Pursuant to the Education Act, preschool education is a system of knowledge, skills, experience and behavioural norms which create the prerequisites for succeeding in everyday life and at school. ECEC institutions (in the act, preschools) are educational institutions.
Childcare service is a social service regulated by the Social Welfare Act. The aim of the childcare service is to support parents ability to cope or work or to reduce the care burden arising from the special needs of the child. The service provider is obliged to guarantee the care, development and safety of the child. The level of development depends on the service provider and primarily means engaging with the child ‒ talking, reading, playing, etc. Compared to ECEC institutions, in the case of childcare services, the parent has a greater obligation to agree on the conditions of childcare with the service provider. The parent also has the right to ask the babysitter's training and work experience to assess their suitability. The requirements established for childcare services in the Social Welfare Act do not allow the childcare provider to provide preschool education.
Preschool education is based on the National Curriculum for Preschool Childcare Institutions. The national curriculum establishes the principles of preparation of a children’s institution’s own curriculum, the objectives, principles, and organisation of teaching and learning, the objectives and content of teaching and learning of different fields, the expected general skills and results of a child’s development at the age 6–7, and the principles for assessing the development of children.
ECEC institutions compile their curricula, based on the national curriculum, taking into account the age- and gender-related and individual needs and particular features of children. Curriculum guidebooks provide support in compiling curricula of ECEC institutions specifying expected skills by age category.
Mainly, ECEC provision is regulated by the Preschool Child Care Institutions Act, but some aspects of ECEC are covered in the Child Protection Act and the Education Act. There are also links with the Private Schools Act.
Areas of learning and development
Preschool education supports the physical, mental, social, and emotional development of the child in order the child developed a comprehensive and positive self-image, understanding of the surrounding environment, ethical behaviour and initiative, first working habits, physical activity and understanding of the importance of maintaining health, and playing, learning, social and personal skills.
The general skills to be developed comprise:
- playing skills;
- cognitive and study skills;
- social skills;
- reflexive skills.
Fields of teaching and learning comprise:
- myself and the environment;
- language and speech;
- Estonian as a second language (in an institution or group with another language of instruction);
- physical movement.
For 6‒7-year-old children, the activities aim at smooth adaptation to school life. Emphasis is put on developing psychical processes (perception, memory, imagination and thinking) and formation of basic study skills (observation and listening skills, abilities to compare, rate, count, measure, group and model).
Where necessary, an individual development plan is compiled for a child with special needs on the basis of the curriculum of the ECEC institution. The development of general skills is supported through all teaching and learning activities, integrating the contents of different fields. The study contents of fields derive from children’s everyday life and their surrounding environment. Study activities include listening, speaking, reading, writing, observing, exploring, comparing, calculating and various movement, musical and artistic activities. Cooperation between teachers and personnel and the inclusion of parents are important factors in the work of an ECEC institution. Both contribute to the creation of a study environment that supports the development of a child.
In preschool education, child-oriented active learning methods (e.g., StepbyStep, Waldorf teaching methodology, Reggio Emilia teaching methodology, language immersion methodology, discovery learning, entrepreneurship, and outdoor learning) are applied. Preschools pay a lot of attention to teaching values and support the individuality and creativity of children and learning through play.
The choice of methodology is based on the concept of learning provided for in the National Curriculum for Preschool Child Care Institutions, according to which a child learns by imitating, watching, exploring, experimenting, communicating, playing, practising, etc.; a child is an active participant in teaching and learning and takes pleasure in action. Specific characteristics of children, incl. abilities, linguistic and cultural background, age, gender, health status, etc., have to be taken into account. Children have to be involved in planning of activities, and are directed to make choices and analyse what has been done.
In teaching and learning, conditions are created to develop the ability of a child to plan his or her activities, make choices, relate new knowledge with earlier experience, use the acquired knowledge in different situations and activities, discuss the acquired knowledge and skills, assess the effectiveness of his or her activities and take pleasure in his or her success and the success of others, and cope with failures.
Play is the primary activity of children in preschool age. Through teaching and learning activities, teachers support the development of children’s play skills. Play skills form the basis for all general skills and the skills and knowledge in the different subject fields of teaching and learning. The objective is that children
- find joy in playing;
- concentrate on play;
- creatively apply their experiences, knowledge and impressions from surrounding world in their play;
- initiate different plays and develop the content of play;
- assume different roles in play;
- follow rules of play and are able to explain the rules of familiar plays to others;
- are able to solve problems during play and reach agreements with playmates;
- creatively use different objects in plays.
It is necessary to link teaching and learning with forming a child's physical development and hygienic habits and particularly with play and activities in the open air. During recent years, the role of audiovisual and multimedia facilities has grown in teaching and learning activities. The Ministry of Education and Research supports networks of ECEC institutions and seminars for sharing of good practice in preschool education, and in-service training for the implementation of the national curriculum for ECEC institutions, including trainings for developing teachers’ digital competence.
The state supports the provision of Estonian language classes to children aged 3 years and older whose language spoken at home is other than Estonian. Methodologies for teaching foreign languages to Estonian children before they attend a school are also under development.
Learning and instructional materials, studies and initiatives
- Handbooks on the national curriculum, which are available in the e-School bag, treat all fields of teaching and learning activities and organisation thereof, the development of general skills in preschool-age as well as the evaluation and support of children’s development. The e-School bag provides online games and exercises for preschool children targeted at improving language skills or used for therapeutic purposes.
