• Amos asks Matty if he's afraid high up in the trees, but he says "only a little". (Marianne Borowiec)
“I sometimes close my eyes, because I know I have to stop something, but I can also stand and watch it a little bit first because I think it’s exciting.”
Airdate: 
Tuesday, February 23, 2016 - 21:30
Channel: 
SBS

No one would ever let Johan Laigaard run a kindergarten in Australia.

At the one he runs in Denmark, two boys swing large sticks over their heads as they whack a rotten log; another shimmies up a tall tree that bends in the breeze blowing off the nearby fjord; and others run wild in the woods.  

There are no fences, and when I look around for someone to intervene, I don’t see any adults either.  

If you’re the kind of parent who keeps a close eye on your kids in the playground, Denmark’s forest kindergarten will come as a rude shock - they do things differently here, as you’ll see in my story on Dateline.

Johan says he’s watching from a distance. So what happens if he thinks the children are doing something dangerous?

“I sometimes close my eyes, because I know I have to stop something, but I can also stand and watch it a little bit first because I think it’s exciting. And I can understand why they do it,” he says.

And what do the parents think if they see their kids swaying precariously ten metres off the ground?

“They think, ‘Oh no.’ But we have taught them - the most dangerous thing you can do is shout at [the children].”

Johan’s approach to child safety sounds dangerously devil-may-care, but it’s not what it seems. Children here learn to take small risks when they’re very young and as they grow in confidence, they take bigger risks.  

Johan trusts them – and their parents trust him. And given the fact that in 17 years no one’s ever been seriously injured through careless play, the trust doesn’t seem misplaced.

Whether he’s throwing rocks into the fjord with a bunch of enthusiastic three year-olds, or abseiling down a muddy slope with some determined five year-olds, Johan clearly gets a vicarious buzz from their juvenile thrill-seeking.

“It’s not dangerous in my opinion.  And if you don’t get a little bit of danger, what’s life worth living? Everybody needs a little bit of kick sometimes.”

I suspect Johan also gets a buzz from shocking overseas visitors.  When I translate the footage I shot over three days in his kindergarten in Skive, I realise that he’s actually got a very clear idea of what’s dangerous, and when he needs to lay down boundaries.

On one hike through the woods, Johan talks to the kids about a large tree uprooted in a recent storm, and warns them about its root ball.

“You’re never allowed to crawl under such a big pile of soil under a tree. Because all of a sudden, the tree can break,” he tells them. “And then the soil falls back.  And soil is so heavy you’ll never get out of it again. So never go under a gap like this. Don’t go under it because you can be injured.”

Are forest kindergartens a good idea?
Dateline's story on Denmark's forest kindergartens has had a huge response, but is being able to run free in the forests a good way for children to learn? Or should there be greater concern for their safety?

The following day, out foraging for Christmas decorations, Johan notices a boy waving around a long branch and gently intervenes.

“David, take care of the stick, you’ll hit our faces. You’re welcome to have it but you must look after it. Hold it up in the air so you don’t hit us. Point to the trees with it.  Do you want me to break it so you only have a smaller stick and it will be easier to look after?”

“Yes,” replies David.

“I’ll help you break it.  I’ll just make a stick so you can walk with it. Are you ready? That’s better.  Isn’t it easier to walk with this one?”


 
Johan makes it look easy, but there’s a great deal of skill involved in interactions like this – and it’s that skill, far more than the seemingly reckless play, that still impresses me several weeks later.

At the heart of what makes Danish kindergartens so special is one word – pedagogy.  To my ears it’s an ugly word and one I hoped my interviewees would avoid. It sounded like a very academic way of talking about the process of teaching.  

But in Denmark, and in many other parts of Europe, ‘pedagogy’ is an everyday word for something that’s much more holistic than ‘teaching’.  

It’s not about imparting specific bits of knowledge, but about nurturing people – helping them develop their natural talents and abilities.

It’s something that applies from cradle-to-grave – anyone in Denmark working with young children, or the mentally ill, or the elderly, requires a university degree in pedagogy.  

Along with the rigorous formal training, pedagogues enjoy a status that our own childcare and aged care workers don’t seem to enjoy.
 
But what does this mean in practice?  In Johan’s case it means fostering his children’s powers of observation, their physical strength, balance and coordination, their compassion and their ability to cooperate – all with the lightest of touches.

As Jane Williams-Siegfredsen, the author of a book on Danish forest kindergartens, puts it: “There’s this thing where the pedagogue needs to stand back sometimes and not always jump in and help the child. They need to let the child overcome problems themselves. We learn so much more from doing that.”

