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 Fins 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 Fins 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.  Fins 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 farther 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 Fins 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.

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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48 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

  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. Jill

    I am currently doing a degree in early years and whilst doing a module have been asked to compare England with another country’s education, I chose Finland. I have been observing the outcomes of many mordic countries and I am just amazed at the outcomes. The state of our country’s education (England) system draws me to despair. I currently feel at a total loss to understand why this country has not yet adopted any of their ideas. I am sure that it comes down to money as most things do. I am at present in paid work in a early years setting and juggling the every day needs of a family, work and study. I try to implement many nordic beliefs into my teaching and I love that the fins have this goldfish bowl approach for student teachers where they can observe from a balcony into classrooms and wonder if british education will ever even just acknowledge that we have got it all wrong. I am of course doing myself out of a job and appreciate all your comments from across the pond as your systems are slightly better than ours. We don’t have the beauty of many montessori schools or the option to teach how we feel the children would learn best. I feel a huge crusade coming on!

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