The Fire in the Middle

At the heart of my Fulbright experience is a bål, a campfire, the type that lures people in and builds community and makes the darkest day a whole lot more koselig, cozy. My year of researching Norwegian outdoor education took me from the “urban wilderness” of Oslo to small islands outside of Bergen to the far north of Alta—but what the programs in each setting shared was a bål, a small fire that created warmth and light, a bit of feel-good spirit and human-made heat in the middle of nature.  

My Fulbright research explored how the Norwegian value of friluftsliv (“open-air life,” or outdoor recreation/appreciation) has influenced national pedagogy, and how outdoor learning can be integrated into formal education. Sometimes I would think of the keywords of my year, as if I were writing a journal article abstract or blog post. Friluftsliv; outdoors; education; nature; youth. As I learned, those terms apply to an incredibly broad swatch of Norwegian programs and activities.

Thus, I began the year like an investigator, sniffing out opportunities related to my keywords. I observed and interviewed at a farm- and forest-preschool, a nature school program, a school program at the Norwegian Forestry Museum, a coastal school camp (leirskole), uteskole (outdoor school) at four different schools throughout the country with grades 1-7, science teacher training programs at university colleges, and assorted DNT huts in the Norwegian wilderness. Though the programs seemed overly diverse at times, I viewed them all as different strands of the same theme, all woven together with the underlying pattern of human-nature interactions. I was an investigator and a weaver, and it was up to me to make the connections, to figure out how these strands tied together. And I think I’ve figured it out, part of it, after nine months of living in Norway and learning Norwegian, eating brunost and fish dishes (but not together), plucking tyttebære, skiing to remote huts, semi-supervising children with axes and knives, building shelters and tracking moose: They fit together with the bål.

Preschool, Hamar

Preschool, Hamar

6th grade, Oslo outskirts

6th grade, Oslo outskirts

6th grade, coast near Bergen (cooking the fish they caught)

6th grade, coast near Bergen (cooking the fish they caught)

Just last month, I was observing a day of uteskole, outdoor school, in Talvik, a 450-person town in the far north. The 3rd and 4th graders and I were crowded into a small “grill hut” and the teacher, Rolf, had lit a bål in the middle. The students roasted pølser, hot dogs, on their retractable grillpinner, “grilling sticks,” and Rolf set a pot of coffee to boil.

“So,” asked Rolf, “could you do this sort of thing in the U.S.?” It’s a question I’ve asked myself over the course of the year: Do we do this, could we do this? Sometimes the answer is yes—for instance, one day of uteskole was a macroinvertebrate river search that reminded me of a similar activity I did with my own middle school students last year. Often, though, the answer is no: like when I observed three-year-olds using knives and axes in the outdoor preschool. Or that time, Hunting Day, where the preschoolers played with a dead moose head and watched a deer get butchered (and then, of course, roasted over a bål).That felt very Norwegian.

1st grade,  uteskole

1st grade, uteskole

On this particular uteskole day, it did feel like the kind of thing that we could mostly do in the United States. The morning had been a survey of intertidal creatures (which reminded me of a coastal field trip took in fifth grade), and the afternoon involved folk tales (about the semi-terrifying draug of Northern Norway) and making sculptures out of found coastal materials. These were activities I could envision at my progressive American school, for example. Yet, for some reason, the lunchtime bål was what struck me as most Norwegian. In the United States, I love a good campfire. I associate it with summer camp, with roasting marshmallows and singing campfire songs and telling stories. The thing is, in Norway, the campfire is not just a special summer camp thing—it is all the time! (Except for in undesignated areas between April 15th and September 15th, I’ve learned.) I am pretty sure that in my entire American schooling, except for perhaps a few days of a school camp we went to once, I never experienced a campfire. On the other hand, it seems to be a staple of Norwegian outdoor programs. In all sorts of different contexts, I observed adults and students using saws, axes and knives to prepare wood for fires, and then gathering around for food and hot drinks and camaraderie.

I’ve realized that the bål captures some of the particularities my research has revealed regarding Norway, when it comes to human-nature interactions. Here, humans are considered a part of nature; humans exist in nature and can use it, in a sustainable way. This means forestry, fishing, hunting, berry-picking, campfire-making, and so on. It means “wild” outdoor play involving building, digging, moving and climbling. The bål also relates to the value of friluftsliv, a cornerstone of Norwegian culture. Friluftsliv means getting outside and feeling a sense of joy and connection with the land while engaging in outdoor pursuits. Sitting around a bål is a way to relax and have a good time in nature, socially. It is particularly apropos in the sometimes-harsh Norwegian weather, but it is also welcome on a typical brisk autumn day.

As the year progressed, I focused my research more on uteskole, outdoor school, an approach where teachers take their students outside usually for a whole day once a week. There, the students blend theory with practice as they learn in an “extended classroom.” Coming from a teaching background of my own, this interested me because these were just ‘regular public schools,’ but ones that had chosen to prioritize outdoor learning for various academic, physical, social and psychological benefits. I tracked down schools practicinguteskole and tried to observe as many as possible, looking for similarities and differences, trying to ascertain what exactly uteskole was and why teachers used it. In my research, I have tried to place uteskole within the larger framework of international outdoor education, while discerning “Norwegian” characteristics (often, this takes the form of the bål). I’ve realized that uteskole is often initiated by a single, passionate teacher, which gives me hope that it is something I can bring back to the United States and incorporate into my own practice.

Throughout the year, I have written reflections, adventures and analyses on this blog -- sharing a bit of Norway with an international audience. My Fulbright experience, and specifically the Norwegian affinity for pålegg, has also inspired an international photo-food (“Open-Faced Sandwiches in Cool Places"). 

I’m incredibly grateful for this Fulbright year; the experience of living abroad and immersing myself completely in a different culture has been invaluable. At the same time, living in an international-student milieu has also introduced me to great new friends from Italy, Germany, Czech Republic, Philippines, Belarus, Thailand, and many more countries! I must thank my faculty advisors: Dr. Arne Jordet of Hedmark University College and Dr. Kirsti Pedersen Gurholt of the Norwegian School of Sports Sciences. Both were patient, wise and full of helpful connections. I am grateful for the opportunity to explore the Norwegian perspective on an experiential education theme that has long interested me in the United States, and I feel like I have gained an international perspective to contribute to the fields of both outdoor education and traditional education. I think I have been a positive American ambassador abroad, both for my country and for Fulbright.

Thinking of the future, I know I will refer often to friluftsliv and I hope to teach many more about the concept. I look forward to campfires because I know that they will remind me ofNorway and my many diffent bål experiences over the course of this Fulbright year.