The Swedish National Curriculum: Play and learning with fundamental values in focus (Free full text available)

Anette Sandberg
Eva Ärlemalm-Hagsér

Mälardalen University Sweden

IN SWEDEN, EARLY CHILDHOOD education is unique in its combination of learning and play, care and fostering fundamental values. The aim of this article is to discuss and problematise current Swedish research from the early childhood education field with a focus on play and learning in relation to three fundamental values affirmed in the Swedish National Curriculum. These values are children’s rights, gender equity, and education for sustainable development.

The Swedish curriculum

The Swedish National Curriculum for the Preschool determines curriculum for all early childhood settings in Sweden (Ministry of Education & Science, 2010). The Ministry of Education and Science is responsible for the educational system from preschool to university. Swedish preschools are available for children aged one–five years and are used by 82 per cent of the country’s children (National Agency for Education, 2009). All Swedish childcare settings are called preschools. There are two staff categories in Swedish preschools: preschool teachers with a university degree and day care attendants with a high school degree. The school system in Sweden is goal-based with a high degree of local government responsibility. The overall national goals are set out by the Swedish Parliament and the Government, in the Education Act (Parliament), and the Curriculum (Government), respectively. The curriculum should be seen as a framework and guidelines that give direction to the work of early childhood settings. Democracy is the foundation for all activities. The inviolability of individual freedom and integrity, the equal value of all people, equity between genders, and solidarity with the weak are values to be promoted in everyday learning. These principles are built into care and education, with learning and development going hand in hand. Children are described as individuals with competence—active children with experience, interest, knowledge, skills and competence that should be the starting point for everyday activities in early childhood settings. One significant aspect of the Swedish National Curriculum is that goals are to ‘strive for’ rather than ‘goals to achieve’ (Ministry of Education & Science, 2010). In this article, the fundamental values of children’s rights, gender equity and education for sustainability are discussed in relation to current Swedish research from the early childhood education field, with a focus on play and learning.

Play and learning

The new 2010 Swedish Preschool Curriculum emphasises the significance of play for children’s development and learning. Earlier in Swedish preschools, play and learning were separated. Play had no special significance for learning. Nowadays it is acknowledged that learning takes place in early childhood settings and not only when children start school (Johansson & Pramling-Samuelsson, 2006; Pramling-Samuelsson & Asplund-Carlsson, 2008; National Agency for Education, 2008). Pramling-Samuelsson and Johansson (2006) argue that play and learning are inseparable dimensions in early childhood contexts. Sandberg and Vuorinen’s (submitted) study emphasises that young children themselves make no distinction between play and learning. Schoolchildren, however, do differentiate between learning, as something that happens in the classroom, and play, which occurs during lunch breaks and perhaps in physical education classes. The idea of playful learning in the classroom may come through in children’s descriptions of teachers’ attitudes. A teacher who uses humour and is able to be playful with children contributes to making school learning more enjoyable. It is argued that playful learning in early childhood education can also lay the foundation for more children to succeed in school.

Research also shows strong connections between the quality of play in the preschool years and children’s maturity for following school instructions (Bodrova & Leong, 2003; Malone & Tranter, 2003; Russ, 2003). These studies found that teachers achieved the best educational results when they focused on supporting children’s play. Children in playful classrooms acquired literacy skills and concepts of a higher level and developed more advanced language and social skills. They also learned to manage their physical and cognitive behaviour. In classrooms where play was not incorporated, teachers had problems such as classroom management and decreased interest in reading and writing.

By supporting play without dominating or disrupting it, teachers can aid children’s learning and development (Bodrova & Leong, 2003). Malone and Tranter (2003) claim that play is not only a pleasurable activity but also a process through which children learn. Play supports problem-solving abilities and creates opportunities and situations where children can experiment and be creative. Teachers in Bodrova and Leong’s (2003) study reported that they held firmly to the theory that children learn through play.

Research has also been conducted into children’s concepts about how teachers relate to play. In a study by Sandberg (2002), children aged five–nine years expressed a range of ideas about teachers’ contributions to play; for example, solving conflicts, keeping track of the rules, giving practical and moral support, or being a substitute friend.

Making friends is a significant aspect of play for children. Friends are important, as children become conscious of themselves through others. In play, children become aware of themselves, the wider society, and their membership of groups. It contributes to the foundation of the child’s moral stance and personality. Mead (1995) considers that interplay with others and taking different roles within play are foundational for children’s development.

