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Up close and personal: a visit to ECD schools in Switzerland

| November 10, 2014 | 0 Comments

By Lesley Satchel

I am a retired ISASA preparatory school principal, and have been coordinating a preschool literacy programme in the townships and rural areas around Knysna and Plettenberg Bay in the Western Cape for the past three years.

I am also a past president of the Knysna Rotary Club,1 and had the pleasure of meeting five early childhood development (ECD) experts from Switzerland earlier this year when they visited our part of the country as part of a Rotary exchange programme.

In response, in June 2014, I had the equally special experience of leading a group of five ECD teachers from townships in Knysna, Franschhoek and Khayelitsha in the Western Cape on a month-long study tour of ECD and specialised care facilities in eastern Switzerland.

At each, we were addressed by medical and psychological specialists, social workers and other therapists about the ways they approach treatment for children with special education needs (SEN). Childhood autism spectrum disorder (ASD) was addressed at each location.2

Facts and figures

All education in Switzerland is free to parents. If a child is referred to an expensive private facility, the canton (state or province) pays the fees.

Home schooling is not allowed in Switzerland. Schooling is compulsory from the age of four years and is compulsory for at least nine years (even if the child has extreme special needs). Mainstreaming is the general policy within classes for all SEN children, and pupils are sent to specialised facilities only when they really are unsuitable for a normal class.

Switzerland is a proud and long-established democracy. Each canton decides on its own educational policies, dates of terms and holidays, curricula, etc. according to what the citizens want. Children are also part of the democracy, and adults make conscious efforts to treat them equally. At one clinic we went to, for example, special swooping platforms were built so that children of different heights and ages could be on the same level as the adult supervisors, and there was also an adult-free zone.

In Switzerland, the main emphasis in ECD is on teaching children independence through free play and own-choice activities. Teachers prioritise teaching them how to make responsible choices and children are enabled to manage competently alone. Once a young child can walk, for example, they are never helped again, even up many flights of stairs!

Daily routines

Many Swiss preschool children walk to school on their own or use public transport unaided. They are all issued with reflective harnesses (visible even in snowy or foggy weather) tagged with their name and the name of the relevant school. They are shown by traffic officers how to behave on the roads and in traffic, where to cross streets, and so on. Small children also travel on public transport on their own to school.

It is usual for young children to come to school at 08:00 and go home again for lunch at 12:00 on their own. They return to school at around 13:30 for an afternoon session that lasts until 16:00 (this afternoon session does not happen every day). Children who cannot have lunch at home can have the meal at a place arranged and paid for by the school.

Special effects

Everything in the classes we saw was both tactile and ‘pretty’: large amounts of chiffon, net, velvet, felt and brocade material in all colours was draped on the ceilings, walls and partitions.

We also noticed that stones of all sizes were used in ECD classrooms – some painted, some left natural, some with children’s names on them – all with different functions in mind. Children put the stones with their names on them in a significant place in the classroom early in the morning. It is a powerful way of saying “I am here”. Another classroom had placed posters in strategic areas titled ‘Feelings’, ‘Problems that a child might like to discuss’, ‘Happy and sad’ and ‘Wishes’. The children who had something to report according to those headings would put their name stones in the appropriate place, and the teacher would make a time during the morning to follow up with that child.

Swiss ECD teachers also have an interesting way of attracting children’s attention: no bells ring throughout a big school or even in a class, and there are no raised voices either, ever. Each teacher has a ‘noise item’. It could be a gong, and she chimes it just once. The children stop where they are and fold their arms. No running into a line or bumping anybody, each child just stands still with folded arms and waits to hear what will be next. It works so well!

In addition, I noticed that young learners are trusted with quite dangerous tools such as Stanley knives, power drills, big sharp scissors, sheep shears, tweezers, etc. I never saw any accidents. Swiss ECD teachers also use wash line pegs abundantly to identify children’s clothing, display artwork and much else.

