Shamelessly my last visit to Denmark (where most of my family reside) was over a decade ago. However, last week I downed tools and headed over the pond to touch down in Copenhagen. Although the purpose of my trip was to relax, unwind and enjoy my cousins fabulous wedding in a beautiful castle overlooking the sea, I also managed to explore the northern coastal regions of Denmark, Copenhagen and nip over the sea to Sweden where I pinned down unsuspecting local families to discuss their experiences of education in Scandinavia…
Much to my surprise I learnt that a traditional Danish kindergarten is enclosed by walls rather than woodland and that Forest Kindergartens make up to only 10% of early years provision in Denmark. I wanted to learn more about traditional Danish Kindergartens and so I asked my Auntie Elv,i a retired kindergarten head teacher, to give me some context. Elvi explained that all learning in Denmark is centered around nature and that children at Kindergarten (three to seven years) have access to outside space whenever they wish, even in the depths of winter. My cousin piped in with the popular Scandinavian proverb ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing’.
Later I spoke with Helena who recalled a story about a friend who relocated to Denmark from Germany and enrolled her son in a traditional Danish Kindergarten. However, when she discovered that her son ‘would have to play outside, even when it was raining’ she moved back to Germany. It seems even the children attending a walled kindergarten venture outdoors in all elements. Helena was flabbergasted that playing outside in the rain could be considered as anything other than normal, ‘it is so good for children to be outside, we do not get enough daylight to spend our time indoors all day’. I reflected on my own experiences of working in early years settings in the UK and felt a twinge of embarrassment as I recalled on the frequency with which teachers would insist on holding ‘wet play’ where children would remain in a classroom instead of venturing outside, sometimes for entire days to avoid contact with the rain...
During my travels around Copenhagen I stumbled across a family enjoying some peace and quiet in The King’s Garden a beautiful park in central Copenhagen and decided this was a fantastic opportunity to talk to them about their experiences of early years education in the city. The family kindly obliged to answer my questions, Ada, mother to Eleanora, told me that there are a number of Forest Kindergartens in Copenhagen and the children take a bus ride out into the forest every afternoon. Eleanora, however, attends a Montessori Nursery, where in addition to her Montessori learning, she enjoys trips all over Copenhagen - to the zoo and the libraries and the Kindergarten has a lovely garden for the children to enjoy.
I met a lovely family in a beautiful fishing village on the northern coast of Denmark. They had relocated from Copenhagen to offer their son, Aleksander, more opportunities to be outside. Noah explained that they had also enrolled their Aleksander into a forest kindergarten after his third birthday. Noah recalls looking around some of the more formal kindergarten settings and thinking ‘why would we choose to put our son in a classroom at this age?’ ‘When we are young we play, but we soon grow out of play and I don’t want our son to miss out on this important stage so young.’ He remarked ‘I am not sure who the classroom actually benefits’ Noah and his wife go on to describe the forest kindergarten with real excitement.
People living in Denmark pay some of the highest tax rates globally and according to my Auntie Elvi, people in Denmark do not object to this because it is clear that their money is distributed to fund fantastic services, ‘education is just one of those’. In Denmark, most Kindergarten’s are funded entirely by the government. However, the government also highly subsidize funding at privately-owned Froebel, Montessori or Forest Kindergarten’s to make these affordable for almost all families living in Denmark. On average parents choosing a private kindergarten would pay between £10 and £100 per month towards the cost. Regardless of this additional charge, Forest Kindergarten’s are highly regarded and very popular for children aged three to seven years in Denmark where around 500 are nestled in woodland (Stasiuk, 2018).
During my visit to Denmark families and teachers exuded a certain sense of pride in their education system, which I feel is understandable considering their position on the PISA scale. In Denmark, early years teacher training is taken very seriously, an early year’s teacher is regarded as having one of the most important roles in education. The lowest level of qualification for Kindergarten teachers in Denmark is achieved through four years study at University (The ministry of Social Affairs, 2000). At Wigwam Forest School, we regard thorough training in Early Years Development as imperative to high quality provision and all staff are qualified have dedicated five years to training. Nevertheless, in the UK nurseries are required only to train a senior member of staff for one year, part-time and of the remaining staff, only 50% need to also complete a one year, part-time course in Early Years Development. Teachers in Denmark also receive double the salary of a nursery teacher in the UK but from my observations it seems the ‘traditional’ English nursery has a very different purpose to the ‘traditional’ Danish kindergarten and I am proud to say our little Wigwam Forest School sits somewhere in the middle, whilst complying with our obligations under the Early Years Foundation Stage Statutory Framework, also ensuring children have access to outdoor play all year around to explore, learn and respect our natural world and developing their imagination.