How to Give Toddlers The Best Possible Start in Life

Could it be that we have it all wrong?

Is America’s education system broken?

Are American schools failing our youngest learners before they even have a chance to succeed?

Just how broken is our education system?

What can be done to fix it?

Let’s take a look at Finland.

Finnish kids have outperformed their peers in other countries for years now. It started out as a way to help turn their economy around, and it ended up being quite successful.

“Educators had little idea it was so successful until 2000, when the first results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 global venues, revealed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world. Three years later, they led in math. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries (and a few cities) in science. In the 2009 PISA scores released last year, the nation came in second in science, third in reading and sixth in math among nearly half a million students worldwide.” (1)

Clearly, they’re doing something right!

But, what are they doing differently than us?

For starters, as a whole society, they truly value education, which includes trusting and respecting teachers. Being a teacher requires a master’s degree, but is also a highly regarded profession, similar to being a doctor over here in the US.

I won’t delve into this too much because there’s a lot I can say on the subject, but as a former classroom teacher, I can honestly say that, except for possibly a day or maybe even a week in the spring, teachers are not respected or appreciated by the majority of society, and it’s a systemic problem with our entire education system. Why else would the teacher retention rate be so low, and why else would districts all over the country be struggling to find teachers? Read about an American teacher’s experiences and realizations from a trip to Finland here.

Another huge difference is that Finns focus on the whole child (not just reading and math), and the atmosphere isn’t competitive like it is in the US.

America's education system is failing, but we can do things with our toddlers and preschoolers to give them the best chance of success. Montessori inspired activities and learning through play help moms teach toddlers and preschoolers at home through play based activities.

The Finnish aren’t focused on standardized test scores.

In fact, they’ve done away with almost all of those! Instead, “it is about creating globally competent, critical thinkers who are ready to be successful in their post-graduation life.”(2).

Now, having studied and been trained in the Common Core, I believe that’s what it aims to do, so we may see some shift in our schools and children as it’s around longer (and teachers are given the proper materials).  But, even this shift in our standards has caused a huge uproar, especially among parents.

Imagine if children went to school and were the leaders in their own education, regularly having their own “ah-ha” or “light bulb” moments! You’re much more apt to find that in a Finnish school than in an American school. And, it’s working.

Finland has a 93% graduation rate, which is 17.5% higher than in the US (and they spend less than us on education). In addition, 66% of Finnish high school and vocational school graduates go onto pursue higher education, which is the highest rate in the European Union. Clearly, the Finnish have successful outcomes with their public school system, but what about our littlest learners? How can Finland’s education system help them?

“Children spend far more time playing outside, even in the depths of winter. Homework is minimal. Compulsory schooling does not begin until age 7. “We have no hurry,” said Louhivuori. “Children learn better when they are ready. Why stress them out?”” (1)

Wait, what?!

Differences in preschool and kindergarten

Children aren’t required to attend school until they’re 7!? Wow! That’s quite the contrast from the US, where starting kindergarten is considered to be starting school “late” and it’s viewed as doing children a disservice NOT to send them to preschool or some sort of transitional or “pre” kindergarten. Finland has a free public full-day preschool and kindergarten, but it’s structured differently than most of ours. More importantly, the purpose of it is different too.

In Finland, preschool is “not a place where you dump your child when you’re working. It’s a place for your child to play and learn and make friends.” (3) That sounds similar to here in the United States, but their goal is different.

In the US, the focus is on preparing students to do well in kindergarten, which means sitting down and doing their work, being able to read, write and do some basic math. In Finland, however, “The focus for kindergarten students is to “learn how to learn,” Ms. Penttila said. Instead of formal instruction in reading and math, there are lessons on nature, animals and the “circle of life,” and a focus on materials-based learning.” (3).

Wow! What a difference. It’s a HUGE mindset difference, and if they’re doing that at a young age, imagine the difference it makes as children get older. Combined with a different approach and philosophy regarding education, I think it’s key in creating lifelong learners and students who are critical thinkers and successful after high school graduation.

Why it matters

And, that’s also why we have chosen NOT to send our children to preschool, as I AM the preschool. When we decided to have children, we toyed with the idea of me staying home to raise and educate them in their early years versus me going back to work. But, the more I looked at our current school system, and how unhappy I was as a teacher, I didn’t want to be a part of it anymore. I didn’t want to go to school every day to help raise other people’s children while someone else was raising, and hopefully educating, mine. So, my husband and I decided to forgo my income, my retirement contributions, and essentially my entire career so that I could stay home and help prepare our children for their futures.

It is also the reason why I started a blog last year and the reason why it has developed into me starting my own business (lots of exciting, new things coming later this year!).

I want other parents and caregivers to do what’s best for kids– let them learn at their own pace, in their own way, without the pressure of test scores and progress, without check marks and filling in boxes because someone said they needed to meet whatever standard, even if it’s not developmentally appropriate.

I want children to love learning, to be able to think for themselves, to be inquisitive, to be able to be problem solvers and information seekers, to be creative and imaginative, and to be able to do more than memorize information thrown at them.

Children need to do more than push buttons on a toy, more than watching TV or playing video games.

They need to be the center of their learning, actively engaged and learning skills and different ways of thinking and approaching things, which is where playful learning comes in. Best of all, it doesn’t need to be complicated, time consuming, or involve a lot of preparation or set-up. Playful learning is about a process, not an end result. But, don’t worry. The end result will be a deeper, more conceptual understanding, which will create a more solid foundation for children to build off of once they’re in school.

Montessori inspired activities to help toddlers and preschoolers learn at home. Kindergarten readiness for toddlers and preschoolers to help prepare children for kindergarten. Activities for toddlers and preschooler activities to help children learn at home from Lessons and Learning for Littles.

So, what is Lessons and Learning for Littles with Connie Deal all about?

It’s about helping moms, dads, and other caregivers find easy ways to help their children learn through play, while creating more peaceful homes. It’s about having fun with our children. Spending quality time with our children, while they’re still young and want to play with us.

We do the basics (reading, writing, and math), but we also do science, technology (without screens), engineering, arts and crafts, and physical activity. It’s about playful learning and developing a well-rounded, conceptual and cross-curricular knowledge base by helping our littlest learners learn through play.

I believe in open-end, multi-aged activities so that they’re also good for siblings and can be repeated and expanded on.

I’m here to help parents and caregivers, regardless of educational background and prior teaching experience.

It doesn’t matter if you’re home all day with your child(ren) or you only have 10 minutes by the time you get home from work, eat dinner and wind down before bed.

Lessons and Learning for Littles with Connie Deal aims to help ALL parents and caregivers so that our littlest learners (approximately 1-5 years old) are prepared for kindergarten or other “formal” school WITHOUT needing to go to preschool (but if they are, that’s great too and we certainly have stuff for them too). I’ve taken my experience as an elementary school teacher, middle school teacher, parent of two toddlers (they’re 19 months apart), listened to the concerns and needs of other parents, and gotten input from kindergarten teachers to design lessons and activities for any family with little ones that can easily be done at home.

Now, it’s your turn to give it a try!

Here’s an easy science experiment and color blending activity. This activity has children exploring the size of things and offers ways to use the same items and expand the activity into something else. Please check out my Resources page, as well as my blog, for new ideas. They’re being updated and added regularly, and my Pinterest page is in the works. Happy learning! 🙂


1. Finland’s whole education system:

Here are additional, related resources:

On the importance of play: here and here.

How Finland is changing its education system again (this is similar to what I’ve hoped for in the US since I started studying education back in college)

More about Finland and why kids start formal schooling at age 7