Teachers and friends have important roles when it comes to children’s learning. The interaction and cooperation between them is vital for both the individual and the group’s values (Mead, 1995; Pramling-Samuelsson & Asplund-Carlsson, 2008). Learning is seen as serious, and teachers now (maybe more than ever) have social pressure on them to spend more time teaching specific academic content, such as writing and reading exercises and language exercises (Bodrova & Leong, 2003). Research concerning early learning and development has shown that, when children are supported in their play, it affects learning in positive ways (Johansson & Pramling-Samuelsson, 2006).

How do children experience play? According to a study by Vickerius and Sandberg (2006) involving children aged three to six, play has significance because it is pleasurable. In this study children said the pleasurable things about being in preschool are playing and being creative, with the most boring thing is being made to do something they do not want to, or having no-one to play with. Play as pleasure appears constantly in the literature of play (see for example Garvey, 1990). Another significance of playing with other children is that children learn to be together with others. In interplay between children, the significance of play is to make friends. Friends are important for children, and the majority of the children in an early childhood context gain the friendship of one or more of the children in the group (Jonsdottir, 2007). In Sandberg and Vuorinen’s (2006) study of 86 children aged three to 12 who were interviewed about play and learning, it was found that social skills are the focus of learning both in preschool and school. This may be because it is essential for children to learn the social rules of conduct in order to gain access to joint play with other children. Children tend to be well aware that lacking ability to utilise the unspoken social rules within the group can lead to exclusion from the group. Younger children speak in terms of learning to abstain from mistakes, such as teasing and fighting and directly excluding someone from play. Older children talk more in terms of what characterises cooperation in play, since teamwork, joint decision making, empathy, mutuality and turn taking are described as important features when co-existing with others. Several of the children also stated that they develop their play skills by participating in play. These skills might involve the ability to maintain and develop play. As well, their social skills are mainly developed when interacting with other children. The joint play between children can thereby be seen as important from this aspect. Furthermore, the children generally tend to ascribe great importance to play with children of a similar age.

Johansson and Sandberg (2010) studied how preschool teachers and preschool student teachers perceive the concepts of learning and participation. The study shows that preschool teachers consider the concept of learning and its application correlates to the approach formulated in the preschool curriculum that learning is an interaction with others. Not many of the student teachers reflected that learning involves development of morals and values. This was somewhat unexpected because those aspects of learning are stressed in the preschool curriculum. This paper now discusses three underpinning values of the Swedish Preschool Curriculum.

Value: Children’s rights

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) states that children have the right to be involved and to be heard in matters that affect them, and that education is to consider the children’s perspective, give children a voice, listen to them and take them seriously. Seeing the child as competent enough to express her or his meaning is very important in allowing mutual recognition and respect between professionals and children (Bae, 2004). The Swedish Preschool Curriculum states that the influence of the child should shape the learning environment and the planned activities in the early childhood context (Ministry of Education & Science, 2010). The purpose is to give children the opportunity to develop understandings of democracy, to take part in decision making, and to take responsibility for their own actions and the environment. In Karlsson’s study from 2009, children showed that they can take responsibility for everyday matters, both on their own behalf and on behalf of others. In some play situations, for example, children often overlook a disturbance by another child. They may also, for another child’s benefit, abstain from what they are doing.

Taking the child’s perspective in an early childhood setting means creating daily teaching practices that are in agreement with children’s ways of thinking and communicating (Johansson & Pramling-Samuelsson, 2003). By paying attention to children’s own ways of expressing their meaning and ideas, early childhood professionals can develop their understanding of children’s perspectives (Johansson & Pramling-Samuelsson, 2003). Nevertheless, several Swedish studies show that the possibilities of children influencing the preschool’s everyday practice are quite small (Johansson & Pramling-Samuelsson, 2003; Pramling-Samuelsson & Sheridan, 2003; Emilsson, 2007; Sandberg & Eriksson, 2008). Emilsson (2008) raises three aspects in acknowledging a child’s perspective. First, the teacher should strive for closeness to the child´s perspective by seriously trying to interpret the child’s actions and sayings; second, they should aim for emotional presence by the teacher; and third, the teacher should act with playfulness. These three aspects are supported by an action research project in 10 Swedish early childhood settings with the purpose of increasing children’s possibilities to participate and to define new methods to develop child participation in the preschool. In this study, preschool professionals participated in joint lectures, cross-setting seminars, focus group discussions and tutorials, which increased their awareness, resulting in significantly changed views about children. Preschool professionals developed skills in seeing children as capable individuals with competence to participate in decisions and to make their own choices in play and other activities (OMEP, 2010). Listening to children’s voices can make the learning environment visible, with the practical work in early childhood settings built on interaction and communication between professionals and children (Pramling-Samuelsson & Asplund-Carlsson, 2008).

