Sweden - Early Childhood Education - Pedagogy

Early Childhood Education



Early Childhood Education in Sweden


Sweden spreads over a relatively large area, 450,000 square kilometers, making it comparable in size to California or Spain. Of the 9 million people in the population, 85 percent live in the southern part of the country, many in the three large metropolitan areas of Stockholm—the capital on the east coast, Goteborg on the west coast, and Malmo in the south. The northern part is a sparsely populated area with mountains, forests, and rivers, but the mining, lumbering, and water power available in this area have long represented important cornerstones of the Swedish economy, producing much of the raw materials and energy for the processing industries further south.

Increasingly the population is becoming more heterogeneous. Today people from more than 170 countries live in Sweden, and an estimated 18 percent of the population in Sweden today are first or second generation immigrants. These families came in the 1960s or 1970s, mostly from southern Europe or Finland to find factory jobs in the Swedish industry, or in the 1980s or 1990s mostly as refugees from conflict areas in Africa, Eastern Europe, or the Middle East.


Family Size and Structure

Several recent social developments have shaped modern childhood in Sweden. Most families (85%) have only one or two children, so growing up in a small family is common. Cohabitation is today a normal social phenomenon, and while most Swedish children experience growing up with both a mother and a father, one in every five families with children is a single-parent household. Most women continue working when they have children; 78 percent of mothers with children aged 0-6 years are active in the labor market. In Sweden, gender equality is based on the principle that each individual should be able to achieve economic independence through gainful employment.


Swedish Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC)

The systematic expansion of the Swedish child-care system dates back to the early seventies. In particular, the following six goals hallmark Swedish preschool services: (1) stimulating and developmental activities for children, which combine education and care, (2) close cooperation between parents and service providers, (3) service provision for all children, with an emphasis on children in need of special support, (4) service provision designed to permit parents to combine parenthood and work, (5) public funding complemented by reasonable parental fees, and (6) municipal responsibility for full coverage.

Between the years 1970 and 2000 the number of children in full-time care increased tenfold. In 2002, 81 percent of all children aged 1-5 attended preschool activities, that is, 370,000 children had a place in preschools or family daycare homes. Of all school-aged 6-9-year-old children, 73 percent had a place in a leisure-time center before and after school hours. The vast majority of these ECEC settings are run by the local municipalities, but nonmunicipal, although publicly financed, settings have been more common during the past ten years.


Types of Settings

Swedish children start compulsory schooling at the age of seven. However, 98 percent of all six-year-olds attend the voluntary preschool class, which is typically a half-day service. Children in the 1-5 age group are found in the preschools (until recently named “day-care centers”) or in the family day-care homes. Infants younger than one year of age are cared for in the homes by their mothers or fathers, who use their right to stay home with pay to take care of their babies from birth to thirteen months, hereby removing the pressure on municipalities to provide public ECEC outside the homes for these children. School-age child care is provided for 6-12-year-old children in leisure-time centers or family day-care homes.

Preschools offer full time care and education for 1-5-year-olds whose parents work or study, or if the child is judged to be in need of special support. Most preschools are located in the neighborhoods where the children live. They are open weekdays throughout the year, with hours adjusted to meet the needs of working parents. As of 1998, preschools have their own state-established national curriculum. In 2002, 72 percent of all children aged 1-5 were enrolled in preschools (“day-care centers”).

In family day-care homes, the municipal family day-care mother takes care of children in her own home The curriculum of the preschool does not apply to family day-care homes, but should serve as a guide. In 2002, 8 percent of all 1-5-year-olds were enrolled in family day care homes. The number of children attending family day care homes in this age group decreased from a peak of 156,000 children in 1990 to 37,000 children in 2002.

Leisure-time centers for the 6-9-year-olds is the type of child care that has increased the most during the past ten years. Children enrolled spend those parts of the day when they are not in preschool class or primary school in the leisure-time center, which is often located in the primary school building. They might also attend during school holidays.

Since 1998 the municipalities have been obliged to provide all six-year-olds with a place in the preschool class for at least 525 hours. The preschool class is a voluntary school form for children and free of charge. Education in the preschool class is aimed at stimulating each child’s development and learning and to provide a basis for further schooling. The nationally applied curriculum for compulsory schools (Lpo 94) has been adjusted to include the preschool class. The main reason for introducing the preschool class as a voluntary part of the school system has been to facilitate integration between preschool and compulsory school. In principle all six-year-olds attend the preschool class.

In addition, open preschools offer part-time activities for children who are not enrolled in other services. Open preschools require children to be accompanied by their parents. In this way they provide an opportunity for parents and caregivers to get together on an informal basis, with the result that some of the open preschools are functioning as family resource centers. In the period 1990-2002, the number of open preschools has decreased from 1,600 to 708, a drop largely explained by the fact that most children today are enrolled in other preschool activities.

Privately run, publicly funded ECEC became more common during the 1990s. In 2002, 17 percent of the children enrolled in preschools attended a private preschool. Forty percent of these children attended a parent cooperative and 30 percent attended a company-run preschool.

The distribution of various types of services differs between different types of municipalities. Family day-care homes are considerably more common in rural areas and other smaller municipalities than in big city regions, while the opposite applies for preschools and leisure-time centers.


“Full Coverage”

In relation to existing legislation, full coverage was basically achieved at the end of the 1990s, to the extent that places in ECEC settings were made available to those parents who worked or studied, or to children in need of special support, in 276 of Sweden’s 289 municipalities. Some children were still excluded from services, however, and during the past five years new reforms have entitled parents staying home on parental leave to retain the place for their older children in preschools. In addition, children of unemployed parents now have the right to preschool activities at least three hours per day or fifteen hours per week. In January 2003, universal preschool was introduced for all four- and five-year-olds. All children are now offered at least 525 hours per year in preschool activities, starting in the fall of the year they turn four.



The personnel in the Swedish ECEC settings are well educated. Very few of the personnel lack education for working with children. There are four types of personnel working in the preschools, family day care homes, and leisure-time centers. The educational background and training of these four groups of staff members vary, as do the settings they work in and their professional responsibilities:

Preschool teachers complete a three-year university-level educational program that combines fieldwork and theoretical work. Courses focus on child development, family sociology, and teaching methods. Courses in research methods and evaluation skills are also part of this program. Studies are free of charge to the students.

Child minders receive their education in Swedish secondary schools. Three years in length, this program provides students with basic skills in child minding and developmental psychology.

Family day care providers are not required by the state to obtain any training, although it is recommended that they complete the child minder training course. Many municipalities, however, have instituted special training of about hundred hours, as an introduction to the family day care occupation.

The education and training of the leisure-time pedagogues, working with children in school-age child care, are rather similar to that of the preschool teachers— often the two groups of students take courses together at universities and university colleges. In 2002, the number of employees (full-time equivalents) amounted to 63,000 in preschools and 19,000 in leisure-time centers. Only about 5 percent of these employees have no training for working with children, whereas more than 50 percent have completed higher education university programs.

Salary differences between different categories of personnel working in ECEC settings are comparatively small. Whereas a child minder and a family day care mother might earn an average of SEK 15,000 per month (EUR 1,550), the salary of a preschool teacher or a leisure-time pedagogue after a few years employment might be about SEK 18,000 per month. (Teachers in the compulsory school system—grades 1-9 might be earning an additional SEK 2,000 per month).

Gender distribution among employees is very uneven. Only 6 percent in preschools and leisure-time centers are men, the same proportion as throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The highest proportion of men is found at leisure-time centers (16%) and among supervisors (20%).


A New Integrated Teacher Education Program

Through the transfer of responsibilities for preschools from Ministry of Health and Welfare to Ministry of Education and Science that took place in 1996, preschool became the first link in a broad and integrated education system covering the ages 1-19, from preschool to the end of upper secondary school. In 1998, the first preschool curriculum for children aged 1 to 5 years was issued.

These changes have also recently been followed by radical changes in the teacher education programs at Swedish universities and university colleges. In the new integrated teacher education programs, students planning to work in preschools, primary schools or secondary schools work together during several of the study terms. Students specializing in the early years will in the future be qualified to teach in preschools (ages 1 to 5), preschool classes (6-year-olds), the first years of the compulsory school (ages 7 to 11) as well as in school-age child care.


Funding and Financing

The total gross costs for the Swedish ECEC system amounted in 2002 to SEK 44,000 millions (EUR 4,500 millions). Preschool accounts for 68 percent of the expenditure, leisure-time centers for 23 percent, and family day-care homes for 8 percent. Staff costs make up about 75 percent of the costs, and costs for premises about 15 percent. Per child average costs amount to SEK 60,000, with average costs for children in preschools almost three times higher than costs for children in leisure-time centers. To cover the costs of ECEC the municipalities might combine the general government block grants with income tax revenues and parental fees in various ways. In 1999 a flat rate set fee was introduced by the government. Parent fees for one child are now maximized at SEK 1,260 per month, and municipalities are compensated for loss of income. This reform substantially lowered the fees for 80 percent of the families and eased difficulties caused by income-related and time-related fees.


The National Curriculum for Preschool

As mentioned above, the first national curriculum for preschool (Lpfo 98) came into effect in 1998, making the preschool a first step in the Swedish educational system. Overall, the educational system is now comprised of three curricula, one for the preschool, a second for the compulsory school (grades 1-9) also covering the preschool class for 6-year-olds, and a third for the upper secondary school (grades 10-12). The three curricula are linked by a shared view on knowledge, development and learning, and cover the first 20 years of the life-long learning philosophy of the Swedish society.

Philosophically, the preschool curriculum builds on the idea of the child as a competent learner, active thinker, and involved doer. Swedish theories about child learning can be briefly summarized by the following values:

• Continuous learning and development. Children learn continually in all places over time. Children use all their senses, so specific times for “learning” cannot be specified.

• Play and theme oriented ways of working. Play is the basis of preschool activity in that it fosters thinking, imagination, creativity, language, and cooperation. Theme-oriented learning fosters children’s opportunities to understand contexts and relationships, and heightens their ability to develop their own learning theories.

• Linking to the child’s own experiences. Children must be able to relate what they are learning to what they already know.

• The pedagogical importance of care. Care provides the experience and knowledge young children need to get to know themselves and the surrounding world.

• Development in groups. Children need other children from whom to learn; other children cannot be replaced by adults or toys.

The national curriculum for the preschool is based on a division of responsibilities, where the State determines the overall goals and guidelines for ECEC, and the 289 municipalities are responsible for implementation of these goals. Goals and guidelines for preschools are provided in the following areas: (a) norms and values, (b) development and learning, (c) influence of the child, (d) preschool and home, and (e) cooperation between preschools and the preschool class, the school, and the leisure-time centers. The goals in the preschool curriculum are defined as goals to be aimed at rather than explicitly achieved in terms of the individual development and learning of the child. Individual child outcomes will not be formally assessed in terms of grades and evaluations, since children might attend preschool at different ages over varying periods of time. The curriculum transfers over entirely to the professionals the responsibility for choosing and developing methods to achieve the goals.


Quality Controls

The School Act of 1998 stipulates that the municipalities are obliged to provide preschool activities of high quality. In ECEC settings, there should be personnel present with the appropriate educational background or experience to satisfy children’s need for care and education. The size and composition of the groups of children should be appropriate and the settings should be suitable for their purposes. Activities should be based on the individual needs of each child.

