Days spent at play - the Pippi way

6th February 2009 at 00:00
Ben Kersley is surprised by the lack of formal teaching at his child's nursery school in Sweden

"Play. We played." I always feel a bit of a fool asking my kids what they do at nursery. I don't know what kind of answer I'm expecting - that they're working on a cure for cancer or putting the final touches to a concerto? They are only four and two, after all.

When they tell me that they spend their days playing, I think how lucky they are. Then I correct myself and realise I haven't been in Sweden long enough to see childhood through Swedish eyes. They're not lucky - playing is what they are supposed to do.

The lack of formal teaching does not hold back learning. Most of the five-year-olds have got the basics of reading and writing and are keen to show off that they can count to ten in English, something that impresses everyone apart from my pair who fail to see the novelty.

The nursery has a constant supply of trainees from Finland, Holland and Ireland who come on month-long placements to learn from the Swedish model. Needless to say, the Irish are always glad to have a couple of English speaking kids to translate or just to guide them round the various rooms for dolls, cars or towards the enormous sofa for reading books.

My kids' nursery, or dagis, is named after Bullerbyn by Astrid Lindgren, Sweden's most prolific children's author and unofficial ambassador for play and imagination.

At the heart of all her books is the idea that childhood should be a time of innocence and freedom. Her stories are always told from the child's perspective, and her free-spirited characters are adored by young and old in Sweden.

The most popular character here - and the one that most Swedish under-10s idealise - is Pippi Longstocking. And who can blame them? She lives in a house without any grown-ups, eats cake for breakfast and, as the strongest girl in the world, does exactly as she pleases, whenever she pleases.

So she plays.

Formal education doesn't begin here until the age of seven, so that's a lot of playtime. I tell other parents that I was in school uniform at four and they look back at me in shock.

Nursery for our kids in London was worlds apart. Here, the kids play outside every day, regardless of the weather - which, needless to say, is slightly more extreme than in London. It's all a question of having the right clothes, from snowsuit to rainsuit to sunhat through the seasons.

There's no "corporate" feel, no polo shirts with logos, and I've not yet met any disgruntled staff.

Not to mention the cost. We pay as much per month here as we used to pay per day in London.

Most striking of all is the absence of tick boxes. At my kids' nursery in London, I remember being handed a sheet every day, filled in with what the kids had been up to - stacking cups, soft play, singing. It was almost as if the nursery needed to reassure us that they had done something.

Here, the only reassurance I need is that the kids spent the day as Astrid Lindgren expected them to spend it - at play.

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