In my last post, I talked about how much I enjoy spending time with young children and last week I was able to do that for three full days of practicum. My child development class spent the last part of our course at Byggelegepladsen Broparken (the after-school program I talked about in a previous post) and in the Kindergarten that shares some of the facilities and space. My classmates and I were divided into groups and expected to create an activity that could be implemented with the children in the programs. We were given the freedom to design lesson plans based on our interests but the ultimate goal was to make it worthwhile for the children.
The groups working with the children 7-16 years old came up with really awesome and creative ideas, including a variety of art projects, baking activities, and relay games. You can check out Byggelegepladsen Broparken’s Facebook page for some pictures of us helping each other execute the planned activities with the children.
I was in the group designated to work with the kindergarten for one hour each of the three days of practicum with the idea that the continuity would help the young children get comfortable with just one group of us. In Denmark, every child aged 0 to 6 years old is guaranteed a place in the public childcare system and when a child is between 2 years and 10 months to 6 years old they can be cared for in a kindergarten.
So my four classmates and I were tasked with deciding on a theme and creating lesson plans for each of the three days we would be in the kindergarten. In theory, this wouldn’t take too much effort because surely we could use our backgrounds of working in daycares and preschools to come up with a few activities to throw together. However, we also had to keep in mind the unique aspects of Denmark’s early childcare and education system.
For starters, these children have not been expected to participate in structured activities due to the Danish emphasis on free play and the freedom to engage in self-selected activities. During our first field trip visit to the kindergarten in the beginning of our course, we learned that there is a strong dedication to a child-oriented approach. This kindergarten emphasizes the importance of considering what the children will get out of their experiences rather than what the pedagogues would enjoy. Every planned activity and free play period is focused on what the children want to do and they can guide the majority of how their time is spent. The approach to their center is not about making it easy for the pedagogues, but rather they are dedicated to what is best for the children.
Similarly, there is also the reservations that Danes have towards the explicit concept of learning in early childhood because they usually equate learning with school-oriented subjects. Danish childcare workers typically see structured activities as interfering with a child’s development through self-guided activities and social participation. And lastly (and probably most importantly), while Danes are globally considered some of the best speakers of English as a second language, Danish children usually don’t start learning English as a foreign language until they are in grade three.
So, we had to come up with three hours of planned activities for young children (about 3-5 years old) who are not accustomed to such structure. We also had to make sure that our activities had a strong, explicit purpose behind them while also being discretely educational and not just what we thought would be fun and enjoyable. Oh, and did I mention that they don’t speak English? Yikes.
We decided on the theme “expressing emotions” and planned to introduce six basic emotions to the children. Each day had a different focus with goals of teaching the children how to express feelings through external behavior, art, and music and movement. Some of our activities included showing photos of people expressing different emotions and have the children act them out, coloring examples of what they feel about certain emotions, and dancing activities where the children move to different songs according to how it makes them feel. We also included some familiar games like King’s Followers and Freeze Dance.
While it was a lot of fun getting to interact with the young children and helping them play, it was absolutely exhausting. Not only did the planning and preparation take a lot of time and consideration, but making sure that the children were engaged and having fun required us to exhibit an energy that the children could emulate. We also had to support our other classmates by participating in their activities throughout the day.
The language barrier was the most difficult part of the implementation. Thankfully, our instructor and some of the pedagogues at the kindergarten translated instructions for us but it was extremely difficult to interact meaningfully with the children. When they tried to tell us about their drawings, we could smile and nod but any words we said would not be understood. Our exaggerated expressions and pointing could only take us so far but we weren’t able to communicate with the children who were especially reserved and reluctant to participate.
I have always had an immense amount of respect for teachers and all the hard work that is required for success in the classroom. While every age level has its own challenges, I would argue that those in early childcare and education have some of the most demanding and under-appreciated roles. Not only are they expected to constantly maintain a positive and energetic attitude while also demonstrating incredible patience and understanding, but they are also constantly undervalued. In the U.S., their work is trivialized through the little wages they earn and the rhetoric of childcare workers and educators being “babysitters” who get to spend their days “playing.”
In the U.S., there is a cultural trend of undervaluing the importance of childcare and overvaluing the importance of school readiness. In Denmark, there is current movement towards a system of educare that combines care, upbringing, and teaching with learning in the context of early childhood education. It posits “care” as more than looking after children and “teaching” as more than the transmission of knowledge. Most importantly, this movement still acknowledges the benefits of free play and focusing efforts towards facilitating child-oriented activities.
This experience has made me even more amazed by childcare workers and educators who have to juggle the expectations of what society has in terms of educational goals with what they personally believe will be best for the children and families. And I am especially astonished by those who have the added hurdle of students who speak a different language and their ability to adapt to those needs.