Denmark is one of the happiest countries in the world.
A few days ago, I participated in AIKC training
Supported by Lao Niu Foundation,
And witnessed children’s happy life
In this country of fairy tale.
The preschool education there also inspired us a lot.
Ropeway in a park for children to play with
As a country with high welfare, Denmark provides equal day care for all Danish children above 6 months old. Children aged 1 to 2 have day care rate of 90% and those aged 3 to 5 have day care rate of 98%.
Preschool education in Denmark is not compulsory education, either, but the government undertakes no less than 75% of expenditure and parents only have to pay 25% at most (full-time day care costs Krone 3,000 per month, accounting for 10% to 15% of one’s monthly salary). Privately-run kindergarten costs more - about Krone 3,600. Parents can have discounts in many ways, maximum 100% (for example, poverty-stricken families or refugee families).
Denmark’s focus on preschool education not only lies in high guarantee and high popularity rate, but also reflects in management system: preschool day care is not under the administration of educational authority, it is not in a weak position under school education; instead, it is under the administration of an independent department - “Ministry of Children And Social Affairs”, and municipal authorities are responsible for specific implementation in local autonomous system. Localities have great autonomy to meet diverse needs of children and families.
Such diversity is shown in 4 available types of childcare institutions:
1.Family day-care held by parents: this is for 6 months to 6 years old children. Usually a family kindergarten has 5 to 8 children, and 75% of governmental subsidy is also available.
2.Nurseries: this is for 6 months to 3 years old children.
3.Kindergarten: this is for 3 to 6 years old children.
4.Age-integrated facilities: this is for 6 months to 6 years old children, integrating nursery and kindergarten. This type of childcare account for the most.
The opening hours of these childcare institutions must meet parents’ needs to take care of children flexibly. Although the required admission time is 8 a.m. to 9 a.m., some parents still send their children at 6:30 a.m.
Whether for a public or privately-run day care institution, governmental subsidy goes with children. The government also provides financial subsidy for the families that arrange private family care.
Danish parliament passed a new national “Daycare Care Act” on May 24th, the day before we visited the “Ministry of Children and Social Affairs”, to identify three targets including “to increase flexibility and freedom of choice for families with child(ren)”, “to provide all children with better study & welfare and coherent child life”, and “to obtain high quality through professional and clear leadership”. The new act redefines and strengthens these basic preschool education concepts:
1 Play is key
“Play is children’s duty”[C1] is a famous saying in preschool education, and this is basic reality in all Danish kindergartens. The concept of “learning by play” enjoys popular support.
The most remarkable feature of Danish kindergartens is abundant outdoor activities. Children must be outdoors for more than 2 hours every day, regardless of wind, rain, and snow. When it rains, children wear special raincoats. Their famous quote is that “there is no bad weather, only wrong clothes”.
On a rainy day, children play in raincoats.
Image courtesy of Lisa Van
In games and outdoor activities, children can not only have body building and improve their ability of physical exercises, but also learn self-care, teamwork, communication, setback overcoming, and conflict resolution, etc.
Danish kindergartens’ attitude to games is different from our “education in entertainment”. The starting point of “education in entertainment” is education while entertainment is only a method; however, “learning by play” focuses on children’s real play with learning as natural consequence. Our lecturer Lisa has a saying that “children will not play for learning, but learning happens naturally in play”.
Children’s drama performance created by teacher Lisa
Image courtesy of Lisa Van
However, due to the “educational panic” brought by technological revolution and PISA test in recent years, the society starts to question the play-based education methods for children and worries that it may reduce education quality and competitiveness. It is of great significance that the new act reaffirms and determines this value, which is also based on the results of scientific research. Prof. Dion Sommer with Aarhus University has researched in many countries and believed that for children’s acquiring knowledge and skills, “the earlier the better” may not be the case. The conclusion is “early start - later loss”.
This means that we should clearly know the short-term and long-term benefits of preschool education. We should pursue winning in future rather than at the starting point.
/ PISA test /
This is an academic level test that OECD holds every three years for 15-year-old people in science, mathematics, and reading. In 2009, Shanghai participated in this test and won the first place for China, and continued to win the championship in 2012. Most previous PISA champions were won by Finland. In the 2015 test, China’s four-provincial team formed by Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Guangdong won the tenth place. Upon investigation, Denmark’s PISA score ranks around tenth.