Value: Gender perspective on play and learning

In Sweden, discussion and legislation regarding gender equality has had a prominent place in the political arena since the 1960s. The development of early childhood education in the country was one part of an overall equality agenda that made it possible for parents to both work and have children.

As discussed earlier, all Swedish early childhood education should be in accordance with the fundamental values upon which Swedish society is based (Ministry of Education & Science, 2010). Two of these values are equality between the genders and equal rights of all people. They indicate that girls and boys should have the same opportunities to develop and explore their abilities and interests without limitations imposed by stereotyped gender roles and patterns. Accordingly, early childhood professionals should work to counteract traditional gender patterns and gender roles. But how is this perceived and handled in everyday practice in Swedish preschools?

At the end of the 1990s, the Swedish Government received indications from early childhood professionals and researchers that the work to promote equality in early childhood settings was proving to be a difficult process. Instead of challenging traditional notions of gender, early childhood professionals were actually contributing to them in many different ways. Therefore, the Government funded a gender pedagogue education program in 2002. The goal was to educate early childhood professionals with special knowledge about gender theories and to provide a variety of tools to improve quality processes. The idea was that all municipalities in Sweden should have trained gender pedagogues. At the beginning, there were just a few applicants showing interest in attending the courses, but this changed and in the last year of the program there was great interest. The Government also decided to constitute a ‘Delegation for Equality in Preschool’ in 2003. Its task was to give financial support to a range equality projects in Swedish early childhood settings. Thirty-four preschools received project funding during 2004–2005. While the Delegation was working with these projects, the first national Swedish evaluation of the preschool curriculum (National Agency for Education, 2004) showed that the work towards gender equality was barely reported among early childhood professionals and preschool directors. This started an official educational debate, the ‘General Guidelines and Comments on Quality in Preschool’ from the National Agency for Education (2005) that identified the need for a gender perspective in the everyday work of the preschools to be emphasised. ‘It is important that preschool staffs are actively working for equality between girls and boys’… ‘and discusses how the educational environment can be designed to strengthen gender equality work’ (National Agency for Education, 2005, p. 29).

In the government report from ‘The Delegation for Equality in Preschool’ (SOU 2006, p. 75) the overall conclusion was that early childhood settings in Sweden were ‘gendered’. Girls and boys were still considered and treated as different categories and the professionals were acting out stereotyped roles and patterns that maintained gender boundaries instead of improving gender equity. The knowledge gained from the 34 gender projects showed that the overall project was a useful method to improve gender equality. The conclusions from the project can be summarised as follows:

  • Each professional needs to analyse her/his own understanding of gender from an early childhood education perspective.
  • Different forms of documentation from a gender perspective provide a deeper understanding of daily practice.
  • Each professional needs to develop knowledge about gender theories and connect these theories to preschool activities.
  • They need to reflect on this knowledge in a wider context, from historical, cultural and global perspectives.
  • Team meetings within preschools are needed that embrace critical reflection on practice.
  • Engagement at both a local level (in the preschool) and the decision-making level (municipalities and directors) is necessary.
  • Documentation in different forms, such as recording and observation through to analysis and evaluation, are needed to develop a deeper understanding of practice.
  • Regular development of practice by systematic quality work is required.
  • Teachers need to be patient, because systematic quality work must be ongoing for a long time.

Australian studies on gender in early childhood education have also highlighted the difficulties in encouraging work towards gender equality (gender equity) and non-traditional practice (Yelland, 1998; MacNaughton, 1999, 2000, 2006; Davies, 2003).

