The Marvel of Pre-School in Estonia

by Erin Crouch

In 2014, Erin and her family moved from the U.S. to Estonia, a member country of the European Union and NATO between Finland, Latvia and Russia, where English, Estonian and Russian are all widely spoken. Their decision was based on the cost and quality of living, health care system, levels of technology and other benefits not available in the U.S., like free public transportation. Erin is now in the master’s program at Tallinn University on a full scholarship and working part-time at a non-profit organization supporting civil society in Russia; her husband is self-employed and works online. The family’s residence permits are currently based on her educational status, but could be supported by her husband’s status as a business owner as well. Subject to approval and a language test, one can apply for permanent residency after five years of temporary residency in Estonia, which allows living and working in any E.U. country. Estonia does not allow dual citizenship, so they plan to stay U.S. citizens.

“It’s his individualism,” the teacher whispered to me. “He just won’t walk in pairs!”

This brash individualist, crying out against being a cog in the machine? My four-year-old son, newly enrolled in his Russian-language pre-school in Estonia.

Part of our decision to move from the U.S. to Estonia centered around the education system: Paid for by the state, we were eligible for monthly subsidies for child care and a “family allowance” of 19.18 euros ($24) until he turned 16, despite having only temporary resident permits. Although hardly riches, it’s a mark of how Estonia sees children as a social good to be supported. In addition to the care benefits, our son was also eligible for free state health insurance and a 90 percent subsidy on the cost of prescriptions, even as a non-citizen (we also bought the private health insurance for non-EU nationals for him, since it only cost around 150 euros — $190 — for the year). Upon starting grade school, he could attend a public school with a top OECD rating, highly qualified teachers, and one of the smallest gaps in results between high and low socioeconomic backgrounds: a free, equal education.

In the meantime, however, I had forgotten to buy him house slippers to wear at school instead of his regular shoes, and I definitely needed coaching on how to use my Estonian identification card in a USB-port reader on my laptop to pay the day care bill by wire transfer.

Finding my son this pre-school place had not been entirely simple. In e-Estonia, the search for child care begins online. A state website shows every pre-school in the city, its classification as private or public and the waiting list numbers by age group. You can sort by region and language of instruction, including Estonian, English, Finnish and Russian. But arriving in October, my son had missed all the summer enrollment dates and I would have to take what was available.

Municipal pre-schools are almost fully supported by the state, charging around 30 euros ($38) a month for the children’s daily meals, but these spots fill up quickly: among the 18-month-old age group — the age at which the paid Estonian parental leave runs out — I saw waiting lists of 40–60 children for a single place. Friends told me they put their children on the list when they find out they are pregnant. At the four-year-old group level, most municipal places had 4 to 6 children waiting on the list.

Filling that gap are the private pre-schools. Subject to the same licensing and inspection, most people agree that the quality of municipal and private pre-schools are similar; the difference is the cost, with private pre-schools charging 100–300 euros ($127-$380) a month plus 1–2 euros ($1–3) a day for meals. The private schools also have smaller group sizes, usually under 10 children per group, while the municipal schools have 15 or more. I quickly noted that even the private school was about a quarter of my monthly day care cost in the U.S.

In my neighborhood, there were eight pre-schools taught in Russian (our second language) and none in English. Five were private and three were municipal, and only one had an opening for my son’s age group. Decision made!

Which brings me to how I ended up in an Eralastaed (a private school), explaining to a baffled bleached blonde that my son just likes to wear a cape sometimes and wondering what “Me and General Society” could be as a course for pre-schoolers in the daily schedule. The application process was laughably simple by American standards: no deposit, no liability release, just an application with lines for his name, full or half-day designation and a single question about allergies. I met with the teachers, who firmly declined my offer to stay in the lobby for a few hours during his first day. After that, I decided to let go, and let the regime act from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., as the director advised.

Spoiler alert: He seems to like it just fine. There have been some minor hang-ups, for example, everything I forgot to provide (slippers, pajamas, mittens when it was still in the 60s) and how fried macaroni with ground beef and rye bread doesn’t top his list of lunch favorites. The teacher recently mentioned to me that she coaxed him out of bed after rest time by explaining that, “…if we don’t do things according to schedule, all will be chaos and we have to respect the collective!” Even more unbelievably, the explanation satisfied him.

I learned that the general society class actually revolves around seasons and holidays and making curiously feces-like “hedgehog” pinecone projects. They don’t practice writing their letters (like Finland, kids mostly learn to read at age 7 when they go to school) and they go outside to the nearby park for at least an hour in any weather, wearing tiny reflective vests and yes, walking in pairs. They have Estonian and English language lessons twice a week, as well as art and movement. The teachers never call us for anything, including once when our son developed a raging ear infection and ran around the room mindlessly striking other children. There are no notes about his attitude or volunteer drives or learning style discussions.

My son seems to be learning good social skills and claims to have fun with the other children. He has consented to walk in pairs and is generally deemed a very good boy by both of his caregivers, who split the work week with two days each and a half day on Wednesday. I can’t wait until the end of the year, when I will receive the results of his “portfolio,” including collages of Miss Beautiful Autumn (an anthropomorphized leaf) and a banner devoted to Day of the Vegetables (exact date uncertain). And, finally, I’d like to thank Estonian taxpayers for underwriting this endeavor.

Erin Crouch got into the Russian language for the fame and fortune, but stuck around for the jogging suits and gold chains. She lives in Tallinn, Estonia.

Photo: Jim G.

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