Thistles said:

Totally unrelated to your post but I was just reading an article in Mothering Magazine written by an American ex-pat in Sweden. She was writing about the attitude towards children and independence she found when living in Sweden. For example, when playing on the playground parents mostly hung back and watched. Little children were allowed to take their chances on climbing structures, etc. and parents would only intervene if it looked like bodily injury was imminent. Contrary to our American expectations, there were actually fewer injuries because children were encouraged to test out and practice their physical abilities.The more I read about that place, the more I wish we could live there. I know you’re not working in a preschool now but I wonder if you’ve noticed any difference in the attitudes around “doing things properly” versus “letting them work out how to do it” between Sweden, Russia, and the US?

The following are completely non-scientific and highly subjective observations.

One thing I noticed straightaway in Sweden is that kids in preschools wear helmets when they play outside. Just playing, not riding bikes or anything. It looks a little funny, but as a former preschool teacher I can say that it’s a good way to both protect kids from harm and protect the teachers from liability. In the preschool in St. Petersburg, the schoolyard contained all kinds of monkey bars and things that were simply not appropriate for small kids, and the only way we were able to deal with it was to yell at them all the time not to climb on them. Of course, that’s about the worst way to deal with it – it stresses out kids and teachers both to be scolding all the time. It would be much nicer to have them wear helmets and go at it.

As you said, I haven’t experienced Swedish preschool first hand, but I am observing a third-grade class in an elementary school for my Swedish Education System class. On the question of “doing things properly” vs. “letting them figure it out”, they are definitely on the latter end of the scale. I’m struck by how much of their work is pairwork or groupwork – very different from the US or what I observed in Russia. The kids really are encouraged to find things out for themselves, and more significantly, with each other. I haven’t seen first hand whether the same approach is taken in the preschool level, but I did read a book that said that in the Nordic courtries there is a lot of resistance to “teaching” at the preschool level. Rather, children are supposed to explore things for themselves.

The St. Petersburg preschool was quite the opposite, particularly with the drill-sergeant head teacher I worked with the second year. Every minute of the day was planned, with highly-structured lessons. Even when we had “free play” time, the children were supposed to play quietly and independently from one another, and they were taught to play with particular toys in very particular ways, and were scolded for playing with them wrong. Creativity was strongly discouraged. And when we played outside, we were supposed to be playing teacher-led structured games all the time, though I tried to avoid doing that whenever possible, feeling that they were herded and scolded and told what to do the whole rest of the day, and they should actually have some time to do what they wanted and interact with each other on their own terms. But ours was a special private preschool with specific educational goals and claims made to parents about how much their kids were going to learn, so is not representative of Russian preschool in general.

As for family life rather than school life, from what I’ve seen of kids and parents out in public in Sweden, kids are often allowed to roam around a bit, as long as they’re in view of their parents and not doing anything dangerous. Parents seem quite patient and tolerant.

In Russia, kids don’t seem to be allowed to roam around so much (but there my fieldwork was performed in a large urban area :-), but parents don’t seem to scold their kids in public as much as American parents, and kids seemed better behaved. I think the American practice of saying “don’t-do-this-don’t-do-that” all the time actually backfires, because eventually kids start to ignore these admonishments, and then they don’t pay attention when it’s really important.

So, the short answer to your question is that, from what I’ve seen, Swedes seem to be pretty into letting kids figure things out for themselves both in school and in families, Russian families seem to be pretty mellow but Russian schools are highly (overly) structured, and, well, my American school experience was pretty highly structured, and I don’t even want to talk about my family in this regard, but let’s just say it wasn’t healthy.