What's Up With School?

The Danish language is wonderful when translated literally into English. A few personal favorites:

Danish: Pinsvin. English: Hedgehog, Literal English Translation: Pin pig

Danish: Moderkage. English: Placenta, Literal English Translation: Mother cake

But perhaps two of the best words in the Danish language are the ones used to represent their early childhood “education” system. From six months to three years old, kids go to “Vuggestue” or literally translated “cradle room”. After that they move on to “Børnehave” until age six, which is “kid garden” or the Kindergarten we’ve borrowed from German only in name.

When we moved back to the United States in 2016, there was perhaps no culture shock greater than the fact that our 2 year old’s only option was “pre-school”, or as I like to call it: “pre-pre-pre-school”. That is, of course, unless we wanted to take out a second mortgage for Montessori school.

Cradle Room

Rather than rail on the American system, which in some ways is fine, I guess, let me tell you what I absolutely loved about raising a child in Denmark, while recognizing a few of the pitfalls.

We were able to get Olivia in a vuggestue that was literally in the backyard of our apartment complex. Many Danish parents, particularly those closer to Copenhagen, are not as lucky.

Still, early childhood care is GUARANTEED, and subsidized by the government. We paid approximately 20% of the cost of our daughter attending school, or $400-500 a month for full day (8:00-5:00) childcare in an expensive area.

Inside, Olivia was in a classroom of mixed ages that varied in size from around 8-12 kids. There were three teachers, the leader of which had a Masters Degree in Early Childhood Education and at least twenty years of experience.

There was almost no focus placed on “teaching” anything outside of social skills. From the beginning, kids sat down at a table together for two snacks and a lunch together. Kids learned to play with older kids when they were babies and babies when they got older.

The school had an outdoor playground, and the kids went outside for several long stretches, unless there was pouring rain. Teachers were quite apologetic when children didn’t get to play outside.

And while Olivia had a home “classroom”, she mixed with a larger group of 50-60 kids and a larger group of teachers.

Those were the parts that are easy to describe. Others have a little bit of “you had to be there” to them. Every time I dropped Olivia off at school, the atmosphere was calm and happy. No one seemed stressed or overwhelmed.

The three teachers were usually there together for the middle of the day, but never for the full nine hours. They seemed like they had good working conditions.

We had parent/teacher conferences. Nothing academic was discussed. We talked about how Olivia was getting along with other kids. How was she doing eating food? How did she interact with the adults? What did she like to do? What challenges did she face and how could we tackle them together?

I believe very strongly that “kids these days” have never had more pressure placed on their “performance”. They are expected to “perform” academically at younger and younger ages, as if there is some Darwinian advantage to reading at four and a half versus six years old.

This was a performance free environment. You know what Olivia was expected to do every day? She was expected to play with other kids and have fun. She was expected to be polite and kind and interact with a variety of people.

Pray tell me what is more important: learning addition and subtraction a few months early or learning to comport yourself in society?

Even if our American minds balked a bit at the prospect of her not beginning the equivalent of American Kindergarten until age six (she would actually have been seven a few months into the year), I found it damn refreshing.

Sadly while I was there it seems the Danes lost a little bit of faith in the chillness of their public education, worried like every other privileged place about “test scores”. They kept early childhood education intact but lengthened the school day for older kids, because that was what had made their neighbor Finland so successful. Wait, it wasn’t? Well shoot.

Here’s to hoping that we stop losing our collective minds here in the US, putting ridiculous pressure on kids not to be kids and causing undue harm in the pursuit of squeezing a few more points onto their SAT scores.