We are at the point in our time in Finland at which we are considering what gifts and souvenirs we might take home. Moomin mugs? Of course. Alvar Aalto vase? Maybe. Iitala candy dishes? Perhaps. Marimekko tote bag? Hmmm. A years’ supply of salmiakki? Sign me up. What to take home as a remembrance of this unique time in our lives? It is almost too difficult (and too heavy for a suitcase) to choose. But if I could give my son one gift from Finland, it would be the experience of the country’s primary schools (aka basic education), years one through nine, starting at age 7. That alone would be gift enough to sustain him for many birthdays, Christmases, and trips abroad in the future.
There would be no rush to get him to read or write or sit still for developmentally inappropriate lengths of time. There would be no talk from his teachers about data, progress monitoring, growth models, standardized testing, lack of focus, or lack of attention. Instead, his teachers would say things like, “I wish we could give them more time to play”and “A child’s job is to play” and “Kids learn so much by playing.”
They would add things like, “He will read when he’s ready” and “Kids do so much better at things when they are really ready to do them.”
He would loop with this teacher for at least two years, more often three years, and sometimes, five or six years. His teacher would know him really well and constantly be learning more about him and what he could do and needed support doing. His teacher would adjust accordingly as each day and year continued.
He would learn to eat a civilized lunch with his teachers and peers, trying new foods, drinking his milk, and cleaning up after himself. He would learn that we eat what we take and that, usually, we have to try things several times to determine whether or not we like them. He would learn how to efficiently clean up his mess, assembly-line style, and as a result, save his future teachers and school custodians from harassing him about leaving a mess in the first place.
He would have crafts classes in which he learned to sew using a sewing machine and woodwork classes in which he learned to use power tools and hand tools. There would be a piano in every classroom for music classes and his artwork and that of his peers would adorn the walls in the school corridors.
He would have a brief recess every hour like clockwork and because he has been expected to dress himself for the outdoors since the age of two (a victory of his Finnish pre-school teachers), there would be no responsibility on his teachers to make sure that he was dressed appropriately. Instead, each time the hour hand reached the new hour, he and his classmates would jump up, race quietly to their coat-hooks in the hall, and quickly put on their snowsuits, boots, hats and gloves at which point they would head out the door to the playground outside.
He might choose to climb on the jungle gym, he might swing, he might run into the woods, he might climb the ropes or poles, he might play a game of soccer, he might borrow a jump rope from his teacher. When the school bell rang after 15 minutes he would race back inside with his friends, strip off his snowsuit, hang it on his coat-hook, head back into the classroom, pick up his pencil and sweatily and, theoretically, happily, be ready to learn again. The cycle would repeat for the four or so hours that he attended school each day.
How to package up Finnish primary school with some bubble wrap and ship it overseas to get it home, ready to use? How to wrap it up, ever-so-gently, in a scarf in my suitcase so that it won’t get crushed when we check our bags? The mugs and candy are easy to pack but the gift of primary school? I just haven’t figured that one out yet.