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10/05/2015 03:36 pm ET Updated Oct 05, 2015

Finnish Kids Don't Learn To Read In Kindergarten. They Turn Out Great Anyway.

Schools in the Nordic country prioritize play in early education.
Maskot via Getty Images

In America, kindergarteners are expected to have a firm grasp on literacy. This is not the case in Finland, where students focus on playtime early in their education and go on to excel in reading anyway.

As Helsinki-based teacher and writer Tim Walker explores in a new story published this week by The Atlantic, Finnish schools -- where students begin “preschool” at age 6 -- prioritize play-based learning opportunities such as arts and crafts over desk work like handwriting and reading early in a student's education. In two examples Walker offers, educators set up a make-believe ice cream shop and encourage students to make play forts.

“Play is a very efficient way of learning for children,” Arja-Sisko Holappa of the Finnish National Board of Education explained to Walker. “And we can use it in a way that children will learn with joy.”

The early focus on playtime doesn't seem to hold students back when it comes to literacy later in their education. According to a Stanford University analysis, Finland is one of the world’s most literate societies, with 94 percent of those who begin upper secondary school -- a three- to four-year program students enroll in at the age of 16 or 17 -- graduating. Based on Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test results and graduation rates, the nation’s school system is ranked among the world’s five best

That is not to say that reading is banned from Finland’s preschools. Teachers can teach reading if they determine it's appropriate after meeting with each student’s parents to create a custom learning plan.

While Walker points out that Finland does have some advantages -- such as one of the world's lowest child poverty rates -- that could make it difficult for its early-education success to be replicated elsewhere, he also references research studies that argue there is no long-term benefit to kindergarteners being taught to read so early.

In his work for The Atlantic and his blog, Taught By Finland, Walker has been examining the differences between Finnish schools and schools back in the U.S., where he has previously taught, over the past two years. In January, Walker reported on a promising Finnish physical-activity initiative. In another story last year, he dug into the Finnish practice of giving students and teachers alike 15-minute hourly breaks to socialize and play.

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