Finland's Carefree Kindergartens Prove It's Okay To Let Kids Be Kids

by Ashley Austrew

The times, they are a-changing, and nothing shows that more than an in-depth look at American kindergartens.

Tim Walker, a writer for The Atlantic, recently headed to Finland to explore the way Finnish kindergartens function in comparison to their American counterparts. He spent a day hanging out with normal school kids and following them through their scheduled activities. What he ended up finding is that Americans’ push to remove play from the kindergarten curriculum is not necessarily benefiting our kids.

According to Walker, kindergarten in Finland is very different than what our children experience. A typical school day is only four hours long, and the weekly schedule that teachers follow is basically broken down into large blocks of time that include things like field trips, ball games, running, songs, and stations. Almost all of their learning is based on play. There are no worksheets or standardized tests to speak of.

In the article, Walker contrasts what he sees in Finland with a typical kindergarten day in the U.S., as described by a teacher. The day here includes several hours of stringent curriculum, broken only by a 20-minute recess period. Teachers have to fight to integrate station time or allow their students to play freely. The kindergarten that most of us remember — full of blocks and songs, painting, Red Rover, and tag — is dead.

Interestingly, evidence doesn’t seem to suggest that our push to force kids into the drudgery of typical school work at increasingly young ages is doing any good. Walker cites a study by the University of Otago in New Zealand that shows early reading has almost no discernible benefit for kids. A separate article in the Boston Globe notes that tough kindergarten standards are driving disgusted teachers to quit and putting young children under undue stress.

It’s unlikely that the United States will ever transition to a kindergarten scenario that even slightly resembles what Finnish schools are doing. Still, that doesn’t mean we can’t make improvements that better serve our children and put less of an emphasis on academic standards and testing. Kids all develop at different rates, and kindergarten-aged children are still incredibly young. As a parent, it makes me almost sick to my stomach to think of my four-year-old doing hardcore worksheets and filling out Scantron test forms just one short year from now. How did we let it get this far?

Kids don’t need to be reading straight out of the womb in order to succeed later in life. There’s wiggle room there, and there’s plenty of time to teach them everything they need to know. We can afford to let them play with toys and go outside. We can afford to do away with absurd standardized testing and spare our five-year-olds the anxiety and pressure they’ll experience for much of the rest of their academic lives. We can afford to let our kindergarten kids act like kids for one more year.