How Norway taught its visitors to go with the floe

25th February 2011 at 00:00
A group of Scottish teachers travelled to Bodo, north of the Arctic Circle, where the cold doesn't stop children from hunting, exploring and ice fishing. Now they hope to transfer this rugged approach to the curriculum at home

They drop their fishing lines into the icy waters through holes drilled in the frozen lake. With a bit of luck they land a tasty trout, which they will cook over the fire and enjoy for lunch.

It's dark much of the time in the middle of winter, north of the Arctic Circle in Norway. But the children from the kindergarten are cocooned in snowsuits and boots, rosy cheeks warmed by the firelight.

Ice fishing is a treat for these four and five-year-olds. On another day the kindergarten might go hunting for ptarmigan. The adults will shoot the birds and the children will gut them, then cook and eat them.

Cold and darkness are no barrier to outdoor learning in this part of the world. And when a group of Scots teachers went to find out more, they were impressed by the Norwegians' positive attitude to the challenges of winter.

Children put tea lights in snow pyramids to greet their visitors with flickering candlelight; schools and nurseries are made cosy and welcoming. With warm, reflective clothing - there's hunting, fishing, skating and skiing - hiding inside isn't an option.

After leaving Britain shivering in chaos with flights cancelled and traffic mayhem, the Scottish visitors found Norway unruffled. "Everybody drives more slowly and they leave big spaces between the cars. Everything slows down a bit, but it just goes on as normal," says Joyce Gilbert, now back in front of a roaring fire at her Perthshire home.

Dr Gilbert has just returned to teaching at Arngask Primary after a five- year secondment working on education policy with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which involved promoting outdoor learning and contributing to guidance on it for the Curriculum for Excellence. She is also a founder of SpeyGrian, an educational trust set up to promote outdoor experiential learning.

Joining her 20-strong P12 class this term, she will start walking the talk again - right now she feels like she would rather face an army of suits than those eager five-year-olds.

In December, Dr Gilbert was one of 15 teachers on a Learning and Teaching Scotland (LTS) study group which travelled to Bodo, north of the Arctic Circle in Norway, to see how Norwegians work in nature kindergartens and how that leads into primary school.

"Participants in the Scottish Continuing International Professional Development study visits investigate new, innovative or different practices in another country that fit CfE priorities," says Kay Livingston, director of international, research and innovation at LTS.

"This experience provides rich continuing professional development for the individual, and participants are also expected to put into action something in their own school or local authority on their return," explains Professor Livingston.

In her report, Dr Gilbert notes that Norwegian children have the same temptations as young Scots - computers and fast food - luring them to less healthy lifestyles. But 10 years ago, the Norwegian Government intervened to promote nature kindergartens.

The concept had been around on a smaller scale for some time, but once they were promoted on a large scale, researchers discovered children had much better motor skills and were happier and healthier within a year. Parents were impressed - outdoor learning for young children took off across the country.

The Scottish Government visited Norway almost five years ago and as a result makes it a priority in its early years framework for nurseries and schools supporting outdoor learning and outdoor play to try innovative approaches such as forest kindergartens.

Four to six-year-olds in Norway attend private or state-run kindergartens, organised on different themes - sporting, boating, adventure - and some are even on working farms. Younger infants under two are outside in temperatures well below zero.

"The really interesting thing was that, despite the fact that it was December and below zero, children were out for a large part of the day," says Dr Gilbert.

Depopulation is an issue in some parts of Norway, just as in parts of Scotland, and its philosophy of place-based learning aims to inspire Norwegian children to discover a love and care for their environment by experiencing nature.

"They felt that if they could instil that love of the place at an early enough age and through primary and secondary school, there would be a real compulsion for these children to return," says Dr Gilbert.

During their three-day trip, the Scottish teachers visited Medas Farm Kindergarten near Fauske, which is run by Jostein and Anita Hunstan. The couple started the kindergarten after it became difficult to make a living farming - now they joke that they farm children.

"The farm was run by the children: they were feeding the animals and planting the crops. They are taught how to respect the animals, but there is nothing sentimental about it - they know they are going to eat them," says Dr Gilbert.

Not all the activities were at the extreme end. As well as skating on lakes and cross-country skiing, children are often just out exploring their environment, playing in forests, pottering in the snow.

"They're doing things we did at Brownies 20 years ago, when we were allowed to whittle our sticks and cook our sausages on a fire," says P1 teacher Wendy Anderson, from Milltimber School, who joined the visit.

"They're still able to do things such as cooking for themselves, making their lunch, even over fires outside. A lot of outside nurseries have an outside fire and eating area and they use that all summer. These are just nice things to do with kids, which we aren't allowed to do because we've had so many scares that we've gone off the deep end."

Mrs Anderson was concerned about the lack of formal reading and writing at pre-school stage in Norway. She says: "Some children are ready for that - it's just getting a happy medium."

The Scots welcomed the even mix of men and women teaching in kindergartens and primary schools - the outdoor life and practical activities seemed to attract men to the work. And they were impressed that young student teachers were taught modules on outdoor learning and were taken on activities such as ice climbing, which boosted their skills and confidence.

"To take outdoor learning forward, the teachers taking children outside need to be comfortable outside," says one of the group, Linda Leyland, a former outdoor instructor now teaching P12 at Inveraray Primary.

"I think maybe a lot of our teachers are a bit worried about going outside. Perhaps they don't have the right equipment and the right experience," she says.

Now that she has returned to the classroom, Joyce Gilbert plans to do forest school training and hopes to bring a little bit of Norway back to Scotland in the woodland beside her school. "I know all the theory, but now I have to go and see how easy it is to put it into practice, so it's going to be a bit of a learning journey for me as well."

Whatever the weather: the Norway way

Scots mum of three Jane Grieve spent three years in Norway, where her children, then aged six, nine and 10, attended Stavanger International School before returning to schools in Banchory last year.

"In Norway you go out whatever the weather - you only come in if there's lightning. You're not put off by the weather because everyone has the right clothes," says Mrs Grieve, a journalist whose husband works in the oil industry.

"My children loved the outdoor lifestyle. Everyone else is doing it, so that's just the thing to do."

She says outdoor activity is intrinsic to Norwegian life and people applying for senior positions will be expected to show some evidence of their commitment. "You have to be seen as a big fit person who's won this race and skied across this mountain or done this expedition.

"Can you imagine our politicians being judged in terms of their skiing ability? It doesn't count officially, but it's part of how the population would judge somebody."

Teacher Sandra McCollum found that after she returned from the study trip to Norway, she adapted her parenting style with her three-year-old son, Charlie.

"I've found that the vocabulary I used with him was a lot about: `Don't do that, you'll hurt yourself!' Coming back from Norway, I've realised I have to stop doing that and let him go out and find his own risk level," says Mrs McCollum, who now teaches in the nursery at Robert Smillie Memorial Primary in Larkhall.

Like other members of the group, she observed how kindergarten learning was much less formal than in Scotland. "We are very driven by outcomes, inspections and learning experiences that are not always natural. In Norway the children were allowed to be children and learn through their own imagination and experience."

She believes Scots even think twice about going for a walk in the rain and that our safety-conscious culture would inhibit some of the activities children enjoy in Norway.

"As one of the lecturers said to me at the university there: `We don't have a higher infant mortality rate in Norway. We're not killing them.'

"Yes, do the risk assessments and try to keep children safe, but you have to let them have their own space and find things out for themselves," she says. "But we've lost that somehow."

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