Helsingin Sanomat

Sunday June 29, 2003

Helsingin Sanomat


(This is the one and only quality paper in Finland and the Sunday edition is very popular, so practically everyone in the country has read this.)

'The children talk about their dreams every day'

By Annemari Sipila, London

An article in a series about the work of nursery school teachers around the world

(Translation by Teemu's mum, who also added a couple of notes - in Italics - about the differences to the Finnish education system just to explain why the article stresses certain things.)

A long-haired boy called Benedict stands up from his seat in a circle of tiny chairs. It's his turn to talk about his dream.

'I went to bed, and then it was morning.'

'Yes, but what happened in between?'

"I slept and I had a dream.'

But what kind of a dream?

'Adam came to visit. Then we played.'

But who's Adam?

'Brother.'

Benedict's monkey face screws up in frustration. Silly question.

In London, at a nursery school called St. Mark's Square Nursery School, the children talk about their dreams every day. The teacher writes the best stories down in a special dream book.

The Head Mistress Sheema Parsons believes that supporting the child's inner growth is the foundation of all education.

'You can only listen to the children and give them love. They all develop at their own pace", she says.

Parsons founded her nursery school 20 years ago in a basement of a local church. The school is still there, although its reputation has shot right through the roof over the years.

St. Mark's Square Nursery School is known as the place where semi-bohemian but progressive and wealthy parents want to send their children. But Parsons doesn't make it easy for them. ' I might interview the parents even for a whole year. Some place their child on the waiting list already during pregnancy. I want to have the exactly right kind of children in my school', Parsons says.

At the school, children are divided into two groups, the younger and the older. This encourages the older children to help the younger ones. Other grouping than that doesn't exist, as each child is above all an individual.

Strict selection criteria apply also to the staff. The Head Mistress may spend years looking for the right teacher.

Just the number of teachers is impressive: eight teachers for 28 children. One teaches yoga, the other ballet. There is an art teacher and a meditation teacher. The children are also introduced to music and elementary French.

Parsons pays her teachers Euro 22800-25000 a year.

For parents, a full-time place in the nursery school costs Euro 10500 a year. Half-day place costs half of that.

St. Mark's Square Nursery School is not the place for dual-career families, as it is not a day-care facility. This is the norm in the UK. Full day means care from 9 am until 3.30 pm.

(In Finland nursery schools are pretty unheard of. There are nurseries for children under the age of six, and since their main function is day care while parents work, this could be anything from 6.30 am until 5.30 pm. Nannies and au pairs are extremely rare. The good old granny method of child care is rapidly dying out.)

But what's the best thing about the school? Parsons asks the children to answer the question.

'Painting!'

'Legos!'

'Painting!'

'Legos!'

The majority of the 2 to 5-year-old children are dressed in burgundy smocks. This is the official school uniform.

(School uniforms are not used in Finland at any level of education.)

'I recommend similar clothing for both boys and girls. That prevents sexist thinking, treating children differently depending on their gender', Parsons says.

On the day of the interview the dress code is a bit more relaxed. It's the 'my favourite character' day. Some of the children have swapped the unisex outfit for a princess dress. The spiderman and a knight of the round table are also present.

While the other children are drawing or playing at the indoors sandbox, Parsons and Sofia

Gustafsson, who is originally Swedish, lead five children into the church garden. It's time for the daily play meditation.

The children and the teachers meditate by walking quietly hand in hand on the lawn. Afterwards they discuss the topic of the week. The topic of this week is 'all life is found in layers'.

'What does this mean, tell us Chili dear', Parsons quizzes the oldest girl.

'It means that for example a pear has a skin that can be peeled off, Chili Palmer, 5, knows.

'It means that under the skin there's the heart', whispers the tiny and shy Korean-born boy named Wonh Bin.

And what is there in the heart? Wonh Bin looks puzzled by the question.

'The soul is there', Parsons helps.

Parsons stresses that children only participate in the meditation by parental request. The mothers of these children also meditate, and so do all the teachers of the school.

According to Parsons her pupils have done well in their further studies. The majority of the pupils from the early years have continued to universities.

'To Cambridge and Oxford, but usually to Cambridge', Parsons tells us.

Cambridge is the top university in the UK by almost all standards.

Chili Palmer's mother, Jaqueline Palmer, trusts Parsons methods enough to keep her daughter in the school until the age of five years. By that time British children are usually in 'proper' school.

(In Finland, school only starts at the age of seven years.)

'Chili gets so much more here compared to an ordinary school' says Mrs Palmer whom we met while she was visiting the school.

However, it is the time for Chili to move on. The little sister, Olive Palmer, soon three, will stay at St. Mark's Square.