Comment: 'It’s important for children to learn to be cold, wet, and survive that'
Teacher Jane Williams-Siegfredsen was at first shocked and fascinated by Denmark’s forest kindergartens. Now she’s striving to give more children that freedom.

Observing Johan, he often manages to teach children a lot without ever setting out to teach them anything at all.  

One boy’s spontaneous question about worms leads to a discussion about habitat, predators and prey, and eventually ends with the boy observing that mice enjoy eating pancakes. Curiosity satisfied, he’s off to jump in a puddle.

Most impressive of all, Johan manages their behaviour without criticism or judgement and without ever raising his voice. And he does it in the forest, having fun.

“When I started to take the education as a pedagogue I didn’t really know there were such places,” he tells Amos. “But when I tried it, it was like I was a child – I could use my childhood in the work.

“And I think that is important, that you like what you are doing. The children can see if you don’t like it. Then it’s not fun for them either. So if I have fun, they have fun, so we enjoy it together.”

What a pity no one would let Johan Laigaard run a kindergarten in Australia.

See Amos' story in full at the top of the page. This episode of Dateline also meets children growing up in Syria, where life is worlds away from that in Denmark.

Childhood on Hold
Children have a right to play, but in Damascus the ruined streets are their playground. Dateline reveals the harsh lessons they've already learnt about war.

Related Links

The Queen's Speech

Might even Denmark's Queen Margrethe be a fan of forest kindergartens? During her most recent New Year's Speech, she said:

"We look after ourselves, and perhaps too well after our children. We cannot keep holding them in our hand all the time. We must give them space and not protect them so jealously that they never get to make any experiences for themselves.

Once, children were allowed to play peacefully and unattended, free from the interference of adults and with free space for the imagination. Sometimes they fell down and hurt themselves, and sometimes it was difficult to explain how the trousers had been ripped or where that hairband had gone.

'Up again,' parents said, and the children made it."

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Happy schools; teaching kids to be happy as well as smart
These schools aim to create good humans, not just good students.
No Rules School
Dani Isdale visits a school with no rules, but is the kids' playtime chaos good for learning or has the principal gone too far?

Credits

Transcript

4-year-old Nicola Towns is joining her kindergarten friends in the forest. But they're not on an excursion. This forest is their kindergarten.

JOHAN LAIGAARD (Translation): Look, troll ears! There are trolls in this forest. Look, the trolls took their ears off!

It's freezing today - only five degrees. But even when it's raining, snowing, or minus 20 degrees, you'll find these children playing and learning outside.

BOY (Translation): It’s a millipede!

JOHAN LAIGAARD (Translation): They live under here in winter. Insects look after themselves by living under bark.

It might sound extreme but it's not unusual in Denmark, where 10% of the pre-schools - about 500 of them - are forest kindergartens. They're run by pedagogues like Johan Laigaard - someone with a university degree in human development.

JOHAN LAIGAARD (Translation): Oh no! What do we do now? Do you jump down?

CHILD (Translation): No, we run!

JOHAN LAIGAARD (Translation): You just run!

REPORTER: You have a lot of visitors come from overseas to see how you do things here? How do they react?

JOHAN LAIGAARD: They are thinking, "What are we doing?" And when do we learn to go to school, and why there's no fence. And, wow!

JANE WILLIAMS-SIEGFREDSEN, OUTDOOR EDUCATION SPECIALIST: It's important for young children to learn what it is to maybe be cold, what it is to be wet. Um, and survive that. My name's Jane Williams-Siegfredsen, I came to Denmark over 20 years ago and was amazed at the outdoor things that young children were doing, and I now live and work here. .

Jane's the author of a book in on forest education in Denmark. She's brought me to a forest kindergarten near her home outside Viborg.

JANE WILLIAMS-SIEGFREDSEN: He's in the tree and it is only a very thin sapling tree. It's very, very wobbly. It takes an awful lot of balance to sit in that and use both hands at the same time. In an ordinary playground they wouldn't have the opportunities to develop those physical skills.

Jane runs outdoor education workshops for teachers and carers from around the world, including Australia. While we've been talking the kids have been moved onto their next activity.

REPORTER: Are you going to tell me this isn't as dangerous as it looks.

JANE WILLIAMS-SIEGFREDSEN: No no, it's not dangerous, the children have learned how to use the knives properly. So it is not seen as some kind of weapon. It is a tool for doing something, such as whittling. I think many cultures like to wrap their children up in cotton wool. I don't think that's a lack of love here for the children by their parents. They see it in a different way. That, in fact, children should have the chance to, to be free.

MATTY: Going up higher and higher.

