Farm kindergartens link pupils with nature
Jostein and Anita Hunstad were struggling. Farming in the far north of Norway was difficult at the best of times. Things became untenable when wolverines - a type of weasel - started picking off their flock of sheep. They tried everything to keep the predators at bay but, several years later, they were still finding massacred livestock.
In 1998, after 15 years, they decided to stop rearing sheep and explore a radical alternative: they would turn their farm into a kindergarten. The couple are in the vanguard of a move which is gradually fanning out across Norway. There are now estimated to be between 60 and 100 farm kindergartens throughout the country.
The concept has been percolating for the last 10 to 20 years, explains Wenche Ronning of the Nordland Research Institute. It is an offshoot of the country's popular outdoor nurseries, which strive to help children embrace risk and understand the natural environment.
Mr and Mrs Hunstad's Medas Farm Kindergarten, in the county of Nordland inside the Arctic Circle, started with six children. From this autumn it will have places for 100, overseen by 25 staff.
Medas has sheep, chicken, cows, lambs and Shetland ponies. Children take part in almost all the jobs of a working farm: they feed animals, grow plants, harvest fruit and vegetables, collect eggs, and even take part in the slaughter process; although not in the kill itself, they prepare carcasses for consumption.
"We think children get a better understanding of how life is, and how life and nature are interconnected," said Mr Hunstad, speaking at a Children in Scotland conference in Inverness last week, alongside Mrs Ronning.
Children in Scotland chief executive Bronwen Cohen said farm kindergartens were established in several countries and were "extremely popular" with parents and children. "They are one way of making a child's right to access the natural environment a reality, and are highly effective in providing children with an understanding of their wider community and relationships," Dr Cohen said.
"At the same time, there are benefits to the local area, in terms of employment and service provision that offers important support for families. They certainly should be explored as a possibility in Scotland."
Dr Cohen believes farm kindergartens would pose less of a health risk than the farm visits common around Scotland, where the same animals are repeatedly stroked by hundreds of children.
There have been no major health scares at any outdoor nursery in Norway. In fact, the only death at a Norwegian nursery happened in the city, in 2006, when an E. coli outbreak in Oslo was traced to mass-produced sausage meat used in sandwiches.
A spokesman for the Scottish Government said it was "broadly supportive" of the concept of farm kindergartens but added a note of caution: "Service providers would need to ensure that the welfare and safety of children are protected at all stages in what are working environments with animal products, machinery and chemicals."