Imagine taking 23 children, who range in age from three to six, on a sledding trip. There are three adults to supervise them, but the children have to take responsibility — more or less — for putting on their own snowsuits, their hats and their gloves, and for taking turns so there are no accidents. A health and safety nightmare? Perhaps, but an illustrative example of the preschool childcare culture in Denmark — a country lauded for its great universal nursery care and parental benefits.
Every child, for example, is guaranteed an affordable nursery place from the age of one to when school starts at six. Parents and caretakers are generally permitted 52 weeks paid leave after the birth or adoption, and this can be taken between them flexibly. For example, my husband and I took one month’s leave together and saved a month, which one of us can take before our youngest is nine years old. Over and above this, working hours are less on average than elsewhere in Europe, you get five weeks statutory holiday and are safe in the knowledge that you can have a day off to look after your children if one of them is sick. All these rules — and others — make Denmark a place where families can theoretically win the battle between work and life.
Beyond the legal rules, there is a culture that makes it possible for such a system to function. On the whole, society finds it acceptable that preschool children are looked after by a professional — some of whom have completed a three-and-a-half-year degree — rather than a parent. The job of a “stay-at-home-mom” is, in some sense, taken over by the state.
More importantly, perhaps, is that everyone seems to accept that children should be given as much freedom and responsibility as possible. An often cited Danish phenomenon is the daily excursion where children walk to play parks or museums two-by-two, or holding on to a pushchair which contains the youngest of the bunch. There are numerous other examples that illustrate the emphasis of autonomy and taking responsibility that are less well-known and are less likely to live up to American ideals of proper child supervision.
Take the use of open fires used to toast “snobrod” and candles to create a cozy atmosphere. In one case, there was no fence or hedge in a yard to keep the children from wandering off — “one child who wandered off luckily chose to go towards the woods and not the motorway!” All these things can of course still be beneficial to children in their development, but might not sit comfortably in cultures which all too often see such freedom as risk.
The pedaegogerne (nursery nurses) are not expected to be looking at your child constantly and would not physically be able to do so. There is no fast rule about the number of adults per child. Every afternoon at my son’s nursery, there are two staff to look after 23 children between the ages of three and six. According to the National Institute of Public Health, the vast majority of accidents that happen to children still occur in the home, so there does not appear to be grounds to believe the low adult-to-child ratios are dangerous. Parents also understand that staff are public servants who are accordingly overstretched.
Because “free play” is the main pedagogical principle, close supervision is in any event not required at all times. Most Danish children are self-starters when it comes to playing. They find the most wonderful and innovative ways of learning all by themselves, often with few resources: drawing a treasure map where X marks the spot, girls making sticky name badges for all the boys or groups creating a “play” to perform to others.
The emphasis here is, of course, on the child being self-sufficient and a member of a group — dressing and sitting at the table properly, and being a good playmate. Adult-led, structured activities occur but are relatively infrequent. Again, this seems a far cry from the American focus on didactic activities at every turn, even when watching television.
So, it is not only the legislated rules and expenditure that has made Denmark one of the best for working families. Two other vital factors include the almost universal acceptance of an element of risk, and the concept of free play. If, say, America were to consider introducing more accessible childcare mirrored on the Danish model, it would certainly have some questions to answer first, like “would I allow my three-year-old child to go sledding with minimal supervision?” And if so, who’s supposed to remember his gloves?