REPORTER: So what's your approach to safety here?

JOHAN LAIGAARD: You have to use your brain and if you trust that the kids, they can take care of themselves.

REPORTER: Matty, are you afraid of anything?

MATTY: Nothing at all.

REPORTER: I was watching this boy climb to the very top of the tree, other boys hitting the log with a stick, very close to each other. I couldn't see you or anyone else...

JOHAN LAIGAARD: I was standing up there and I saw it too.

REPORTER: You saw it.

JOHAN LAIGAARD: Yes.

REPORTER: You weren't worried?

JOHAN LAIGAARD: No. That's a part of the play almost every day and they, and they learn. And they learn to be careful. Sometimes they hit, yes, they got a little accident. But that's the way to learn. Only once I have to drive to the hospital with a boy with a big injury. In 17 years. So I'm not worried.

REPORTER: And what was the injury?

JOHAN LAIGAARD: It was a parent who drove over a foot of a kid.

The world's first forest kindergartens were founded in Scandinavia in the early '50s. Today they're also popular in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Some locations are more challenging than others. Johann's kindergarten sits less than a 100 metres from fjord, but there aren't any fences, because they're not needed.

REPORTER: Why do you stop here, Carl?

CARL (Translation): We’re not allowed to go here. You need to have a pedagogue from up there before you go across.

JANE WILLIAMS-SIEGFREDSEN: I think one of the big things that I see here is the amount of trust that there is in Denmark, that there is no formal inspection of kindergartens. There's no-one that comes round and checks up that you're doing what you should be doing.

But how easy is it for parents like Nicola's mother, Nadia, to trust the pedagogues and their own kids?

NADIA TOWNS, MOTHER: I know my sister, she's so, "They can run down to the water?" I was like, "Yeah, but they don't do that." They know where they're allowed to go to, they don't...

REPORTER: You trust them? Do you think a lot of it is based on trust?

NADIA TOWNS: A lot.

MOTHER: I must say I'm happy that I'm not down here during the day because I'm a bit worried when Miele crawls into the top of the tree.

REPORTER: So you're happy that you can't see it?

MOTHER: Yeah. Yeah, I am.

At Nadia's house, I meet her husband, Paul. He's English. Danish forest kindergartens came as a big culture shock.

PAUL TOWNS: In England, kids can be harmed in any way, you know, falling out of a tree or something like that. They won't allow it.

There are only a handful of forest kindergartens in the UK. The US only opened its first one in 2007, Australia, five years ago.

REPORTER: What do you think it is about den nark that they can get away with it?

PAUL TOWNS: It is hard to explain. I really don't know what it is about the Danes, it’s just a relaxed frame of mind that they have got about everything.

One of the main reasons Nadia and Paul have sent both Nicola and her six-year-old sister Jessica to a forest kindergarten is that the virtual world is distracting the girls from the natural one.

PAUL TOWNS: As soon as they come home they want to play the iPad. That's what they want to do. That worries us. So we try to encourage them to go outside and play more.

Surely, not everyone's convinced about the value of an outdoor education. This is Jessica's primary school. I've come here because I thought the teachers might be concerned at how kids from a forest kindergarten struggle to adapt in a classroom.

REPORTER: Do you know any difference between her and kids who come from normal kindergartens?

PIA NIELSEN, TEACHER: Not at all. They are all prepared to go to school. My own son went to forest kindergarten.

REPORTER: Oh, really?

PIA NIELSEN: Yeah.

REPORTER: So you never had any worries about how he would go at school...

PIA NIELSEN: No, not at all.

REPORTER: What do you think about the idea that the children should be using their time in kindergarten to start to learn some reading, some writing, some maths, to get ready for school?

JOHAN LAIGAARD: I think this is work spoiled because they are not ready. You have to learn them to be interested in learning.

Over the last 20 years, the number of outdoor kindergartens in Denmark has roughly doubled. And now, the forest gospel is spreading. Even schools are looking to take the class outdoors.

JANE WILLIAMS-SIEGFREDSEN: Now there's a lot of research being done that shows that children are less stressed, that children concentrate more, that children are ill less often. That their motor development is far, far better for being outdoors than indoors.

JOHAN LAIGAARD: And a lot of teachers is, "A-ha!" Getting, "Yes. Oh, it works!" So I'm, I'm happy.

Video Journalist
AMOS ROBERTS

Producer
ALEX DE JONG

Additional Camera
MARIANNE BOROWIEC

Editor
DAVID POTTS

Translations
VIBEKE SYBRANDT
SEBASTIAN RASMUSSEN
KARINA KOLD

23rd February 2016