Nothing—especially our toddler’s 1.5+ years in a private childcare centre in Singapore—could quite prepare us for our Danish forest kindergarten experience. We’d heard of it, read about it, but didn’t quite believe a word of it. No formal teaching? Unstructured play, all day? Wouldn’t the children be lost? Wouldn’t they be bored? Or, if all the playing was to be “educational,” wouldn’t it be a waste of good playtime?
The transition marked our first culture shock, our first adjustment, as we traded in formal learning and structured play for an unexpected adventure in the trees, twigs in the pockets, mud on the pants, and sand in the hair.
Are you OK with that?
It was a blustery end-of-summer in 2013 when we made our way to the Pladsanvisningen—roughly translated to “the placement guide”—a government agency which manages the enrollment lists of Copenhagen’s public kindergartens. Preschool places are assigned according to seniority on the kindergartens’ waiting lists, with the usual sibling trump card disrupting the otherwise straightforward placement equation.
Every child can choose up to three public kindergartens around the neighbourhood; we shortlisted lovely ones with plenty of playground space, which naturally were popular and had wait lists filled up through the next summer.
A spot, however, was immediately available at a kindergarten called Minislottet. We gasped in anticipation.
“Are you OK with that?” the lady at the agency asked.
OK with what? was really the burning question on our minds, but we dumbly nodded and smiled. The moment we stepped out, I looked at the school address printed on our registration form, and googled it. What?! The Minislottet was 50 minutes outside of central Copenhagen! Did the lady misunderstand? Maybe we made a mistake with our address!
When we finally got home to regroup, we google-translated the entire registration form, typing in each and every word (there was no translate image function back then) and discovered additional peculiar information: there was an Opsamlingen (roughly translated as “collection point”) 20 minutes from where we lived, and a number to call.
We were to arrive at the collection point the next morning before 8:30am. My heart dropped as we entered the room. It was nondescript, albeit fairly large. A few children were playing with some construction toys in a corner; others were drawing or colouring. The usual morning madness: some children running about, others just milling around, parents reminding their children to use the bathroom.
Pedagogue C. approached us. (In Denmark, “pedagogues” are the main workers in nurseries and other childcare settings.) After the initial introductions, she said, “The bus picks us up at 8:40, and arrives back here about 4 in the afternoon. We close at 5, so we ask parents to come as early as they can.” She smiled broadly. Shortly after, the children were asked to line up.
I grabbed Sara’s hand quite tightly, not sure which of us was more nervous. As we filed out of the room, there was a bus waiting, and a stream of 3- to 5-year-olds put their bags in the luggage hold before clambering up the steps of the bus. Head pedagogue E. was at the bus entrance, greeting each child and checking off names on her list. I spotted a young assistant on the bus, making sure the children’s seatbelts were securely fastened.
“Welcome to Minislottet! You and Sara can sit at the back of the bus today, but Sara will be given a fixed seat later. All the children have their own seats on the bus so they know where to sit. Otherwise, it will be too crazy!” E. laughed as she shook Sara’s hand.
As I settled myself at the back of the bus, I looked out of the window and saw parents gathered outside, waving goodbye and blowing kisses to their children. They were still waving and blowing kisses as the bus pulled away. I would soon join this waving and kissing contingent, this ritual an integral part of my morning routine for years to come.
Once the bus was cruising on the highway, E. greeted the children over the PA system and introduced the day’s activities. After she spoke, she put on some sing-along music and stories. An hour later, the bus turned into a clearing and stopped. There was a palpable sense of excitement in the air. The children, most of whom had quieted down, burst into life. I saw them jump off the bus and run through a set of gates.
I couldn’t quite believe what was happening. Was Sara meant to go to a kindergarten an hour away, and then back, every day? Why would any parent do this? When we were in Singapore, we were fortunate to have the childcare centre 10 minutes down the road from where we lived!
Welcome to Minislottet
Forest type preschools in Copenhagen operate under three categories: udflytterbørnehave, skovbus and rumlepotte; the differences revolve around frequency and characteristic of the excursion into the woods.
