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Early Childhood Ireland Norway Study Visit 2014

November 20, 2014

The Active, Robust and Connected Child

Early Childhood Ireland, with funding from the EU Léargas Mobility programme, organise study visits to partner countries annually.  For the past 4 years this has included a visit to the city of Trondheim in Norway, where the Queen Maud University College for early childhood educators is located.  This university are our host partners.


In 2014, Early Childhood Ireland, as the sender organisation, recruited a group of 24 early childhood educators and trainers to take part in this study visit.  The participants came from early childhood services, agencies and training courses around the country, all interested in developing their understanding of early childhood education, both service provision and pedagogical practice. They were led by 2 staff members of Early childhood Ireland, Dr. Carmel Brennan and Jacinta Sheerin.


The Study Visit Programme

As the host partner, Queen Maud University College, ably organised by Anne Sinne Marion, provided lectures and discussions with their academic staff, a programme of visits to Barnehage each day where we could observe everyday curriculum in action, both indoors and outdoors, and discussion time with Barnehage leaders, educators and children.

Each evening, we created our own ‘community of practice’ and processed our learning as a group.  We shared our observations about service provision and development, philosophy, curriculum, environments, pedagogy and regulation.  We compared provision and practice in Ireland and Norway – and thought about the learning we could share in our training in Ireland. We thought too about the commitments we could make as individuals in our own practice and about the policy changes we needed to advocate for.

The following outlines some of the questions we posed and continue to struggle with as well as a description of the Norwegian early childhood system.



Questions and Reflections

Inevitably study visit participants come back from Norway refreshed, with a new sense of childhood – a childhood that’s about time to play – about being present in the physically now moments – about communication and connection and shared adventures or ‘intersubjectivity’ as the basis for the development of self-other relationships, community solidarity, participation and voice and our bodily embedded self-perceptions. 

For the Norwegians, life is lived in the body as well as in the head.  The child who is active and robust physically is also active and robust in mind and spirit.  Have we lost this belief in Ireland? Do we celebrate the child’s right to be adventurous, exuberant, joyful, daring? Is life in our children’s centres lived indoors?

The group on the 2014 study visit were an enthusiastic, committed, extremely knowledgeable and professional cohort of people – confident about their own practice but really open to learning. By only the second day, our thinking and realities were being ‘disrupted’ (Moss 2005). We were observing active, robust, risk-taking and competent children – and adults who trusted them to make good decisions. We saw large natural outdoor spaces with the minimum of equipment and children muddling about, making decisions about their own play. 

“I’d forgotten about how much communicating goes in on our bodies” one participant noted “I’d forgotten about the bonding and the sense of togetherness that happens just through shared physical activity!” says another.  The adults were there, happy to be helpful but certainly not intrusive. Another participant surmised that “Staff interactions were very respectful -very calm and gentle’”. We had the sense that their work was not about being efficient and getting things done but rather about being in the moment with children. And that was the other dawning – time and space seemed plentiful.  “Where are all the children?” we wondered. Children outdoors means less noisy atmospheres, less squabbling and less instruction and a much easier, more relaxed life for early childhood educators.

We envied the amount of space.  In Norway, they’re obliged to provide 4 sq. metres per child indoors and to have twice as much space outdoors as indoors. However, the lack of equipment indoors and outdoors ‘troubled’ us. We wondered about learning and boredom. But then these educators didn’t seem to feel a responsibility to keep children occupied. Indoors, there were lots of small rooms – one that was a home corner – another an art room – another construction – and the older children 3-5 moved between them. Educators did not seem to worry that they would bolt and disappear. We saw 3 boys jump from the window sill to a bench to the floor, batman style. Nobody was too bothered about that. We also came across educators (men and women) reading books for children or talking with children about the block or lego constructions or feeding the babies.  We saw art work on the walls and the very obvious influence of Reggio Emilia.  We saw adults in the sand areas or rambling with the toddlers as they negotiated the terrain or played hide and seek. We didn’t see shelves stacked with toys.

We discussed the difference.  What is our image of the child? What kind of a childhood do we want for our children? What are their rights as citizens? Whose responsibility is it to ensure that children have time to grow into themselves?  Do we truly believe in the child’s right to play?  We share these questions with you – because they are so important. ‘’If it’s to be – it’s up to me’’ – we read in one barnehage.  We want to make a difference and we know we have an individual responsibility. 

