A Whole New World

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My love for working with children and the constant praise that I hear about the Scandinavian approach to early childcare and education has fostered my excitement for the Child Development course that I started last week. Despite being in session for only five days, I have already visited a zoo, a kindergarten, and a construction playground and I have learned so much that I think I could write an entire book about my experiences thus far.

While I would love to tell you all about the fascinating theories and research behind the Nordic’s emphasis on free play, experiential learning, and child-oriented practices, I think it will be more interesting to tell you about how these concepts are the foundation of some of the learning environments in Denmark.

Before going on a field study to the Copenhagen Zoo, our instructor Heidi had us look into the negative media attention that this particular zoo received a few years ago when a young giraffe named Marius was killed to avoid genetic inbreeding and then publicly dissected and fed to lions in the same zoo.

Despite multiple offers from other zoos and facilities to rehouse Marius, the Copenhagen Zoo stood by their decision and was supported by the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria. If your initial reaction to this is something along the lines of disbelief and disgust, you are not alone.

Polar bears in Denmark?

Prior to the visit and talking to staff, I had a strong resistance to the idea of killing a living creature caged in a facility that I was already morally against.

However, I realize that my initial disgust with the Zoo’s decision came from a cultural background of being sheltered from concepts like death and the nature of wildlife at an early age. I thought, “how DARE they allow such young, vulnerable children to see something so graphic?!” and “they would NEVER allow such a scene in an American zoo.”

While I originally thought that the killing of Marius was gruesome and unwarranted, I was given the opportunity to better understand the Zoo’s decision by hearing from staff at the facility and I have come to appreciate the candidness that they expressed throughout the controversy.

Despite my initial frustration that the Zoo didn’t respond to any of the offers they received about placing Marius in another facility, I acknowledge the dangers of just handing over an animal to any private buyer, as the intentions of other people and organizations are unknown.

The education model of the Copenhagen Zoo focuses on the fundamentals of children’s curiosity and fascination and then providing knowledge based on these interests in order to induce motivations to take action. Learning about how this approach is implemented through educational workshops and classes, I now have a greater respect for the concept of zoos being a place for educating children about wildlife and nature conservation. I appreciate the openness that Copenhagen Zoo values in terms of what they share with children because sheltering them from heavy topics and facts of life like death and the circle of life does not necessarily benefit anyone.

The reactions you likely felt to hearing about this story are almost certainly based on the cultural norms that have influenced your worldview. Like me, you probably didn’t learn about the anatomical structure of animals or the details of nature’s ecosystem in depth until you were in high school doing rat dissections.

In Denmark, this is considered a disservice to children becoming knowledgable about real world topics. The thought is that being honest and realistic with children will raise awareness of important issues like respecting nature and wild animals. From this perspective, the public dissection of Marius and the unsheltered feeding of his remains in the lion’s den a few exhibits over is an educational opportunity and not a horrific display of animal cruelty.

The next academic visit to Byggelegepladsen Broparken (a.k.a. the Construction Playground) was another experience that our instructor Heidi prefaced with “don’t freak out if you see a 7 year old running around with an axe, this is a normal thing.” I had no idea what to expect with this field trip.

This after-school program is for children aged 7-18 and it is open on both weekdays and weekends year round. This unique space invites children to come whenever they want and choose whatever they want to do for a small fee each month.

The facility is full of various materials and spaces that children can use for anything from cooking, to woodworking, to arts and crafts, sports activities, and it even has a small farm with chickens and goats where they can purchase their own bunny and learn how to care for it.

At the Construction Playground, almost all activities are initiated by the children and the adults are just there to help facilitate social relationships, assist with activities when asked, handle (very rare) emergency situations, and develop the self-esteem and confidence in children by creating acknowledging and secure relationships with them.

While we were there, we had the opportunity to participate in activities with the children and the highlight was working alongside them to make chicken soup from scratch. When I say scratch, I quite literally mean everything from slaughtering the chicken, chopping wood for the fire under the cauldron, and picking herbs to season the meal.

Just like Heidi warned, we saw young children plucking the chicken and exploring its insides and using axes to get ready for the fire. Again, most of you are probably thinking about the dangers of such risky activities and exposing children to such graphic visuals. To be fair, I couldn’t even stomach the idea of watching a chicken be killed and prepared for dinner so I took a short walk during this part of the process.

However, this experience is just another day in the life of a Danish after-school program. The child-oriented approach emphasizes that children initiate their activities and learn by doing. Danish children get to choose what they want to do, even if it seems like risky behavior to outsiders like us. The pedagogues at the Construction Playground explained that children will rise to the responsibility that you give them so learning how to navigate risky behavior at an earlier age will lead to them being even more prepared to handle future situations. So yes, learning how to use a potentially lethal tool is part of this.

To say that I am learning about another culture is a understatement. I am actually experiencing first hand and participating in a perspective that seems so foreign and a little crazy to those on the outside. As my views of what I consider “normal” are being challenged, I am starting to realize how real the concept of ethnocentrism is (shoutout to my Introduction to Anthropology course freshman year for teaching me the correct term).

I am starting to fully understand the dangers of evaluating other cultures according to preconceptions of standards and customs of my own culture. Denmark’s approach to childcare and education are opening my eyes to a whole new world and I am excited to keep learning about what makes this system so unique.