2 Focus on children’s rights and influence
From children’s point of view, they themselves have unique values. This is concern for individual and individuality. Because children are born differently, we should not pursue uniform and standardization. Children have the right to be unhappy, have the right to choose not to participate in activities, and have their personal hobbies. What teachers need is only to see them and accompany them.
Therefore, the most commonly used concept in Danish kindergartens is acceptance and inclusion, which are relatively uncommon for us.
Danish kindergarten: children that can be unhappy
Image courtesy of Lisa Van
A Danish professor introduced his findings of preschool education differences between two countries, although inevitably partial, still very vivid.
◆ Danish teachers focus on every child’s expression; Chinese teachers tend to focus on children who can express and do the best.
◆ Danish preschool education is process-oriented and focuses on each child’s participation and mood, the result is not important; Chinese preschool education is result-oriented and requires successful completion of teaching tasks.
◆ In Danish kindergartens, children and teachers respect each other and cooperate to complete activities; Chinese teachers teach children and maintain their discipline.
◆ Danish teachers believe that children are born differently and they should be themselves; Chinese teacher believe that every child should do their best.
We saw children of senior class sing and play instrument in a kindergarten. It was definitely not high-level performance compared to that in Chinese kindergartens, but it was neither performance nor a demonstration class. It was just a daily activity for children who were very happy and devoted, and that was enough. This involves different goals for children’s art education. To take fine arts as an example, some people say that Chinese children cannot draw children’s drawings as they draw like adults.
Singing of kindergarten children
3 Overall concept of preschool education
The important concept of strengthening preschool education includes both development of “complete children” and emphasis on “all children must be part of community”, thus placing preschool education in the overall development of family, environment, and community. This means that children should learn and develop in many forms including daily life. We visited the mayor of Nordfyns, and he clearly regards the early care of children as the municipal top priority (second is the elderly, and third is employment).
Such concern is not just providing financial support, but dedication to creating a “healthy life”. Since the beginning of pregnancy, the government starts to care and track the status of parents, and gives support and guidance four times in five aspects within the first five months after child’s birth to properly start a child’s life and cultivate a good citizen in the future. He believes that as the highest investment in economic and social benefits.
The most common thing in Denmark is that children “play crazily” in kindergartens, parks, grassy areas and other public places. Their climbing, rotating, and playing on huge swings are enough to frighten Chinese parents and teachers.
Another aspect is the role of father. Many children going for outdoor activities are accompanied by their fathers. Danish couples enjoy a total of one year of parental leave, so many fathers can go outside with their children, contributing to a social “sweet men” culture.
Based on the above understanding, the description of preschool education goals in the new act is very thought-provoking: “the goal of education is to create an environment that helps children to learn, not to be taught”. That is, children grow in certain environment, which is more important than specific teaching methods.
Kindergarten mainly creates environment for learning, including hardware and aesthetic environment, suitable student-teacher ratio, education level of staff, interaction and relationship between teachers and students, games, planned activities, and daily activities, etc. in order to obtain children’s development sociality, emotion, physical stamina and other aspects.
Similar to the “five major fields” (health, language, society, science, and arts) of preschool education in China, in the national curriculum framework defined by Danish new act, the “six major fields” of education content are respectively: personal development (individuality development and talent skill); social development (social competence and inclusiveness); communication and language; body building, sensory building and sports; nature, science and outdoor activities; and culture, community and aesthetics (cultural manifestation pattern and values). Literally, the difference is that we lack special emphasis on natural experiences and outdoor activities; in addition, we lack concepts of community support and aesthetic development.
Compared with the difference in ideas, the real difference in preschool education between China and Denmark mainly lies in teaching practice. Examples include too large scale and too high student-teacher ratio in our kindergartens, lack of compulsory and abundant outdoor activities, lack of tolerance for children with different personalities and development status, lack of interaction with local communities, biased art education for learning skills of singing and performance, and “primary school” knowledge education, etc.
During visits and exchanges, the questions most commonly asked by Chinese teachers were what to do if a child got injured, what kind of responsibilities should kindergartens take? How could teachers work hard with no evaluation? Obviously, the culture and system behind are completely different. Regarding this cultural difference, a teacher gave an example that a boy frolicked and poured much dirty water to a girl. The mother who picked up the girl did not say anything harsh but “Ah, you must have a great time today”.
(Photos with sources not shown were taken by the author, and photographs taken in kindergarten have been approved by the parents)
Author: Yang Dongping (Dean of 21st Century Education Research Institute)