There is no shortage of obstacles – finance – regulations – audits – accountability – parental concerns – staff motivation etc. We need to invest in early childhood.  We invest 0.2% of GDP – the Norwegians invest 1.2%. Increased investment is critical – but amazingly in Ireland, despite appalling working conditions, we have an enthusiastic, committed workforce (McKeown et al, 2014) and we can make a difference.


The Nordic model

Norway is a very wealthy country, largely due to its rich natural resources. It follows the Nordic model of the ‘welfare state’ – that combines capitalism and a generous welfare system. The system includes a “universalist” approach to service provision which promotes basic human rights, community responsibility and equipping the individual with what s/he needs to live a successful life. Labour force participation is maximised with both partners working in 88% of couples. When asked about areas of disadvantage, they tell us they don’t have the concept of disadvantage or disadvantage areas – all areas are mixed, all services have mixed populations. However, in Oslo, immigrants are tending to live in specific areas – and are becoming ghettoised.  Also of course they have problems with alcohol, drugs, mental illness etc. It’s not perfect – but they invest in their services to families.


Early Childhood Care and Education

The word Barnehage (meaning kindergarden) describes all services and caters for children from one to six years.  Mothers are entitled to 8 months maternity leave, fully paid and fathers to 3 months. Consequently the services rarely have children under one year. The Barnehage were established as far back as 1843 and now are part of every community, offering daycare from 7.30 to 4.30 each day. They are a combination of services run by the Local Authority and private services run by agencies or religious groups and some private citizens. They include family daycare.  All services, public and private, receive the same funding and fees to parents are capped. They have a central admissions system and parents expect to get their first or second preference.  All children, including children with additional needs have a legal right to a place from the age of one. (More about children with special needs later).  Consequently the numbers attending are high – 89.8% of 1-2 year olds in Trondheim (78.9% in Norway nationally) and 99.5% of 3-5 year olds in Trondheim (96.5% nationally).



The Early Childhood Commission (ECC) is part of the local authority and has responsibility for managing applications for places and coordinating the admission process and for grant allocation.  It has responsibility for monitoring and guiding services and for quality development. There are 3 types of audits of services that they carry out.

They have an inspection every 3rd year – largely a paper exercise where they submit accounts and parents and educators come together to evaluate and report on levels of satisfaction with the service. Each 3 year period has a different focus.  For the period 2011 – 2014 the focus is inclusivity.  For 2014-2016 it is language competence.  They visit about 20 services each year to support them.  They also have ‘incident’ audits – following an incident or complaint. 

The ECC also provides training.  On the 1st Oct. they had a full day meeting on risky play – and each service releases staff to attend.  They have a separate programme for family day carers. The ECCE staff, with responsibility for monitoring and quality, are qualified in early childhood education.



They develop local guidelines that become the focus for quality improvement over the 3 year audit period.  In 2011- 2014 the guidelines include that the Barnehage:

  • have a learning environment that encourages and challenges children’s interests, curiosity and desire to learn
  • are an inclusive arena that stimulate good language development and language comprehension
  • promote a healthy environment and sustainable development
  • work with children and families at risk
  • work towards quality assurance of services



43% of staff have a ‘pedagogue’ qualification to degree level while 38% are assistants with lower levels of qualification.  There are 3 staff (at least one pedagogue and two assistants) per unit in the barnehage and each unit is made up of 9 babies/toddlers or 18 over 3’s. Each setting has a minimum of 3 units and a service manager/leader and assistant leader.  The generous ratios allow for the inclusion of children with additional needs.


The Barnehage system has difficulty holding on to qualified pedagogues because of low salaries.  While in Irish terms the salaries seem generous (Norway is a very expensive country) – the Barnehage staff are paid less than Primary and Secondary teachers and often move on to these schools or into social care work. Having said that, the number of men in the system has increased for 10% in 2000 to 19% in 2012 – largely because of the emphasis on the outdoors and the growth in outdoor schools (more later).

Staff work 11 months of the year with option to spread salary over 12 months.  They are entitled to paid maternity leave, parenting leave and pension rights.



The new National Curriculum Framework was introduced by the Ministry of Education and Research in 2012 and implemented in all Higher Education Institutions by August 2013.  It is the national framework for the content and tasks of the Barnehage. 

It states that “learning takes place in everyday interaction withother people and with the community and is closely related to play, care and development.  Children can learn from everything they experience in all areas of life’’.  The framework states that “Barnehage will provide children with opportunities for play, self expression and meaningful experiences and activities in safe, yet challenging surroundings’’.

