I have to say, the dead moose head sort of made my day.
It was less than a week old, the neck wound still fresh and raw, a hunting dog gnawing on the side scruff. It felt distinctly Norwegian, and I had this feeling, like, this would not be brought in as a feature item at a typical American preschool.
"Today is Hunting Day," one educator tells me excitedly. For the occasion, two fathers have brought in the moose head and some of their hunting paraphernalia to share with the children at Flekkenga Nature and Farm Preschool in Ingeberg, Norway.
The moose head sits in the center of the forest clearing at base camp, surrounded by three rudimentary wooden shelters, a fire pit, and a wooden picnic table. The preschoolers toddle over to touch the moose head, stroking the antlers, petting and prodding at the fur. “We shot this one five days ago,” one of the hunters tells me.
Now the attention is shifting: the other hunter has brought out a large cooler. Inside is the body of a small, skinned rådyr (type of small, Eurasian deer). The hunter heaves it onto the picnic table, and proceeds to quarter and fillet it, as the kids watch on. Even the younger children have come out to the forest for the occasion. The smallest ones, only one year old, sit in double-strollers, which have been strategically wheeled to surround the table. At one point, a little girl starts fussing, and I think that all the raw flesh is upsetting her, but then I see that it's just that her winter cap has fallen into her eyes and is obstructing her view of the butchering process.
I had been observing here for two months already as a part of a Fulbright research grant in Norway, studying how outdoor learning experiences can be integrated into traditional education. Norway is known for its value of friluftsliv: literally, “open-air life,” but more generally translated as the ethic of environmental awareness and appreciation. Coming from a background of both informal and formal education, outdoors and in the classroom, I’ve been interested to see how friluftsliv has entered national pedagogy.
Eating the meat
"I don't like meat," says one three-year-old, Armand.
"Yes, you do!" corrects his five-year-old brother, Henrik. "Remember, we ate this exact thing last week."
"Yechhhh," says Armand, "not like this."
"This is just like meat you buy in the store," says the hunter. "That meat comes from animals too!"
"Nooooo," say a few of the kids.
"Well, I'm not eating the rump," says another five-year-old, Gustav.
"Why not?" asks an educator.
"It had poop in it!"
Later, I hear other kids whispering to one another to try to reach a consensus about whether or not they will eat the rump.
Meanwhile, other teachers have set up a metal grill atop the campfire and before long, the smell of cooking meat begins to drift through the crisp forest air. Flekkenga is located about two hours northeast of Oslo, in a region that is heavily forested and has retained a strong hunting culture. According to one educator, Patrick, it seemed natural to teach the children about it with Hunting Day. "The kids learn the cycles of life through this," he says. "If you want meat, you have to kill. If you want wood, you have to chop down a tree."
It is this type of understanding that has been so striking to me throughout many of my observations here. A common Norwegian mentality seems to center around using the land. Fishing. Forestry. Foraging for berries and mushrooms. Cooking food over small campfires in the woods. Rather than glorifying protected wilderness areas for the sake of wilderness, humans are seen as a part of nature. They learn to spend time in it, enjoy it, and then use it to their benefit – yet without a culture of land destruction or exploitation [Note: I wonder about this. Is the difference between Norway and America simply a matter of population size, ease of access and population density, or is there a fundamentally differently attitude about human-nature interactions?]
Before the Norwegian oil boom in the 1970’s, most Norwegians were hugely dependent upon their local environment for food, materials, and other goods. Entertainment was outdoors as well; a traditional Sunday activity was to gå på tur, to spend the day outside on a trip through the local environment. With the increase of wealth and technology, Norwegians are growing less likely to interact with nature on a direct and regular basis, but most are still fiercely proud of a land-based cultural identity. Activities like Hunting Day are attempts to teach this culture to youth.
When the time comes to eat the deer meat -- which has been chopped into small morsels and sautéed over the open fire -- it is a big hit. Gustav says, "I thought I would be like 'yuck yuck yuck' but then it was actually ‘yummy nom nom!’" He pantomimes shoving meat into his mouth.
After the meal, the kids get to try holding the rifles and looking into the viewfinder as they point them in the distance. Many line up to try again and again.
