The first strong rays of sunshine augur a promise of spring on this fine February day, when Vetuva visits Sem Kindergarten in Asker. It is still freezing cold outside. In contrast, it is warm and comfortable inside the Sámi-style tent known as a lavvo. The indoor temperature is approaching 25 degrees Celsius, and skilled worker Marianne Bakke is standing over the pots and pans on the wood-burning stove, stirring.
The children have helped to chop the vegetables. Now they are outdoors, playing between birch trees and boulders, as they wait for their lunch to be ready.
Sem Kindergarten is situated right on the beautiful Lake Sem in Asker. The kindergarten has two sections, Hullabaloo and Chip & Dale. In addition, it features its own little forest about 300 metres from the kindergarten. This is where the lavvo is located in a small separate part of the kindergarten. It is primitive, with no indoor power or water. The middle of the room is dominated by a wood-burning stove, and tables and benches are placed along the walls of the tent. The wind- and waterproof walls create a safe shelter for the small group of children who spend their days here.
THE WEEK FOR THREE-YEAR-OLDS
This week, the three-year-olds in Sem Kindergarten get their turn to use the nature kindergarten. Edvard and Bianca are sitting, enjoying the spring sunshine while tasting snowballs and waiting for the real food to be ready. They absolutely love being outside here. ‘But this is not the kindergarten, in case that was what you thought’, one says with a hint of reprimand in her voice.
‘We’re at the lavvo now. The most fun part of being here is to slide down the hills on our sledges’, Bianca adds. She looks at the other children as they climb back to their feet after yet another full-speed run down the hill.
Edvard is looking forward to being able to go in soon to eat and rest.
‘I’m not going to take a nap. I’m just going to rest’, he clarifies.
A CRACKLING STOVE AT THE HEART OF THINGS
When the food is ready, a bell is rung and the children crowd into the lavvo, shedding their outdoor gear on the way in. They enjoy a meal of pasta with meat sauce. Tuesday is a day for a full hot meal. On other days, they eat porridge or bread rolls heated in a big coffee pot.
Once the food has reached their tummies, the children lay down on their bedrolls. The six children in the lavvo today spread out in a ring on all sides of the stove. They pull on thick socks that Marianne has knitted especially for their rest period. She and Alexander tuck all the children into their wool blankets. The little ones lay down and rest, eyes open or shut, while listening to the crackling sounds emanating from the stove.
Most of the three-year-olds fall asleep. ‘This is especially true at this time of the year, when it’s cold outside and warm inside’, Alexander points out.
‘There is something about the atmosphere in here. When they come in from the cold, it feels wonderful to come into this warm space and be wrapped in a blanket.’
NO ONE COMPLAINS ABOUT THE WEATHER
‘When the rest period is over, most of the children go outside again. If anyone wants to stay inside and draw, do puzzles or read, they’re allowed to do so.’ One adult mentions that when the temperature was more than 20 degrees C. below zero in January, it was good to be able to switch between outside and inside. No one is forced to be outdoors all the time. Lavvo life is intended to be a good experience.
‘We never have bad weather in this kindergarten. And it is never too cold either. We are outdoors every single day, no matter what. The weather is not something children think about much, as long as they’re warm and dry’, says educator Alexander Løken, who feels that he has found his dream job. He gets to work outdoors all week long. He loves it.
EASIER WITH CHILDREN WHO ARE THE SAME AGE
The lavvo accommodates three-, four- and five-year-olds on a rotating basis. This means that all the kindergarten children over the age of three spend every third week here.
Head teacher Petra J. Prestrønning mentions that they used to have mixed age groups, but that it was challenging to find activities that suited everyone at the same time.
‘There was always someone waiting, while someone else always had to hurry. Now, things are easier. We can adapt the pace and the plans to the children’s stage of development.
‘The kindergarten has also tried to rotate which adults works outdoors, but now the same two adults work in the lavvo all the time.
‘Those who work there develop a strong sense of ownership to the lavvo. They care for it as though it were their own, and they have their own system for where things should be kept. It’s easier this way’, maintains Petra.
The children who arrive at the kindergarten when it opens at 7.30 a.m. eat an early breakfast indoors in the kitchen. When they finish, they go straight to the dressing area to get ready to go out. At 9.30 a.m., they all line up at the gate and walk the 300 metres over to their forest location as a group. They do head counts before and after leaving and arriving.
For large parts of the day, the children play whatever they want and organise their own time. Having small groups makes it safer for all the children to take part. To cultivate the joy of being outdoors, it is important that the children participate fully. The older children who will soon be starting school have more organised activities.
‘We take a common sense approach. Since groups consist of eight to ten children, they are small enough for us to keep track of where everyone is all the time’, Alexander assures us.
WHITTLING AND CHOPPING
The children have plenty of space in their forest. On steep slopes and between large boulders and tall trees, they hone their gross motor skills. When the adults bring out the knife and the axe, the children’s fine motor skills are put to the test. Whittling sticks and chopping wood are part of day-to-day kindergarten life in Sem Kindergarten.
‘Here, we can plan activities based on the group’s size and ages, and on the seasons. Our routines are different. Everything is much calmer,’ remarks Alexander, who believes that children are more harmonious when they spend time outdoors.
‘Children who play together outdoors here learn to trust and rely on each other. They get much closer to the others in the group, and the stress level is lower. We see that they become more self-confident and daring’, concludes Alexander.
GIVING THE CHILDREN MASTERY AND THE JOY OF NATURE
‘Nature, the great outdoors and social intelligence. These are catchwords for what the children in Sem Kindergarten learn by the time they reach school age’, comments Petra, the head teacher.
‘Today, technology has a prominent role in children’s early years. Granted, technology is wonderful in many ways, but children need to be able to motivate themselves and be active without an iPad or an iPhone. They get the chance to do that here.
‘We want the children to enjoy playing outdoors, to learn to master skills and to love nature. They have to learn to dress appropriately for being outdoors. That is important for having good experiences. They need to learn to be hungry and thirsty, cold and hot, and to know that everything will be just fine all the same. They learn that these things are not dangerous.’ Petra believes that a child who is brought up to love nature and master skills in a way that is as natural as their milk breaks in kindergarten, will be able to summon that joy again as an adult.
‘Besides, children need plenty of space, as well as peace and quiet. The forest offers all of this and more since the children are in small groups surrounded by the woods. In this setting, it isn’t possible to make too much noise, no matter how loudly they shout. That makes days less stressful. And the children are seen and heard. That is important at a time when most people are so busy almost all the time’, Petra summarises.