New gender research in Sweden

In a recent research project (Ärlemalm-Hagsér, 2010) interactions in four preschools were analysed to identify how preschool teachers work to counteract traditional gender patterns and roles, and how these were perceived and handled in everyday practice. The findings indicate that the concepts of gender patterns and roles were problematic, and that the professionals had different understandings of these concepts and how to put them into practice. As revealed in focus group interviews, a common rhetoric about improving gender equality was noticed in all four preschools. In video and audio recordings to stimulate discussion, activities and language showed gendered constructions in which both early childhood professionals and children were active. This was more or less visible in all the preschools, depending on the awareness of the staff. In one of the preschools, for example, a preschool teacher talked about mindsets and attitudes towards gender:

I do not see the work with gender equality as a project that we are running, I think it is a mindset that we have .. it feels like you think in a different way now, more like an attitude than a project, that’s what I’m thinking (Preschool teacher).

This shows that a shared knowledge and understanding about gender structures is important within preschool teachers’ teams to construct a practice with possibilities for children to deviate from stereotyped gender norms.

In another Swedish research project, dimensions of learning and play were analysed through interactions between early childhood professionals and children, and also between children and children (Ärlemalm-Hagsér & Pramling-Samuelsson, 2009). The central finding from the analysis showed that different gender patterns appear in everyday activities. These patterns can be presented in four themes: separation, constancy, community, and breaking borders. In the first theme, separation, masculinity as a superior position is realised in different ways in everyday life in preschools. Boys, for example, get more attention from early childhood professionals than do girls. In the second theme, constancy, stereotypical gender structures are strengthened by early childhood professionals’ traditional notions of femininity and masculinity. The third theme, community, illuminates children’s care for each other, acting responsibly and helpfully. In the fourth theme, breaking borders, stereotyped gender patterns were challenged and reformulated. These four themes illuminate different constructions of gender patterns, in which both children and early childhood professionals were active in different ways. Mainly, it was the children who challenged prevailing structures, while early childhood professionals acted more within gender stereotypes. As construction of gender permeates all aspects of everyday life in Swedish preschools, listening to children’s own understandings of gender in everyday activities can shed light on hidden structures and stereotype actions that are invisible for the early childhood professionals (Ärlemalm-Hagsér, 2006).

Working with equity in preschools seems to be a gender-blind practice, as it is regarded as neutral (we don’t treat children differently) or natural (girls and boys are different). However, the children themselves displayed a wide range of positions in different situations (Ärlemalm-Hagsér, 2006, Ärlemalm-Hagsér & Pramling-Samuelsson, 2009; Eidevald, 2009).

Playing in the outdoor environment is an important part of Swedish preschool settings and it provides a range of quality experiences (Ärlemalm-Hagsér, 2006), but it is not gender-neutral. Änggårds (2009) study about children’s play in natural settings such as a forest shows that children’s different play themes are, to a large degree, gender stereotyped. However, the outdoor environment gives potential for more equal play, as a natural environment and nature materials are seldom pervaded with views of girlish or boyish qualities for the children. Sandbergs and Vuorinen’s (2006) study with girls aged three to 12 showed that play is also more dependent on weather. The majority of the children in this study preferred outdoor play when it was warm outside or when there was snow. Preschool girls showed a preference for indoor play, but older girls prefer to play in the forest.

Preschool teachers also showed differences between female and male preschool teachers’ willingness to play: if they want to participate in children’s play or choose not to participate. It also refers to gender-oriented play (play for boys versus play for girls) and also physical play versus calm play. In this study, male preschool teachers were more prepared to engage in physical play. This emerged from experiences from their own childhood. Female preschool teachers tended to prioritise calm play, which they also experienced in their own childhood. Both female and male preschool teachers in the study emphasised the importance of creating inspiring environments for play (Sandberg & Pramling-Samuelsson, 2005).

Value: Learning for sustainable development

The last perspective related to play and learning in Swedish preschools is learning for sustainable development (learning for sustainability, as it is called in Australia). In Swedish preschools, environmental education has been an important part of the preschool program since the document Pedagogical Programme for the Preschool was adopted in 1987. The intentions were, and remain, to foster the children’s environmental awareness and promote an environmentally friendly approach (Ministry of Education and Science, 2010). Studies in learning for sustainability are rather few in the international research field of early childhood education (Pramling-Samuelsson & Kaga, 2008; Davis, 2009). The same tendency is shown in the Swedish Early Childhood Educational research field (Hägglund & Pramling-Samuelsson, 2009).

