This year my daughter Charlotte has been attending the local public preschool, or “børnehus” (children house), which is a kind of combined daycare/preschool. Most kids attend fulltime, with the cost subsidized 75% by the government. The børnehus is attended by children ages 3 to 6. (Younger toddlers and babies attend a separate institution: daypleje or vuggestue).
The last year that a child is in the børnehus (aged 5-6), they will spend about an hour a day in a classroom, learning letters, numbers, and writing. Before this age, it is believed that children are not developmentally ready for structured academic learning . The philosophy in Denmark is that the time is better spent developing creativity, imagination, motor skills, social skills, and an interest in learning.
That is not to say that no learning is going on at the børnehus. Lots of learning is happening, it is just kept very informal–most of the learning is through play, and a lot of the play happens outdoors.
Comparable to the famed “forest preschools” of Finland, preschools in Denmark believe that children benefit a lot from being outdoors and spending time in nature. Twice a week, my daughter’s børnehus spends almost the entire day outdoors. The other days they spend a good portion of the day outside as well.
The children spend most of their outdoor time participating in unstructured playtime. The play ground is filled with fun,interesting stuff including swings, an obstacle course, moon cars, strider bikes, play houses, sandboxes, slides, and seesaws.
The trees are also popular:
In addition to plenty of unstructured playtime, regular activities and field trips are also planned, such as:
Helping with the gardening,
going for a walk,
visiting the nearby fjord,
or the local lake,
learning about and finding insects,
making apple juice,
and enjoying arts and crafts.
They maintain this schedule with loads of outdoor time regardless of the weather. And this is saying something because the weather in Denmark is often gray, wet, and windy.
**Of course, in the case of extreme inclement weather, the situation will be judged on a case by case basis, but suffice it to say that days were the kids are not outside for a considerable amount of time are few and far between.
Because of this, appropriate outerwear is very important at the bornehus. There is a popular saying in Denmark: There is no bad weather, only bad clothes. They take their outerware seriously, and there is an option appropriate for every weather forecast.
Last fall, I made sure to (obviously) send Charlotte to school with a jacket, since it was chilly. If the weather was wet, I also sent her in rainboots; so I thought I was doing pretty good, raingear wise, since rainboots are something we typically wouldn’t bother with in Colorado.
So it was that I was quite surprised when she came home and told me, “My teacher says I need rain pants.”
Rain pants? What are rainpants?
Well, they’re exactly what they sound like. They’re pants that go over the kiddos’ regular pants–like snow pants, but for rain.
Here’s what the fashionable young Danish girl might wear out for a rainy day:
I was able to eventually see why full-bodied raingear was important, because on the many wet days, the kids are still outdoors, splashing in puddles and digging in the mud.
Here are the kids out for a walk on a damp, windy fall day. Charlotte is in purple and you might notice she is the only one not wearing rainpants:
I caught on slowly, but here she is in her rainpants that I finally got around to getting her:
Equally important to the rain pants for children in Denmark are the specially prescribed hats. There is a particular kind of hat that is required for the preschool kids: It is a “balaclava” style hat that covers the head, ears, and neck, with a hole cut out for the face. If the kids don’t bring one to school, one will be provided for them (Once the kids hit about 6 years old, evidently they are allowed to graduate to regular knit hats).
Charlotte wearing the appropriate headwear, known as an elefanthue (elephant hat):
The younger daycare babies are also required to wear the ear–and–neck covering hats–the difference being that the younger the kid, the pointier the hat.
From my research into hat pointiness progression:
********Child Elefanthue*******Toddler Elefanthue*******Baby Elefanthue****
But really, could they be any cuter?
In the fall, as the weather cools down, the children transition from rain pants and rain coats to “warm suits”. These are “cool weather” pieces that also go over the clothing, consisting of a quilted water repellant jacket and matching pants.
When winter arrives, the Danish children, without exception, don a flyverdragt. This is a one piece snow suit. I love seeing the little kids out and about in these, because these thick suits, combined with the special Scandinavian hats, make them look like little lego figures running around.
As on rainy days, the børnehus kids will still be found out and about on snowy days. (Actually they might go outside more when it snows.)
On the days when the preschool kids are outdoors all day, they eat their lunch outdoors. This continues during the winter.
A primitive wooden structure stands in the corner of the school grounds, and here the children eat lunch on wooden picnic tables.
On especially cold days, a fire might be made.
The walls provide protection from the wind, and the fire provides enough warmth that the little ones can take off their gloves to eat.
Sometimes they will even make a soup over the blaze.
The children help with the preparations for the soup. Sometimes they go into the forest to identify and collect edible plants to add to it:
Charlotte helping cut up carrots for the soup:
And here’s an outdoor “frugtpause”–fruit break:
Well, some of you parents or teachers might be thinking, rolling around in snow, stomping in puddles, and making mud pies is all well and good, but what about the mess?!
Well, the Danes have developed a few tricks to handle the inevitable mess.
Mudrooms–foyers and mud rooms are very important in Denmark, in homes as well as in schools. The børnehus has a mudroom with cubbies for each of the children. As you might expect, these cubbies are stuffed to overflowing with the myriad outerwear options for all weather conditions.
Clothes Dryer Thing–Just inside of the door of the børnehus is a special clothes dryer thing. It looks kind of like a stand up freezer. Coats, snowsuits, rainpants,etc can be hung inside it or draped over racks in the interior. This way, if coats are wet after the morning outing, they can be dry and ready to be worn again in the afternoon, and wet clothes don’t need to be hung in cubbies alongside dry clothes.
Get ready for this one. Children always take off their shoes indoors. Everyday (even in good weather). This also applies to the elementary school kids. This was quite surprising to me at first. I was informed that the kids were allowed to bring a pair of “indoor” shoes to leave at the school, but it was confided in me that actually most kids just run around inside the school in their socks. So that is what my kids have been doing. I’d say the system works quite well, with the exception that holes are constantly being worn in socks.
And yes, there is some extra mess to clean up as a result of all the outdoor time, including muddy footprints on the entryway floor and a constant invasion of sand in the mud room that needs to be swept up. There’s also the hassle of getting the smallest children in and out of all their outerwear (the kids eventually get quite good at doing it themselves).
So while it does come at a bit of a cost, in Denmark they have decided that this is a small price to pay for a childhood spent outdoors.
Below is a link to an awesome video about forest preschools in Denmark–well worth the ten minutes. There are a couple of different levels of the amount of time that preschools in Denmark spend outdoors, and Charlotte’s is not quite as extreme as the one described below. (For example, Charlotte’s preschool play yard is fenced), and it sounds like this preschool spends even more time outdoors.
To view in full screen mode, click the “youtube” button at the bottom of the screen below:
******A note to my Danish readers: In the U.S., preschool kids spend much more time indoors.
The current trend in the United States is that kids should be exposed to academics younger and younger. There is pressure for the kids to be reading by age 5 or 6. They are expected to know a long list of things before even entering U.S. Kindergarten (Grade 0). During preschool (ages 3 to 5), kids spend a good portion of their time learning letters, numbers, writing, and pre-reading skills. Teachers do try to make the learning fun with songs, art, and stories, but there is little time available to go outdoors because the teachers feel pressure to make sure the kids are “learning enough”.
There might be one or two 15 minute outdoor breaks, if the weather is good. If it is raining or too cold, they will usually stay inside. This may be because we don’t tend to dress as well for the weather as the Danes do. I had never heard of rain pants before coming here (even growing up in rainy Mississippi), and in Colorado, although it gets very cold, the kids would generally only wear their snowsuits if it was snowing. The only time I had seen the baclava style hats on kids in the U.S. was for skiing.