Learning Through Play—First year in a Swedish School

Necessary disclaimer: I understand and acknowledge that not every school in Sweden does things the same way. This is simply a little peek into what we have experienced.

“What does your typical school day look like? What do you do?” I asked my six-year-old son.

He took me over to the whiteboard where laminated words with pictures were arranged in descending order.

“First, we have frilek, then samling, then språklekthen rast, then matleklunch, and then fritids.”

I noted that all of the activities (except for snack and lunch time) had the word “lek” tacked onto the end, meaning “play.” Everything my 6-7 year old has done during his first year of “real school” is based in play.


Frilek—Free play

Free play, language play, math play, free time—my son’s school day seemed like a fun time—not much compared to what I experienced as a kindergartener in the US.

I remember a classroom of 25 kids, a round rug, a wooden log cabin for us to play in, and plastic alphabet balloon people that my teacher hung across a string in the room as we learned about each letter. There was a lot of play, but there was also a lot of sitting and being quiet.

My son’s Swedish classroom, on the other hand, isn’t one room at all.

Multiple rooms in each classroom

My son can roam between a collection of five rooms connected by a hallway where they hang their backpacks. There are three bathrooms and three sinks to share among three teachers, and 22 kids.

There are two large rooms approximately the same size as my one US-kindergarten classroom, with tables and chairs for the kids to sit and play board games, write, or draw. In the corner of one of the rooms, there is a couch and a large bookshelf where the kids will often sit and read silently.

There’s an art room and two play rooms with various toys—dolls, dress-up clothes, cash registers and plastic food, Lego (of course), wooden blocks, and plastic figures.

I checked out Class 1, where he is headed in August, and their classroom is slightly more formal but they have shared common areas to play in during friltids—free play (or recess as we know it). 

Kindergarten vs. Preschool

If you haven’t read my interview between a Swedish preschool teacher and an American kindergarten teacher, then be sure to read it here. The similarities were more surprising than the differences, in my opinion.

My son has “active” learning from 8 am – 11:30 am, then lunch followed by fritids/recess. We pay extra for fritids–the equivalent of $50/month—and this covers the fritids’ staff time before and after official school hours.

He also has another snack provided by the school at 2:30 pm and I can pick him up anytime before 5 pm.

Compared to paying ~$50/month for my son’s fritids activities, my four-year-old daughter’s full-time preschool/daycare fees are around $118/month.

If we want to compare with what we paid when we lived in Atlanta, GA USA…well, let’s just say there is a huge savings happening here. We used to pay ~$1800/month for childcare for our son.

Granted, parsing out the true costs of Swedish preschool and schools are difficult because so much of it is supplemented by our taxes. We pay for it one way or another but the out of pocket costs feel lower than when we lived in the US.

Outdoor play

While they learn math, language, reading, and socialization through play, there is also a ton of outdoor play throughout the day for kids during their first year at the “big school.”

This can be somewhat overwhelming for them at first. Our school opens out to the forest, which is great for exploring, but was intimidating to my six-year-old who had never been in a school that didn’t have a fence and a gate to prevent runaways.

“There’s no fence, Mama! We could go anywhere!” my son said as he cowered into my legs during the first drop-off.

The teachers explained the rules and where the kids could and couldn’t go during fritids and the kids figured it out. They could slide down the boulders but couldn’t climb the trees. They could explore the forest but not venture past a certain point unless a teacher was with them.

During pick-up in the warmer months, it can take a few minutes to locate your kid as the school grounds are swarming with kids, playing innebandy, table tennis, jumping through the sprinkler, and jumping rope.

Fortunately, the kids act as spies for one another and will alert your child that, “Hey! [Name], your Mama (or Papa) is here to pick you up!” 

Many times, my son has appeared out of the woods, seemingly from nowhere, running at me full speed. 

Hot lunches, get your hot lunches!

As a parent, it’s my job to pack a nut-free healthy snack for my child but I don’t have to pack a lunch. Hot lunches are provided by the school and they are pretty good (I’ve eaten a few myself when visiting).

My kids will eat whatever food is at school–chicken curry and rice, blood pudding, tomato soup, etc.,—and yet, they still refuse to eat our usual dinners at home. Hmmm…

As a bonafide lazy parent, I’m really loving the fact that I don’t have to remember to pack a lunch every day. Our tax dollars are hard at work and I love that every child is fed.

It breaks my heart to read stories in the news about how a school employee was fired for purchasing lunch for a student who didn’t have one. No child can learn when they are hungry.

No school buses

The kids don’t arrive in school buses unless they have special needs, so there is a flood of parents walking, biking, and driving their kids to school every morning and picking them up every afternoon. The older kids bike or take the public bus by themselves.

I really enjoy dropping my son off every day because it gives me an opportunity to chat a bit with his teachers and touch base face-to-face.

