The framework legislation on early childhood education Preschool Act 90/2008 states the fundamental principles, goals, contents and activities for the first education stage (preschool). Included are social functions and goals of this first non-compulsory school stage in which the importance of early childhood education as a life phase is spelled out as an intrinsic value. Preschool constitutes the first level of education in the school system and is intended for children below the compulsory school age. Under this act, the preschool undertakes, at the request of parents and guardians the upbringing, care and education of children of preschool age. According to the act, all children in Iceland have a right to participate in early childhood education and care (ECEC), which is expressed in general terms (i.e. the exact age and number of hours are not specified).
It is the role of the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture to issue a national curriculum guide for the preschool stage (excluding home-based provision). The guide provides a binding policy outline for the work in preschools and stipulates what demands are to be made in education and care. The guide stresses the importance of play in the education and upbringing of children, in addition to learning through creative work.
Municipalities are responsible for preparing the local curricula, while ECEC settings prepare setting-specific curricula
Areas of learning and development
It is recommended that preschools take a holistic view of care, upbringing, learning and social and linguistic skills, and that they are cultural arenas in which children learn primarily through play. The national curriculum guide recommends six basic pillars based on the laws on preschool education. These fundamental pillars are the following:
- health and welfare
- democracy and human rights
In the curriculum guide for preschools, emphasis is placed on the value of play and the importance of democracy and equality in all preschool activities. It lays down guidelines for preschool activities and discusses the learning areas of the preschool.
The Preschool Act 90/2008 and the national curriculum guide do not prescribe teaching methods. Each preschool is expected to choose and develop methods that support its aim. Models based on the Reggio Emilia, Montessori and Waldorf ideologies are examples of approaches that have been adapted to suit the conditions and aims of Icelandic preschools. Most models make a point of having certain types of activities take place in different locations. This applies to activities such as artwork, sorting and ordering games, role play, motion games, music and water games. Most preschools are eclectic in their approach to different ideologies and choose to adapt them to their circumstances. A mix of free and organised play is always emphasised.
In the preschool, the child first and foremost learns through play by dealing with various tasks under normal and concrete circumstances. First-hand experience is considered important. The role of a qualified preschool teacher is therefore primarily to create proper and stimulating learning conditions. Great emphasis is placed on the interaction between the teacher and the children, and a democratic form of cooperation, which is based on mutual respect.
Chapter 12 (on connections between school levels) of the 2011 Icelandic curriculum guide for preschools describes how relations between actors during a child’s final year of preschool and first year of compulsory school should be conducted, so as to increase the chance of their smooth transition to primary school. It also recommends that ECEC settings offer the oldest cohort more structured assignments (elstu barna verkefni) for a few hours per week. It is up to the ECEC settings to decide how more structured teaching is conducted as well as what material is used.
Preschools provide all children with play materials, such as books and toys. Often, children are encouraged to use materials that have no value in other contexts. There is no coordination across preschools concerning choice of material.
Many preschools offer computer sessions for the oldest children to enhance the skills needed for primary school.
The 2011 Icelandic curriculum guide for preschools (pp. 32–33) lists the pedagogic guidelines and principles that preschools should follow in their activities.
- The school should be a democratic forum and a learning community where personnel, parents and guardians and the children are active participants and influence decisions concerning the school.
- The operating practices of the school should stimulate the cooperation of the children, personnel, parents and guardians and the local community.
- The school should be a social and cultural forum where the national heritage and the values of Icelandic society have their proper place.
- The school should be a community where all individuals are respected and make their contribution.
- The operations of the school should be in harmony with the environment and the community of the school.
- School activities should be based on equality and respect for human diversity and other cultures.
- The rights of those who attend the school are to be respected, regardless of gender, background, situation and ability, and their needs should be met as far as possible.
- Education regarding sustainability should be mirrored in all school activities in active collaboration with children’s families and local communities.
- The school should find a variety of ways to cooperate with families and to provide them with information concerning the practices and activities of the school.
- School practices should encourage children to show respect and concern for other people and to develop feelings of solidarity, consideration and friendship.
- The school should encourage children to develop a positive self-image by respecting the uniqueness and views of every individual.
- In school, children should have the opportunity to engage in tasks that consider their interests, strengths and maturity and thus stimulate their faith in their ability and their motivation to learn.
- The school should base its activities on the children’s experience and endeavour to create meaningful experiences for them.
- The school should emphasise independence and initiative, and encourage the children’s sense of responsibility for themselves.
- The school activities should encourage the children’s respect for nature and their environment.
- At school, children should have the opportunity to participate in varied forms of movement and outdoor activities.
- The children should have the opportunity to engage in a variety of tasks that offer different solutions and encourage exploration and reflection.
- School activities should encourage critical thinking and give children an opportunity to utilise their creative abilities.
- The school should encourage children to express themselves in various ways, for example through play, movement, visual arts, music, language, numbers and symbols.
- The school should provide children with facilities to play and stimulate their imagination and creativity.
- The school activities should encourage children to express themselves and listen to narratives, stories, poems and fairy tales.
- The school should use everyday interactions to stimulate children’s understanding of the Icelandic language by learning new words and concepts and developing their language skills.
Individual preschools are required to formulate their own school curriculum guide on the basis of the national curriculum guidelines. The preschool curriculum guide sets out the policy of the school and describes how each school is to meet the aims of education and care that are stipulated by the national curriculum guide.
There are no performance requirements or formal assessment of children at this level of education in Iceland. The focus is on the well-being of the child, and this is reflected in informal assessments conducted on a regular basis. If any deviation from normal development is suspected, access to specialists is available and the ECEC leadership will call for further assessments to be made to help the child in question. The teachers in the preschools ensure that the parents and guardians have a regular opportunity to exchange observations and evaluations with the teachers and staff concerning every child’s health, well-being, experiences, development and learning. This information is normally conveyed through both informal conversations and more formal meetings to which the parents and guardians are invited. If the teachers find that a child is not developing well or is having problems, they are responsible for discussing their perception of this problem with the parents and guardians.
Preschool staff have a duty of disclosure to social services and the child welfare service where relevant.
Transition to primary school
Primary education starts at the age of 6 years and is compulsory for children in Iceland from the August of the calendar year in which they turn 6 years old (regardless of their month of birth). Thus, children born in September or later are still 5 years old at the beginning of their primary education. ECEC settings often cooperate closely with their neighbouring compulsory school, and visits to the schools take place on a regular basis. The role of the preschool regarding its older children is to ensure that they have acquired skills to give them a good foundation and motivation for starting school.
Primary education starts at age 6 and is compulsory for children in Iceland in the month of August, the year they turn 6 (whatever the month of that calendar year). Thus, children born in September or later are still 5 years old in the beginning of their primary education. Settings often cooperate closely with the neighbourhood compulsory school and visits to the schools occur on regular basis. The role of the preschool regarding their older children is to ensure that they have acquired skills to give them a good foundation and motivation for starting school.