5 things your child will learn in Czech kindergarten (and what he won't)

With seven years experience, I've learned a few things about what to expect ...

My five-year-old son’s biggest thrill when his preschool started this September was the fact that he didn’t need to take his pajamas with him. He was a kindergartener now, in his final year of Czech state preschool, and he wouldn’t have to nap after lunch like his younger classmates. He announced the fact to anyone who asked him if he was excited about going back to preschool. Most friends or relatives living outside the Czech Republic didn’t understand. There aren’t many countries around the world that have preschoolers changing clothes as often during the day as the Czechs do.

The Czech state preschool system which includes the traditional “kindergarten” year (the school year before starting first grade) runs from ages 3-6. While some preschools have classes designated by age, others offer mixed classrooms. A typical class size is 24 students with 2 supervising teachers who work overlapping hours. Preschools are open from 6:30-7:00 in the morning until 16:00 or 17:00 in the afternoon. Pick-up times are after lunch between 12:15-12:45 or after rest time between 15:00-17:00. Most children attend preschool near their homes, although a lack of space in preschools in the past five-seven years has pushed parents to look beyond their immediate neighborhood for a spot in a preschool.

With seven years experience having at least one child in the Czech state preschool system, I've learned a few things about what to expect a child to learn at Czech preschool.

1) How to change his or her own clothes, shoes & pajamas

Czech preschoolers typically come to school wearing outdoor, all-weather type pants and outdoor shoes. Upon arriving at school, they change in a cloak room into “indoor” school clothes – for girls this means putting a skirt over tights or putting on sweat pants; for boys this means wearing tights only or sweat pants. The children also change into slippers or indoor shoes. Later in the morning when they go outside for their daily walk or playground time, they change back into their outdoor clothes and shoes. After lunch, children who stay at school change into pajamas to sleep on mats. When they leave to go home, they change back into their all-weather pants and shoes.

During my older son’s first year at preschool, the teacher asked me to help him train at home taking off his long-sleeved shirt. She explained that he couldn’t seem to get his elbow tucked like the other children in order to pull his sleeve off. After she mentioned the problem to me, I realized that I was the only parent who rushed my child in and out of his clothes in the morning and afternoons. While other Czech parents sat on the kid-size benches watching without commenting for several long minutes as their children wrestled with zippers that wouldn’t come up or tugged at stockings that wouldn’t come down, I prodded my daughter and later my son into clothes and shoes quickly so that we could be on the way with our day.

With my third child, I have learned to sit still for the time it takes him to change by himself. Admittedly, we cheat the system a little. I let him wear his “indoor” clothes home each day and he keeps only a pair of outdoor all-weather pants at school. When I asked friends who are preschool teachers in the U.S., they told me they'd never get anything done if they had to dress and undress 24 kids each day. But somehow the Czech system works.

2) How to walk in pairs behind the teacher through the city (including navigating public transportation)

Czech preschoolers typically spend at least an hour in the morning and another 1-2 hours in the afternoon outdoors. In the morning, rain or shine, they go to the school playground or for walks around their neighborhood, sometimes to a nearby park. In their locker at school, students keep a raincoat and every child is required to have a set of rain boots on hand in the cloak room for going out on wet days. When the children leave the school, they wear brightly colored traffic vests, and they walk hand-in-hand in pairs. Usually one teacher leads and the second brings up the rear.

When my son took swimming lessons with his preschool, his class rode a train to their swimming lessons in the nearby Holešovice neighborhood. On the way back, they walked the 2.5-3 km distance through the Stromovka Park to their school. The 45-minute swim class became a half-day field trip. My son remembers the walk through the park more than the swim class, and I realized that Czechs expect even small children to be able to go on foot fair distances.

