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The land of music playschools

by Mari Koppinen

Singing, playing games, listening, exercise, and playing instruments - these are the core activities of Finland's many music playschools. The schools are bustling with activity, for they have become very popular in recent years. Finland is a real land of music playschools.

At present, 25,000 children in Finland are learning the basics of music in music playschools connected with music schools (music institutes and conservatories). And if one also counts the country’s other music playschools, the total number of children is even higher.

Music playschools in other countries are often music kindergartens. This is not the case in Finland, however, for Finnish music playschools do not include any basic child care.

In Finnish music playschools, children learn basic musical skills by means of aha experiences and other meaningful experiences. Simultaneously, the lessons support the children’s cognitive, emotional, motor, and social development.

Lessons usually take place once a week in the evening or afternoon and last 30 to 90 minutes.

Unique system

The system is quite unique. As far as is known, there is no other music education system for preschool children elsewhere in the world that is as systematic.

Finnish music playschools are also unique in that the ones functioning in connection with the music institutes receive significant amounts of financial aid; government aid covers 50% and municipal aid 32% of operating costs.

In principle, the music playschools are open to all; none have an entrance test. In reality, there is however one entrance criterion:

“Music playschools charge a fee, and these cover 18% of operating costs. Due to the monthly fees, not all families can afford to send their children to a music playschool”, says the president of the Music Playschool Teachers’ Association, Sini Nykänen.

Wide variety of schools

Many music playschools in Finland function in connection with a music institute. In addition to these mainly government-funded schools, there are however also private music playschools and ones that are maintained by different organisations and congregations.

“Activities in this sector are nowadays quite unregulated and varied, for anyone can start a music playschool” says Sini Nykänen.

She emphasises that music playschool teachers should be well informed about child development and that lessons should be goal oriented. Not everyone fits the bill. “Everyone knows how to make music with children, but teaching is not on a professional level unless one realises what one is doing.”

So Sini Nykänen considers it an advantage of music playschools connected with music institutes that their training is tied to basic art education. Lessons in these music playschools are always goal oriented. The teaching plans and the actual teaching also take into account each child’s age and stage of development.

The connection with the music institute also enables cooperation with the instrumental teachers. When they and the music playschool teachers use the same musical terms, learning an instrument becomes easier and the children can completely concentrate on, for example, learning to hold the instrument correctly. There is still room for improvement in the cooperation between music playschools and instrumental teachers though. “The degree of cooperation depends a lot on the music institutes; it’s more intensive in some than others”, says Nykänen.

From family groups to instrumental groups

In the Finnish music playschool system, the children are usually split into groups according to age. Family groups – so-called baby music playschools – are meant for the youngest family members, from a few weeks of age up to the age of two. Parents and their children attend these lessons together. In addition to providing the children with pleasant musical experiences by means of games and songs, the lessons aim to strengthen the child-parent relationship.

The play groups are for three- to five-year-olds, and these attend the lessons without their parents. The instrumental groups are meant for the ages of six to eight. Depending on the music playschool and the music institute, either the children can choose an instrument among those taught at the music institute, or the teaching makes use of kanteles (Finnish psalteries), recorders, or percussion instruments. The children are familiarised with the instrument and learn the basics of its playing technique, and they learn to make music together.

Wide variety of teaching methods

Music playschool teaching is very holistic. Its objective is not to produce future top musicians; instead, its primary aim is to arouse a life-long love of music. “The teaching of course also fosters the development of the children’s musical skills”, Nykänen explains.

The game-like lessons are oriented towards producing aha experiences and other positive experiences and include singing, playing instruments, musical exercise, and listening to music, which can be combined with drawing. Music playschools also introduce the children to the basics of solmisation and musical notation. These methods are used to teach each age group the basic elements of music, dynamics, timbre, rhythm, tempo, melody, form, and harmony.

No specific teaching method is generally used in Finland; the methods of Kodály, Orff, Dalcroze, and Suzuki are all in use. Which is used depends entirely on the music institute and the teacher. The method developed by the Hungarian Kodály is perhaps the most widely used one. Singing therefore plays a very important role in Finnish early childhood music education.

Singing is used to develop the sense of intonation and to teach the basics of music, but musical heritage, for example, is also passed on this way. Sini Nykänen in fact sees this as one of the music playschool’s essential purposes. “It’s important, for songs are a part of our cultural heritage. Music playschools play a significant role here in transmitting tradition.”

Music playschools also train use of the voice by means of singing. According to Nykänen, voice training already starts in the family groups, in which the parents are also encouraged to sing. This training does not produce maestros, but that is of course not the goal either.

“There are always people who sing out of tune and drone, but they can be musically talented in some other way. Children also have their own musical strengths and weaknesses”, Nykänen points out. Music playschools provide a wide variety of approaches to enable children to advance at their own pace and in their strongest area.”

Research needed

The quality of Finnish early childhood music education has improved significantly due to improvements in teacher training achieved during the last few decades. The diversified teacher training has also resulted in more diverse music playschool lessons. Despite the advanced state of the field in Finland, relevant Finnish research is still in its infancy and is lagging behind that in other countries.

Research would be necessary, however, and Sini Nykänen considers this to be an important future task.

“We ourselves of course realise that our work is important, but research would help to substantiate this belief”, Nykänen says and thereby also alludes to the profession’s low appreciation. For some reason or other, music playschool teachers are not as highly respected as other music education professionals.

“We’ve had a bit of a babysitter image along the lines of ‘fun time with a lady playing the tambourine”, Sini Nykänen laughs.

Demand for professionals rising

Efforts are underway to improve the image of music playschool teachers, carried out by, for example, the Music Playschool Teachers’ Association. Partly due to these efforts, the organisation is changing its name to Early Childhood Music Teachers’ Association. The association urges music playschool teachers to make good use of their professional skills and to even export their know-how abroad.

“This is definitely an export product; we have excellent know-how that we just have to learn how to market. Soili Perkiö is already well known worldwide, but I’d like to also see the expertise of others spreading around the world”, hopes the president of the Music Playschool Teachers’ Association.

Future challenges in the sector include working with others besides children. “Senior citizens, adults in general… everyone can be creative. This works for everyone from babies to grandpas. In the business world, occupational well-being courses could be based on music. Music provides so many different possibilities. It’s not necessary to always stick to old routines. We have the skills to make interactive situations work”, Nykänen urges teachers.

Although the field is still young in Finland and there is room for improvement in many respects, one thing is however clear: the Finnish music playschool system is a magnificent thing.

“The music playschool system provides a wonderful opportunity for families. And the fees are not terribly high. It’s quite remarkable that such activities are supported by public funds”, Sini Nykänen reflects.

Exactly. A land of music playschools.

Translation: Ekhart Georgi
Featured photo: Katri Kaunisto

Music Playschool Teachers’ Association