Wildflowers Kindergarten, founded by Helena Nilsson in Hampshire, takes the principles of the Scandinavian education system and implements them into teaching nursery-aged children – but why does it work? The founder explains all

Why is Scandinavia’s approach to education held in such high regard? Why, too, is the approach ideal for nursery school aged children?

In Scandinavia, children have a longer period of their life in which they primarily learn through free play and social interaction, starting school two years later than in the UK. When starting school at six or seven, they have had the continuity of being in the same setting for four or five years. Here in England, many children have only had one year of being in a group, before moving to another school at age four.

In Sweden, children attend nursery to gain competencies needed for life. Great importance is given to children’s social development and the fostering of democracy and citizenship. 

There is a long tradition of nursery education in Scandinavia, which is strongly influenced by educationists who emphasised children’s right to play, be heard and be in nature. So, at the core of the pre-school curriculum are fundamental values, not goals.

Early years education is informal and relaxed and nurseries aim to be like homes. Groups of ages are often mixed. Children’s abilities and achievements are not measured. However, the processes whereby the pedagogues educate the children are assessed. When at school, there is little testing and no league tables. Being educated without all that pressure must have a positive impact.

How long ago now did you launch Wildflowers Kindergarten?

I started Wildflowers nearly ten years ago, in 2005, after having started and co-managed a Steiner Waldorf kindergarten for two years whilst getting the qualification needed to run a pre-school.

Wildflowers Kindergarten and the Scandinavian education system

Wildflowers’ children play, explore and learn in nature

Looking at very young children, why do they benefit from being out in nature?

My observation is that children concentrate better and co-operate more outdoors. This may be because the outdoor environment makes them calmer and there are fewer distractions, but it could also be that the children involve themselves in meeting challenges they set themselves. By taking children out into nature we foster active learning, independence and resilience.

A comparative study from Sweden showed that the levels of stress hormone in children in a nature-based nursery were lower than those in children in a conventional one. Certainly the quality of air, sounds and light must make us more relaxed and thereby more receptive to learning. I feel that I can be more present with and sensitive to the children myself, which I believe has a positive impact on my support of their learning.

Another reason is that there are no man-made toys. Children have to be resourceful and creative in their learning – to use their imagination and inventiveness. Being outdoors, playing with what one finds, fosters an appreciation for simple things.

It is also so that nature is full of mystery and beauty. Being outside through all seasons foster that important sense of awe and wonder. There is so much to observe and be curious about. The quality of the sensory experiences in nature – what the children can see, hear and touch – cannot be compared to those a child has indoors.

Think about 4 and 5-year-olds, comfortably dressed and with wholesome food in their tummy, sitting on a log under the open skies, modelling mud cakes on pieces of bark and decorating them with nutshells and leaves. Then think about a child of the same age, in a uniform with itchy tights that are sliding down, with a packed lunch of processed white bread, crisps and a sugary drink, in an overheated stuffy room with strip lights, primary coloured plastic chairs and toys, and walls cluttered with words and pictures. Where do you think a child’s human potential flourishes the most?

Spring and summer weather must be great, but how do you take classes in the winter?

Appropriate clothing is the very simple answer. We provide a list for parents when joining about how to suitably dress their child for each season. It is essential to the children’s wellbeing and learning that they are warm and dry. I’m not particularly open to the world around me without my thermal leggings in winter!

Providing learning within the whole of the EYFS outdoors in winter requires educators who know it well and can discover and take opportunities as they present themselves. We have a piece of paper with the next steps in each child’s learning in our pocket, which is updated each afternoon. As with most things in life, it is about being well-organised and creative.

We have a cosy indoor space where we complement our outdoor provision with things that only can be done without mittens in the winter, such as practising pencil grip. Our children also come in for lie-down rest and a warm meal, so learn to behave nicely at a table. Resting and eating outdoors can be done outside in all weathers, as is in some nurseries in Scandinavia, but require a good shelter.

Is this the answer to problems of obesity in the UK?

Just get them outside where there are no screens and no snacks available. The children get hungry from the fresh air, the running and climbing, and with no mid-meal snacking, they are more likely to eat what is served. If given healthy food the problem is solved! I must add that I also support banning advertising directed to children, and other ways to protect children’s health through regulations.

Wildflowers Kindergarten and the Scandinavian education system

It’s not all about being outside

Do you have plans to expand in the future?

During three years Wildflowers has had two kindergartens. The other was in the village where the children could explore and play in the beautiful gardens of a manor house. But it was too difficult to find leaders with the attitude and skills required, so I merged the two groups on one site. However, lately numbers of children have increased, so from January we will expand our indoor space.

I have developed an effective system to get to know each child’s abilities, track their progress and provide for their learning and development. As a result we have received an outstanding Ofsted grading. After all the experience I have gained over the years, I feel that I have created the learning space for young children for which I aspired.

Finally, since you first came here compared to now, has the attitude towards nursery school education changed at all on a general level in the UK?

As long as the UK has its early school start, there will be pressures on nurseries to get children ready, as it is discovered that they are not.

It is interesting to note that the school starting age of five was set in England in 1870 to protect children from exploitation at home and unhealthy conditions in the streets, and to enable an early school leaving age to be established, so that children could enter the workforce. It was not based on any developmental or educational criteria.

There was a study done in 1998, on the request of Ofsted, to find answers to when children should start school and when reading, writing and mathematics should be taught. At that time, an increasing number of children joined school at age four instead of five, and goals and inspection for preschool settings were introduced. It showed that there is no educational reason for a school age of five or for admitting four-year-olds to reception classes. Yet, 15 years and several studies later, showing the same thing, learning goals which require formal teaching within the early years remain, as does the too early school start.

With the implementation of the EYFS in 2008, there may be a greater awareness that young children primarily learn through play. But true play is child initiated, creative and fosters independent learning. It is not structured and does not have planned outcomes. It concerns me hugely that the deep and subtle learning processes that take place in play may be counteracted by early years practitioners’ perceptions of the expectations of the EYFS and its ready-for-school agenda. But worst of all is that children start school at four. Processes that are beginning to flourish are interrupted before they had a chance to fully bloom.

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