According to the Ordinance on Quality Reports in the Education System, each municipality and school is to prepare written quality reports each year as part of the continuous follow-up and evaluation of the educational system.

Since 2003, the National Agency for Education is divided into two authorities: The National Agency for Education and The National Agency for School Improvement. The National Agency for Education is, through its Educational Inspectorate, responsible for educational inspection, national follow-up and evaluation, and reviewing curricula. The task of the educational inspectorate is to determine whether and how well an activity is functioning in relation to the regulations set out in the Education Act, school ordinances, and national curriculum. This involves auditing and assessment at the municipal and individual school level, focusing on both the quality and legal aspects of the activities under inspection. Educational inspection, a prioritized activity of the National Agency for Education, also provides an underlying basis for quality development in preschool activities, child care for school children, and the school system as a whole.


Current Issues of Concern

It is quite clear that the very rapid expansion of the child-care system, combined with severe cutbacks in municipal budgets during the 1990s, has led to larger groups of children and to lower adult/child ratios in preschools, family day care homes, and leisure-time centers. Even though the number of children increased by 185,000 between the years 1991 and 1997, total municipal costs for child care remained the same. On the one hand, these data may be considered as an increase in productivity, if productivity is measured in costs per hour. On the other hand, these changes do not necessarily bode well for children whose development and learning are nurtured by close interactions with playmates and adults, a condition that is reduced when the number of children per group increases, while the number of adults decreases. In 2002, the National Agency for Education carried out an intensive study of group sizes in preschools, preschool classes, and leisure time centers. The results show no change in the size of preschool groups during the past year—the situation seems to be stabilizing, but at a historically high level. The average group size for younger children (1-3-years-old) is now 14.6 children, and for groups with older children (3-5-years-old) 19.7. The average adult/child ratio was 5.3 children per annual employee. These figures, and their consequences for the daily activities in Swedish preschools, are causing major concern among parents, personnel, and researchers, and (hopefully) among administrators and politicians involved in ECEC decision-making.

In 2002,44,600 children aged between 1-5 years enrolled in preschool or family day care homes had a different first language than Swedish. Of these, only 5,800 received first language support, which might be compared with the situation in 1990 when 57 percent of children with another first language than Swedish received additional attention in their first language. The goal of the preschool for children who have their roots in a culture other than Swedish is to provide the foundation for active bilingualism and a dual cultural identity. Special government funds have been set aside for municipalities to improve the conditions of children and families in “neighborhoods in need of special support,” that is, segregated urban areas with large proportions of immigrants. Some of these funds have been used to hire mother tongue teachers in the preschools, but support for language development in early years needs to be considerably strengthened, a point also stressed in the General Advice and Comments on Quality in Preschool published in 2005 by the National Agency for Education.

A somewhat different concern emanating from the launching of the new, integrated teacher education programs at universities in Sweden is linked to the fact that many of the students now specializing in Early Childhood Studies seem to have their focus on working with children in the 6-12-year age group, rather than the 1-5 year group. The new education gives students, following graduation, a chance to choose either of these groups and to work as teacher in preschools, preschool classes, or grades 1-5 in primary schools. Recruiting enough qualified teachers for the preschools might be difficult during the next decade, according to concerned school leaders all over the country.

Further Reading: Curriculum for the Preschool—Lpfo 98, Swedish Ministry of Education and Science, Stockholm; Curriculum for the Compulsory School System, the Pre-School Class and the Leisure-time Center—Lpo 94, Swedish Ministry of Education and Science, Stockholm; Gunnarsson, L. (1993). ECEC in Sweden. In Cochran, M., ed., International Handbook of Child Care Policies and Programs. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press; Gunnarsson, L., B. Martin Korpi, and U. Nordenstam, (1999). Early Childhood Education and Care Policy in Sweden. Background report prepared for the OECD Thematic Review on ECEC. Stockholm, Swedish Ministry of Education and Science; OECD (2001): Starting Strong: Early Childhood Education and Care. Final report of the OECD Thematic Report on ECEC; Swedish National Agency for Education. (2003). Descriptive data on childcare, schools and adult education in Sweden 2003. (Report no. 236); Swedish National Agency for Education. (2004). Pre-school in transition—A national evaluation of the Swedish pre-school. (English summary of report no. 239).

Lars Gunnarsson


Cultural Access and Respect for Differences

The Swedish preschool has from the very beginning been inclusive and has accepted children regardless of gender, class, language, and ability. Although small-scale state subsidies were allocated as early as in 1945, the preschools were still few in number, however, and not many children attended them. During the 1970s when preschool expanded and the first official state guidelines were issued, democracy and equality were stressed even more. When the first national curriculum was passed in 1998, it only confirmed what tradition, previous documents from the Government, and the curriculum of the teacher training had established as the fundamental values of inclusion and equality.

The National curriculum states that

Democracy forms the foundation of the pre-school. For this reason all preschool activity should be carried out in accordance with fundamental democratic values. Each and everyone working in the pre-school should promote respect for the intrinsic value of each person as well as respect for our shared environment. An important task of the pre-school is to establish and help children acquire the values on which our society is based. The inviolability of human life, individual freedom and integrity, the equal value of all people, equality between the genders as well as solidarity with the weak and vulnerable are all values that the school shall actively promote in its work with children.

Thus, the Swedish preschool promotes diversity and acts against any form of exclusion or discrimination, in the official documents as well as in its practice.


Immigrant Children

Immigration to Sweden constituted no real problem regarding the integration of children before the Second World War, at least according to the official discourse. The Finnish children arriving during the war without their parents were quickly dispersed throughout the country and went to the same preschools or playgroups as the children of their new foster families. Not until the post-war years did Italian and Yugoslavian industrial workers to any observable extent bring their families to settle in Sweden. These children were accepted in the preschools of their new neighborhoods and the language was Swedish from the beginning. Children were supposed to assimilate Swedish values, the Swedish language, and the traditions. Their first language was seldom acknowledged as an asset but more as an obstacle to be quickly overcome.

For the immigrant families, preschool was often seen as the first contact with Swedish society and Swedish culture. In the guidelines issued by the National Board of Health in the 1970s the immigrant children were mentioned as a possible concern. The preschool constituted a moral dilemma for the individual child, who had to choose between different systems of norms and values. However, the general view was also that the Swedish children accepting an immigrant child in their playgroup had something to gain from the encounter.

As immigration increased in the late twentieth century, and as the whole preschool sector expanded, the focus concerning the children with “foreign background” was more on the language issue than on differing norms and values. Even though Swedish was to be the new common language for these children, there was a risk that the children’s mother tongue was neglected. Many bilingual preschools, Turkish/Swedish, Serbo-Croatian/Swedish, staffed with bilingual teachers addressed this issue of double language proficiency. There was an imminent danger of children loosing their language of emotion, their mother tongue, as well as a risk of not being able to communicate with the relatives of their first nation, the country of their parents and grandparents. Growing up as a bilingual child was synonymous with being a child at risk.

In the last decade of the twentieth century many refugee families arrived in Sweden and the children were included in the Swedish preschools as part of the integration policy. The language issue transformed from bilingualism into multilingualism. In preschools with children of 15-20 nationalities and languages, and with children with Swedish as their first language as a minority, Swedish became the lingua franca common to all children and staff. Many children also speak at least two native languages, for instance one maternal and paternal, along with Swedish with their friends and teachers at preschool. As the situation is now in the early twenty-first century, multilingualism is seen as an asset rather than as a problem. Children who grow up in a multi-linguistic environment acquire a meta-linguistic competence necessary in a global world.

The national curriculum also stresses the future world that children will inhabit. In the words of the curriculum

The internationalisation of Swedish society imposes high demands on the ability of people to live with and understand values in cultural diversity. The pre-school is a social and cultural meeting place, which can reinforce this and prepare children for life in an increasingly internationalised community. Awareness of their own cultural heritage and participating in the culture of others should contribute to children’s ability to understand and empathise with the circumstances and values of others. The pre-school can help to ensure that children from national minorities and children with a foreign background receive support in developing dual cultural affiliation.

When Sweden became a member of the European Union, new light was directed toward the national minorities and their right to their first language, their culture, and traditions. In Sweden, these languages are Sami, Finnish, Meankieli, Romani-chib, and Yiddish. In this policy, the first language identity is more accepted than it has ever been before.

The language issue has also to a large extent been overshadowed lately by the issue of cultural identity, in the fundamental values of democracy and equality. Again as stated in the national curriculum

Increasing mobility across national borders creates cultural diversity in the pre-school, which provides children with the opportunity to build up respect and consideration for each individual irrespective of background. All parents should be able to send their children to the pre-school, fully confident that their children will not be prejudiced in favour of any particular view. All who work in the pre-school should uphold the fundamental values that are set out in this curriculum and should very clearly dissociate themselves from anything that conflicts with these values.


Children with Special Needs

Children with special needs have the same right to preschool education as any other child. The national curriculum states that

Pedagogical activities should be related to the needs of all children in the pre-school. Children who occasionally or on a more permanent basis need more support than others should receive this in relation to their needs and circumstances. The skill of the staff in understanding and interacting with the child, as well as gaining the confidence of parents is important, if the period in the pre-school is to provide support for children facing difficulties.

However, since the 1990s, the local councils are responsible for providing the necessary resources for preschool, with an attendance of more than 80 percent of children in the age group 1-5, as well as language support in first language proficiency, and support for children facing difficulties due to physical and psychodevelopmental impairment. In a recession, when economic resources have become scarce, this means that the process of providing support has become more cumbersome to staff and parents, as well as to the officials.

In a government bill on the quality in the Swedish preschool this setting is characterized as the most important arena of integration. Nearly 14 percent of children in preschool speak a foreign first language. The proposal implies that the local authorities responsible for preschool allocate more resources to support these children. The current problem, though, is that resources allocated from the local councils are far from adequate for meeting the requirements of the national curriculum and the official policies. This conflict between national aims and local resources mostly affects children who need support in language development and in their daily lives. The decrease in resource allocation has led to an increased child/teacher ratio and to larger groups, although the variation in group size is high. Group sizes are higher in the urban areas where attendance is higher among immigrant and special needs children. There is also a general view among teachers and other staff that the number of these children has increased lately. Again, the children who need more support are less likely to get it.

Further Reading: Johansson, G., and I.-B. Astedt (1996) Forskolans utveckling. Fakta och funderingar (The development of preschool. Facts and thoughts). 2 uppl. Stockholm: HLS Forlag.; Regeringen. (2004). Kvalitet i forskolan: Regeringens forskoleproposition (Quality in preschool. The government bill for preschool). Stockholm: Riksdagen, 2004.; Swedish National Agency for Education. (1998). Curriculum for the preschool. Available online at http://www.skolverket.se/pdf/lpfoe.pdf; Swedish National Agency for Education. (2003). More Languages—More Opportunities. A summary in English of Report 03:790. Available online at http://www2.skolverket.se/BASIS/skolbok/webext/trycksak/DDD/1111.pdf; Swedish National Agency for Education. (2004). Preschool in transition. A national evaluation of the Swedish preschool. A summary in English of Report 239:2004. Available online at http://www.skolverket.se/pdf/english/pre-school.pdf; Swedish National Agency for Education. (2004). Education for students of non-Swedish background and recognized minorities. Available online at http://www.skolverket.se/pdf/faktablad/en_utlandsk.pdf.