Careful planning

Swiss ECD classrooms (and connecting corridors) are generally light and airy, with windows right up to the ceilings. Glass frequently (and safely) replaces inside and outside walls. Often, the windows do not open low down, but higher up, to prevent accidents. Being an extremely eco-conscious country, Swiss school architects like to use as much natural light as possible. The classrooms have big areas for ‘building house’ corners, ‘block’ areas, art and craft areas and music and library areas. Even the cloakrooms where pupils leave their jackets, shoes and bags are spacious. Many classrooms have an outdoor semienclosed ‘stoep’, which provides another area for children to use for free play.


At facilities where children are given meals, no salt or sugar is added during preparation. The children have good basic food, and are given two choices as often as possible. Choosing is an important part of social education, a key focus of Swiss ECD programmes.

I saw children under two years of age choosing water or milk, a slice of brown bread with jam or honey and slices of fresh apple or apricot. Then they cleared the table and brushed their own teeth. For lunch, the children had pasta with a choice of two sauces, and more fruit slices, and milk or water. The staff ate the same meal on the same dishes. I saw no junk food for children at any ECD facility.

Every day a new excitement

It is normal for Swiss children aged from two or three to nearly seven years (sometimes siblings) to be in the same class. The younger ones learn the routines and skills from the older ones. Experiences are foremost, rather than the results of learning.

Swiss classrooms are full of beautiful, sturdy, wooden, multipurpose furniture that can be used in different configurations. Specifically standardised blocks of wood can be added under the table legs to alter the height of tables evenly. Each child has their own drawer in which to store their work and materials.

In addition, each classroom is full of big clean cushions for children to use as they please. They pile them up, jump on them and throw them around on the multi-textured loose mats and carpets. Each learning area also has a big basin at child height, so that children can clean themselves and equipment on their own. All ablution facilities we saw were well-ventilated and well-maintained.

A central focus in many classrooms is a huge grand chair like a throne, beautifully decorated, for special occasions like birthdays. All classrooms are made inviting for young children when they arrive each day. Teachers present interesting decorations made of twigs, branches, driftwood, big and small leaves, feathers, varnished twigs, pine cones, dried flowers, shells, seed pods and stones for them to examine. The focus is on a multitude of textures and is extended to the containers in the room – made of enamel, basket, ridged materials, etc., instead of standard plastic ice cream ‘bakkies’ – and to the contents of the containers: cherry stones or sawdust in the ‘feely box’, and small toys or lids and corks to be felt and found. Three or four children can do it together, as the ‘feely boxes’ are very big.

Upon entering the classroom, each child can see the daily programme, set up at child height for a week at a time. Each day is indicated with a marker. The different activities have a picture or photograph, with names or photos of the children who should do it that day. Students look to see what they can do that day (not too prescriptive), and they just go along and do it in their own way without anything being explained to them by a teacher. Of course, they can ask, but they don’t have to.

There are always mirrors at child height in Swiss ECD centres. Four or five, for example, are placed strategically for crawling toddlers to see themselves as they go past, or while they observe themselves brushing their teeth or hair.

In many of the preschools we visited, I saw that the colour spectrum wheel is used by teachers throughout the day for learners to become familiar with red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. It is called ‘the magic colour circle’ and has many uses: for one, it marks places for the children to sit on the floor.

Magnetic boards are used a lot on the walls, as many of the Swiss educational toys and games are magnetised.

Communication and literacy

Swiss ECD facilities promote communication skills at all times. Literacy is informally acquired via constant vocabulary enrichment, books, story-telling and songs, and games promoting the dominant language of each area (there are four official languages in Switzerland). Speech therapists assess children’s progress regularly and develop individual programmes for the children who need them. Everything is presented in a ‘playful’ way. The teachers in Swiss preschools we visited each had a computer, but there was no evidence of electronic devices for preschool children.

Learning from other nations

For my team of township teachers, the month in Switzerland, where they were welcomed with the greatest respect and generosity, was a revelation. It made them feel valued, and taught them more about our world. We cannot expect our teachers to deliver quality service when they themselves are lacking in First World experiences.

1. See, for example:
2. Switzerland is generally considered to have high rates of childhood autism spectrum disorder. See, for example:

Category: Summer 2014

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