playdough, dress-ups, and sensory tables and replace them with more desks and workbooks. Workbooks can have their place, but they are often overused as a substitute for real experience, which is how children (and most adults) learn best. Additionally, much of the formal instruction displaces foundational skills that are necessary for proficiency to be attained (for example, phonemic awareness as a precursor to reading). It sounds like much of what you are doing with your daughter fits within those bounds for appropriate early learning.

  18. Found you through Musings of a Housewife :)

    The Nursery School (ages 3 and 4) my kids attended here in N Ireland has close educational links with schools in Finland and many of the staff have been involved in teacher exchanges and visits. Definitely a focus on learning through play – exploring through textures, colours and tastes. I found it refreshing and encouraging. My kids loved it too :)

  19. Rebecca B

    Also found you through a link on Musings of a Housewife. When I studied abroad in Germany (I’m American), there were two girls from Finland, whom I befriended. One is a teacher in Finland right now teaching languages. My impression of her was: dedicated, intelligent, accurate in her German speaking skills, and on top of that she was admired by other professors at the university (even being offered an internship to teach German). I’d say that European university students, in general, are more focused, independent and studious than my experience in the States. Why? First, at least in Germany students at age 10 choose if they want to go through the university route. They are already cream of the crop. Second, it’s very difficult to change majors, so they need to be focused on their decided major even if they don’t like it. The university structure is more challenging. It consists of lectures (voluntary to attend) and one test, maybe two, during the entire semester.

    I agree with the early education that you’re describing and what you’re suggesting with “relaxing” a bit when it comes to the academics at pre-school/Kindergarten age. I also wholeheartedly agree with requiring higher standards for teachers and giving them more recognition. I haven’t read all the comments, but I just wanted to add what I learned while studying in Germany for a short time, which is that the US is unique in offering higher education to everyone! It’s true and that gives more opportunities to all American children.

    • Rebecca B

      I live in Utah. I think there was a comment about teaching degrees in Utah? From my experience, teachers for K-3 need a Bachelor’s degree in early education, so that means that most of the time I doubt a pre-school teacher has a degree. I had a few high school teachers with a Master’s degree, but most had a Bachelor’s degree. Many of the aids, substitutes, and elementary librarians don’t need a college degree. It’s obvious that the counselors, speech therapists, etc do need a college degree.

      • kimberlymoore

        I think that it is pretty standard that preschool teachers require a degree. Their degree is in Early Childhood Education and they study the development of humans from birth to seven. Most elementary degrees are for teaching grades k-8. This study does not include all of the development research from an ECE degree. I know. I have a degree for both. I couldn’t believe how much I didn’t learn for my teaching degree.

        • notjustcute

          Some preschools do require degrees, but not all, unfortunately. I also have a dual degree in ElEd and ECE, and would agree that there is a lot of information in the early education training that really should be required for anyone certified to teach the younger grades (PreK-3).

    • notjustcute

      Great points Rebecca, thanks for sharing. It’s true there are many other variables at play, and there are a lot of things about our systems here that I certainly wouldn’t trade.

  20. Allison

    I lived in Finland for a short time. I too noted the late age start to school, and feel it’s a wonderful thing. However, all the children were in daycare/preschool prior to formal kindergarten. I honestly don’t know what they do in the day cares, or how they structure the child’s day. I can’t imagine they don’t do some type of “school”. That being said, they highly value the outdoors, physical activity, and intellect. There was literally a playground on every corner, and they were used. They were outside in ALL kinds of weather, EVERY day and they have the most awesome outdoor clothes to accommodate the weather. The only time you didn’t go out was when it was -27C. This is not just the children, I think cross country skiing is a national past time in winter. There are walking paths throughout the country and you could literally walk anywhere, and they were always full of people. We really enjoyed out stay there and loved being able to walk anywhere from our front door instead of having to drive someplace first.

    • notjustcute

      They certainly do school in those early years, but they do it in a developmentally appropriate way. Playing, exploring, discussing, singing, experiencing.

      I’ve also heard, similar to your experience, that there is a big emphasis on outdoor play and discovery. In fact, I think it was a Finnish nature school referred to in Last Child in the Woods where they were outside everyday. Someone asked, “What do you do when the weather is bad?” and the response was something like, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes for it!” :0)

  21. This is a wonderful idea. Unfortunately I think our culture is too competitive for this to work. Everyone wants to be bigger, faster, first. I’m not sure how the Finnish view life in general, but obviously they’re not as gung ho about being ahead in the beginning, as long as they’re ahead when it counts.


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  24. CynthiaT

    Many moons ago I worked as a senior staff teacher in a child development center aka preschool/daycare in the DC Metro area. We focused on fine & gross motor skills, social skills, science, and art as part of our day in each of our classes (2 y/o, 3 y/o, 4 y/o).

    I took the same approach with my own children as a parent. When they do watch TV it’s PBS not commercial televison or mindless drivel. I believe strongly that kids need to be kids and they need to learn how to interact with each other. However it can’t feel like they’re always being ‘taught a lesson’ either. Yet, I ended up with a four year old self taught reader whose now a seven year old reading on a ten year old level. I worry about it. I want my children to enjoy being children not feel academic pressure to perform.

