At first glance, Finnish pre-schools do not look that much different from those in Singapore.
The classrooms are spacious and open to allow children to move around easily and freely. The walls are plastered with children's drawings and numbers and letters of the alphabet.
But one thing that surprises visitors, especially those from Singapore, is how much the children play and how little they are drilled in the alphabet and numbers.
Dr Christine Chen, president of the Association for Early Childhood Educators ( Singapore), recently led a group of teachers on a visit to Finnish pre-schools and recalls: "We would enter a kindergarten and most of the classrooms would be empty. The kids would be playing in the playground, in the sandpit and so on.
"They also have what they call a forest kindergarten where pre-schools regularly take children to the forest for activities."
Education professor Lasse Lipponen, who heads pre-school teacher training at Helsinki University, says pre-school years, from three to seven, emphasise play, and free play at that. This is unlike Singapore's emphasis on purposeful play which involves teachers guiding children to make meaning out of their experiences.
"In the Finnish formal schooling system, the teaching of the alphabet and numbers starts at seven. Before that, it is all about socialisation and play to give children the foundation for learning.
"A play-based curriculum stimulates physical, social-emotional, and creative development and lays the basis for cognitive development."
He also defends the use of more free play as opposed to structured play or purposeful play.
"We believe strongly that free play nurtures creativity and independence.
"Children must decide which game to play, what the rules should be, and wait to take turns.
"This builds qualities such as self-awareness, self-regulation, and flexibility," he says.