As an intermediate Norwegian speaker with mediocre skiing skills and limited experience working with children with disabilities, it was safe to say that I was out of my comfort zone when I enlisted to assist with Barnas Ridderuke.
Every third week of the year, around 46 children between the ages of 10 and 15 settle into the Norwegian mountain town of Beitostølen for a week of cross-country ski activities. The children have a diversity of physical and mental disabilities, but they all share an excitement for outdoor winter activities. Over the course of the week, they live in a small cottage with two or three other children and two college leaders, all working together on cooking, cleaning and other aspects of daily life. During the day, ski activities include games, downhill skill development, going over dumper and humper (bumps and humps), jumping and ski excursions.
Cross-country skiing is considered a key characteristic of Norwegian national identity, and a popular folk expression declares that Norwegians were born with skis on their feet. According to one of the Barnas Ridderuke program leaders, Ole Morten, “Skiing is part of what it is to be an average Norwegian, being in the mountains, going to the top and down again. It’s a part of Norwegian culture. It’s important for disabled children to be able to experience that too.”
Going strong since 1982, the Barnas Ridderuke was inspired by the Ridderenn, the biggest Norwegian Nordic skiing race for people with disabilities. As the youth equivalent, the Barnas Ridderuke goals were to teach children the basic skills of skiing—in a safe, fun and inclusive context—and culminate in a competition for the participants. And thus I found myself, midweek, balanced precariously atop a small ski hill, gripping a plastic bar aside one of the other leaders. Noah, 12 years old, blind, was sandwiched between us.
“Klar?” called out the other leader. Ready?
“Klar!” shouted Noah.
“Klar,” I mumbled. And we pushed off, together, come what may.
Fun and Games
On the day before the children arrived, the leaders and I had used shovels and skis to prepare a set of ski runs: one with small bumps, one with medium and one with large. I was happy to help prepare, but unsure whether I would actually summon up the courage to ski down, not to mention ski down beside a kid. While the other leaders took test runs, I helped smooth out some of the snow on the sidelines.
But now the kids are here and they are eager to begin. I am assigned to help with Group 3, the most independent group of skiers. Group 1 is paired one-on-one with leaders—some children are blind and others need constant support. Group 2 is somewhat in between, and Group 3 is largely better than me.
Our “Ski Play” activity block begins with us congregated at the base of the ski bumps. One leader, Kristin, orchestrates a game of ‘Stavhexen.’ (The pole witch). After making playing field boundaries with our ski poles, we form pairs, link arms and do our best to escape the witch (Kristin). When tagged, we must freeze, and other pairs save us by skiing under a bridge made by our arms. In the second round, we can only be freed by a hug.
After 15 minutes of so, we’re warmed up and it’s time for our first gentle runs down the tracks. There are different challenges: skiing down with arms up, crouched, crouching and extending, on one ski, dancing to ‘heads, shoulders, knees and toes,’ etc. The children go at their own paces and challenge levels, often side by side with one of the other leaders for support.
After that, the group graduates to the humper and dumper, the humps and bumps I had prepared so lovingly yet hesitated to actually try out. Some kids ski alone, standing on top and then just leaning forwards and taking the plunge. They seem fearless. No overthinking, just a deliberate GO. There are falls, of course, but amidst whoops and cheers. Sometimes people ski together, side by side, holding a lightweight bar in front of them as a stabilizer. Sometimes it is a kid in the middle, flanked by two leaders. There are combinations of three or four or even five at once. Often the groups take elaborate sprawls, but there is always laughter and encouragement as they get back up and start again.
Finally, after seeing kid after kid try, I figure I might as well go for it myself. I decide that best will be to copy their style and just push myself off the top without thinking too much about it. Klar? Klar. I make it down three bumps before my legs fly out from under me and I nearly bite off my tongue. Nevertheless, I raise my fists in the air and lumber to my feet, falling two or more times (tongue safely inside at least) before reaching the end of the run. I am hooked, though.
During the lulls, I try going down again, the kids cheering me on. “Go America!” The first time I make it all the way down without falling, the kids and leaders at the top erupt in applause for the shaky-kneed Californian. I’m here to support them, but they end up supporting me, too.
One of the cornerstone attributes of Barnas Ridderuke is the small family-feel dynamic of living in cottages and attending to food, chores, entertainment together.
Carina, 27 years old, is one of the student leaders. She studies at the Norwegian School of Sports Sciences and has experience as a P.E. teacher. “Our cottage didn’t know each other at the beginning, but by living together, we got to know each other well in a short time,” Berg reflected. By the end of the first day, the girls were already staying up late giggling with each other. “You develop a special connection with your kids. Everyone cares about them, but you’re extra caring. They know there’s someone they can talk with.”
I’ve been assigned to a cottage, too, with Carina and two girls, eleven and twelve. One has a visual impairment and one has a mild intellectual disability, and both ski significantly better than I do. In the cottages, we develop a daily routine. It is simple and elegant: Wake up, ski, lunch, ski, shower, dinner, hang-out, bed. We play games like Hopp i Havet (“Jump in the Ocean,” a Go Fish style card game) and Ludo (a board game like Sorry). Sometimes we relax and watch håndball matches or Norwegian talent show programs on T.V.
Here are some of our topics of conversation: the day’s skiing, when they can buy candy (Thursday), whether it’s Thursday yet (no), if we can buy chocolate spread (maybe on Thursday), card talk, the boy that one of the girls has a crush on, and singing of pop songs (favorites being ”Timber,” ”Hey Brother,” ”Counting Stars,” and ”It’s Raining Tacos.” This last one is not a pop song, per say, but one of the girls has it on her ipad and we play it on repeat).
Living like this also develops independence; often, the children have not been held accountable for so much responsibility, even things like helping set and clear the table, or packing a lunch for themselves. Yet, according to one of Barnas Ridderuke founders, Erik, they often rise to the occasion and benefit from it. He described, “Parents get home and write us, ‘What did you do with them? My son came home and he wanted to bake a cake!’ We’ve learned that staying in cottages is just as important as the skiing.”
Even though the week is intended for the children, the student leaders also benefit greatly. Half the group, like Carina, comes from the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences; helping out with this week is a requirement for their program focused on adaptive sports training. As Erik says, “You can read about disability, you can learn about adapting activities, but until you really experience it, you can’t really understand.” Another contingent is from a free-time leadership program in Sweden, others are from a nearby high school, and a few others are free agents like me.