    Our country could stand to learn a LOT of lessons from other cultures in how to best care for and interact with our children. This study just shows one of many that I fear will be ignored by the masses of status quo per usual in US culture where children are treated as beings to act as servants or to inherit familial wealth rather than truly desired family members for and of themselves.

  25. Cat

    So my question is….even though we have this information….and it is a proven fact that children do better learning this way, why aren’t we doing anything about it?
    Before our children enter kindergarten, they are expected to know the alphabet, how to count to 100, know all their colors. Every year, they are expected to know even more. No wonder children feel overwhelmed and fall behind and get lost in the cracks! Yet, we do nothing to change it?

    • Jamie

      I agree Cat! I have friends with kids in second grade that come home with homework that takes almost and hour every night. When do they kids get to play in the yard, be creative, and get exercise?!?

  26. Carol

    I really like this article. I know from personal experience with my eight year old who started kindergarten at 4 and turned 5, 2 months into the kindergarten year, that she was on the immature side. I was told by many of my teacher friends to give her another year and start her at almost 6. But, I listened to my parents and husband instead who insisted she was ready. She has struggled every year since and seems to catch up in the middle of the school year to the others so she ends up every year with a negative experience thinking she is not smart. I am so happy to see this article because I have a 3 year old who turns 5 the weeks kindergarten starts and since I’ve had such a bad experience with my 8 year old I thought waiting til she’s six might be better, but then I was worried I’d be holding her up developmentally and missing a “window” of opportunity for her to start learning. Also, I would like to comment that the diet of Sweden should be considered because if they are eating a diet high in omegas then their brain may develop better and they would have happier kids that don’t struggle with depression the way our American teenagers do. Our society is feeding our kids GMO’s and processed foods and making organic healthy living virtually unaffordable to a family of five like mine. So needless to say, we Americans could adopt this learning style and philosophy but until our government stops poisoning us with its agriculture we will never measure up the same, we need both. I have a 16 year old as well and could go on and on with my experiences, but I loved the article.

  27. Jamie

    I’m glad to see there are others that feel the same way I do. We have 2 boys, 3.5 and 2, and I just couldn’t imagine sending my oldest to school next year. My parents didn’t send me to first grade till I was 7 and I have so many wonderful memories of my years before school. I also learned some life lessons, I can’t replace, from my parents during those first 7 years. I have to say it stresses me out a little thinking about finding a school for the boys that hold the same values and learning experience I think that will truly help them.

  28. Kanapoika

    Please….. It’s “Finns,” not “Fins.”

  29. Love this and am sharing it widely. I’ve been writing on this topic for years and couldn’t agree more. :) Swedish preschools are also worth looking into. They’re wonderful and have the same sorts of focus.

  30. Greetings from Finland :)
    You described it very well, I think. We start at age seven (usually) and by that time quite many kids can already read a bit and know alphabets. Kids are learning the basics already in the preschool, but they do it in fun and creative way. Most of the 6 – 7 years old children are also very motivated to learn and that’s why they almost learn to read by themselves with a little a bit of encouragement. For those who a struggling with languages or Maths, we have also a support system and kids are allowed to get extra teaching or teaching in a smaller groups.

    First two grades in school we are concentrating quite a lot to Finnish language (or other “first” language which could also be for instance Swedish… or other native language). Mathematics play also a huge part of young pupils school days. I think that builds the solid ground for later studies.

    And later on we of course study foreign languages so that people around the world can understand us :)

    • notjustcute

      Thank you so much, Anne! It’s so good to hear the descriptions I’ve read have been accurate. (I’d love to go visit and observe it all for myself, but in lieu of that, I’ll take your personal experience! :0) What I love most about your description is that the letters and numbers are taught, but in playful and authentic ways. That so resonates with my personal philosophies. Thank you so much for sharing your first hand experience!

  31. Beth

    I love this article! Love it! The daycare my kids go to to 2 1/2 and 15 months encourages learning through play. They sing they dance and are encouraged to have fun! They usually have 3 word and numbers of the week and they learn those in English, Spanish and sign. I love that they are learning and having fun!

  32. Carol

    Interesting info. I heard the Finns also take frequent breaks throughout the day allowing the students to come back fresh and ready to learn again. I think the kids either do some sort of inside exercise or go outside to run around and get their energy out. When I have volunteered in the elementary school my kids are at I have noticed how the kids can barely sit down and really seem like they need more time outside in order to pay attention to their lessons. I think the schedule I heard was every 90 minutes the Finish kids will go outside and/or get some sort of exercise.

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  35. Susanna

    Wow, I was really pleased to read this! I´m an early education teacher in Helsinki (Finland), a kindergarten/preschool teacher or don´t know how to translate it in a right way. And yes – we paint, draw, sing, dance, laugh, run, explore and most of all we play all the time, both indoors and outdoors. Almost every day.

    What I disagree a bit is that respecting-thing. It is true that the teachers have their degrees in universities (and then again, there are usually 3 adults in a group and only one of them is a teacher, the two others are nurses – years ago there were 2 teachers), but you hear that “oh, so you studied that far just to chance diapers” -thing all the time here as well.

    But this kind of article felt really good! I think, too, that respecting childhood is the most important thing we can do to our kids! And I´m really glad to go back to work on monday after weekend. :)

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