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As California advocates look to expand pre-K, Denmark shows how universal preschool works

KPCC's Early Childhood Correspondent Deepa Fernandes visited Denmark and Norway recently and talked to parents and educators about their countries' free and subsidized child care.

Support for universal preschool is spreading around the country, but relatively few places have set up systems where all kids from infants to 5-year-olds can attend child care.

That's not the case in Scandinavian countries like Norway and Denmark where early child care for all has been around for decades and is taken for granted by taxpayers.

Eva Ørum, a self-employed single mother, juggled multiple jobs as she raised her two children in Copenhagen. Care for 11-year-old Lea and 4-year-old August has never been a worry for Ørum. Both her children attended local state-run child care centers from a young age, and at minimal cost.

In Denmark, care is guaranteed to every child. It is free for those with very low-income and subsidized for everyone else. Most kids start in a nursery creche between the ages of six months and one year.

Ørum enrolled her son August in the local state-run nursery when he was 10 months old. Now “he goes to regular public kindergarten like I’d say 99 out of 100 [in Denmark] does,” she said. In Denmark, preschool is called kindergarten.

According to Danish statistics, almost all kids are enrolled in some form of early care and education. Ninety-six percent of all 3 to 5-year-olds attended preschool in 2007, and 90 percent of children age 1 to 3 attended nursery school.

Ørum pays about 2,800 Danish krone — $400 a month — for August's all-day care. She estimates the fee amounts of about 5 percent of her income.

Danish families also get a tax-free, yearly payment for each child under 18, which further helps offset the cost of child care. As a single mother, Ørum’s payment is slightly higher. For both her children, she receives around 10,000 krone or $1,500 every three months.

Contrast that to California where recent data suggests that for a single mother with two children under 5, childcare costs are above 40 percent of the budget and is often the family's single largest expense. 

August, now 4, is in a preschool program that is nature and play-based. Ørum sees August blossoming and credits much of that to his teachers. “I trust them. I know that they know what they're doing and they’re teaching him a lot of skills," she said. 

Part of the Danish model of early education includes giving children a voice in their care. Each week, August participates in a “democracy” session where children tell the preschool administrators what they liked and didn’t like.

“He likes to pick up leaves, he likes to find feathers, he likes to jump into bushes and find little animals he hasn't seen before,” Ørum said.

August gets a chance to do all that when he takes a morning bus each day to the outskirts of Copenhagen with his fellow 4-year-olds. “We don’t call it school,” Ørum notes, yet out in nature August gets pre-math, like when he counts flower petals or leaves he finds. He experiences hands-on science as he dissects the flower or discovers bugs, and receives “all the preparation for learning to read,” according to his mom.

Scandinavian preschools are heavy on the play and self-directed learning, according to Tarjei Havnes, a professor of economics at Norway's University of Oslo.

“There’s a Nordic tradition in pedagogics or in education which is focused on free-spirited approach to teaching. It’s certainly play-based and oriented towards children exploring on their own,” he said.

Havnes studied the Norwegian child care system, which is paid for through tax dollars, for its long-range impacts on such outcomes as employment.

“Because we have, like, 95 percent of kids in child care just before they start school, we can get a picture of how they are doing in terms of language, how they are doing in terms of social development, how they are doing in terms of many different aspects that are going to be important for them when they start school,” he said.

The researchers continue to follow the same children as they move into their early 30s. “What we find is that it seems these children are taking longer education, they have stronger attachment to the labor market, [and a] lower chance of being on welfare,” Havnes said.  

It’s  pretty emphatic evidence that early education pays off. Yet the benefits accrued mostly to lower and middle-income children. Havnes data showed no real bump for children in the upper-income brackets, leading him to speculate that “parents from sort of upper-middle class backgrounds are doing an equally good or maybe even potentially a little better care than what they were getting in formal care.”

So while the formal early care may not benefit the wealthiest as much, Nordic governments continue to subsidize preschool for all. In Denmark, Mette Hedegaard, a local city councilwoman and teacher, recalls when she was a college student and had her first child. She had no income, but still was able to send her toddler to the local preschool.

“In Denmark, it's 25 percent of the cost of having the child in the daycare that the parents actually pay,” Hedegaard said. “But if you are very low income, like we were at the time, then you get free space at the daycare and then you don’t pay anything.”

Child care is different in the U.S., where free and subsidized preschools serve mostly poor kids who don't get grouped with middle or higher-income children. It’s a concept that surprises everyone I talked to in Denmark and Norway.

At a Copenhagen nursery school in a diverse neighborhood with international and immigrant families, teachers watch the children in free play and strategically intervene to pose questions or help a struggling child.

One group is pretending to drive a clunky big wooden car to their imaginary summer house. A teacher smiles and tells me just one boy among them comes from a family that owns a summer house; the others are not that well off. But here they are playing summer houses together.  

The state-run nursery school is for children age 1 to 3 and follows child development principles that focus on stimulating a child’s sense of balance. A growing field of research says such vestibular activities for infants and toddlers lead to better outcomes in academics later on, according to the nursery's director, Charlotte Rasmussen.

"We can also see the difference when we do it, when they [are] on their way to start[ing] to walk,” she said. “They get much faster [with] their balance because they are daily stimulated.”

Activities include balancing on beams and clambering through makeshift obstacle courses set up by the staff. There’s a hammock and swivel chairs aplenty in one room where children experience swinging and spinning motions. Children also learn rock-climbing type skills with the support of teachers.

Rasmussen estimates there are about 10 such nursery schools across Copenhagen that work on vestibular development. This nursery costs parents 3,400 krone per month or about $500.

Much of a family's child care cost can be covered by the quarterly payments from the government for having a child under 3. So how does the Danish government fund all this?

Danes pay about half their income in taxes. And one of the many services they get in return is public school. The care and education starts while children are still in diapers.

Developments like the additional dollars earmarked for more free and subsidized preschool slots in the latest California state budget may buoy the hopes of universal preschool advocates, as did the incremental expansion of Los Angeles Unified's transitional kindergarten

But whether California officials would back a true universal preschool system remains an open question.