Maj Asplund Carlsson and Johannes Lunneblad


Parental Involvement in Child Care in Sweden

Relations between parents and child care in Sweden may mean just a feeling that everything is all right and that their child is in good hands. Many parents find this quite satisfactory. On the other hand, there are parents who want to be part of the activities, to run the center, and to have full control and influence. And somewhere in between you find most parents.



In public child care in Sweden, the importance of good relations with the parents is stressed. Child care is supposed to be a complement to the family and therefore a close cooperation between parents and staff is required. Parent cooperation is a constant theme in discussions about child care, but effects in practice are more difficult to document.

Official documents concerning school, preschool, and school-age child care state that parents have a right to be informed about, have influence upon, and take part in the activities that their children are attending. The official documents also state the staffs’ obligation to make this possible in different ways.

Additionally, documents related to parental involvement and the importance of cooperation between staff and parents can be found at the local or school levels.


Parents are Different

Parents are different from one to another. The causes for these differences may be social, economic, and cultural. Consequently, parents’ views show a wide range of variation. Different parents have different views of cooperation between home and child care or school, about the distribution of work at home, and about the territory of the parents and the territory of the staff. Parents also differ when it comes to the concept of knowledge—what is knowledge, what is important to know and to master? There are also different views on which roads to take to help children reach and master this knowledge.

Parents may also have different views of child development, howto raise a child and meet that child’s needs, interests and behavior. The differences between the views of the personnel and the parents can be small or nonexistent, or there can be a gap that is difficult to manage. This gap can be troublesome for all parties concerned.


Contacts between Parents and Staff Members

In Sweden there are different kinds of contacts for parents to use. The first contact is when a child has secured a place in child care. Usually parent/s and child visit the preschool to become acquainted with the premises, children, and staff. When the child begins child care, a specially designed adjustment period, usually two weeks in length, is scheduled. During this period, parents spend time with their child in the preschool setting. Parents might also visit the preschool setting after the adjustment period is over in order to develop a deeper understanding for the preschool and its activities.

Group meetings for parents are scheduled 2-3 evenings every year. The goal of these meetings is to exchange information and to give parents a chance to get to know other parents and the personnel. There is also a special kind of meeting known as the drop-in-coffee. Typically offered one afternoon a month, parents are invited to the preschool to have a cup of coffee or tea and to meet the children, staff, and other parents. There is no program or timetable and parents can stay for as long as they would like when they pick up their child, or they can choose not to stay.

Other informal get togethers are picnics, field-trips, or “work days” where parents, children, and staff do things together; for example, paint a room or replant the garden. Participating in excursions, picking mushrooms, going fishing, or barbequing are examples of other joint activities.

More structured meetings include the individual developmental conversations that are usually arranged twice a year. During these meetings, which typically take about 30 minutes, parents and staff members have a chance to discuss matters inside or outside the preschool in more detail. They also talk about the child’s development and learning.

Sometimes parents are elected to be members of the preschool board, which includes the director and representatives for the staff. Together they manage the preschool and make decisions. In parent cooperative centers, parental participation is often a prerequisite for enrollment. Parents are the employers, and have direct influence over activities. Parents often spend one or two weeks per year in the centers, actively involved in the daily activities.


Parental Perspectives on Involvement with Early Childhood Education Institutions

In a recent study we asked more than 200 parents of children in various early childhood education (ECE) settings about their views on the relations between the family and the child-care settings. Questions about relationships between jobs and child care, parental expectations, and cooperation and influence were included. Parents are also asked about other aspects of their lives, such as the family economy, household work, leisure time activities, and informal social supports. Key questions included the following:

• How do the parents’ interactions with child care and school relate to the picture of their total life situation (family, work, housework, leisure time activities, and so on)?

• What are parents’ conceptions of and attitudes toward child care? What information do they want and in which ways would they like to receive it?

• How actively involved do parents want to be? Which expectations do parents have concerning cooperation? What influence do they want to exert?


The Meaning of Child Care in Parents’ Lives

We asked the parents what it meant to them to have their child in child care. The answers show the relation between the parents’ efforts to cope with their whole life situation and their views of preschool. A large group of parents answered “It means everything.” By this they meant that child care allowed them to have a job, earn a living, and use their education. Another thing that many parents stressed was that they could go to work without a bad conscience because they knew that their children were in good hands.


The Importance ofBeing Greeted in the Hall

Fathers and mothers stated that they have all had “experiences in the entrance hall.” The entrance hall is often the place where parents and staff discuss the child’s day, and it provides an opportunity to build a relationship between both parties. Mothers as well as fathers have opinions about how the staff meets parents at the time of arrival. One of the most crucial elements in the parents’ total view of a particular preschool is based on whether a member of the staff comes out into the entrance hall to meet the parent and the child. If a parent wants to be met but seldom is, then that parent’s disappointment tends to impact and affect his or her attitude toward the whole preschool environment.


Information about Goals

Few of the parents in our study were familiar with the social and educational goals of their particular day care center or school. Many parents stated that they had probably read about these goals or even heard about them, but could not remember the content of such goals.

To judge from the parents’ answers, it is uncommon that teachers in Early Childhood Education settings explain to parents why they do what they do. Parents are often informed about what the children do, their routines and activities, or the schedule of the school, but seldom why. Sometimes parents ask questions about this, and are responded to in different ways by the staff members. Some staff see this as a serious question and explain the pedagogical or psychological reasons behind activities and routines. Others, however, might feel threatened by the question and might consider the parent to be troublesome.

To exert real influence, parents have to know about child care and school. It is not enough to have used the right to visit the child a few days a year. Not all parents are interested in obtaining this knowledge or have the time and energy to do so.


Parental Interests in Influencing Activities in Early Childhood Education Settings

An interesting, controversial, and complicated question concerns influence and how it is linked to parental involvement. Over the years, there have been many attempts to increase parental influence. For the most part, this has been done by practical measures such as increased number of meetings, parents participating in daily activities, questionnaires to parents about preferred activities, and so on.

In exceptional cases, a particular group of parents might become extremely active in trying to have influence and to effect what is going on. The cause of this activity is often a decision by local authorities to cut or even close down some provision. It may also be some negative change in the number of children or staff. When such incidents occur, most parents become deeply engaged, spending much time in meetings, searching for and presenting support for protests. In our study we tried to understand what kind of influence the parents really wanted to have on their child’s particular preschool. The results from a questionnaire answered by parents in several different preschools, shown in the table below, can serve as an illustrative example.




Want to participate

Actually do participate

Planning ECE activities



Putting forward views



Discussing ECE activities



No need for influence




As the table shows, when we compared what the parents wanted or wished for with what they perceived was the case in the present situation, we found that there was a clear gap between their wishes and their actual experiences. In addition, 27 percent of parents indicated that “I don’t know how my points of view are treated by the staff,” and more than one-third (36%) responded that they had no influence at all over what happened in the center.

Few parents wanted to have influence regarding activity planning. Some parents stated that they lacked sufficient knowledge to manage activities, the pedagogical framework, or the written documents. Several parents said something like “Goodness gracious! That is the job of the staff. They are trained for that. I would not like the staff to come to my job to tell me how to run that.”

It as appears that as long as everything works well and the child gets on well and wants to go to preschool in the mornings and the parent doesn’t see or feel discord, many of the parents don’t want to or have time for extensive contact with the preschools. Instead, parents are free to use their time and energy to master their own jobs. An effect of this might be a lower level of perceived stress, which in turn might make parents feel more comfortable at home with their children.

A somewhat different form of influence that parents prefer is cooperation. The parents in our study wanted to have opportunities to discuss what they perceived to be the needs of their particular child, and they expected that the personnel try to provide for these needs as much as possible. In return, in order to make the whole group of children function together, the parents could accept the staff’s demands and expectations.

Our analyses revealed that the concept of cooperation seems to be less problematic or threatening to parents than the concept of influence. Considerably more parents wanted to cooperate with the staff than wished to exert influence. This last finding highlights the importance of knowing and paying attention to the fact that the use of particular words and concepts might affect parents’ views and perspectives in different and unintended ways.

Further Reading: Cohen, B., P. Moss, P. Petrie, and J. Wallace (2004). A New Deal for Children? Re-forming education and care in England, Scotland and Sweden. Bristol, UK: The Policy Press; Macbeth, A., and B. Ravn, eds. (1994). Expectations about Parents in Education. European Perspectives. Scotland, UK: University of Glasgow; Smit, F., H. Moerel, K. van der Wolf, and P. Sleegers (1999). Building bridges between home and school. ITS/Nijmegen.

Lisbeth Flising


Gender Equity and Early Childhood Education in Sweden


For some decades gender equity issues have in different ways been salient features in the arguments for and development of preschool services and early childhood education in Sweden. When the strong expansion of child-care services started in the 1970s, one major argument was that public child-care services are needed in order to give mothers and fathers equal opportunity to combine parenthood with employed work or studies. This goal for preschool is also mentioned in the 1997 government bill concerning a national curriculum for preschool.

The national curriculum for preschool specifies the values, norms, and educational goals for early childhood education. One highlight is on gender issues.

The ways in which adults respond to boys and girls, as well as the demands and requirements imposed on children contribute to their appreciation of gender differences. The preschool should work to counteract traditional gender patterns and gender roles. Girls and boys in the preschool should have the same opportunities to develop and explore their abilities and interest without having limitations imposed by stereotyped gender roles.

Early childhood education (ECE) settings have two different essential purposes to serve for gender equity, one concerning the parents and adult society and the other concerning the children and their conditions and development.


Early Childhood Education and Gender Equity among Adults

The parents. In combination with other public gender-reconciliating measures (e.g., parental leave periods for mothers and fathers to share) the rapid expansion of public preschool services over the past two decades may be the primary reason why Swedish mothers show one of the highest levels of labor force participation in the world, and Swedish fathers take more time off to be with their children than did their own fathers or fathers in most other countries. Early childhood education in the form of full day preschool service has undoubtedly contributed to more equal opportunities and greater gender equity for Swedish men and women.


The staff. When given greater opportunities to join the workforce many women have gone to work in the sectors of health, care, and education. The expansion of child-care services opened up a large new area of work, but a strong majority of those who went into this field were women. Nearly 98 percent of the staff in preschool services is women. This is not a new situation. Historically, the care and rearing of young children have been considered to be the responsibility of mothers, in Sweden as in most other countries. From the beginning of the history of early childhood education it has with few exceptions been women who have worked in this field and have created the scope of ideas and developed the activities and working methods.

Different measures have been taken, on national and local levels, to try to increase the proportion of men working within early childhood education and care. These measures have not been very successful thus far, but the work continues. The recently appointed national Delegation for Gender Equality in Pre-school is one such measure.

Approximately 1,700 men are employed in preschool institutions in Sweden. In the settings where these men work children might experience men and women working together on an equal basis. But in groups where all staff members are women, fewer resources and opportunities exist for meeting the stated goal of the curriculum “to counteract traditional gender patterns and gender roles.”

Thus although in Swedish families nowadays fathers are increasingly engaged in the care of their children and in sharing more of household tasks and other family obligations with the mothers, in most preschool settings the care, upbringing, and education of young children are still almost entirely the responsibility of women.


Early Childhood Education and Gender Equity for Children

Most groups of children in preschool settings have a fairly even distribution of boys and girls. The national curriculum states that they “should have the same opportunities to develop and explore their abilities and interest without having limitations imposed by stereotyped gender roles.”