3) How to eat lunch with a knife and a fork (and without talking)

During the school day, Czech preschoolers eat a morning and an afternoon snack as well as a hot lunch. Lunch includes a soup and a main course. There are a variety of sweet Czech meals that are served only to children and are popular in school lunches – šišky s mákem, a dish of potato gnocchi served with poppy-seed sauce, and buchtičky se šodou, sweet rolls served in a vanilla custard sauce, are two of my children’s all-time school lunch favorites. The main course is eaten with a fork and a knife. The knife is used to help push rice and pasta onto the fork as well as to cut. I was surprised when my children first asked for knives at home, since American preschool-aged children typically use only a fork or spoon.

Before lunch at two of my children's preschools, they often said, “Dobré chutnání, bez povídání.” – literally, “Enjoy your meal without talking.” My older son repeatedly got in trouble for talking at the lunch table. Although our family generally talks during our meals at home, we tried to respect the school's policy and explained to our son that the school lunch rules applied to him, but talking at home during the meal was welcome.

4) How to appreciate Czech theater and learning the skill of oral recitation

The Czech culture has a rich theater tradition, and Czech preschools have monthly theater performances for their students. Czech preschools also have seasonal gatherings where parents are invited to watch small performances given by the children, usually songs the children have learned to sing or poems or chants they recite collectively. Since the children are not able to read or write, I’m always surprised by how much effort the preschool teachers have put into having three and four-year-old children memorize long chants. This tradition of oral recitation continues in the Czech grammar school. Autumn harvest, Christmas and the arrival of spring or Easter are typical times for these events. At my son’s preschool, parents are asked to bring refreshments to share and there is a collective craft for parents to do afterward with their children.

5) How to follow rules and behave in a collective (i.e. work in a group, clean up toys and be nice to fellow classmates)

Perhaps the most important attribute Czech preschools teach their students is how to behave in a collective. Teachers use the group mentality to encourage students to participate, to behave and to respect the rules. Preschools go on regular field trips on buses and public transportation. Having watched little legions of preschoolers hopping on and off trams, crossing at traffic lights and traipsing through the streets of Prague, I believe the teachers must be confident that their charges will listen and stay in line, literally.

My older son attended a week-long overnight “school in nature” trip during his final year of preschool where he and his fellow kindergartners stayed in a pension in the mountains with their teachers. They spent most of each day divided into teams doing outdoor activities and making crafts from nature. This was the first time he’d slept away from home and I was hesitant to let him go. However, his preschool teacher convinced me that he’d regret being left out of the collective, so I took a deep breath and sent him. In the end, he returned more independent but also much closer friends with his classmates. My younger son’s “school in nature” trip is coming up in a few weeks, and I can’t say I’m excited about sending him, although I know that he’ll likely return home from it just as pleased as my older son was.

What Czech preschools don't teach...

If you are a newcomer to the Czech state school system, don’t expect a traditional academic learning experience in Czech kindergarten. Czech preschools don’t teach children to read or write. Although some preschools have afternoon programs where instead of resting after lunch 5-6 year olds learn basic school-readiness skills like coordination and fine motor skills. Still, preschool teachers do not explicitly teach the children letter or sound recognition or how to write letters or numbers.

Upon entering first grade, a kindergartner should be able to count from 1-20, recite a familiar Czech rhyme, chant or song and write his or her name. But first grade teachers don’t want children who know how to read or write already because they have a system for learning, and they don’t want to have to re-teach children who learned the skills incorrectly in preschool, or at least that's what I've heard. Plus, there is a widespread philosophy here that children should enjoy their childhoods and that there is time enough for academic learning from the first grade on.

My son is still so excited that he doesn’t have to use pajamas or rest after lunch that he’s not at all bothered that the only letters he knows are the three in his name “SAM” and a couple others from his siblings’ names. Unlike kindergartners in the U.K. or U.S. who can read entire books and have mastered basic writing, my Czech preschooler is blissfully ignorant of the academic schooling he’s missing.

Then again, he can take a long-sleeved shirt on and off and use a knife to push his food onto his fork. He knows how to cross the street with his class, and you can take his word that you need to board a train quickly, if you don't want to get left behind. 

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