Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Trust, Respect, Community, And Play

Over the past decade, I've had the opportunity to visit hundreds of outstanding preschools in places as far-flung as Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Europe, Asia, and North America. I rate these schools as outstanding because they proudly place play at center of the children's lives. What makes these schools beautiful, however, is that there is nothing standard about them. Each of them is as unique and individual as the children, families, and communities they serve.

No where is this more evident than the island nation of Iceland. With a mostly native Icelandic (81%) and Northern European (10%) population of around 370,000, half of whom live in or near the capitol Reykjavik, one might anticipate a kind of uniformity, a standardized "Icelandic way." There is a national curriculum, one that is currently being revised, I'm told, to make their schools even more play-based, but instead of dictating to educators, it frees them to be the well-paid, well-educated, creative professionals they are. This is why one school may emphasize the Regio Emilia approach, while the next takes on the look and feel of a forest school, while in the very next neighborhood you might find influences of Waldorf or Montessori or the cooperative model. The result of allowing preschool communities the freedom to cobble together their own, unique approach is that you see the personalities of the children, community, and educators woven into the culture of each school, making it something new and special under the sun.

At bottom, perhaps the "Icelandic way" is that these educators have what so many of us around the world lack in our profession: autonomy. These educators are trusted. They are respected. And the result are preschools that, taken as a whole, are among the best in the world.

More than anything else, this is what we lack in the US. Ours is among the lowest paid and least respected professions out there, and our curricula tend to reflect that in the way they seek to standardize and dictate every moment of an educator's day. We distrust preschool educators so much that we inflict developmentally inappropriate testing, worksheets, formal literacy instruction, and even grading on these very young children, ranking them from birth according to both one another and randomly derived standards that have absolutely no connection to the actual lives the children live. Even if the preschoolers themselves aren't being tested, everyone knows that they will face it in kindergarten. No wonder the past couple decades have seen a sharp increase in the numbers of preschoolers diagnosed with anxiety and depression.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: standardization is the enemy of education. Standardization is the bland manifestation of distrust and disrespect. On the flip side, play within the context of community is the way humans have evolved to learn. It's the approach to learning that puts self-motivation and curiosity at the fore. This is what Icelandic preschools seem to understand. And the way they get there is to trust and respect children and those who have made it their profession. 

If there is anything standard about Icelandic schools, it's that their system is based upon trust, respect, community, and play.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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