When talking about gender issues, preschool staff often argue that they do not think about the children in terms of girls and boys, but see and meet every child in an individual way according to the needs and interests of that child. Hence they claim to be gender neutral in their interactions with boys and girls. But researchers observing the play and other activities of children in preschool settings usually find clear gender-related differences in the activities and social interactions of boys and girls. To generalize, girls often keep close to the staff, engage in rather peaceful activities like drawing, playing with dolls, or various forms of role-play. Boys often go to places where members of the staff are not present. They engage in physically active play like running, climbing, biking, pillow fighting, and in constructive play in the sandbox or with toy bricks. Both boys and girls engage in constructive play, but girls more often construct social settings and roles while boys construct physical things like roads and huts. Both boys and girls engage in role-play. Boys are often heroes, warriors, and different kinds of craftsmen, while girls more often play the roles of mothers or babies, nurses, models, and women-friends.

Lots of individual exceptions to these behavioral patterns do of course exist, but at a group level findings usually suggest that boys and girls do separate and different things, and often engage in play inspired by traditional male and female activities and patterns common in the surrounding society and culture. This might be said to be in opposition to the goal in the preschool curriculum that “The preschool should work to counteract traditional gender patterns and gender roles.”


Gender Issues—A ConfusingMixture ofFacts, Theories, Ideologies, Values, andAttitudes

There are several different theories and assumptions in operation when issues concerning similarities and differences between men and women, and boys and girls, are being addressed. This is not the place to review such theories or assumptions. But obviously facts and experiences may be understood in very different ways. Gender issues concern deep and basic aspects of personality and identity. Gender issues also concern power, influence, and opportunities, and they are important factors in social and cultural structures and discourses. Discussions concerning gender issues often evoke strong emotions and “everyone” has an opinion about what is “normal” and how it should be. Many people consider these matters to be private values and personal beliefs that should not be questioned or imposed on others. A starting point for educational awareness and development of methods to promote emancipating equal opportunities is to realize and be sensitive to the cultural and social constructions of gender, to recognize gender norms, and be aware of how they restrict the scope of action for boys and for girls and their possibilities to develop their full capacities.


Recent and Current Developments within Early Childhood Education and Care

During the last 30 years of substantial expansion in access to public ECEC various efforts have been made to develop more equal opportunities for boys and girls. The efforts often have dealt with educational methods and activities, usually in the form of supplying girls with more “technical” and constructive material, activities, and guidance. There have also been efforts to break up ingrained opinions and habits among the children. These have included systematically organized joint activities to get boys and girls to cooperate, respect, and appreciate each other, and separate activities for girls and boys designed to stimulate them to try new activities and to practice abilities other than those “gender-labeled” activities typically found in the early childhood settings.

This kind of development work has raised the awareness of equal opportunities, but there is still a question of the extent to which such working methods are operating in the everyday activities of early childhood settings. In many places it is “business as usual,” and a large proportion of the staff members express the opinion that due to their individualistic approach to meeting the needs and interests of every single child, they do not differentiate based on gender and so do not see the need for special attention to be given to gender equity issues.

In more recent research, focus has actually been placed on how staff members act in relation to the children. In general terms, the results quite clearly indicate that the teachers do interact with boys and girls in different ways. There is an obvious risk that an individualistic approach conceals the fact that girls and boys as groups are treated differently and that these conditions effectively contribute to conserving traditional gender patterns.

In the last fewyears much attention has been paid to self-evaluative methods for teachers to observe and analyze their own actions. One focus has been on gender issues. The staff members often realize with astonishment how they respond to and deal with boys and girls in quite different ways without being aware of it. This growth in awareness often leads to an interest in identifying the ways in which the physical design of the ECE settings, as well as materials and activities, constrain the childrens’ construction of identities and abilities, and how changes might give the children opportunities to develop a wider range of their personalities.

To reveal ingrained gender behavior may also give gender-mixed groups of staff reason to examine their interaction patterns and division of labor and help them avoid getting stuck in traditional gender roles. Actions taken to get more men to work in early childhood education and care have not thus far shown any great results. It is not, however, only a question of getting more men interested in preschool work, but also of analyzing and, to a certain degree, changing traditional female-dominated patterns concerning how work with children “normally” should be done. To achieve the goal of finding a substantially higher proportion of men working in preschool settings, there is a need for a change in attitudes and gender order in the whole society. This will probably take a long time. If early childhood education and care is successful in reaching the curriculum goal of counteracting traditional gender patterns and gender roles, this might help prepare the ground for the next generation of men to be more open to work with children, care, and education.

A specific initiative on a national level to promote gender equity in early childhood education is the attempt to train so called “gender educators.” A gender educator is usually a preschool teacher who is offered specially designed university- level courses on gender issues. The idea is that every municipality should have some “gender educators” employed, to supervise groups of staff in their efforts to raise gender awareness and to develop their preschool activities in a more gender equal direction.

The previously mentioned government committee titled The Delegation for Gender Equality in Pre-School is another initiative at the national level. This committee is commissioned to compile the present knowledge and experiences concerning work for gender equity in preschool, and analyze different factors that have an influence on gender issues in that setting. In order to test ideas and collect experiences the committee is providing financial support for development work at a number of preschools. The work of the committee started in the beginning of 2004. In summer 2006 results and recommendations for changes and developments will be presented in an effort to strengthen gender equity and equal opportunities in preschool.

Further Reading: Flising, Bjorn. (1997). Rekrytering av man till offentlig barnom-sorg (To recruit men for work in public child-care). Rapport TemaNord 1997:567. Copenhagen: The Nordic Council of Ministers; Ministry of Education and Science in Sweden. (1998). Curriculum for pre-school, Lpfo 98. (Stockholm, Fritzes); Owen, Charlie, Claire Cameron, and Peter Moss, eds. (1998). Men as Workers in Services for Young Children: Issues of a Mixed Gender Workforce. London: University of London, Institute of Education; SOU 2004:115. Den konade forskolan—om betydelsen av jamstalldhet och genus i forskolans pedagogiska arbete (The gendered preschool—concerning equal opportunities and gender in the educational activities of preschool). (Report from The Delegation for Gender Equality in Pre-school)

Web Site: Delegation for Gender Equality in Pre-school, Web page in English. Available online at http://www.jamstalldforskola.gov.se/show.php/17920.h.

Bjorn Flising


Quality in Swedish Early Childhood Education


The Swedish School Act stipulates that the municipalities are obliged to provide preschool activities of high quality. In preschool settings, personnel should be present with the appropriate educational background and experience to satisfy children’s need for care and education. The size and composition of the groups of children should be appropriate and the settings should be suitable for their purposes. Activities should be based on the individual needs of each child.

Issues linked to quality and equivalence in Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) have received an increased importance in Sweden during the past decades. One reason for this has been the changes in steering and supervision mechanisms that have taken place on national as well as local levels. The model previously dominant within the public sector was based on centrally formulated rules, regulations, and guidelines aimed at guaranteeing ECEC programs of high and uniform quality, and enforced through the system of state grants. The past twenty years have seen an increase in decentralization of decisions from national to local level, manifested in the 1991 Local Government Act, which provides a framework to strengthen local democracy.


Different Types of Quality Definitions

There are many different ways of defining (and measuring) quality within the ECEC arena. One of the most common definitions might be referred to as structural quality, and takes as its point of departure the frameworks and prerequisites of ECEC activities, often expressed in objectively measurable variables such as size and composition of children’s groups, adult/child ratios, or educational level of the personnel. Factors linked to physical design of settings or outdoor environments might also be included among structural variables of interest. In Sweden, annual statistics, gathered systematically at the national level, give a good picture of changes over time in group sizes, adult/child ratios, personnel education, etc. Such statistics have been available since the 1960s.

During the 1990s, productivity in Swedish ECEC (measured in costs per hour) increased substantially. The number of children in ECEC settings increased by about 30 percent, whereas total costs remained the same. During the same period, changes in a number of structural variables were observed. The number of children in an average preschool group increased from 13.8 in 1990, to 16.6 in 1998. There was also an increase in the number of children per adult, from 4.2 to 5.6, during the period. In 2003, the average group size had increased to 17.2.

These negative changes have raised the issue of whether municipalities are able to maintain a quality level which meets the requirements stipulated in the School Act, in relation to good care and education based on the needs of each individual child. In the 2004/2005 Bill to the Riksdag, the National Government did include an extra three-year grant for the municipalities to employ an additional 6,000 preschool teachers and child minders, and make possible the decrease in the number of children in the preschool groups and a more favorable adult/child ratio.

Research has shown that there is no clear-cut relationship between costs and quality. However, studies investigating these relationships have also shown that socially disadvantaged groups of children are suffering more from a deterioration in ECEC structural quality than children from families with more resources. Solidarity goals and equal rights to good quality ECEC are issues highlighted in these types of quality discussions.

A different way of defining quality takes as its starting point the parents using the ECEC system, in their roles as citizens, clients, or “customers.” Quality of services now becomes the main focus of interest. In measuring quality of services, issues like full coverage, efficient administration and distribution of places, access, opening hours, or parental freedom to choose among different ECEC alternatives might be at focus. National and local child-care surveys, conducted regularly, have until recently provided politicians and administrators with information on parental needs and preferences in these respects. During the past decade, municipalities have also systematically been using “consumer surveys” as ways of measuring parental level of satisfaction with existing ECEC activities, thereby relying on subjective quality ratings based on parental norms or preferences of what might be important aspects of ECEC programs.

High level of access or availability of alternative forms of ECEC programs might be defined as high quality of results linked to service level. Other result-focused quality definitions might be more geared toward measuring effects of education and care activities on children’s development and learning. The goals presented in the Swedish National Curriculum for Pre-school specify the desired quality targets in the preschools. In the curriculum, goals and guidelines are being specified for the following areas: norms and values; development and learning; influence of the child, preschool and home; and cooperation between the preschool class, the school, and the leisure-time center. The goals specify the orientation of the work of the preschool and set out the qualitative development desired. The goals in the curriculum are formulated as goals to strive for, rather than goals to be attained. Thus they describe processes rather than final outcomes from preschooling. Evaluating capacities, competences, or developmental progress of individual children are responsibilities to be carried out by ECEC personnel in cooperation with the child’s parents.

Quality might therefore also be defined and evaluated in relation to pedagogical processes. Process quality refers to the quality of activities and relationships in the ECEC settings. High process quality calls for well-functioning relationships among personnel and children, and carefully planned activities, systematically analyzed and evaluated. Mutually trusting relationships among personnel and parents have also been found to be important. Measurement of processes has been conducted, for example, with the use of the internationally well-known ECERS scale, adapted to Swedish circumstances. Swedish research has found high quality, as defined by the ECERS scale, to be closely linked to parental feelings of trust, involvement, and understanding of the norms, values, and working methods of the personnel in the ECEC settings. In many Swedish preschools, there has been a growing interest in recent years in using pedagogical documentation as a tool for developing pedagogical work. In this context, the municipal preschools in Reggio Emilia in Italy have served as important sources of inspiration.

To improve process quality, resources might be well spent on the continuing education of ECEC personnel. One example of such an attempt to indirectly improve pedagogical processes is the ongoing, nationwide program to implement the new curriculum, financed through the National Agency of Education. Preschool teachers, primary school teachers, and leisure-time pedagogues meet to discuss fundamental values, goal definitions, and guidelines presented in the curriculum in cooperation with university teachers and researchers. In the basic university level teacher training, courses on research methods and evaluations have recently been added to the program to meet the increased demands for systematic analyses and evaluations of activities in the ECEC settings.