Nevertheless, in one Swedish evaluation study, Ärlemalm-Hagsér (2003) interviewed Swedish preschool teachers about issues relating to the environment and the nature directive in the national curriculum. The results showed that the teachers understand the preschool directives in three different ways. The first was the concrete perspective, where the teacher focused on children’s observable behaviours towards nature. The second was the wider perspective, where the teacher recognised herself/himself as a role model, as well as teaching children about environmental issues. Third, in the holistic perspective, preschool teachers explained that they used children’s questions as a basis for their activities, from global to local issues. The majority of the preschool teachers expressed the wider perspective.

Another study related to education for sustainable development explored day care attendants’ comprehension of the concept of sustainable development. In this study, Ärlemalm-Hagsér and Sandberg (in press) showed that the day care attendants are now more comfortable with the directives in the Swedish National Curriculum than in the past, and try to work and plan activities in accordance with the preschool curriculum and from a child-centred perspective. The participants defined the concepts of sustainable development as conscious thinking and attitudes, and were viewed from three perspectives: as a holistic concept, just as an environmental concern, or as an issue of democracy. These different approaches created different attitudes and day-to-day practices in the preschools’ pedagogical program. Almost all participants said preschools are characterised by an environment where questions about values, morals, human rights, democracy, participation and a relationship with nature are only lightly touched upon. However, these day care attendants pointed out that they were working to improve learning for sustainable development within their settings. In a recent article, Johansson (2009) raises questions about the idea of world citizens as an important content in the Swedish National Preschool Curriculum and the moral dimensions in learning for sustainable development. She highlights the need for more research on ‘how moral and democratic values are treated in the Swedish preschools interconnected with the ideas of globalization’ (p. 91).


Play has traditionally been tied to the school as a way of developing subjects such as maths, reading and writing. Learning has been mainly associated with adult-guided activities. Today, Swedish early childhood education is more influenced by a sociocultural perspective with a child-centred orientation that considers children as competent and active. The most noticeable quality of the Swedish curriculum is that the child is described as an active child and that children’s experience, knowledge, skills and competence are important as starting points of everyday activities in the early childhood settings.

In Sweden, early childhood education is unique in its combination of learning and play, education, care, and fostering such fundamental values as gender equality and equity. Children’s play can be seen as uncomplicated and simple, but play affects children’s development and learning (see for example, Vygotsky, 1978). It is important to use all opportunities for learning that exist in play. Flow is relevant to the link between play and learning (Csíkszentmihálhyi, 1992; Csíkszentmihálhyi,1999; Sandberg, 2003).

Today, play has started to receive more attention in the context of learning, emphasising and focusing learning in play. This effect of play is emphasised in the Swedish National Curriculum (Ministry of Education & Science, 2010). As a result, the evaluation by the National Agency for Education (2008) showed that the National Swedish Curriculum for Preschool potentially has a strong impact on preschool professionals in giving support for everyday play and learning activities in early childhood settings. The conclusion is that the National Curriculum has impact on the education of young children in Sweden because it shapes professionals’ learning experiences, which changes how they go about preschool activity. For professionals, the national curriculum is also a tool for communication with parents. Therefore, we argue that spreading knowledge on how the national curriculum can contribute to opening up new perspectives and changes in pedagogical activities is of educational importance, in both Sweden and internationally.

To sum up, Swedish research about fundamental values in preschool contexts has improved in the past decade. These empirical studies are influenced by the Swedish historical, cultural and pedagogical context, and cannot easily be generalised to a global context. However, results from the studies cited in this article have implications for praxis and theory both in Sweden and other countries, as they increase knowledge and understanding of play and learning, children’s rights, gender equity, and education for sustainability. These are matters of great importance, and more research needs to be undertaken, since children need to begin to develop skills and competencies in preschool for handling issues such as equal rights, sustainability and democracy.

However, we never know what kind of knowledge children need to develop in changing, uncertain times such as these. And we always need to carefully consider the multitude of early childhood education contexts across the world and not think that a universal solution can be the answer. However, we know that democracy and gender equality are not to be taken for granted anywhere and are lifelong processes. We also know that environmental issues must be treated with great seriousness for the fulfilment of human needs and the survival of the Earth. The foundation needs to be laid in early childhood, and the importance of children as stakeholders (Barratt-Hacking, Hacking & Scott, 2007), active participants and responsible partners needs to be recognised, in both local and global issues in the present day and in the future.


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Australasian Journal of Early Childhood – Volume 36 No 1 February 2011

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Vol. 36 No 1 February 2010
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