Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Danish Children in the Classroom: "Little Adults" with Big Potential

Lunchtime!  This girl prepares to set her place at the table. 
Rock and Roll... A wide selection of musical instruments free for children to use

Arts and Crafts... Children gather around their pædagog in one of the "creative" rooms

Three young girls stand outside the Huset by themselves

Although we have primarily focused on foreign aspects of Danish culture throughout our trip thus far, one fact of life here in Copenhagen is laughably familiar to us North Country folks: completely unpredictable weather.  Waking up to a chilly and grey Scandinavian “summer” this morning, I reluctantly put on long pants, long sleeves, a sweater, and raincoat.  It wasn’t long, however, before I was stuffing my layers back into my purse, and wishing I’d brought along sunglasses. 
Perhaps it could be attributed to ancient Viking ancestry, but Danes are a hardy, resilient bunch.  It might be lovely outside one minute, or a cold, downpour the next; snowing in the winter, or sunny in the spring; but no matter the elements in Copenhagen, there is a woman in heels somewhere, peddling her bicycle with a child in tow.  This kind of strength and positivity—the ability to resolve, overcome, or even repurpose challenges while maintaining a unique closeness with nature—is instilled in Danes from birth, then nurtured and maintained as the government demands, for the rest of one’s life. 
Today in class we discussed state-sponsored childcare institutions as well as the public school system in Denmark.  Maja Sbahi Biehl, the Program Director of Child Diversity and Development at DIS, explained to us how childcare and education programs reinforce the ideals I mentioned earlier, in social, creative, egalitarian environments.  Daycare for children ages 1-5, public (or, in some cases, private) schooling for 6-17 year olds, and finally, after-school clubs, mark mandatory transitional stages for Danish youths.  Different programs vary in length, but Maja gave an estimated “eight or nine o’clock a.m. to one or two o’clock p.m.” timeframe, for us to get the sense of a typical day for a child.   
To an American, it may seem a strange concept (at least, it did to me) that by default, from year one, a baby is essentially raised in an institution by caregivers, rather than at home with his/her parents.  This way of life is overwhelmingly accepted and glorified by Danes, though, as the best way to raise a happy and healthy family.  In fact, new, non-Danish migrants are greeted with so much skepticism regarding child-rearing, that foreigners are legally required to adhere to Danish standards of “the family unit,” regardless of their traditional notions.  For instance, homes must be of a certain square-footage relative to nuclear family size, to prevent extended relatives from moving in (as is customary in Muslim families, among other immigrant groups).  This presents one oppressive downside of Danish culture.
 In many ways, Denmark really is—if not the “best”—a wonderful place to raise children.  Early childhood caregivers are given four years of high-quality education (the same as any Danish schoolteacher) to ensure from the very beginning that babies are cared for properly.  Toddlers are treated as “young adults,” to emphasize equality, and every child is trusted to be responsible for his/her own actions.  Discipline is minimal in the pre-school and elementary/high school education systems, so that children are taught to solve conflicts amongst themselves.  Teachers intervene only when necessary (sometimes at the cost of bullying or disruptive behavior in the classroom), to instill life lessons in students through experience.   Maja told us that fighting is even taught in one Danish kindergarten, to address conflict and problem-solving tactics!  
The learning environment is very free, self-regulated, and creative, with a strong focus on outdoor activity.  For example, children as young as 3-years-old go on four-day-long group camping excursions to the woods with teachers (no parental contact allowed).  Again, this reiterates concepts of emancipation, independence, and sociability even at an early age. 
We visited the “Free-time Club” youth house, or “Huset,” this afternoon to witness this approach to child development firsthand.  We were greeted in the main office by Henriech, a “pædagog:” one who plays a very different role from a didactical school teacher (or “lærer”), for he or she is trained in psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc. (and potentially leadership, creativity, carpentry, and other skills) to specifically “enforce socialization.”  Although it is true that teachers do not much interfere with their students, this is not to say that any child’s behavior or relationships with others goes overlooked; pædagogs oversee and connect with children on a personal level.  They are trusted role models, sources of guidance, and in many cases, friend figures.
I can only most equivocate the Huset to a Boys and Girls Club in America—a cheerful, very active after-school environment for ages 10 to 17.  We were all extremely impressed with the quality and variety maintained by this Huset, and of course, with the amount of freedom allotted to youths.  Each room in the house was designated to a particular field of interest: from crafts, to leather-working, to computers, to “live action role play,” music, sports, video games, and dance, only to name a few.  There was seemingly unsupervised access to side-yard play areas, and even a full kitchen (cooking up a very aromatic “something” close to lunchtime…) for the kids to use themselves.  Henriech told us that older children at the Huset were permitted to choose the menu for an afternoon, shop for ingredients, and cook and distribute meals to the rest of the group (on breakable, ceramic plates, with glass cups, for a change).
Given all of this freedom and few limitations, we were all shocked by the overall civility of these 10 to 17-year-olds.  The house was calmer than most organized after-school programs I’ve been to.  Art projects that lined the walls were painted on actual canvases, indicating a level of competence and respect for materials.  The music room contained all rock-band essentials—instruments, equipment, and a recording studio—for kids Henriech described as “the real deal.”
The formation and evolution —“dannelseof one’s true, personal identity is recognized as a life-long process in Denmark, so the government provides (and mandates) programs to care for, educate, and empower citizens at every stage of life.  While there are certain drawbacks to these regulations, we found Danish children to be very well socially adjusted at the Huset.  That being said, initiatives to lengthen and intensify academic days in the Nordic school system are threatening to change the current Danish education philosophy. United States inspired standardized tests have already been administered to 15-year-old Danish students (who actually scored very low in comparison to the rest of the world).  Now in a time of major social reform, Denmark is faced with new standards regarding education: should students “shoot for the stars” and race to the top?  Or be content to flourish socially, and develop “life skills?”   
Our tenth and final day in Copenhagen creeps closer to the present, after which I will soon be thrown into an American childhood program myself—summer camp.  As the art teacher at a day camp in my hometown, I look forward to bringing parts of the Danish pedagogical approach to my work.  Summertime should be a time for kids to breathe, be creative, run around, and get grass stains; it is the vacation of all vacations, from a rigorous and competitive academic year.  Yes, Danish children are perceived as “Little adults,” but kids will still be kidsLet us all consider our own freedom as grown-ups, too, to be collaborative, adventurous, and explorative these next eight weeks. 

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