Ages 1-5 is where language development is strongest and that’s where I would have to start. I’ve never worked with toddlers before, especially ones who couldn’t understand me. I didn’t know what to expect and I haven’t changed a diaper in years (and not many, at that).
I received a phone call asking if I could substitute for two days. Yes! Excited and nervous, I was given a full tour and introductions. The teachers were very nice and helpful. I met a couple of parents who were excited that there could be a native English speaker with their kids.
Playtime needs no translation, and neither do personalities. I didn’t learn many names but I learned which kids like to do what. I quickly picked up on which ones had a lot of energy and loved to dance, which ones liked to build, which ones played a little rougher and you had to keep an eye on, which ones loved to be picked up and held and never wanted to touch the floor. And which ones always had a runny nose.
Actions speak louder than words. Even if the kids couldn’t understand what I was saying, they understood what I was doing. When I start jumping next to the trampoline, they get excited and start to jump. When I dance, they dance. When I start playing with puppets they sit and watch, or play along. If you show them how to do something, they will mimic exactly. If you make a silly face they will laugh, and if you run they will chase.
Tears are Universal. Kids in Sweden are no different than kids anywhere else- the mornings are hard and emotional after the parents leave, and sometimes their crying makes the other kids cry too. For the most part they are a happy and playful bunch though.
Human connection is all any child needs. I don’t need to understand what they are saying in between sobs, and they don’t need to understand my reassuring words. They just want hugs, cuddles, and comfort. I was surprised at how quickly they clang to me, hugging, dancing, playing, crying, or just leading me around – even if they didn’t understand what I was saying.
English, Not Baby Talk. My first few hours I found myself making silly noises and weird voices because I knew they couldn’t understand me and my instinct was “baby talk” is universal. But that is WHY I’m there, to speak English- even if they don’t understand. Sometimes they will and sometimes they won’t, they just need to hear it and get used to it. Some of the kids ask, “Hon pratar Engelska?” to the other teachers, “She’s speaking English?” So, they know what it is, which is a good start.
Repetition. The kids love to move the chairs from the table and push them around the room. They know they aren’t allowed to, because even in English they understood that “Chairs stay with the table,” meant what they always hear, “Stolar vid bordet,” and start heading back to the table.
Messy. Turns out kids like sand. And dirt. And come with an arsenal of saliva and boogers. They miss their mouth when they eat and they like to throw things. I know this sounds like common sense, but the first day on the job being surrounded by 25 kids was overwhelming- the next day I dressed down and expected and embraced the mess.
Freedom. The mindset for watching young kids is much different in Sweden. When I saw kids climbing a tree I nearly had a heart attack, but the other teacher said they are allowed to do things like that (within reason). Too high on a swing? Just a reminder that they can get hurt. Playing with big sticks, no big deal, just keep an eye on them. There is no mentality of getting in trouble or sued by the parents. Kids are kids, they play and sometimes get hurt. That’s how they learn. Of course they take precautions and are careful and tell kids not to do certain things, but there is certainly more freedom than I am used to.
Pram Patrol. To me this was one of the more interesting and different things I found in the förskolan than how we do things in the US. Nap time is outside. During lunch the teachers set up each kids pram so that when each one finishes eating we can dress them in a jacket, shoes, and a hat, tuck them into their pram with a warm blanket and they can sleep outside in the fresh air. At first I thought this was crazy- I’m used to nap time being in a classroom with small mattresses spread around on the floor. The teachers explained that this gives the kids more comfort, in their own space, cuddled in a small area, fresh air, and less germs and bacteria spreading from kid to kid while they sleep and breath on each other. If one wakes up, the others don’t notice. We can rock each one to sleep and walk around to check on them – which is what I like to call pram patrol (Read: Pram parade).
The classroom is always growing and changing, which I think is really fun and dynamic. They watch what the kids like to do or find interesting and work with it, adding it to the play area.
I know I can learn a lot from working with these little ones, and hope they can learn from me – even if it is only every once in a while if the position I get is a substitute one. Working with people, no matter what age, is refreshing and rewarding. Since toddlers don’t have highly developed communication, working with them in one language is not so different than in another. It has been a great experience so far and we will see if it continues! So far I’m just happy to have had the opportunity to try it out.