Minislottet (“Mini-castle”) is an udflytterbørnehave—an “outlying kindergarten in an environment with plenty of fresh air.” A castle, it definitely was not. Instead, it appeared to be a shabby-chic, charmingly converted farmhouse, surrounded by forest with the coast nearby. And as I stepped through the door to the back garden, I discovered the castle’s crown jewel: Minicastle’s back garden was itself a mini-forest!
There was a little wardrobe area where the 24 children stored their bags. Some changed into their boots before running out. I almost blurted out, “Be careful! Don’t run!” before I realised there had barely been any adult instruction since we arrived. The Minicastle had come alive: the children were running around, playing and laughing. Soon after, they were jumping on wooden logs and stumps, climbing up trees, swinging down branches, digging up soil and rustling about in the bushes. I was stunned.
Don’t worry: No teaching
At Minicastle, the children were allowed to play whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, however they wanted. Inside the farmhouse, there was a little room where the children could nap but E. noted, “No, they don’t take naps because the day is too precious to not be playing outside. But they can if they want to. They decide.”
Throughout the day, the pedagogues and assistants arranged a few activities around the wooden tables: storytelling, drawing, colouring, Hama beading. Various arts and crafts materials were available for any child who was keen. No activity was compulsory.
E. beamed, “There are only two timings the children need to pay attention to: when it’s time to eat—snack and lunch—and time to get back on the bus. We don’t want to leave any child behind at Minislottet. We try to count them before we return.” She laughed heartily.
Lunch was a cold—literally—affair. Sugar-free and organic, there was a healthy spread of brown rye bread with slices of cheese, capsicums, cucumbers, tomatoes, and liver-paste… I stuck to nibbling my organic crispbread. After lunch, it was music and dance—no sign of the usual rules around letting your stomach rest for half an hour after eating. And no, it was not the Danish alphabet song nor was it The Eensy Weensy Spider. Instead, the children danced to Livin’ La Vida Loca and Murder on the Dance Floor.
While many kindergartens these days tout play, Danish kindergartens level up. The emphasis is not merely on play, but free play. The adults at Minicastle were present and watchful, but hands-off. I saw the pedagogues step back, preferring to provide less instruction and to allow the children to plan the day on their own, spending time doing whatever caught their fancy. If they were bored, E. explained that they were encouraged to be bored—usually the boredom would spur them to find something else to play, but some actually did need a break!
To those used to a more traditional approach (all right, I mean myself), this hardly seemed like a rigorous educational programme. I asked E. to tell me more about the curriculum, expecting a timetable of sorts: Counting from 10-10:30, Danish from 10:30-11, etc.
“Oh, no, no, don’t worry,” E. assured me. “There is no teaching in Danish kindergartens. We will make sure the children get as much play as possible.”
Outdoor risky play
A hallmark of Danish forest kindergartens is children spending all day outdoors—come rain, sleet, wind, snow or shine. And that’s where the Danish mantra Der findes intet der hedder dårligt vejr, kun dårligt påklædning (“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing”) kicks into high gear. The concept was foreign to me. Back in Singapore, the slightest drop of rain immediately elicited a “Let’s go in!” response. I grew up half suspecting that getting my head caught in the rain would result in a headache.
Contrast this with my conversation with Sara, a few weeks into Minicastle:
“Oh no, was it raining heavily at Minislottet today? Did you guys stay outside again?”
“Yessss! It was sooo fun!! We got to splash in muddy puddles!!!”
(It wasn’t “sooo fun” washing Sara’s clothes that weekend, but that would soon be my daily struggle. She would return from school with boots full of sand, pockets full of leaves, her bag filled with stones and soil—but I’ll leave that sorry tale of misery and despair to another time.)
We surely know that spending time outdoors is great for children: they have better concentration, they are more creative and more mobile. They are also more social: children learn how to play with their peers, because playing outdoors almost compels one to want to play with others, unlike say a colouring or drawing activity. Simply put, playing outdoors makes children happier.
Playing outdoors is also perceived as a natural form of risky play, where children play to experience their surrounding environment. Children are natural explorers, and as I witnessed the children having the freedom to explore and discover Minicastle, I realised why the parents had bought into that daily two-hour journey on a bus. It was a space that nurtured the children’s thirst for adventure, freedom and independence.
Because risky play is encouraged, minor injuries are almost expected. Sara routinely came home with tiny scratches on her hands and little bruises on her legs. But E. assured me that they acknowledged a huge distinction between getting hurt and getting seriously hurt. Bruises were par for the course when playing outdoors; a broken arm was serious.
