More about the first grade in Switzerland

September 26th, 2011

I’ve talked a little bit about the Swiss schools here – in which I describe – and here – in which I complain – and today I’d like to balance out the complaining a bit with some of what I see as the positive aspects of the Swiss schools. First and foremost, it seems to me that the Swiss schools respect the fact that Kindergarteners and first graders are still very much children and have the developmental needs of children: they need to move; they need to play; they need unscheduled blocks of time to follow their own interests; they need to learn a great many social skills. Swiss Kindergarten, especially, provides this. There are almost no “academics” in Kindergarten, especially not in the first year. The focus instead is on socialization: for many kids, Kindergarten is the first time they are away from home every day. Kindergarteners learn how to play with other kids, how to take instruction from teachers and not just parents, how to deal with the rough-and-tumble of being out in the world: negotiating for toys and books, deciding what game to play and with whom, agreeing to rules, figuring out your place in the world and how to hold your own. Small Boy’s Kindergarten play was pretty physical: his first year, especially, there was a lot of rough-housing of the kind that would send him home with grass-stained pants, and the teachers tolerated a lot of this, letting the children figure out how to set their limits and only stepped in if things started to get out of hand. I got the sense that the kids were given a fair amount of time and space to figure out how to settle their own differences, which is a life skill if ever their was one, and on the whole I appreciate this pretty straight forward approach.

And if you think about it, if you really sit down and think about all the new social skills a Kindergartener has to learn, it’s a lot. It’s hard for a kid to come into a classroom and play nice with all the other kids: first they have to learn what the teacher considers “play nice” to be and then they have to learn how to do it. They have to learn to sit still and listen and share and play games they don’t enjoy and be in the same room with people they might not like and negotiate rules and consequences and who’s friends with whom. I think we forget, or fail to appreciate, how hard that all is for kids, and how much of their brain is engaged by that kind of learning in school. And how important it is. Now imagine adding actual school work on top of it. It’s a lot to ask, and it sound to me like US Kindergarten is asking an awful lot of little kids all at once. And because there is actual academic work to be done, kids have less time to practice and learn the social skills and kids who need time to figure it all out are labeled “discipline problems” because the teachers don’t have the time to let the kids have time to just go on the playground every day and figure it all out.

The first grade in Switzerland gets more serious than Kindergarten, in that there are now actual academics with homework and tests, but the kids still have recess every day and go wild on the playground – again, the green pants – and have gym class three times a week. Although the kids are learning now to sit still and listen to the teacher and there are consequences for too much goofing around – the dreaded thunder clouds – the system acknowledges the fact that six and seven year old kids still need to burn off a lot of kinetic energy. I appreciate that. As the mother of a very kinetic child, I really appreciate that. ¬†As for the hours, which compared to a US school day are limited indeed, I can see some benefits to that as well – the kids have a lot of time in the afternoons to play and screw around and just be kids. And especially in the first grade, I highly doubt the Small Boy is falling behind in any serious way by not being in school longer – there is only so much a small person needs to learn, after all, and I know a fair number of homeschooling parents who report that at every grade level they teach their kids what they need to know to meet state standards in half the time a public school day takes. He’s learning to read and write and count and add and carve a Fischertucan out of wood. I’m not worried about the content of his days.

No set up is going to be perfect, and no set of hours is going to satisfy the needs of all the different families that use a school system, and everybody is going to find something to complain about, but if I look at the Swiss school day purely from the point of view of my first-grader – if there were no demands to satisfy other than those of the first-graders themselves – it looks like a pretty good day.