The Kindergarten experience in Switzerland - what should expat parents expect
When our children enter kindergarten it signifies the end of a stage. As we know it from that point on there will be only school ahead. Our babies will be independent and have more daily interactions out of the nest. So if your little one will soon be walking on this path I have a few thoughts I would like to share. As I mentioned on a previous blog my experience as a parent in Switzerland is based in Basel. However, I believe much of what I write applies to all expat parents anywhere in Switzerland, even though the school system varies from canton to canton.
Kindergarten in Switzerland is primarily about promoting independence, confidence, and social skills. Contrary to what many parents may expect it is not about learning the alphabet, numbers or beginning to be alphabetized.
Children in Switzerland (4-6 years) go to kindergarten close to their house so they can walk alone from home to kindergarten, and back. The general idea is that a child should not walk more than 5 minutes from home to kindergarten. Though that is not always the case and exceptions can occur. The canton determines which kindergarten your child will attend. Parents get to write their wishes in the kindergarten enrolment application but that plays no major importance in the child’s placement factor. My advice to parents who may not be happy with the neighborhood where they live or its demographics is to relocate before the time to enroll their child in kindergarten comes around. Check your local canton’s website as all basic information should be outlined to help you make decisions or ask the questions relevant to you.
Parents will receive information on the post stating that kindergarten is obligatory in Switzerland and if you do not enroll your child into the private school system you need to enroll your little one in the public school system. Children also have the opportunity to go to kindergarten a year later, should parents think they are not yet ready. In the same way if the teachers and system educators believe the child to be ready to go to school they may send them to primary school a year ahead.
While in some countries in kindergarten there is a didactic structure focused on alphabetization and mathematics with even the introduction of tests, in Switzerland it is all about learning through play. Children will sing, play, and carry on other activities that will teach them numbers, counting (some times in languages other than the local canton), and letters. They will learn the days of the week, self reliance, and leadership. Repetition and daily rituals will make up a routine in which they will learn how to be independent, have empathy, be social, and get out of their comfort zones. Cleaning up after their lunch or a play time activity teaches them independence, like walking to kindergarten alone. I must admit that I was only able to let my child walk alone (a block and half) until she was in the second year of Kindergarten. Partly because I did not think she was ready and mainly because I was not as ready as my child was. I did see though the advantage of living in a country that allows for kindergarten age children to walk home alone, thus becoming independent. But it took me some getting used to it.
Constant contact with nature is a way that the Swiss encourage the process of discovery and learning though play. Going to outings in nature can take place once a week in some kindergartens, regardless of the weather. Some have excursions more often to the city to discover and learn basic skills as how to use and behave on public transportation. It never seizes to amaze me when I see a group of 20 children between 4-6 years old in the tram under the supervision of only two teachers. Sometimes even only one.
Which brings me to the teaching of cause and consequence. This obsession with health and safety and child proofing the world does not exist in the Swiss kindergarten. It is sort like how things were in the 70’s and early 80’s in most countries now dictated by health and safety and proper risk assessments. Children are explained and taught how to behave but are not kept from engaging into activities, such as roasting their sausage in a bonfire, because it may be dangerous. They learn how to pay attention to instruction, assess risk on their own, and try to carry out a task or activity.
Movement and motor skills development are also another point of focus in the education of the Swiss kindergarten system. Children will have arts and crafts that involves the use of needles and pins, like sewing. They will have access to nails, wood scraps, mini saws, hammers, and other tools; not made out of plastic, real tools which they learn how to handle in a responsible and safe manner. Extra curricular physical education class may be offered in the afternoon as optional. I recommend parents to register their kids to that as there will be other children from other kindergartens and they get to interact with children outside their known circle.
Before the start of the school year parents are provided with a list of appropriate or recommended lunch choices that their child can take to the kindergarten. It should not come as a surprise to any parent if during the year the kindergarten may alert them (sometimes via the child) that the lunch they packed for their child was not appropriate.
Kindergartens have this open door policy where parents can approach the teachers with questions and concerns. In some kindergartens parents can come and observe what their children do for a whole day or a few hours. There are usually two parents who also act as parents’ representatives and assist in bringing any matter to the teachers’ attention. They may also assist in particular outings with the school that require extra adult supervision. Once a year there is an official meeting where teachers report to the parents how their child is doing. In Basel-Stadt the children are evaluated on the following:
- Expertise: listening speech, language, numbers and variables/form and shape/size/function/data.
- Learning and working behaviour: Actively participating in lessons, work focus, work independence, work reliably and care, good handling skills.
- Social Behaviour: building relationships, working with others constructively, being respectful of others, adhering to rules and agreements.
For children that are not fluent in the local language there is support offered so they can learn and develop. Children which require more or specific attention regarding speech development, social development will be provided with their parents’ consent by relevant professionals to assist on their improvement.
In terms of writing kindergarten children in Switzerland will only learn how to write their name if they don’t already know. And this didactic approach focused on play makes many expat parents not necessarily comfortable and make them assume that their child is ‘not learning anything’ in kindergarten. Well, that could not be further from the truth. Actually they are learning much more than what we imagine, firstly because they learn through play and secondly because they are learning basic life skills. What my daughter is now learning in first grade I learnt in kindergarten over 30 years ago, my friend’s children who go to school in other European countries, in the USA, or Latin America know how to write and have started to read because their alphabetization process started in kindergarten.
But what really matters? to know how to read, write and do simple math when you are 4-6 years old or to be independent, social and self-reliant? I think the Swiss are on the right path when it comes to early education. My daughter had a brilliant two years in kindergarten, she has matured, made a close group of friends and contrary to my skepticism learnt how to speak High German, as I was certain that only Swiss German was spoken most of the time.
So what should expats parents expect? A system that though different to what we may know does work, health and safety as you know it does not apply, nature has a lot to teach, at times our kids to be filthy when returning form kindergarten (usually a good indication of a good time spent out doors), our kids looking forward to coming back to kindergarten after school holidays, and amongst many other things our children to flourish and mature even though they may not recognize all the letters in the alphabet.
- Flavia Augusta de Almeida