- In 2017, in cooperation with Tallinn University, a handbook for preschool teachers, to be used in the context of their formal education acquired within the adult education system, “Learning and teaching in preschool child care institutions” was published. The handbook concerns child’s development and learning, environment that supports the development, areas of learning and teaching, and a teacher’s professionalism.
- In 2016-2020, Estonia participates in the OECD international pilot study International Early Learning and Child Well-being Study (IELS). In Estonia, the study is organised by Foundation Innove in cooperation with the Ministry of Education and Research and Tallinn University. Under the IELS, the social, emotional and cognitive skills of children aged 5 to 6 and the impact of the children’s individuality, home and preschool institution on preschool education.
- The Ministry of Education and Research supports the project ´Free of Bullying´ which is implemented in cooperation with the Danish Children’s Protection Union ´Save the Children´ and Estonian Union for Child Welfare. To date, 80% of the preschools in Estonia have joined the project. The principles of the methodology have been introduced into the curriculum for in-service preschool teacher training in Tallinn University. All ECEC institutions in Estonia were expected to have applied evidence-based methodologies to prevent bullying by 2020.
- Health behaviour and health education of children are important topics in teaching and learning in preschools; 40%of Estonian preschools have joined the Network of Health Promoting Preschools. In the field of health education, e-learning materials and environment assessment techniques have been developed.
- In cooperation of the Ministry of Education and Research, the Education and Youth Authority and the Integration Foundation, methodological materials for studying Estonian and implementing language immersion methodologies have been developed. Counselling, regional information days and trainings have been organised for teachers in ECEC institutions. In Estonia, there are five methodology centres providing methodological support to teachers involved in education of children whose home language is other than Estonian.
- For teaching Estonian as a second language, a project ´A professional Estonian-speaking teacher in a group with Russian as the language of instruction´ has been implemented (2019‒…) and the digital textbook ´Estonian as a second language, part 1 and part 2´ is being developed. In 2018, funds for the purchase of tablet personal computers were allocated to the preschools that participate in the pilot project. The project is aimed at ensuring all children with equal opportunities in preschool education, incl. teachers’ proficiency in Estonian and professionalism in supporting Estonian studies. Under the pilot project, the labour costs and training of Estonian-speaking teachers for 30 groups in Tallinn preschool institutions and 32 groups in Ida-Virumaa ECEC institutions are funded by the state. As part of the project, applied research is carried out in cooperation with Tallinn University for a better organisation of early language studies in Estonian preschools.
- As of 2014, the National Institute for Health Development in cooperation with local governments offers trainings for parents in preschools following the evidence-based programme The Incredible Years. The programme improves the parents’ communication and assertiveness skills as well as conflict and stress management, and problem coping skills.
Evaluation of a child’s development is important to understand the child’s special qualities, determine his or her special needs and support his or her self-esteem and development as well as to plan teaching and learning in cooperation with parents.
Evaluation of a child’s development is a part of the everyday process of teaching and learning. Teachers carry out observations according to a precise plan and children are being followed in everyday activities, free play situations and activities guided by teachers. The basis for evaluation of a child’s development are expected general skills and results in fields of teaching and learning. At least once per academic year, the teacher carries out a development interview with the parent(s) regarding the development of the child, in order to give feedback on the child’s development and study results and explore the parent’s views and expectations regarding the child’s development.
Observation is the primary method used in the evaluation process. Indirect methods like interview or analysis of children's works are also suitable. It is also common to prepare a file or portfolio on a child’s development. The methods used are introduced to the parents. The development of a child is described from the standpoint of the child, valuing his or her achievements. For the assessment and early detection of a child’s speech development and for the development support, speech therapists apply science-based speech development tests in order to evaluate core aspects of a child’s speech: vocabulary, grammatical skills, and pronunciation. A child’s speech is assessed in a playful setting where the child plays with things or looks at nice pictures together with a speech evaluator.
As part of a cooperation project between the Ministry of Education and Research and Eesti Logopeedide Ühing (Estonian Speech Therapists Association), the standardised speech tests for 3-4-year-old children and 5-6-year-old children have been developed. Assessment tools for determining the development level of 1-7-year-old children have been developed. Estonian Association of Speech Therapists organises trainings for support specialists at ECEC institutions on the application of the assessment tools.
For assessing and supporting a child’s development, children, parents and teachers in ECEC institutions can receive counselling on speech therapy, special education, social pedagogy and psychological counselling from the Foundation Innove Rajaleidja centres that have been founded in every county.
Transition to primary school
Pursuant to the Preschool Child Care Institutions Act, an ECEC institution issues a school readiness card to those who have completed the preschool education curriculum. A parent submits the school readiness card to the school where the child commences his or her compulsory school attendance. The procedure for completing school readiness cards has been set out in the regulation of the Minister of Education and Research ´List of learning and education-related mandatory documents for a preschool child care institution and the procedure for completing such documents´. A school readiness card describes the child’s achievements in the development of general skills and in fields of learning activities, following the national curriculum for preschool child care institutions. The child’s strengths, as well as aspects that need development, are outlined. Evaluation of readiness for school and compilation of the readiness for school card support the smooth transfer of a child from preschool to school. The readiness for school card helps the class teacher to understand the child’s individuality and development and to plan cooperation with parents and support specialists. The class teacher takes account of the child’s previous experiences and creates, in cooperation with the family, opportunities to support the child’s individual development.