No matter where you are in a Swedish town or village, you never seem to be far from a preschool. Preschool is seen by most parents as a natural part of their child’s upbringing. Today about 80 percent of one- to five-year-olds attend preschool, if only for a few hours a day. This is high by international standards.
At preschool the emphasis is on play. In many countries, including the US and the UK, there is a drive towards setting goals and assessing the progress of preschoolers but the Swedish system focuses more on basic values such as playing together, tolerance and consideration for others.
Children play outside at every opportunity. Even in the depths of winter they are bundled into one-piece overalls, hats and gloves and taken outside. To the surprise of many foreign-born parents, smaller children will often have their midday nap outside on all but the coldest days. So-called outdoor pre-schools, where the children are outside almost exclusively, regardless of the weather, are also popular.
Sweden's maximum-fee policy makes childcare affordable for everyone. Fees are calculated according to income with low-income families paying nothing while the costs for more affluent parents are capped at SEK 1,260 (about €140) per month. The policy states that parents should only have to spend one to three percent of the family's income on childcare, depending on how many children they have. This means childcare costs in Sweden are a fraction of those in other nations.
When Swedish pre-schools got their first curriculum in 1998 one clear goal was to bolster gender equality. The idea is to allow each child to develop into an individual, free from the different expectations and demands society has traditionally placed on girls and boys. While men make up about five percent of carers working day care in Swedish, this is still a higher proportion than in many other countries.
A blue cup for her and a pink cup for him — does that sound weird? Not for Swedish children. Gender pedagogy at pre-school level puts everyone on an equal footing.