“Correct” vs “Incorrect” Definitions of Quality

There is an ongoing discussion among the various ECEC stakeholders in Sweden as to definitions and measurements of ECEC quality. Researchers and ECEC professionals might address the issue of quality from the perspective of expert groups that are likely to know what constitutes an optimal environment for children’s development and learning. High or low quality is related to absolute standards and goals as defined in this way. Parents might look at quality from a different angle, including flexible opening hours, affordable fees, and particular personal interests in the equation. Municipalities, trying to adapt a “consumer perspective” or a cost reducing “lowest acceptable quality” perspective, might prefer a more subjective and relativistic right or wrong quality definition.

Political decisions made by elected representatives on the national level in the Riksdag, based on the principles of a multi-party democracy such as Sweden, are representing the collective sharing of responsibilities. In discussions around quality criteria in ECEC, some people have seen a danger in a situation when the individual, subjective goals of the parents, as specified in “consumer surveys,” are given higher priority than, for example, the collective goals defined in the preschool curriculum, creating a situation where ideologically shared values and norms at the macro level, linked to solidarity and sharing of resources, might be overruled at the micro level, when quality in an individual ECEC setting is to be defined.


Present Development

In 2004 the Swedish National Agency for Education published a report presenting the first national evaluation of the preschool after the reform of 1998, when the preschool received its own curriculum and became the first step into the overall education system. The aim of the evaluation was to examine how the preschool has developed in different respects after the reform, and also to provide a progress report on the consequences of the reform. The evaluation also indicates the important choices confronting the preschool in its future development. Overall the results show that preschools have differing opportunities to carry out their task in a satisfactory way. Factors such as size of child groups and the catchment area of the preschool can explain a large part of these differences. Preschools in stable areas, as a rule, face better conditions for adapting their activities to the individual needs of children, to satisfy children in need of support, and to work together in good ways with parents. The report makes clear that certain preschools face inadequate conditions to carry out their tasks. In many of the multicultural, segregated, urban areas in Sweden the need for more resources linked to language and language development has been stressed. There is a need for educated mother tongue teachers, and for the inservice training of ECEC personnel in creating learning situations for children with Swedish as their second language. In the 2004-2005 Legislation, the government stressed the importance of clarifying in the national curriculum the multicultural responsibility of the preschool to strengthen childrens’ language and identity development, and to make clear that one of the goals for preschools to strive for is to give every child with a mother tongue other than Swedish support to develop the competence to communicate in Swedish as well as in the home language.

Further Reading: Curriculum for the Pre-school. Lpfo 98, Stockholm: The Ministry of Education and Science; Gunnarsson, L., B. Korpi, and U. Nordenstam (1999). Early Childhood Education and Care Policy in Sweden. Stockholm: The Ministry of Education and Science; Pre-school in Transition—A national evaluation of the Swedish pre-school. (2004). (Summary in English of Report 239) Swedish National Agency for Education. Available online at www.skolverket.se; Quality in Pre-school, Swedish Government Bill 2004/05:11.

Lars Gunnarsson


Democracy: The Curriculum Foundation for Swedish Preschools

The focus here is on “the democratic project” to develop and come to a resolution about a Swedish national curriculum for preschool—how the perspective in the curriculum is formed and what this means for both pedagogues and children in preschool. How can the approach to children, their development, and learning be related to the culture and to theories about children? And how can pedagogues, parents, and children be implicated in the intentions of the curriculum?

The Swedish Early Childhood Education and Care System was already a strongly regulated sector in the 1960s. There were guiding principles for the area per child, the security, the number of children per adult and in relation to the children’s different ages, and so on. During the past 20 years, however, the movement has been toward a deregulated and goal-guided system. This means that the goals for different public sectors are made explicit, while the responsibility for carrying out, or working toward, these goals becomes a question for the people involved—in this case, parents, pedagogues, and children. One could claim that behind this way of guiding the education lies a democratic strategy to make people implicated and engaged in their own lives. During the 1990s both the preschool and the school system in Sweden underwent more extensive changes than ever before.

A breakthrough in the change of preschool activities was established through “The pedagogic program for preschool” developed by the National Board of Health and Welfare in 1987. Learning as a conception was brought into view and became, step by step, accepted within preschool. Earlier, development had been the leading notion.

In 1996, the responsibility for the preschool was taken over by the Ministry of Education, which can be seen as a first indication of the inclusion of preschool within a “life-long learning” approach, and concretely within the educational system.

In a 1997 governmental declaration it was settled that preschool, school, and after-school centers should be integrated, in order to improve the first, important year in compulsory school. As a first step in this work, a unified goal document for the six-year-olds in preschool, the compulsory school and the after-school centers was composed. When this first step was completed it was decided that the preschool class (the six-years-old in school) should be regarded as a specific school form—the beginning of the next step beyond preschool. A committee was appointed to draft a proposal for a new goal document for preschool (1- 5-years-old). To strengthen the pedagogic dimension of preschool, facilitate the long-term planning for the work in preschool, and make it easier to follow up and evaluate the goals, great importance should be laid on the goal document’s structure and content. During the work in the committee a number of consultative groups, including the teachers’ union, different interest organizations, people responsible for public education, and the Association of Local Authorities were involved. All this led to a strong political agreement and support for the curriculum proposal.


The Curriculum as a Regulation and as Goals to Strive Toward

The fact that the curriculum for preschool was given the same status as the curriculum for public schooling is viewed as a guarantee that the work and the activities in preschool will be equal for all children. At the same time it could be said that as a result of this change the preschool teachers’ freedoms are going to decrease. Earlier, a preschool might state that “Here in our preschool, we are interested in music and therefore we mostly work with music.” The goal statement might also say: “We do not work with mathematics, because children will have to deal with that in school soon enough.” Of course it will still be possible to have preschools with special interests and aims, but it will not be possible to exclude certain goals, expressed as striving goals.

When you think about the concept “curriculum,” it is important to take into consideration that it should be a plan for learning, in which the values for the work in the preschool as an institution, and what the mission of the preschool is, have been stipulated. The goal document for preschool is founded on the same principles and values as the curriculum for school, and partly follows the same structure. The individual child’s development and learning are in focus, and the goals are intrinsically qualitative rather than quantitative, with focus on changing children’s knowledge and their way of making sense of the world around them.

What is comparatively special with the Swedish curriculum is that the goals, with reference to the perspective on learning, have gained a supreme and central role. However, there is practically nothing written about how the pedagogues should work with the children. Still there are guidelines for how they should work or act in specific ways with children, in order to promote children’s development toward the goals.


The Five Goals ofthe Swedish Curriculum

There are five groups of goals: (1) norms and values, (2) development and learning, (3) children’s influence, (4) preschool and home, and (5) cooperation with school. One or two examples for each of these goals are presented below—

1. Norms and values

Preschool shall actively and consciously influence and stimulate children to develop an understanding of the common democratic values in our society, and help them understand that in the future, they can be part of these. Preschool should strive to ensure that each child develops

• his or her ability to discover, reflect on, and work out their position on different ethical dilemmas and fundamental questions on life in daily reality, and

• respect for all forms of life as well as care for the surrounding environment.

2. Development and learning

Preschool shall form a unity where the education is built on care, nurturing, and education. The activities shall stimulate play, creativity, and joyful learning, and use children’s interest for new experiences to learn knowledge and skills. The flow of ideas and diversity should be explored.

Preschool should try to ensure that children develop

• their identity and feel secure in themselves,

• their ability to listen, narrate, reflect, and express their own views,

• a rich and varied spoken language and the ability to communicate with others and to express their thoughts, and

• their vocabulary and concepts, the ability to play with words, an interest in the written language, and an understanding of symbols as well as their communicative functions.

Interrelated in the development and learning goals are “everyday life skills.” These are corresponding to a number of qualities (in terms of properties and skills) like cooperative skills, responsibility, initiative, flexibility, reflectivity, active attitudes, communicative skills, problem solving skills, critical stance, creativity, as well as the ability to learn how to learn. These different qualities are seen as general and part of all school subjects, and form a central dimension of preparing the children and students of today for the society of tomorrow. There are also goals focused on making sense of the world around the child, and aspects relating to culture, natural science, reading and writing, mathematics, and so on.

3. Children’s influence

To develop a base for understanding democracy, children must be deeply involved. Children’s social development presupposes that they, according to age and capabilities, be given responsibility for their own actions and for the environment in preschool. Preschool should try to ensure that children develop

• the ability to express their thoughts and views and thus have the opportunity of influencing their own situation, and

• the ability to understand and act in accordance with democratic principles by participating in different kinds of cooperation and decision making.

The idea is that democracy should be treated both as a content and as a method in every day life with children.

4. Preschool and home

The person(s) having the legal guardianship of the child are responsible for the child’s upbringing and development. Preschool is meant to be a complement to the home, which provides the best possible conditions for every child to develop richness and many-sidedness. The preschool should

• maintain, on an on-going basis, a dialogue with parents on the child’s well-being, development, and learning, both in and outside the preschool,

• take due account of parents’ viewpoints when planning and carrying out activities, and

• make sure that parents are involved in assessing the activities of the preschool.

5. Cooperation with school

It is important that there be a trusting cooperation between preschool and school (including after-school care). The cooperation should be based on the national and local goals and on directions valid for each activity. When the time comes to transfer from preschool to school it is the preschool staff’s responsibility to find appropriate ways of rounding off and concluding the preschool period.


Curriculum Content

From the point of view of content, the most overriding theme in the curriculum is democracy. This not only shows in the perspective on learning, both of values and norms, but also in the emphasis placed upon children’s participation and codetermination, as well as upon the cooperation with other participants in the home and in school.

The curriculum is now a regulation, which means that every public preschool has to work in accordance with these goals. This is expected to raise the quality of preschools all over the country. Privately organized preschools are not legally obliged to follow the curriculum, but it can be assumed that it will play a major role also in these settings, since quality is one of the factors for obtaining state money.


Curriculum Methods

In the national curriculum very little is mentioned about methods, or ways of working with children to reach the goals. Delegating methods, organization, etc., to the pedagogues is part of the decentralization efforts, and also a move away from earlier guidelines. The pedagogues are expected to have learnt about the methods during their own educational preparation, and there is also the assumption that there are several ways to work in order to reach the common goals.

The curriculum is mirroring an openness when it comes to teachers’ methods and ways of organizing the work. Most of all, it becomes important that the pedagogue covers a wide range of methods, since children learn in different ways, and the pedagogue is expected to be able to meet each individual child in its efforts to understand the world and to master its own life.

What could be claimed more specifically is that content and form are related to each other and consequently have to be integrated. In other words, to use good methods without providing an engaging content, and the other way around, to provide an interesting content without good methods for making children engaged, will not be sufficient.

Even if the goals are formulated in this way, there are still several obvious connections to the school’s subjects. For example, preschool should strive to insure that children develop the following:

• their ability to discover and use mathematics in meaningful contexts and situations,

• their appreciation of the basic characteristics of the concept of number, measurement, and form, as well as an ability to orient themselves in time and space.

One can imagine that it takes much thinking and great participation to implement the national goals within the specific age group or child group with which the pedagogues are working. It is most important that the goals direct children’s attention toward the surrounding world, which can be interpreted and described by using mathematics, scientific conceptions, and so on, and not toward the school subject as such.

