She would fall down just about anywhere as long as it was grassy and preferably with trees between her and the sky. The forest floor was one big soft bed to this two year old. We would go for a walk in the forest on a Sunday and my daughter would suddenly decide that it was time for her daily nap, lie down beside a tree and fall asleep. There she was conked out again and the only thing to do was to lift her up and carry her home.
So here in Norway, there are regular barnehager (kindergartens) which form the vast majority and then there are naturbarnehager (nature kindergartens). I think that naturbarnehager are a very Norwegian phenomena. More by good luck than good management, our kids were allocated places in one very near to where we live.
The ethos in the nature kindergartens is to let kids develop and play in a natural environment as much as possible. The kids spend over 60% of each day outdoors and frequently it is closer to 80%, regardless of the weather. They can play outdoors without the same limits as they have inside and are free to ramble and explore. So that includes outdoor play, trips to the forest, climbing, digging, building, splashing, making campfires, collecting “stuff” and of course having lunch sitting on a stone or a branch. I was amazed to see how kids thrive and develop in warmth or cold and our two were no exception. They have trips a few times a week to places like “the secret forest” and ” the big rock”. It is wild rocky terrain and these kids are as sure footed as mountain goats in no time. They come home tired, muddy and with pockets filled with stones, sticks, bits of rope they might have found somewhere that might as well be gold.
The staff are qualified teachers, supported by assistants. Teachers are usually of the outdoor type in a naturbarnehage, and it is perfectly normal to have a good mix of male and female kindergarten teachers and/or assistants. Norwegians will look at you as if you are nuts if you mention that men looking after toddlers and young kids is unusual. It’s the most normal thing in the world. In the UK and Ireland, it’s a brave man who works in childcare, brave because he would have to explain and justify his choice endlessly as people wonder more about what is wrong with him than what is right. This is also driven by wage levels but that is a whole other story.
Kids may well be missing out because of this. One of my son’s proudest moments was coming home from barnehage with a certificate to say that he could “spikke pinner” or whittle sticks using a knife safely to pare away the bark. The certificate was awarded by a male teacher who has over 30 years experience working with kids. My son calls him “bestefar” or Grandad. This is enough to make me weep happily and sadly all at once ( a skill I have fine-tuned at this stage) as it’s the sort of thing my Dad would have taught him if he was still alive.
So back to the sleeping girl, her outdoor napping habits were a result of her day-to-day life in a naturbarnehage. She had often slept in the forest in the middle of the day. For smaller kids who still need daily naps, the teachers carry their sleeping bags in big rucksacks so that they can nap in the forest, making it all seem so easy and uncomplicated. My daughter slept wherever they happened to be that day, same as the other toddlers.
Right now, our garden has over 200 sticks piled up in it which my son has diligently brought home from his forest trips. Big, small, long, short sticks, whatever their adventure threw up that day. Both kids turn wild-eyed and indignant when I mention that the garden is beginning to look like a tip and we need to get rid of the forest that doesn’t belong there. They won’t hear of it. I don’t have the heart to clear them out one day when they are not around as we will probably be paying for therapy for years after that one.
Sometimes I have a vision that in years to come when my son is all grown up, independent and getting married, we will be handing over a big bundle of sticks to his future partner and asking that they be cared for with love and respect as the family heirloom that they have become. A great start to harmonious in-law relations surely.