There is a clear focus on the importance of a challenging play environment and the staff’s responsibility to let children encounter these challenges through play and activity.

The pedagogue is required to have 6 knowledge areas

  1. child development, play and learning
  2. society, religion, world view and etics
  3. language and numeracy
  4. art, culture and creativity
  5. nature, health and movement
  6. management, cooperation and service development.

Learning outcomes are defined as:

  • knowledge
  • skills
  • competences


babies outsideThey also have special indepth studies on cultural diversity, arts and nature and the outdoors. Embedded in the framework is the concept of a good Norwegian childhood that includes the child’s right to:

  • Choose her/his activities
  • Decide who to play with
  • Right to move freely and play uninterrupted with peers in nature
  • Having autonomy to structure their time according to the own needs
  • Free of constant adult supervision or continuous control

Children spend a large part of the day outdoors.  Indeed the framework stipulates that children should not be indoors for more than 2 hours at any stage of the day.  They should be outdoors in all kinds of weather, in all four seasons. Babies sleep outdoors in their prams up to -10 degrees. There is a belief in outdoor activity that is meaningful and challenging and the idea of toughening up the body through enduring hardship. They encourage mastery and control of the body and the landscape.  This is embedded in policy since 1991 (Lyseth committee 1961).


Growth of Forest Schools

Forest schools are expanding rapidly largely thanks to 3 Government Goodwill Initiatives

  1. Whitepaper about outdoor life (1987) led to a Framework for Barnehage (1996) and included a strong focus on outdoor activities and said ‘’Most fortunate are preschools that have non-cultivated nature as a playground’’ thus encouraging adventure into the wild.
  2. White paper about Barnehage (1999) included a definition of nature Barnehage and allowed that buildings not designed as BArnehage could be used
  3. White paper about outdoor life (2001) said that barnehage that focus on outdoor activities don’t need to meet the building standards.


This caused an explosion in the number of forest schools because they were cheap and fast to establish, parents were very positive towards them and there was a cohort of very enthusiastic pedagogues ready to drive them.

The following is a short presentation on outdoor barnehage:


What characterises the forest schools?

The majority of nature/forest schools are private and are small units.  They obviously spend a lot of time outdoors in all weathers – almost full time in spring and summer with some decrease in autumn and down to 30% of time in winter.  They use a range of clearings in the forest and surrounding areas – known as reference areas.  They focus on developing motor skills, social skills, problem solving skills and knowledge about nature. Most of the nature/forest schools take trips or walks away from the daycare centre and visit reference areas (RAs) outside the barnehage grounds.  On average the nature barnehage have 5 or more RAs. The RAs are selected because they are exciting and challenging, provide acces to small hiding place, provide sites for campfire and gathering places and are not free of risks.


How do they organise trips to the RAs?

The educators know their children well and know their temperaments and capabilities.  They establish waiting spaces along the route where the children stop until the educators and slower children catch up. At RAs they stablish invisible border that the children do not cross over.  Children should be able to see the adults. There are sanctions for children who break the rules.  They must stay at the barnehage or walk with adults for a week.

A normal day at the nature barnehage might be as follows:

07.30 – 09.00

09.00 – 09.30









Breakfast and indoor play

Children dress

Start to walk to the reference area

Time to play


Pedagogical activity or play


Return to buildings

Food, free play or pedagogical activity indoor or outdoor

Preschool is closing


Benefits of outdoors

The children have a freer life

“I feel that we have greater freedom, we are in the woods from that time to that time – and then we get a little out of reach of the world around” male respondent

“it is much freer, I feel, both for adults and for children. It is much easier” female respondent

“we make us a little out of reach of the world around. And then we can immerse ourselves in what we at all times interested in, whether it is ants or mushrooms’’ male respondent

Children learn to love nature.  They love to be outdoors.  They develop great strength and motor skills.

“To walk in the heather or on the roots is a surface that provides very different challenges to motor skills. The children develop stamina and … and gross and fine motor coordination and balance” Supported by different studies (Fjørtoft, 2000,Fiskum, Estil & Gundersen, 2005 and Vigsø & Nielsen, 2006)

The children become trustworthy and independent and respect the rules.  This gives them a lot of freedom.  It is these qualities of trust and freedom, self-management and self-confidence that helps them to develop a strong connection with nature and a feeling of being safe and at home there.


