What does kindergarten teach our children?

Professor Lasse Lipponen’s research group is taking empathy research from Helsinki to Singapore.

A thin layer of snow is on the ground in the yard of the kindergarten. There’s not much, but it’s enough to get the children excited about playing outside. They climb on low mounds of snow and dig around with shovels.

A three-year-old boy has taken over one of the mounds. A girl wants to join him, but is rebuked. The girl asks why she can’t play with him.

 “Because you’re a dirty pig,” states the defiant boy.

Saddened by the harsh reply, the girl goes to the kindergarten teacher who is watching the children in the yard. The teacher is busy comforting a crying girl who is missing her mother.

A little later, the teacher comes over to handle the situation. The lord of the mound sticks to his guns and refuses to let the girl play with him.

 “Well why don’t you go play on the mound over there,” the teacher finally suggests to the girl.

Another adult has been monitoring events, but won’t intervene, and is not expected to. Marika Ansamaa just jots down some notes in her journal and keeps watching.

Ansamaa will later go through the events with Kiira Salme and Antti Rajala (@AnttiRajala) at their lunch meeting. Ansamaa and Salmi are working on their Master’s theses, and Rajala is the postdoctoral researcher supervising them. Lasse Lipponen, professor of early education, is also seated at the table.

Ansamaa is mulling over the little girl who was disappointed in the yard.

 “I don’t know if she got the compassion she was looking for.”

How can compassion be fostered?

Ansamaa, Salmi and Rajala are monitoring manifestations of compassion and acts that express empathy in daily life at a kindergarten. The field study is part of Lipponen’s research project funded by the Academy of Finland: examining the way compassion is developed in everyday early education.

Lipponen and his group are studying acts of empathy that occur in kindergartens and how early education could create a culture that fosters compassion.

The plan is to conduct comparative observations in Finland and Singapore with the goal of developing the daily culture of kindergartens in a direction that fosters compassion.

The research is just getting started. One Helsinki kindergarten is involved in the pilot, and the first two-week observation period is nearing its end. Ansamaa and Salmi have studied daily life at the kindergarten every day from morning until evening.

When the children take their nap, the researchers head to the University for lunch. At the same time, they have a meeting about their recent observations.

The meetings combine theory with discussion of daily life at the kindergarten. Rajala in particular is quick to draw parallels between her observations and theories on compassion. She ponders the group dynamics of the children and adults.

 “Who suffers, who offers compassion, who watches from the sidelines? Should we define a separate position for the person causing the suffering?”

Reconsidering the way we act

The subject of compassion has become increasingly interesting to researchers over the past few years. According to American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, the human capacity for empathy is a defining factor for the success of the human race.

However, there has been little research into empathy in the field of early education. The topic is interesting, as we learn ways of acting in early childhood that stay with us throughout our lifetimes. And even though empathy comes naturally to humans, not all environments support it.

Lipponen talks about a culture of compassion, ways of acting that encourage people to consider others.

 “Often conflicts are resolved using the logic of standing up for your rights, even in kindergartens,” Lipponen points out.

No way to see everything

Lipponen gives a hypothetical example, where two children are fighting over a toy.

 “A typical way of reacting is to find out which child had the toy first and to state that that child has the primary right to the toy. But is that the best solution, or the most compassionate one?” asks Lipponen.

He doesn’t have the answers – yet. Right now they are determining how these things could be studied in the future.

 “Daily life at the kindergarten turned out to be even more varied than we thought,” says Lipponen, who has worked as a kindergarten director.

Ansamaa and Salmi also have professional experience in kindergartens. They said it has been eye-opening to see how much happens at a kindergarten that the caregivers do not notice. There’s no way to see everything.

 “At this point, we still have more questions than answers.”

However, Lipponen says he is very happy with the results from the observation period.

 “Compassion is often studied through interviews. But now we have observation data, and it’s a good foundation to build on.”

Kiss and make up

The research group returns to the kindergarten when the group of children between the ages of three and five are waking up from their nap. The atmosphere remains drowsy for a long time.

Some boys gather together to play with legos. In the next room, girls are drawing princesses. Salmi watches as the girls form groups to do crafts with, and others try to join. There is tension, but everyone finds a place. After a snack, the first children go downstairs to get dressed for their afternoon outdoor playtime.

Meanwhile, the heat is on in the play kitchen. A girl and boy are having a disagreement over which plastic ingredients are needed for their pretend recipe. After some harsh words, the children resolve the matter together without adult intervention. The conflict ends, and the children kiss and make up.

Rajala is taking notes, and smiles at how naturally the children kiss as a sign of reconciliation.

The potato incident

Soon there is another disagreement about the rules of the cooking game, this time with a different girl. The same chef is no longer willing to compromise, and instead hits the girl on the head with a plastic potato.

She cries, of course. A nursery nurse comes over to console her and to find out what happened. The boy flees to the other side of the room and hides behind a drawing board.

But he won’t get off that easily. The girl and the nurse follow the boy, along with a few curious onlookers. The nurse asks the boy to come out and apologise. After some coaxing, he agrees.

The injured party accepts the apology and seems to calm down. But it seems the apology was not given willingly: after the girl leaves with the nurse, the boy looks destitute.

Another girl, with whom the boy had originally been playing house, comes over and pets him.

This article was published in Finnish in the Y/04/17 issue of Yliopisto magazine.

Exporting kindergarten

Professor Lasse Lipponen is involved in HEI Schools, a company hoping to turn Finnish-style kindergarten into an exportable product. The basis is learning through play as opposed to testing. The University of Helsinki owns 15% of the company.

 “We see ever-younger children studying in a goal-driven manner around the world. However, studies indicate that this is not effective. Children learn better through play and cooperation,” says Lipponen.

The kindergarten concept includes trained nursery nurses and kindergarten teachers as well as buildings that are conducive to play and being outside.

The world is beginning to recognise the importance of early education. This means a demand exists, but until now, most international efforts have come from the United States.

The first HEI School is currently under construction in Baotou, China. The kindergarten hopes to open its doors this autumn. Two kindergarten teachers and a consultant supporting kindergarten management will arrive from Finland to launch the new facility. The goal is to help the kindergarten run independently, without Finnish staff.

 “We are primarily exporting the concept, not professional skills. We want to create a kindergarten model that’s based on the strengths learned in Finland and that could be replicated everywhere in the world,” Lipponen explains.

The developers of the concept are also closely following the latest research results. Perhaps HEI Schools will soon begin to promote compassion even more.