In conclusion, it can be said that there are goals to strive toward, but how to get along in this striving becomes a pedagogic challenge.

Further Reading: Alvestad, M., and Pramling Samuelsson, I. (1999). A comparison between the National Preschool Curricula in Norway and Sweden. Early Childhood Research and Practice, 1(2),http://www.ecrp.uiuc.edu/v1n2/index.html (Elektronisk tid-skrift); Doverborg, E., and Pramling Samuelsson, I. (1999). FOrskolebarn i matematikens varld (Preschool children in the world of mathematics). Stockholm: Liber; EU. (1996). Council for cultural co-operation. Strasbourg: Education Committee. Curriculum for pre-school, Lpfo 98. Ministry of Education and Science in Sweden; Pramling Samuelsson, I., and Asplund-Carlsson, M. (2003). Det larande barnet. Pa vag mot en teori (The learning child. Towards a theory); Socialstyrelsen. (1987:3). Pedagogiskt program for forskolan (Curriculum for preschool). Stockholm: Allmanna forlaget; SOU. (1997:157). Att erovra omvarlden. forslag till laroplan forforskolan (To conquer the world). Stockholm: Fritzes.

Ingrid Pramling Samuelsson


Early Childhood Teacher Education in Sweden


The personnel in Swedish preschools and school-age child-care settings are comparatively well educated. Less than 5 percent of the more than 100,000 employees lack education specific to working with children, and more than 50 percent have a university-level education as preschool teachers or leisure-time pedagogues. Gender distribution among the personnel is very uneven, however. Only 6 percent are men, which has remained the same throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

In addition to preschool teachers and leisure-time pedagogues, childminders educated in the Swedish secondary schools make up about 40 percent of the work force in Swedish early care and education (ECE). Formerly, the program for childminders included (in addition to compulsory courses in mathematics, language, and social sciences) a combination of theory and practice to provide the students with the basic skills in childminding and developmental psychology. The program has recently been extended from two to three years of schooling, and broadened to include a wider range of options in the area of children and leisure-time activities (out-of-school time care).

There are also more than 8,000 family child minders in Sweden, providing child care in their own homes. A large majority of this group has completed the childminder training program, or 50-100 hours of mandatory course work provided by the municipality as an introduction to the family day care occupation. In recent years, a new one-year training program, with a national curriculum, has been arranged by the municipalities as part of their adult education program. This education is intended for students who have graduated from programs in the upper secondary schools and want to be qualified as childminders, or students who want to upgrade their existing (for some, rather short) childminder training. The entire program is practicum oriented; students spend extensive time in placements under qualified supervision.


Historical Background

In 1898, the first training course (four months of duration) was created for those who wanted to become teachers of young children. This educational initiative grew out of and supported the charitable work performed by unmarried middle class women in the early institutions for young children that developed during the second half of the 1800s. Two years later this initial course was extended to two years and given the name Froebelseminariet.

In 1996, federal responsibility for the preschools was transferred from the Ministry of Health and Welfare to the Ministry of Education and Science. Thus preschool became the first link in a broad and integrated education system covering the ages 1-19, from preschool to the end of upper secondary school. In 1998, the first preschool curriculum for children aged 1 to 5 years was issued. Two other national curricula exist: one for the preschool class (age 6) and compulsory school (ages 7-16), the other for upper secondary school (ages 16-19). In combination these three curricula unified the education system under a common educational philosophy. This unification process has had significant implications for teacher education.


Recent Developments

Toward the end of the 1990s, a new Teacher Education Commission was appointed by the government to set up goals for a completely new form of teacher education. This group suggested a comprehensive reform of all seven existing teacher education programs, including the one for preschool teachers. Their work resulted in a proposition put forward by the government to parliament, which was passed in the year 2000.


Basic principles. The reform discussed above is one of the most radical reforms in the entire history of Swedish teacher education. It implies a shift in the teaching profession from teaching to learning, from giving courses to enhancing competencies, and from being curriculum implementers to curriculum makers. The following are some of the basic principles for the new integrated teacher education:

• Formal education starts in preschool.

• The notion of life-long learning is emphasized.

• Learning is a social as well as an educational process.

• School provides an arena for social and cultural encounters.

• Teachers are mentors who are expected to scaffold and support children’s overall growth and development.

• Education should support and stimulate children’s creativity, imagination, flexibility, and problem-solving ability.


Program requirements. Three closely linked areas of education make up the new initial training program (see Box 1 below). The first comprises a unified interdisciplinary curriculum focusing on professionally relevant areas. This should preferably be offered to all prospective teacher students, regardless of specialization, and be spread over the entire length of training. For teacher candidates wishing to work with young children, the total requirement covers at least 140 credit points, or 3 5 years of full-time studies. Each credit point equals one academic full-time week of study. Each semester comprises 20 credit points. Completion of this program qualifies a student to teach in preschools (ages 1 to 5), preschool classes (6-year-olds), and the first years of the compulsory school (ages 7 to 11), as well as in school-age child care and programs for mother tongue teachers. (Children in Sweden start compulsory school in the autumn of the year they turn seven.)


Box 1. Integrated Teacher Education Program in Sweden since 2000

Genera! Education Studies

• 60 credit points (at least 10 in work placements). These studies should comprise both areas of knowledge central to the teaching profession, e.g., education, special education, child and youth development, and interdisciplinary, crosscutting themes such as socialization, democracy, and basic values/principles.

Subject Studies (subject enrichment)

• At least 40 credit points (10 in work placements). These studies should correspond to age-related subject areas, e.g., language, maths.

Specialist In-depth Study

• 20 credit points, building on previous knowledge, deepening a previous specialization, broadening an area of competence, or introducing a complementary perspective, e.g., integrative pre-school, sociology, adult education, international perspectives.


Program organization. Each university or university college in Sweden organizes these three elements in different ways. As a general principle, the structure should be such that students first begin to choose a specialization when they are well into their teacher education program.

For students aiming to specialize in early education, the program could have the following structure:


Semester 1: General Education Studies, 20 credit points

Semester 2: Subject Studies, 20 credit points

Semester 3: Subject Studies, 20 credit points

Semester 4: General Education Studies, 20 credit points

Semester 5: Specialist In-depth Studies, 20 credit points

Semester 6: Specialist In-depth Studies, 20 credit points

Semester 7: General Education Studies, 20 credit points


Within the framework of these three areas, students will be required to produce a dissertation accounting for at least 10 credit points. The belief is that this will help students to reflect systematically on the knowledge they have acquired in relation to their future profession. Furthermore, to prepare students for both the municipal preschool and the compulsory school sector, as well as for work in schools with specific pedagogical and methodological profiles, the new integrated teacher education should include different pedagogical approaches and methods. A new dimension of this teacher education model is that it will give practicing teachers the opportunity to take part in the undergraduate programs as part of their in-service training, and link them to proposed research programs.

Reflection, scientific knowledge, and integration are distinctive features of the new teacher education program, both separately and in combination. Another important aspect is the freedom of choice for the individual student to design his or her own program from a wide selection of elective courses. The program aims to support the students as they become reflective practitioners, and to include training in research methods to enhance their scientific knowledge base. Integration is desired during the general education studies, where students aiming to specialize in different levels of the education system will be given a common shared foundation of knowledge in the theory and practice of teaching.


Evaluation ofthe New Structure: Emerging Issues

Shortly after introduction of the new teacher education program several issues of concern emerged, recently highlighted in an evaluation of all existing teacher education programs throughout Sweden conducted by the National Agency for Higher Education (2005). These concerns include integration, the impact of general education studies, and recruitment issues.


Integration. Integration of teacher preparation across early education, primary education, and secondary education has not been altogether easy to achieve. Previous studies indicate that one of the problems related to integration has to do with the fact that different students seem to have different views of knowledge needs in teacher education, and therefore their investment in the various components of the teacher education program vary distinctly (Beach, 2000).


General education studies. Some students perceive the general education studies to be too general in character, and therefore hard to apply to their prospective teaching profession. Problems are also related to the far-reaching freedom of choice for students throughout the new program. That is, when students shape their own education through course selection, there are distinct implications for recruitment and teacher retention for the early childhood years. Previously, recruitment issues were solved by sorting students ahead of time into various programs aiming at a distinctive sector of the teaching profession (i.e., elementary school teaching or preschool teaching). Now this has become an internal matter for the individual student, who is expected to find his or her own unique path through the education system. The national evaluation indicates that students need much more guidance to insure that they design their education in such a way that they become attractive to prospective employers.


Recruitment and retention. Furthermore, the number of students aiming to become teachers of young children has dropped considerably following the new reforms. There are several possible explanations for this. Students may perceive that the working conditions are better in the compulsory schools, due to more desirable working hours and more planning time. Additionally, salaries and status of teachers working in the compulsory school system might be perceived to be higher. Finally, in the “old” integrated preschool teacher education program, which was well grounded in practice, the students in each teacher education program may have had a better chance to grow and develop a collectively shared teacher identity. In the new structure, developing a teacher identity has become much more of an individual responsibility.

Further Reading: Beach, D. (2000). Continuing problems of teacher education reform, Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research 44 (3); Hogskoleverket. (2005). Utvardering av den nya lararutbildningen vid svenska universitet och hogskolor, del 1-3 [National Agency for Higher Education (2005) Evaluation of the New Teacher Education](Hogskoleverkets rapportserie 2005:17 R); Ministry of Education and Science in Sweden. (1998). Curriculum for pre-school, Lpfo 98. (Stockholm, Fritzes); Swedish National Agency for Education. 2003. Descriptive data on child care, schools, and adult educa- tionin Sweden 2003. Report no. 236; SOU. 1999:63. Attlara och leda. En lararutbildning for samverkan och utveckling. Slutbetankande av lararutbildningskommitten (To lead and to learn. A teacher education for cooperation and development). Stockholm, Ut- bildningsdepartementet.

Maelis Karlsson Lohmander


Play and Learning—An Integrated Wholeness

In this discussion of the dimensions of learning in play and the dimensions of play in learning, we use the playful interaction between children and teachers as a starting point. We want to illustrate and discuss the didactic aspects that can possibly promote, or alternatively prevent, interactions between play and learning dimensions. We begin by briefly describing some characteristics of play and learning, respectively, that are of interest for this study. The starting point for our discussion of the conception of play as well as learning concerns experiencing and creating the meaning of the surrounding world. By using an empirical example of playful interactions between teachers and children, we will try to illustrate what happens between children and teachers in terms of play and learning.

It could be said that play is an important part of children’s lives and their creation of meaning. In play, communication, creation and experiencing of meaning, reciprocity, and a feeling of solidarity between children take place. The worlds children create in play as well as learning are built upon children’s experiences and are created within an interaction and reciprocity, but also involve aspects such as power. It is also conceivable that play challenges creativity and problem solving. In play children can experience their rights, participation, and influence. As children are “forced” to negotiate about play, test the quality of their arguments, and encounter other perspectives, their experiences become visible, both to themselves and to others. In play children learn from each other, and since the children’s age and experiences often vary in the play groups, the learning will be challenged. These differences also give the children opportunities to experiment with, expand, and change their play worlds, and in that way develop new understanding.

Play as well as learning is considered to be a question of making sense of the surrounding world. In this process the idea of “as if” has been strong within play research, but we will point to the fact that the same idea applies to learning. It is in the situations where the child can go beyond the here-and-now situation and experience something else that new learning comes about.

