American Preschools: Surely we can do better

A recent Parents magazine article compared preschools in various countries around the world, including Sweden. We are recent converts to Swedish life after spending, regretfully, only a year in the Stockholm suburbs. My first experience with preschool was with two very different Swedish preschools. One was an English-speaking Montessoriesque school and the other was the true-to-form Swedish preschool, aka ‘dagis.’

For those that send their kids to preschool here in the U.S. or ever have, you would be shocked at how much your kids are missing after seeing these schools. While I thought far more about the Swedish school, than the English-speaking Montessori one, both are far above what I’ve seen here on any level.

In Sweden, preschool begins at age 1. That’s right, your little 12-month old child can hobble off to school before he can even use a spoon. No worries though because the Swedish teachers will teach him how. Most families do not pay more than $80-100 a month. I paid $50 for my son to attend 20 hours a week. I actually only sent him for 12 hour—the staff could not understand why I would do that. Because cost of living is so high in Sweden, both parents really must work so the government (taxes) help pay for preschool. There is no childcare available to children, as far as I know, before age 1 since every mom is given approximately one-year maternity leave and fathers get at least a few months in addition to that.(also noted in the high taxes).

My son started dagis (preschool) right before his 2nd birthday. They had a 2-week program where we came with the children everyday and sat with the other parents while our kids got acquainted with the school. They wanted to make sure it was an easy transition for all the children. Alex had no problem adjusting to school since he had recently started at the Montessori while waiting for a Swedish school slot.

The school buildings are amazing. They are bright and clean and full of windows and lots of light. Children take off their shoes upon entering, as they do everywhere in Sweden, to help keep the floors clean and put on slippers. Moms here choke when they hear about the food Alex was served. Children are given fruit to eat in the morning. Different types during the year. In the summertime, he would eat the nice fresh Swedish strawberries. I used to come in and find apple peels in the sink for what appeared to be a million apples. For lunch, each child received a hot catered lunch. Every meal included salad, sometimes soup. There was fish, meat, chicken, meatballs, hot dogs (korv), pizza, spaghetti. Things that you would hardly ever find in a preschool here—a part time one anyway. They all ate on real plates (no plastic), used metal utensils, and real cups. Many of the schools used to eat their meals by candlelight. They all sit and talk of the mornings’ events and chatter on like a happy group of kids. Was it surreal? You bet. Did I love it? Absolutely. My son learned to eat with a fork, spoon and knife. Yes, that’s right, a knife. He learned to drink out of non sippy cup and on the side, learned to speak Swedish.

The children had special clothes for every type of weather. When it was hot, they were allowed to play in the hose and the nearby lake. When it rained, they had special rubber pants and boots to wear for the daily walks or playground trips. When it snowed, layers of clothes and a snowsuit allowed them to play in the snow. They even had special dryers to dry the mittens and hats. When it was beautiful, they were outside all day…snack, play, walk, etc. In Sweden you only get about 5-6 months of beautiful weather so they take full advantage of it. The rest of the year with some days only having 6 hours of daylight, you have to take it when you can get it.

Since our arrival back to the U.S., my tours through many preschools in the area prove one thing. We are no where near where the Swedes are. No lunch for our kids unless you send it yourself and sometimes having to pay $10 more just for the extra hour of babysitting. Snacks are cookies/crackers and juice. One school told me they served saltines and water for snack. I was like, is this prison? Very little outside play unless the day is nice. And very little mingling with kids of other ages. I loved in Sweden that Alex was in school with kids 1-3. Very Montessorisque that the little ones learn from the older ones and the older ones can teach.

The Swedish schools are actually very Montessori like to begin with. And during a recent tour through a local Montessori, I found it hard to swallow the $800-per-month fee for preschool that looks just like the $50- a-month Swedish preschool. Seems like our preschools here might take a page from the European schools.


purplemommy said...

Interesting commentary. I have to say I was disappointed at not being able to find the "perfect" preschool in this area. I feel I left the ideal school for us in North Carolina. But to take it a step further doesn't the problem with preschool education branch up to elementary and secondary schools? What was the total education like in Sweden?

Ariel said...

Very curious about the Swedish preschools. If they start at 1, what do they do with all the kids who aren't walking or talking yet?

Nicole said...

I just moved to London and the private preschools are amazing. Very expensive but so ahead of the US. The kids start preschool at 21/2 which I think is a bit early though. My son has a ballet lesson and french lesson one day a week besides all the Montessori based curriculum. Art, drama and sports are a big part of the day as well.

Anonymous said...

About Swedish pre-schools (dagis) and preschool here in the USA. It all depends of what your criterion is for a "good" pre-school. If you are expecting the pre-school to teach your young child how to read and write, Sweden is not the place for that. In Sweden pre-school is all about play, social skills, art, chores (yes, kids have chores), and new experiences. There for a one year old who does not know how to walk can still go to pre-school. Also, it is very common that there are different ages in one room where they can learn from each other.
There is more emphasis in Sweden on being out side at all weathers. Being outside is important.


Charisse said...

Interesting insights. We have been looking for a school for Sean for the past four months. In our area of Houston, most of the schools (good ones, at least) have waiting lists. I've lost track of how many we're on. I finally found a Montessori school that we like, and boy is it pricey! But the caregiver ratio is 2:1 for his class and lunches are catered. As he gets older, they will teach him and we have options for Spanish class and tumbling.

At least daycare tuition is tax deductible, right?

Not Afraid to Use It said...

We are in the same predicament here in DC. My husband is actually Swedish, and it has been hard for him to swallow the cost of preschool. That, and we can't find any Swedish language support for our kids. It is frustrating. Great blog post!

Katy (the creator) said...

Great post! I don't have any children of my own yet (I'm only 24 and not married), but I hope to open my own child development center in the future. I studied the Swedish preschool system in graduate school...it is fascinating and so beneficial to the children. I will definitely be incorporating some of their practices into my own center!

RK VOHRA said...

Nice way of presenting a comparative study of Pre Schools. Thanks.