In the United States, I never met a second grader like Carla. Every morning at my Finnish public school, she spends just three hours in the classroom. And every afternoon she has three hours of free play at her afterschool club. At 4:00 pm, she walks home on her own.

When Carla unlocks the door to her apartment, her mom usually isn’t there to greet her. This has been the case since she was in first grade.

I ask Carla if she ever dreads the mile-long walk home through the narrow city streets. She assures me that she never gets scared, and this impresses me. Helsinki isn’t New York City, but it’s a major European city nonetheless.

***

When Carla sheds her backpack at the door, she doesn’t flop helplessly on the couch and watch the clock, impatiently waiting for her mom to return. She’s proactive and tries to get her homework out of the way.

I wonder what else she does while she’s alone, and she tells me that she likes to make food for herself. Especially eggs.

Carla – this petite eight-year-old – makes eggs the “grownup” way. She switches on the stove, cracks an egg into a frying pan and savors her favorite afternoon snack all by herself. I’m very impressed.

***

I shared Carla’s story with several of my Helsinki fifth graders, and they weren’t so impressed. The most common response went something like this: “Yup, that sounds like my life.” One of my students told me that he had been commuting home on his own since he was a preschooler!

During our conversation, my fifth graders had wondered why I was so amazed by Carla. And I had told them that – where I’m from in the United States – I’m not used to seeing such young children with so much freedom. I reasoned that American “helicopter parents” have a lot to do with this.

They looked very confused and asked me, “What’s a helicopter parent?” I explained that this kind of parent anxiously hovers over his child in an effort to prevent something bad from happening. Naturally, helicopter parents limit the freedom of their children.

My fifth graders racked their brains to come up with examples of Finnish parents who matched this description. But they couldn’t think of any.

***



My fifth graders appear to be fiercely independent compared with American fifth graders. All of my students in Finland have their own cell phones. Most of them commute to school on their own. All of them walk through the hallways independently, which they’ve been doing since they were in first grade.

Throughout this school year, the independence of my fifth graders has challenged me to trust them with more freedom in the classroom.

Two months ago, the other fifth grade teacher and I experimented by having an “Independent Learning Week.” At the beginning of this week, I provided my students with a list of tasks to complete in nearly every academic subject. And I told them that we wouldn’t have regular lessons for the next few days. Instead, they would have open blocks where they could finish these tasks at their own pace.

I trusted them to reach out to me when they needed help. During Independent Learning Week, I wasn’t circulating around the classroom and peering over their shoulders. Instead, I was giving them opportunities to wrestle with their work first – something that I’ve seen my Finnish colleagues do regularly with their students.

I was also trusting my fifth graders with a lot of instructional time – nearly 15 hours worth – and yet, I wasn’t anxious. I knew they were capable of being successful while having lots of freedom.

All in all, my students didn’t let me down.  Everyone finished their work – even if they needed extra time.

***

 Although American kids appear to be a lot less independent than Finnish kids, it’s not because they lack an “independence gene.” The biggest difference, in my opinion, is that American children have fewer opportunities to exercise freedom.

I wonder how much of this has to do with our cultural mindset as Americans. We so desperately want our children to be safe, or to succeed, that we try to take a more active role in their lives. We want to minimize risks, and we think that exerting a greater degree of control will help.

But what I’ve seen in Finland is that children “rise to the occasion” – and become more self-directed – when they experience more freedom.

***

Tim Walker is an American teacher and writer based in Finland. He writes regularly about education and culture at Taught by Finland.

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This post was originally published during the 2013-2014 school year. Thanks for reading and sharing! (Photo credit: Rob Hille)