Many kids end up biking home or taking the public bus by themselves at a young age (8-10 years) due to this system. 

We have official parent-teacher meetings twice a year where we chat about goals, progress, and updates. I receive weekly updates via email from the teachers about what the kids did that week and can read about any upcoming activities.


How many teachers?

In US schools, there is generally one teacher at each grade K-12. There might be a student teacher who is helping out for part of the time or an extra aide for students with special needs, but generally there is one teacher running the show.

In Swedish preschools/daycares, there can be 3-4 teachers in the classroom. In my son’s F-class, there were 3 teachers for 25 students. What a ratio! 

I was both surprised and relieved that he had so many teachers giving him the attention and instruction he would need throughout the day. It made for an easier transition from preschool because the ratio was the same.

Now that he is moving onto first grade, one of those teachers will follow him. One thing that I hadn’t realized before was that the entire class moves together. All of this friends will also be in Year 1B, then Year 2B, 3B, and so on. 

I don’t know if the same teacher will follow him until  Year 3, but it has been known to happen. Having one teacher know your progress from F-class to Year 3 provides a unique institutional memory for each student.

This type of system can have pros and cons, of course. If you have a great class of kids and the dynamics are right, then it’s a pro. If you have troublemakers in your class, then you’re stuck with them for the next few years unless you (or they) change schools.

Pack a towel for gym class

One of the biggest differences we discovered in our Swedish school was that the kids were expected to shower after gym class. It makes sense—clean up after you are sweaty—but it wasn’t ever something I thought about when I went to elementary school and I didn’t expect my six-year-old to shower after gym class.


Another day, a new kid comes home with us

I’ve spoken before about how the firstborn child plows the way for parents and pushes them into unchartered territories. Nothing feels more true than figuring out the cultural expectations of both kids and parents in a foreign school. Many days, I arrive for pick-up and am completely surprised about what is expected of me. 

“Mama, mama, can Alma come home to us? Please, please!” My son bombards me with last-minute requests for a friend to come home for a play date from school.

“Who am I taking home today? Alma? Alva? Elvira? Do I SMS their parents first? Do I call directly? Should I speak in Swedish or English or a blend? Does it matter? Do you have any allergies? Can I feed you dinner? What time can your mom pick you up?” All of these questions require answers before I can leave school with a stranger’s kid.

It’s taken a lot of trial and error to figure out that no, we need to plan these things out at least one day in advance. The last-minute take-home-a-stranger arrangement is slightly stressful.

Not all Swedish schools are the same

Just like in the US, one cannot make sweeping generalizations about schools or education systems because they differ so much by county, state, etc., The same is true for Sweden.

Our specific school does things differently than the schools around it within the same kommun because of the teachers and the school’s physical characteristics.

For example, our school hosts the annual lådbilstävling every year, which is a soapbox car race between kids in Year 4 in the 10 schools in our district.

It’s a ton of fun to watch and I can’t wait for our kids to get to that age for them to try their hand at a bit of soapbox car engineering. 


When school is officially over for the year, there is a skolavslutning which usually involves a huge all-school gathering, singing, fika, and official goodbyes even though kids can still come back for fritids (most parents are still working in June.)

Skolavslutning can be an emotional time as any chapter is when it closes and skolavslutning traditions differ by school.

Our son’s school had an all-school assembly outside where each grade level sang a song. The older kids in Years 4-6 wrote their own lyrics to popular Swedish pop songs with teachers accompanying them with a keyboard, guitar, and bass. The whole production was very sweet and each song sort of drifted off into a mumbled mess, but it was nice.


Different kids need different approaches

My son has grown so much during this first year and he has responded well to “learning through play.” In the beginning of the school year, he couldn’t write his name (he was six) and now, he can write full sentences.

He had always resisted sitting down to learn how to write but the school’s approach of making school a fun place to be, rather than drilling it into him, worked well with his personality. 

Could he have done well in a different setting? One with more structure and less play? Possibly. Who knows? But I think that the relaxed atmosphere of the classroom that had three teachers giving him attention, was extremely beneficial.

Onto Year 1

Next year, our son will sit in hemspråk classes in English for one hour a week. The anticipated homework load should be quite light—read one chapter a week and answer a few questions type thing.

I’ve heard from parents with kids in Year 1 that if your child is an avid reader, they will be bored at the slow pace of the class. Our son loves being read to but he doesn’t know how to read, so I think the pace will be perfect for him.

I very much feel that I am learning the ropes of the Swedish school system with our first child. He must bear the brunt of all of my ignorant mistakes like forgetting to pack a towel on Fridays for his after gym class shower, but he’ll also reap the benefits of me simply not knowing how certain things are done, like coercing me into taking him friends every day after school because “that’s what everyone does, Mama.”

In short…to be continued…

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