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.”
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 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.”
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.