Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

EARLY CHILDHOOD IN CROSS-NATIONAL PERSPECTIVE - Early Care and Education Policies in Sweden: Implications for the United States

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

EARLY CHILDHOOD IN CROSS-NATIONAL PERSPECTIVE - Early Care and Education Policies in Sweden: Implications for the United States

Article excerpt

The major lesson for the U.S. to take from Sweden is a fidelity to values that cherish children and that acknowledge the special nature of childhood, according to Ms. Kagan and Ms. Hallmark.

IMAGINE a Swedish 4-year-old as he starts his first day of preschool. He enters a beautiful building with no concrete parking lot surrounding it, no fenced-in playground. Rather, his school overlooks a forest on one side and the seashore on the other. There is also a yard to play in, a pond, an herb garden, and a playhouse, and the entire school is surrounded by planting areas where he will observe and participate in the miracles of nature. His teacher is university trained and will engage him in activities that will develop and stretch his young mind as well as his young body. This little preschooler will help to plan his own activities, too: he will have access to a function room for reading, music, and art; a computer room and a library; and an open room for gymnastics and play when he is not taking walks through the forest or pretending that he has stepped back hundreds of years in time to trace the steps of his Viking ancestors. Of course, if he is not a native of Sweden, this preschooler will also be encouraged to share his own heritage with his classmates and to continue to speak his native tongue while he builds his skills in the language of his new country.

What is so unique about this child's experience is that it is not unique. Almost all young children in Sweden, as well as their parents, are involved in preschool programs like the one described - programs that are guided by clear goals for children's development as well as clear pedagogical and curricular principles. Such settings are inspiring, and they yield great quantities of productive work by young children, including the following poem that describes the sentiments of a young child in the Swedish "Bracelet" preschool:

Here, I am never afraid.

Here, I am accepted and liked.

Here, I know what I'm allowed to do and what I'm not allowed to do and why these limits exist.

Here, others listen to me.

Here, I meet tolerance and understanding and I am helped with the things I find difficult.

Here, they see what I am good at and tell me.

Here, I may try new ideas and make my own choice.

Here, I can sense that what I think, feel, and wish is of importance.

Here, I feel that I am accepted and that I am somebody.

What does it take to produce such conditions? We maintain that in order for any nation to provide a system of rich and appropriate services for its young children, it must begin by discerning how it regards children and childhood. How does the nation think about childhood? What role do children assume in society? What are society's obligations toward children, and theirs, if any, toward society? The responses to such questions constitute a nation's social construction of childhood that guides its thinking about and policies for young children. Indeed, it might be said that a nation's success in developing a high-quality system of early care and education is predicated on the match between that nation's social construction of childhood and the services it proffers. Such a vision is not necessarily programmatic, such as a national curriculum or a set of national standards. Rather, the social construction of childhood is a set of beliefs and principles about children that frame policy stances.

The United States has traditionally lacked such a clear, nationally held, collective vision of children and childhood. The result is a history of inconsistent and episodic policy starts and stops. One nation, however, for which the vision of children and childhood is very clear is Sweden. This keen perspective has translated into an early care and education system that is both exemplary and inspiring. While not adaptable in total to the U.S. context, the Swedish system provides a constructive counterpoint to U. …

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