As much as they could, the pedagogues did not say “No, don’t do that.” They did not overcorrect, nor did they take over a task which a child might have overreached and was struggling with, nor did they barricade out-of-bounds danger zones. If there was one philosophy that ran through the Danish childcare system, it was the spirit of freedom and independence. What they did was to outline the risks and dangers the children needed to be aware of. They tried to teach the children to assess the environment, to recognize if an activity could potentially be dangerous, and to navigate the situation safely.
Whether the children balanced on mossy, slippery rocks, jumped across fallen trees, skipped over wildly protruding roots, swung across branches, helped start a bonfire (a real winner, this one), touched suspicious-looking mushrooms, either at Minicastle or out in the forest, risky play enabled the children to recognise their personal limitations and challenge themselves appropriately, trusting their instincts.
It all evens up
Safety concerns aside, Danish forest kindergartens face criticism about their academic value in today’s world. Get real, right? Shouldn’t preschools prepare children for a solid start to formal education? In the early months, my mom would ask me, “If Sara is just playing outside all day… What is she learning?” Absolutely reasonable. Sara was missing out on literacy training, and traditional educational views argue that reading and writing during the early years build the foundations for formal school learning.
I struggled. My husband took to the Danish approach like a fish to water. He never doubted; I felt insecure. Each trip home was invariably met with situations where well-meaning family and friends would ask Sara to recite the alphabet, to spell apple, bee, and cat (she couldn’t), to add 2 and 2 (wasn’t happening, either).
But the insecurity faded, over time. I learnt more about the Danish culture and pedagogy, and how the Danish approach contrasted with my own experience. And I came to accept and appreciate how Danish kindergartens trusted the children to construct their own learning, especially through unstructured play, encouraging them to develop self-confidence and a sense of autonomy.
As pedagogue H. wisely noted on Sara’s last day at Minicastle, the children had a whole lifetime to work and study. That was why the pedagogues took “child’s play” so seriously. The Danes believe that play gives children vital skills in how to learn. When engaged in an activity they enjoy, whether roleplaying or building a treehouse, children become motivated to constantly refine and improve the activity, to increase its creativity and complexity. Psychologically, it is obvious how play helps children become powerful learners.
Sara and her friends used this freedom to create storylines to transform Minicastle. They imagined themselves as wild animals one day, pets another, jungle children on yet another. Through the opportunity to design their own games and worlds, they followed their instincts to discover and construct. And they were provided with the space and time to go through this iterative process, until they were ready to move on.
To be sure, when Sara started formal education, Sara lagged behind her Singaporean peers where academic “goals” were concerned. Perhaps she still does. But I would like to think we gave her an opportunity to learn life lessons she wouldn’t find elsewhere, and a chance to learn what she was capable of.
This is how they do it
Buttressed by the notion of “child-centeredness” (not to be confused with “child-centered parenting”), the Danish pedagogue is meant to acknowledge and appreciate each child’s personality, temperament and developmental path. And the pedagogue is responsible for creating an environment that accommodates and respects these differences. The focus was not on traditional preschool curriculum such as learning to read or write or spell; it was on developing the child’s emotional, social and cognitive senses. Developing the child’s well-being was favoured over learning, care over teaching.
Understanding and embracing the Danish approach from Sara’s pedagogues was a steep learning curve for me, but such a precious and priceless experience: frustrating yet fascinating, exhausting yet enlightening. Here are two memories which stood out.
Out of the blue, over dinner, Sara told us that she hit a girl (M.) with a branch at Minicastle. I was shocked. Why did she do it? Another girl (N.) asked her to, because they did not want to play with M. My husband and I were shocked at Sara’s bullying behaviour, and although we were furious, we faked our best Zen-millennial-parenting by asking her, as evenly as possible, to explain herself. She was not even 4 then, and I could see she was struggling to find the right words. Tears started streaming down her face.
The next day, I was ready to approach M. and her parents, and to make Sara apologise, failing which I would do the talking. M.’s parents were not at the collection point, but I spotted pedagogue E. I decided to get the low-down on the fracas.