Risky Play

Risky play involves danger.  Risky play involves thrilling and exciting forms of physical play that involve uncertainty and a risk of physical injury (Sandseter, 2010, p. 22). Learning to face, embrace and manage risk is part of ‘’becoming at home in the world’’.  The children learn risk assessment and how to master risky situations and ultimately a sound sense of risk (Adams, 2001; Ball, 2002; Smith, 1998). Sandseter (2007) identifies 6 categories of risky play.


  • Play with great heights – climbing, jumping, balancing, swinging from trees, rocks, fences, hills, buildings
  • Play with high speed – swinging, sledging, sliding, running, bicycling, skating, skiing
  • Play with dangerous tools  – cutting tools, strangling tools eg ropes
  • Play near dangerous elements- cliffs, water, ice
  • Rough-and-tumble-play – wrestling, fencing with sticks, play fighting
  • Play where children can get lost or disappear – go exploring alone without fences


Why risks?

  • This is why children say they take risks (Sandseter 2010)- “It tickles in my tummy”  
  • It provokes both pleasant and unpleasant emotions at the same time, emotions they describe as “Scaryfunny”  ‘’It’s very fun and very scary and all sorts of things…and then I feel both excited and really scared at the same time!’’ (Martin, 5 years)
  • They balance on the edge between excitement and fear and love the ambiguity . Children will seek to experience this ambiguous thrill no matter how safe we make our playground equipment – so for example, they climb the climbing frames and slides in reverse.
  • Facing these risks means children are better able to handle heights, water, separation,.  They gain courage through mastery and developing a realistic sense of risk (Aldis, 1975; Ball, 2002; Boyesen, 1997).
  • They develop physical and motor competence and strength.
  • They develop spatial and orientation skills
  • Children manage risk and that’s good for their wellbeing now and in the future. ”When all ”risk” is removed from the environment, there is a dangerous border where safety contributes in heightening the risk of accidents”   (Boyesen 1997)


Educator perspectives (Sandseter, 2011)

  • Norwegian preschool staff generally allow children opportunities for positive risk-taking in kindergarten, both girls and boys
  • Most Norwegian preschool staff have few worries when children engage in risky play  
  • Male preschool staff are higher excitement seekers than female practitioners, have a more liberal attitude towards children’s risky play and also allow more risky play than women
  • Young preschool staff have a more liberal attitude towards children’s risky play and also allow more risky play than older preschool staff



Injuries in Norwegian preschools/kindergartens  (Sandseter, Sando, Pareliussen, Egset, 2013) 1700 preschool managers, questionnaire/injury registration

  • 1 in 10 children experience an injury per year during their time in preschool
  • 97.9 % of these are minor injuries that is fixed with a band aid or some comfort
  • 0.2 % are serious injuries (in 2012 only fractured sculls)
  • 1.9 % are moderate injuries (primarily broken bones or concussions)
  • Falls and collisions most common moderate injury situations, but often unforeseeable happenings (falls from flat ground or small heights)
  • Most moderate injuries outside
  • No gender differences in moderate injuries, but boys experience more minor injuries
  • No age differences in injuries


These are average levels of accident anywhere and this is despite the fact that Norwegian preschool/kindergarten children to a large extent are allowed to engage in risky play in diverse play environment



We raised some questions at the beginning of this article.  We have returned from our study visit with a sense that we need to rethink what we’re about in early childhood.  We’re not about preparing children or later life, for school, for the workforce. We’re about securing a child’s right to a playful childhood. We need to go beyond the evidence-based research that tells us about school success, employability and economic returns. As Woodhead (2007) says, early childhood should not be seen ‘as an investment opportunity (or) about exploiting human capital’. He refutes the World Bank perspective:

 “A healthy cognitive and emotional development in the early years translates into tangible economic returns. Early interventions yield higher returns as a preventive measure compared with remedial services later in life. Policies that seek to remedy deficits incurred in the early years are much more costly than initial investments in the early years” (Source

On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the UN Convention in the Rights of the Child (1989) we need to address the challenges posed by that Convention: How do we show respect for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the child?   Reggio Emilia offers us the image of the competent, creative child, Norway offers us the image of the active, robust, adventurous child.  What is our image? What do we, as a society, want?  Is it about school readiness and early literacy and numeracy?  Or is it about giving children a chance to find their way of being in their worlds? Do we trust that every child, without exception, is born with a drive to learn – to be the best that they can be? Are we interested in how that finds expression in every child? Are we committed to the child’s right to wellbeing, identity and belonging, communicating and exploring and thinking about the things that interest them and that help them to connect to the important people in their lives? Are we ready to take Aistear seriously?

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