My 8-year-old son entered kindergarten at the ripe old age of 4 and 3 months. That's a bit early, for US standards. We'd consider that pre-school age in the US, but it's when Kindergarten starts in Switzerland. Now, granted, he's the youngest in his class (cut off date was one day before his birthday and we successfully petitioned to have him enter early), but there are lots of other four-year-olds who cross the threshold of the Swiss kindergarten.

You know what he did there? Pounded nails. Went into the forest. Painted. Learned two new languages. Mostly, however, he played. The teachers are loath to intervene in a kindergarten squabble. Unless there is blood, the kids work most things out themselves. A teacher will step in to stop ongoing bullying, but when a child is being picked on, they encourage that child to fight back.

There was no discussion of the alphabet. The kindergarten classroom had no alphabet around the wall, like most kindergarten classrooms. While the teachers read to the students daily, there's zero expectation that the kids will learn to read themselves.

Kindergarten is for two years, and by the end of that two years, he could write his own name, but that was it.

You might be hyperventilating by now--he must be so behind!

Erika Christakis' new book, The Importance of Being Little, says this part of the Swiss curriculum is right on target. In an interview with NPR, Christakis points out that while he wasn't learning letters, he was learning very valuable things. She said:

To give you an example, watching kids build a fort is going to activate more cognitive learning domains than doing a worksheet where you're sitting at a table. The worksheet has a little pile of pennies on one side and some numbers on the other, and you have to connect them with your pencil. That's a very uni-dimensional way of teaching skills.

Whereas, if you're building a fort with your peers, you're talking, using higher-level language structures in play than you would be if you're sitting at a table. You're doing math skills, you're doing physics measurement, engineering -- but also doing the give-and-take of, "How do I get along? How do I have a conversation? What am I learning from this other person?" And that's very powerful.

This describes a Swiss kindergarten. Many kindergartners spend a day every week in the forest, touching, building, and learning things.

Christakis goes on to say that children need unscheduled time, and that "boredom can be a friend to the imagination." Even in third grade now, my son has half days on Wednesday and Thursday, so that he has time to play. Yes, Swiss kids take violin lessons and play on football (soccer) teams, just like American kids, but they don't do so on top of a full day at school every day.

We debated putting my son in this environment or putting him in the International School, which has a much more American curriculum. (My daughter attends this school.) We were especially concerned about reading. However, now that he's in grade 3, he's reading in English at a 5th grade level and German at grade level--and no one taught him how to read in English, he just picked it up. (German is much easier to read, as every word is spelled like it is pronounced.) We supply him with books he likes. (Captain Underpants and The Guinness Book of World Records are the big hits around here.)

Did we make the right decision? Christakis says this is how children learn the best.Since we're raising him with the hopes that he will, one day, move out, this seems like a great path to be on. Plus, it's a lot more fun to go into the forest tha to do worksheets, and what kid wouldn't like that?