“Sara hit M.? No, I don’t know about it. If it is serious, we would definitely know. But Sara has never hit anyone, we have never seen her hit.”
“Oh, really? That’s strange… I was hoping that you had gotten Sara to apologise too.”
“No, there was no such thing. We NEVER“—she raised her voice for emphasis—”never make the children say sorry. Being sorry needs to come from the heart and the children must understand why they are apologising. If an action is intentional, a sorry is meaningless. It is said only to please the adults. When a child hits someone, we always ask and try to understand why the child does it, and we try to solve the problem. We can teach the child that hitting is not the solution.”
“Oh… OK… I was actually planning to speak to M.’s parents…”
“No, you don’t have to. This is nothing at all. If something serious happened, we would know and we would tell the parents. No, you don’t have to speak to them at all.”
I was speechless. Notwithstanding the fact my daughter had presumably lived in a parallel universe, what was this “We do not make the child say sorry” approach? Where is that parenting manual again?
It’s OK to be shy
Sara was an extremely shy tot. After 18 months at her childcare in Singapore, dropping her off in the mornings without tears was still a hit-or-miss affair. The teachers and especially the aunties at the childcare often nagged at us, in front of Sara, about how shy she was—“Aiyoh, why still so shy?”—and how we needed to expose her to more strangers and new situations. Each time they raised the issue, I felt a little something in Sara curl up and withdraw further.
The decision to move to Copenhagen and place Sara in a local kindergarten—a new country, an unfamiliar language—was mulled over ad nauseum. We expected it would be challenging, but we thought a fresh environment could also be helpful. I prepared myself for how the pedagogues would respond to Sara’s shyness, unsure if we were going to face the same reaction or worse.
I remember the first time I encountered their response. In the first few months at Minicastle, Sara was particularly shy at the collection point: she often hid behind my back. That morning, after we greeted pedagogue L., he said, “It’s OK to be shy!” It was a simple sentence, but it caught me off guard. I was expecting the usual, “Oh, you don’t have to be shy…” For me, it showed a complete acknowledgement and acceptance of who Sara was.
During Sara’s first year at Minicastle, we witnessed her transformation: she was blossoming, and starting to come out of her shell. Dropping her off in the mornings was a joy. She was speaking Danish and playing a lot with the other children. However, she remained shy towards the pedagogues and assistants. In fact, she was so shy towards most adults that each time one spoke to her, she would freeze up and not be able to respond.
We asked pedagogue E. a few times, if there was anything else we could do. We felt helpless. E. insisted we say nothing of it at all to Sara, to avoid making an issue out of it. At Minicastle, Sara had found a way of getting through to the pedagogues without having to speak to one directly: she always asked a friend to help relay her messages. Because Sara was still able to communicate with the adults, E. was assured that Sara was always able to get help or be comforted at Minicastle. Those were E.’s main concerns.
E. then thoughtfully noted, “I’m confident that the switch will flick one day. At their age, I would be more concerned if Sara only spoke to the adults and not to the other children. Because she is doing well socially with her friends, I don’t think there is an issue.” What a perspective. And she reiterated what I had heard before, “It is completely OK to be shy. We love having shy children come to Minislottet!” What she said shook me greatly—recognition of the child, acceptance of the child—because deep down, I had been struggling to recognise and accept Sara’s shyness myself.
In Denmark, childhood is a magical period of time, filled with sounds of laughter and play. It is not rushed—figuratively and literally. In the early days, I would “rush” Sara back home after picking her up: “Put on your jacket, let’s go!” I remember almost speed-walking with the stroller. It was too natural for me to focus on getting from point A to point B. Over time, I realised that the Danes looked at a child’s life differently. Parents stopped and let their children wander a bit, checking out a flower or two by the sidewalk, or stopping to feed the ducks by the canals.
Children are genuinely given space, and time to “stop and smell the roses,” instead of racing to check off a list of academic goals. I believe this view of childhood can exist, partly, or dare I say mostly, because there is no looming pressure of having to be able to read, write, and spell when they start formal schooling; there are no “streaming” exercises because the focus is on acquiring knowledge and experiencing the joy of learning, not getting a good grade; there are no high-stakes standardised examinations to get through when they reach 12.
A simplistic analysis, maybe. But sometimes, the most effective solutions are the most obvious.