When I talk to Håkon, one of the hunters and the father of a five-year-old boy at the preschool, he says that one of his goals is to teach the children about hunting as a deep tradition in Norway. "In Norway, there are hundreds of thousands of hunters," he says. "Meat isn't something you buy in the store, it comes from somewhere." Håkon explains that he learned to hunt with his father and has begun taking his own children with him on the hunt. They were with him when he shot the deer last week, he says proudly.
After the hunters leave, the kids return to their standard forest activities: some use axes and saws to chop down trees for next-year’s firewood; others climb and clamber higher and higher in trees, others play make-believe. A small group sits around the campfire and uses carving knives—real—to sharpen sticks. It has become, essentially, a very typical day in this Norwegian forest and farm preschool – and all so different from what my American upbringing has exposed me to as the norm.
Just a day in the forest
Flekkenga Forest and Farm Preschool opened its doors in 2008, at a time when the Norwegian government was looking for new kindergartens to support. Founder and director Ole-Morten owned a farm at the time, yet knew that he was “much better at working with people than with corn and potatoes.”
With education training and a degree from the Norwegian School of Sports Sciences, Ole-Morten knew about the importance of motor skills to cognitive development. “I also know the importance of families being active and the importance of using the outdoors and nature,” says Ole-Morten. “It’s important for me to give children good experiences outdoors and good experiences using their own bodies, being strong, experiencing different climate and weather without getting stressed in cold and wet environments.”
And thus Flekkenga began, following the “outdoor preschool” model that has gained popularity throughout Scandinavia. The premise is that children spend the majority of every day outside, regardless of the weather. This aligns well with the Norwegian proverb: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” While this type of preschool is still rare in the United States, it has begun to attract more attention after the 2005 bestseller Last Child in the Woods decried the “Nature Deficit Disorder” plaguing our country. According to author Richard Louv, American children are spending less and less time outdoors, with worrisome effects on both physical and mental health.
So what about here in Norway? Many adults I speak to still cite the deeply ingrained friluftsliv culture. “We Norwegians were born with skis on our feet,” said one man, echoing a common national adage. And yet, many also say that they notice younger Norwegians favoring indoors technology over outdoors time. The outdoors time tends to favor organized movements or adventure activities; for example, the scouting movement, Speideren, is popular here, as is the youth branch of Den Norske Turistforening (DNT), the Norwegian outdoors club.
Flekkenga is one example of how Norwegian children can still experience the simple pleasures of just getting out and enjoying the forest, exploring and learning without too much form or structure. Ole-Morten believes that the ultimate goal of the school is to “get the children addicted to the outdoors so that when they grow up, they will also want to use nature and engage in outdoor activities.” To do so, he and his staff aim to create an environment where children can “be safe and joyous in outdoor activities.”
To be Safe and Joyous
As far as safety, I think about the children climbing worrisomely high in the spruce trees, using sharp axes and real knives. It sounds like an American litigation nightmare. Yet, when I ask the educators about this, they laugh and say that we Americans are all too overprotective.
And so, a typical day at Flekkenga features axes, knives and saws. The educators help the children use axes to fell small pines, and others hack off the side branches. The children work in pairs with a saw to chop it into smaller chunks and then they drag the timber to a pile where it will dry until it is cut into firewood next year. Like Patrick says, if you want a fire, you must chop down a tree.
My first day watching the four-year-olds with sharp knives, I was nervous. I’ll admit it. These were real carving knives. I pictured fingers, amputated, flopping on the ground like some Halloween display. In the American public school where I worked the past years, we had to use plastic serrated knives or butter knives. Many American schools don’t allow any sort of knife on the premises. And in a typical preschool? Scissors have rounded edges!
Yet Patrick explains to me that they want the kids to learn how to use all these tools now, to begin to gain the competencies and motor skills while they are young. Furthermore, they want them to learn to use these tools as they should be used – as tools – instead of using them later, as weapons. Patrick told me that he has never seen the kids use the tools as weapons here, not even in jest. And there has never been a significant accident, although there is the occasional and inevitable scrape and scratch. The type of scrape and scratch that is indicative of being active, of working with one’s hands, of living life without a hovering and overprotective bubble of “safety.”
The children learn that meat comes from somewhere, that killing and eating and living are part of cycles in nature, that we are a part of the landscape that surrounds us.
Bring on the moose.