Where school is child's play: Margaret Dolley learns to admire the Danes' way of teaching her children

It is Saturday afternoon, and Jack (seven) is writing a poem inspired by his school's project, with gentle prompting from Dad. A couple of streets away, five-year-old Sophie's pocket money has gone on a science starter kit.

On a trip back to Britain from Denmark, where we now live, I was chastened to be reminded how much time is consumed by the British obsession with education. Sophie and Jack, the children of friends, sit in their classrooms for twice as long as many other European children. And most days they can expect a read-together session at home with Mum or Dad.

But though they attend popular primary schools in south London, their parents still fret about what they are learning, and try to top it up with that little bit extra.

It is infectious, of course, and I am left questioning my wisdom in committing my own children to a very different system. My seven-year-old is in the bottom class of her Danish primary school, where the pace is extremely gentle: lessons are readily abandoned to allow the children to play together in the sun; and only once has she brought an assignment home.

Most Scandinavians believe passionately that formal learning before this age is undesirable. If we are to grow into healthy, whole adults, we need above all to play well. Sophie may be able to read ably at five and Jack can to do division at seven, but in Denmark they would be under no pressure to do so. Why waste one's brief early childhood on reading and writing, which you can spend the rest of your life doing anyway?

From observing my daughter's class, I do suspect that processes which in Britain are sometimes dragged out over two or three years can take two or three months if you wait and strike when the time is ripe.

Friends in London have become nervous wrecks as their demoralised children floundered in a dwindling pool of non-readers as their friends romped past. Then suddenly it all started falling into place at the age of seven or eight.

Don't think, however, that little Danes are doing nothing. The vital difference is that the path to school is smoothed by almost total nursery provision.

More than 85 per cent of three- to six-year-olds attend nursery - many of them all day. We pay about pounds 35 a week for a full-time place, but it is heavily subsidised, and for low-income parents it comes cheaper or free.

Setting your five-year-old loose in the nursery and knowing she will stay there for at least another year can be unnerving.

Each day serves up a similar, comfortable, rather low-key routine: long walks in the woods, a lot of playing in the sandpit, dressing-up, drawing, singing, hearing stories and baking. The nursery does put emphasis on learning to be in a group and to negotiate with others - but it is play that is paramount.

Fresh from London, I was cynical. Didn't the later school start give even more scope for the pushy parent to give a 'head start' with letters and numbers at home? I have been surprised at the extent to which it doesn't: at parents' meetings, one of the commonest worries is that there may be a bit too much structure.

My elder daughter's teacher, Lars, taught in England for a year, and says he does miss some of the British parents' concern about their children's education. 'Danes basically want their children to have a nice time - they don't want to have to be involved in the details.'

My younger daughter plays fit to burst in these two extra years of hers in nursery. I never thought it was possible to play so hard.

But then she stops and asks me a fundamental question about eternity, or the planets, and I wonder whether she isn't being roundly patronised and bored in a system that wildly underestimates children's capabilities.

'They must learn to be bored,' insists her teacher. 'That is how you learn to be independent, and to set your own goals.'

I sometimes sigh for the inspirational highpoints of the state nursery we left in Brixton: the dinosaurs placed interestingly in the sand pit one day, the paper bags the next; the glory of a junk sculpture, rather than the Danish mass-produced Easter chickens my daughter couldn't be bothered to bring home.

My comfort is that Danish children will, on average, have drawn equal with their British counterparts by the age of 11, and have superseded them at 16, when almost all of them will be fluent in a second European language.

And increasingly, I think it is right to err on the side of doing too little. My elder daughter has just reclaimed my old copy of Edith Nesbit's Five Children and It, and was struck by the wisdom of the dedication:

. . . Till you can read, oh days that pass

That day will come too soon alas]

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