Let us now look at an example from preschool praxis and search for dimensions of learning and play. How do the teachers and the children approach or deal with these dimensions?



This preschool consists of 16 children aged between one and three-and-a-half years. Seven of them have an ethnic background other than Swedish. During the mealtime everyone is gathered in one room, sitting at three tables placed next to each other in a row. It is cramped around the tables, and everyone can see and hear what happens in the room. At this particular lunch there are fifteen children and four teachers at the table.

Suddenly Yani (3yrs., 6 mo.) discovers how the sun is reflecting off his bib, making a pattern in the ceiling. Yani laughs and looks up at the ceiling. He points and says delightedly: “giraffe.” He turns his body back and forth, making the pattern in the ceiling come and go. All the children watch; the teachers laugh. “Look,” says one of the teachers excitedly. Adela (2yrs., 8 mo.), Amir (2yrs., 5 mo.), and Marga (1 yr., 6 mo.) cry out loudly and laugh. “It’s amazing that he saw this. Such fantasy, to see a giraffe,” says the teacher delightedly. “Children, did you see that Yani can do tricks?” she continues. Yani smiles happily and looks proud. “Giraffe,” he repeats. It is lively around the table, the children point excitedly, and both children and teachers laugh.

What we first of all could ask ourselves is whether the situation described above could be defined as play. If we accept the fact that a play situation is characterized by “such as” and fantasy as our starting point, it becomes obvious that both these aspects are involved. The sun reflection in the ceiling represents something, and to the participants it looks like a giraffe. The play allows the discovery of this reflection to be something else. Also excitement seems to be involved, which we can see in the eagerness and the liveliness expressed by everyone around the table. Something unexpected has happened that everyone takes an active interest in. For a moment time stops and everyone follows the reflections in the ceiling. A common creation of meaning seems to become possible.

We can also see how the teacher gets involved in the children’s play. Spontaneously the boy’s curiosity and experiencing are being utilized. Jointly everyone takes some time to examine the boy’s discovery and the children and the teachers share the joy. In spite of all this happening during mealtime, which makes the situation somewhat confused, free scope is given to the occasion and all children are allowed to be involved. Most of all it seems that it is the joy of discovery that is made apparent in this situation. One single child’s discovery becomes a collective act in which all participate and direct their attention toward the pattern on the ceiling created by the bib. The teachers show their appreciation of the boy’s discovery. They focus on his interest and encourage his initiative as well as the meaning he gives to the reflection on the ceiling. When he happily exclaims that it is a giraffe, the teachers share his joy and the other children are invited to take part in the joyful discovery. The teachers name his discovery and confirm his competence. It’s amazing that he saw this. What a fantasy. They also point out to the other children that Yani can create something, Yani can do tricks. The situation could be interpreted as a moment of play, containing spontaneity, joy, social interaction, and symbolism, in which the process of interplay is important. We could, perhaps, say that there is a common ownership of the play.

We can also look upon the situation as a joyful process of learning. The children are encouraged to observe, discover, and imagine. Probably children’s taken-for- granted way of experiencing the world is affected; they become fascinated and their interest is directed toward the reflection in the ceiling. The children become occupied by the pattern in the ceiling, and their joy is evident. The children’s consciousness (and life world) focuses on an advanced phenomenon in their surrounding world. The sun’s reflection is discerned as a pattern, which forms a picture and represents a symbol for something else in the world. The situation also takes place beyond here and now. Starting out from the actual situation at the dining table, both the children’s and the teachers’ interest is moved and becomes focused on the picture in the ceiling and its movements. Furthermore, the situation consists of communication, experiencing, and giving meaning. The teachers and the children identify the occurred phenomenon and give it a meaning. Regardless of what this meaning might be and what occurs to the individual child, we believe that the occasion has potential for learning, which is also full of joy and reciprocity. The teacher has an active role in her permissive and open attitude and the way of encouraging and sharing focus of interest with the children.



The example we have been analyzing is a common situation in the world of the preschool. Let us start with what children spontaneously, or with the aid of teachers, direct their attention toward in this observation. We notice that the children are striving for an understanding of different phenomena in their own world. It is the child himself who spontaneously experiences and creates meaning by discovering the reflection in the ceiling. In this observation, it is through the child’s initiative that the teachers and the other children notice the reflection of the sun. The child’s attention is captured by, and becomes absorbed by, a phenomenon in the surrounding world. The child is permitted to stay in his experience and the teachers and the other children, sharing his joy, join him in his experiencing. The teachers contribute to the mutual experience, both by sharing it and by naming it. In this situation we find that play and learning are integrated. The children experience something new, which they create in the situation. They go beyond what they normally do at the dining table—have a meal, and they are permitted to be playful and to fantasize. There is something beyond here and now—a “such as.”

In our example, the act of play and learning is to follow the child, and encouragement, imitation, and communication become prominent in the situation. What we have tried to illustrate with this observation is the importance of the adult when it comes to the development of a situation of interplay, and how this situation will appear to the children. We claim that teachers integrate play and learning, both in spontaneous situations and in situations in which the teacher might have taken the initiative.

Further Reading: Johansson, E. (1999). Etik i sma barns varld. Om varden och normer bland de yngsta barnen i fOrskolan (Ethics in the small child’s world. Of caring and norms among the youngest children in preschool). Goteborg Studies in Educational Sciences, nr 141. Goteborg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis; Johansson, E. (2003). Moten for larande. Pedagogisk verksamhetfor de yngsta barnen i forskolan (Meeting for learning, qualityfor the youngest in early childhood education). Stockholm: Skolver- ket; Piaget, J. (1962). Play, dreams and imagination in childhood. New York: W. W. Norton; Pramling Samuelsson, I., and Asplund Carlsson, M. (2003). Det lekande larande barnet- i en utvecklingspedagogisk teori (The playing learning child—A developmental pedagogical theory). Stockholm: Liber; Williams, P. (2001). Barns lar av varandra. Samlarande i forskola och skola (Children learn from one another—Cooperative learning in preschool and school). Goteborg Studies in Educational Sciences, nr 163. Goteborg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis; Williams, P., Sheridan, S., and Pramling Samuelsson, I. (2001). Barns samlarande—en forskningsoversikt (Children’s cooperative learning— Research review). Stockholm: Fritzes. Studies in Educat

Eva Johansson and Ingrid Pramling Samuelsson


Early Childhood Literacy in Sweden


During the 1990s, the Swedish Early Childhood Education and Care system changed from being more of a concern of family policy to being more a part of educational policy. This was manifested in the shift in government responsibilities from the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs to the Ministry of Education and Science, and in the presentation of the first national curriculum for preschools, which came into effect in 1998. There are also changes in society at large connected with communications technology, with home PCs, the Internet, and being able to send text messages via mobile phones. The discussion here will focus mainly on the intersection between preschool and school. Do these institutions share the same view of literacy, play, and the importance of learning, and of the use of digital learning environments as tools for playing and learning? By the concept early childhood literacy, we mean various creative ways of using the written language, corresponding to the concepts “broader textual concept” and “multimodality.”

Our point of departure is that every child learns to read and write in his or her own way, depending on the child’s opportunities, experiences, interests, the circumstances in which the child is involved, and the people with whom he or she is interacting. What you learn depends on the context. The historical and cultural context to which you belong determines the value of different types of competences. In the Western culture, formal linguistic writing and reading skills are highly valued, and considered essential competences. Expressing oneself in writing is a cultural activity, which develops as a result of the human need to communicate and keep records. Written language and written communication are in a period of change; their tools have changed in recent years with the advent of virtual and digital environments. New concepts are being used, such as a broader concept of language including other forms of expression than the verbal one, for instance, the language of music, art, and movement. One also speaks of multimodality as a broader textual concept, meaning that several ways of expressing and addressing, apart from text, are used in communication.


Theoretical Framework

Our didactic starting point, that children’s learning should be understood from the perspective of the learner, has its roots in a phenomenographical and variation theory perspective. The phenomenographical research approach addresses questions that influence learning and understanding in a pedagogical environment. The learner’s perspective is in focus. Researchers Marton and Booth describe the world as constituted as an internal relation between the learner and the environment. Individuals experience the world in different ways, and this affects their behavior in different situations. If you wish to understand how an individual handles a situation or a problem, you also have to understand how she/he experiences the situation or problem. Then some of the conditions of learning that are connected with the development of certain capacities will become apparent.

On the basis of many years of phenomenographical research, in which the learner’s perspective has been central, Pramling Samuelsson and Asplund Carlsson have developed ideas leading to a theory of learning in the context of preschool—a developmental pedagogical approach. The theory has evolved in close collaboration with preschool teachers in different research projects. This theory states that playing and learning are inseparable in the world of the child. Children’s interests and experiences cross the boundaries between subject areas. The teacher is challenged to direct the child’s attention and interest to the learning object in a way that creates meaning for the child.

The sociocultural perspective also serves as an important theoretical base in understanding children’s literacy, since we believe that becoming a literate person is learning to express oneself in writing as a communicative process and in the light of social and cultural conditions for children’s knowledge and learning.

According to Lev Vygotsky, language and written language are the primary tools for learning. He writes about the external and internal functions of language. The external function is communicative, and the internal one is a tool for thinking. Written language has the same function as verbal language, but its external function is more concrete and observable. Its internal function is a tool for reflection and learning at a metacognitive level.

Kress states that children as well as adults create their own language and their own symbols on the basis of their own experiences and previous knowledge— quite contrary to many other theories and traditions in which man is seen as a user of an accepted language, signs, and symbols. Kress also claims that speech and writing are a form of communication designed to be maximally intelligible to the participants in a communicative situation. In an initial phase, children’s early writing can only be understood by themselves.

For teachers in preschools and schools to be able to encourage, react to, and contribute to developing early childhood literacy, it is of vital importance for them to understand how children can learn to read and write and what role the teacher has in the development of early childhood literacy. Research is showing that children adopt an approach to learning to write at an early stage, and that this tends to be stable.

But because of different traditions and educational backgrounds, teachers in preschools and schools might not have a common approach to children’s learning to write. The process might be interrupted when children move up from preschool to school. Here they might not meet teachers who will continue to support the learning process started in the preschool. The writing and reading process that take place in the classroom might not proceed from the perspective of the participant, and learning might not be seen as a communicative and social process in which the children could take part and construct their own knowledge and understanding of expressing themselves in writing. If the teachers and the children are approaching the learning object in different ways, this might affect both children’s learning and their future. Two characteristic text environments have been identified in the process of recent research—the narrative one and the passive one. The following three criteria stand out in the narrative text environment:

• A message is communicated;

• Communication is clearly related to children’s experiences and the contexts in which they are involved.

• Communication linked to literacy learning is used in a natural way in daily interaction.

In a passive text environment, one or more of these criteria are missing, and the form of the written language is more prominent than the communicative aspects. Methods and material are mixed, but there is no obvious communication or interaction between the text, the children, and the teachers.

From the results of the latest Swedish studies on children’s literacy learning, we might conclude the following:

• Children establish an understanding and an approach to literacy learning at an early age, and that this tends to be stable.

• In preschool and school there are traditions and things that are taken for granted with regard to children’s literacy learning that should be rethought in order to realize the goals of the curricula.

• If preschool and school fail to collaborate and if the teacher does not take the perspective of the learner/child in learning to express themselves in writing, the individual child will be affected negatively.

• It is a challenge for teachers in preschool to create an environment that stimulates early childhood literacy, an environment with rich opportunities for functional literacy.

• It should be possible to utilize and develop the multi-modal opportunities, such as pictures, colors, shapes, design, etc., that have been a tradition in preschool.

The results of our own research demonstrate the importance of the adults collaborating with the children in a literate environment. One of the most important development areas that we can observe in our studies is that, when encountering children, the teacher in preschool should draw their attention to the learning objects identified in the preschool curriculum. To collaborate with children in this way there must be a special emphasis on developing the particular competencies involved. This competence development could be built into the organization, using the approach exemplified by “practice-close” research, where the teacher trainer and the practicing teacher work together in the classroom to strengthen the teacher’s capacity to “take the perspective of the learner.”

Learning to write and using a written language are complex processes that take place in complex contexts. Researchers and practitioners are abandoning the view that learning to write is a formal skill that the child acquires through instruction and practice. The written language experienced by children is changing all the time; what applies to one generation does not apply in the same way to their children and grandchildren. This makes it difficult for the one who is guiding children in the world of the written word. You have to take the child as your starting point—not your own childhood, but the child you are facing here and now.

From recent research we know that there is a considerable variation in how and what children think about learning to write and why they are good at writing, a variation in what they actually do. The role of the teacher and the environmental conditions then become important to analyze, that is, how the teacher in preschool arranges the textual environment. Observations indicate that the ability to interact in such an environment and with the preschool child that has not yet developed any understanding of the alphabetical system varies among teachers. The communicative function of written language as a learning object is a challenge for the teachers in preschool, as it requires an insight that they themselves lost when they acquired the skill of handling written language as a communicative system. Adopting the perspective of the learner in this area is a great challenge, but it is precisely what is needed when assisting a small child to become a person who can read and write.

Further Reading: Gustafsson, K., and E. Mellgren (2005). Barns skriftsprakande—attbli en skrivande och lasandeperson (Early childhood literacy: Becoming literate). Goteborg Studies in Educational Sciences 227. Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis; Gustafsson, K., and E. Mellgren (2002). Using Text in Pre-school—A Learning Environment. Early Child Development and Care 172(6), 603-624; Kress, G. (1997). Before writing. Rethinking the paths to literacy. London: Routledge; Kress, G., and T. Van Leeuven (2001). Multimodal discourse. The modes and media of contemporary communication. London: Arnold; Marton, F., and S. Booth (2000). Om larande. (On learning) Lund: Studentlitteratur; Myndigheten for Skolutveckling. (2004). Early Effective Learning—Effetivt larande i de yngre aldrarna—Om attforbattra kvaliteten ipedagogisk verksamhetforyngre barn. Available online at www.skolutveckling.se 2004 09 30; Pramling Samuelsson, I., and M. Asplund Carlsson (2003). Detlekande larande barnet—i en utvecklingspedagogisk teori. Stockholm: Liber; Utbildningsdepartementet (1998). Laroplan for forskolan. Stockholm: Fritzes.

Karin Gustafsson and Elisabeth Mellgren


Ethics and Morality in the Swedish Preschool

One important aim in Swedish preschool is to encourage children to develop moral standards. Children are to learn to respect others’ integrity, to help others in need, and to understand one another’s feelings. The study described below is presented to illustrate present discussions, positions, and reflections on social, moral, and ethical development in Swedish early childhood education and care. Its aim was to investigate young children’s experiences of values and norms concerning treatment of and behavior toward each other in every day life in the context of preschool.


Theoretical Background

The theoretical basis for the study is the concept of lifeworld. The lifeworld is related to a perceiving subject, a subject that experiences, lives, and acts upon the world. The child creates meaning and is able to understand other people through its bodily being in the world. Thus we can understand that the child experiences and expresses morals through her/his body.

In international research, we find three main traditions for moral research: cognitive, emotional, and cultural. However, none of these traditions are internally homogeneous; they emphasize different aspects of children’s morality and deal with different research questions.

The cultural interactive approach regards the interconnections among individual, contextual, and cultural aspects as the base from which morality develops. It also stresses that the child is active in interpreting and giving meaning to the world. Children, individually and with others, give their morality a specific character, shape, and meaning. This tradition lays closest to this investigation.


The Study

Nineteen children, ten boys and nine girls, one to three years of age, participated in the study. The children were part of a day-care group, in a small Swedish town. The daily interaction between the children was observed and video recorded for three days a week during a period of seven months. The analyses aimed to interpret and describe meanings from the children’s perspective as expressed in their actions: What ethical values do children experience and express through their interaction? What norms do the children express and value? Values are positive or negative qualities (good or evil) that children express and experience in their own and in other children’s behavior, acts, and attitudes. Norms refer to rules for behavior that children may express in their interaction.



Two directions in the children’s lived morality emerged from the data. The children defended and valued their rights and cared for others’ well-being.


Rights. The children defended their rights to things and to share worlds with peers. They appeared to experience a type of compulsive attraction to things and thus experienced what is here called a right to things. Even from the youngest child’s point of view, the children seemed to take for granted that things in preschool were waiting for them, for their inquiry. They protected their right to explore and play with things. But this self-evident relation to things was challenged by other children’s demands for the same things. The children realized that things can be captured and held and as a consequence become another child’s privilege. Thus the children saw that their rights must be justified. They developed norms that described how to act and what conditions gave rights. The norms concerned control, time, and power. These norms were relative to the situation and to each child’s interpretation. Usually the child with control, whether through playing with the thing or keeping it in sight, had a right to it. In other words when the children experienced that things were under their control, they claimed their right to them. Time was also an important factor. The child that had had first control of the thing had the right to it. Thus previous control was a justification for maintaining the right to the things. Sometimes, however, power was an effective way to defend and gain the right to things. The strongest child often gained such rights.

The right to things also gave power, that is, the right to decide about conditions for using things, what to do, and with whom to play. In addition, the children defended their rights to things in different ways according to which other children were involved. This suggests that children made inferences from previous experiences with other children in similar situations. The children developed a “tacit understanding” for moral rules between themselves and others.

The children expanded their experience of their self-evident right to things and they connected this right even to others. This does not mean that the other child’s wishes were always satisfied or that one’s own right was reduced. On the contrary, it seemed that a condition for the children to defend another’s rights was that they did not experience that their own rights were questioned. When the children shared worlds, the right to things sometimes became shared. A further step in the expansion of the children’s rights was the experience that things can be shared equally. The children came to value justice, they compromised, and offered compensations to each other, and showed that they had an idea of equality.

The right to share worlds concerned shared meanings and activity and developed from projects that children created together. When others made claims to these projects, the value of shared worlds became evident. The children defended their worlds and took for granted their right to decide about them. They expected other children to respect this right. Other children might be permitted to join but the right to decide this belonged to those children who started the project. Just as power is a way to get the right to things, it can also help children win the right to a shared world.

Participating in a shared world gave children added strength. In addition the children created hierarchical structures that could influence the right to share worlds. In this regard, to be alike was important. This likeness was based upon size, age, and interests. Children also preferred to create worlds with children whom they defined as playmates and those with more influence.


The well-being of others. The value of others’ well-being was expressed in two ways: caring and not harming others. Care for others was shown when children tried to do what was good for others and contribute to their well-being. They helped others, created situations of pleasure for them, and gave them advice. This behavior was more usual toward children that were smaller and younger, but was also sometimes expressed to those of the same age whose need for assistance was clear. The children seemed to find smaller children vulnerable. Toward younger children, good actions were embodied in the entire manner of behaving. Children used cautious gestures. Their acts were careful and gentle. But the results also showed that children seemed to claim that adults had the prime responsibility for the well-being of others. The children often looked for adults in such situations and asked them for help.

The value of not harming others means that the children tried to stop actions that harmed others or blamed the children doing them. They supported others when they found that they needed comfort, defense, or protection. Children were sensitive to others’ pain, sadness, and anger, and tried to comfort them.

They gave physical and psychological support. The children also showed that they were concerned for others’ well-being by explaining and making excuses for their own acts, and by referring to the norm of not harming others. The fact that children alternated between strategies of kindness and of harm could also be an indication of the fact that they knew or had a vague idea that the harmful acts violated the value of not harming others.



In the study just described, two features were found to be of importance in children’s morality in preschool: a commitment to their rights and a responsiveness for others’ well-being. The values of rights to things and to share worlds with others are interpreted as existential, as children’s way of being. First, things talk to children and inspire them to act. Children in this study were engaged with things seriously, with joy, and with curiosity. They were absorbed by things and took them for granted, as if the things were there for them, to be explored and examined. Second, another way for children to exist was by creating worlds with others. These worlds consisted of common meaning and shared activities. They were physical and psychological, inspired by the room and the things in it, but could reach far away in time and space.

Children are compelled to explore things and to share their worlds. When someone threatens or stops a child’s inquiry about things or their shared worlds, this also threatens their very existence. The children expressed anger, sadness, and a feeling of being wronged when this happened. Out of this emerges an existential and lived ethical value of rights. This way of describing children’s rights differs from previous research. Previous researchers mainly described this phenomenon in terms of children’s defense of possessions, ownership, space, or interactive space. Even though conflicts over toys are well documented in research, this is mainly discussed as children’s capacity to share and as a beginning of their emerging sense of justice.

The right to things and to share worlds with others is intertwined with life in preschool. In preschool things have a prominent place. Things are chosen and arranged to inspire children to play and to learn. Life in preschool is also built upon a feeling of community. For every child it is of existential importance to be a part of the common life with peers, to have friends to play with. This is something that children are confronted with every day.

Another part of children’s morality is their interest in the value of others’ wellbeing. They care for and defend others. The value of others’ well-being actualizes a concept of “responsiveness” developed by Blum (1994). Responsiveness means that children are touched by other children’s predicaments and try to do something to change the situation for them. In addition, when caring for others they sometimes show a concern for the other child’s reactions. The children carefully look for the other’s response and can change their own behavior in accordance with the other’s experiences.

The value of others’ well-being has an existential character. Since children are parts of each other’s lives, they are concerned with each other’s well-being. However, while the value does have existential character it differs from the value of rights. The value of others’ well-being demands a focus upon the other. In this way it makes a greater demand on the child. This value becomes visible when children defend their rights, share worlds with others, and investigate the boundaries for other children’s integrity. The discovery of others’ well-being seems to be related to others’ reactions, helplessness, vulnerability, and physical closeness.

Even if children’s ethics cannot be separated from their lifeworlds and the grown ups included there, still they show that they discover values in their own relations with other children. In their life in preschool, things and friends are parts of their lifeworld and thereby highly valued. Out of these concrete relationships emerge values of rights and others’ well-being.

Further Reading: Blum, L. A. (1994). Moral perception and particularity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Johansson, E. (1999). Etik i sma barns varld. Om varden och normer bland de yngsta barnen i forskolan (Ethics in small children’s worlds. Values and norms among the youngest children in preschool). (Goteborg Studies in Educational Sciences, no 141). Gothenburg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, pp. 296; Johansson E. (in press). Children’s morality—Perspectives and research. In B. Spodek and O. Sarachov, eds. Handbook on the education of young children. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates; Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). Phenomenology of perception (C. Smith, trans.). New York, London: Routledge; Utbildningsdepartementet. (1998). Laroplan for forskolan. (curriculum for the preschool). Stockholm: Fritzes.

Eva Johansson