Danish daycare life

I haven’t written about this topic before because I’ve been working out what I think of it all. As a first-time parent, it took me me a long time to ease into the concept of childcare, both in England and in Denmark. I think it’s quite a sensitive and personal topic. One that is wrapped around with guilt, as you hand over your little one; whatever their age, whatever type of childcare, whatever your reason is for doing it. Every parent has different requirements as to how much they want, or need to use childcare. Everyone has differing levels of family support and every child adapts differently to the transition. So I’m aware people will have different opinions on this post.

Lydia attended nursery in England for two days a week, from the age of 13 months to 16 months, before we moved to Denmark. She then started at a Danish nursery (vuggestue) aged 20 months and attended for three short days a week, until she moved up to kindergarten (børnehave) at nearly three years old. She turns four in September and now goes to børnehave four or five days a week, from 0900 until 1500. She thrives there. It no longer feel like dropping her off at childcare but rather letting her go and play with her friends. She asks to go every single day. Sofia is due to start vuggestue, part-time, in September, when she turns 16 months old.

So I have experienced  the daycare systems in both England and Denmark and how they differ. Here are my findings….based on my personal experience, as well the experience of friends and families in both countries.

Cost

This is the biggest difference.

English daycare is private, so places and prices can vary. But in Sheffield, the cost of full-time nursery is around £1000 a month. In London it can be as much as £1600 a month. You can opt for short days (0900-1600 is considered short), or half days, at a lower cost. The payment system is done on a day-rate, so parents pick and choose their days based on finances and work. If you collect your child later than your contracted hours, you are charged.

In Denmark, most institutions are state-funded. This means the government pays for 75% of the fees. It leaves you with a monthly bill of around 3,732 kroner (£440) for full-time nursery (0 – 2yrs 10months) and 2,361 kroner (£280) for full-time kindergarten (2yrs 10 months – 5/6 years). Siblings have a 50 percent reduction and families on lower incomes are subsidised further.

You pay this monthly rate to the kommune (council) and you have access to five-days-a-week childcare at any time within opening hours. These vary from 0600-1800, to 0700-1700. Affordable and flexible. It is a brilliant model. The state-run system means there is not much variation between institutions, unlike in England.  It also means waiting lists are long in many places. There are some private nurseries in Denmark but they are not the norm. I have only visited one and it didn’t differ much in structure or price from the state-funded places I saw. The main difference was that parents were more involved in the running of it.

Food

When I had my induction to Lydia’s Sheffield nursery, they were clear that everything was bought from the Asda value range, to save costs. No problem, I thought. I was given a list of food they give the children and asked to put a cross next to anything Lydia couldn’t eat. I started to cross off fish fingers, pizza, tinned fruit….and then started enquiring about the sugar content in their fromage frais. Before I knew it, the nursery chef was in front of me with her value-pack of yogurts, trying to breakdown how much sugar was in an individual pot….for “Lydia’s mum.” It was the first time I’d been referred to as that, and I did not like the first thing I had done as “Lydia’s mum.” I made some sort of excuse over sensitive teeth and handed over the sheet, with all crosses rubbed out. 

All Danish state-run nurseries provide food that is at least 90% organic. They often eat rye bread with egg, salmon, mackerel, beetroot, leverpostej (pâté). Hot meals are fish or meat with potatoes and vegetables, soup, pasta or frikadeller (meat balls). There are some institutions that are completely sugar-free. Lydia’s børnehave isn’t, so they sometimes have jam on bread rolls for snacks (bolle med syltetøj), pizza on a Friday and sweet treats for birthdays and special occasions. They offer breakfast, a morning snack, lunch, an afternoon snack and for those staying beyond 1600, another snack. They never provide an evening meal because the culture is for families to all eat together at home after work. In England, nurseries give the children a hot meal at 1600, so parents only have to give a snack or supper before their bedtime. I think there’s a more flexible working culture in Denmark. Parents often split daycare drop-off and collection so one parent starts the day later, and the other ends early. 

Timings

In Denmark, most children are dropped off between 0800 and 0900 and collected between 1500 and 1600. On a Friday they’re usually collected earlier. We once had to collect Lydia at 1700 on a Friday. She was one of two children left in an institution of 70. We never did it again. In England, children are dropped off at similar times (obviously depending on the parents’ work schedule) but the busiest collection time is between 1700 and 1800. Hence, the need for them to be given their evening meal at nursery.

Naps

In England, the nurseries have rooms lined with cots for nap times. Lydia’s Sheffield nursery also had slings, which some nursery teachers used to rock babies to sleep. The children started to nap on the floor when they were 18 months old but this can vary from place to place.

In Denmark, the under two-year-olds all nap outside in prams, provided by the nursery. They are lined up, outside in a shelter or in a type of shed. The nursery provide all the thick covers in winter time. The sight of row-upon-row of prams in a shed, with sleeping babies inside, was a huge culture shock when I visited my first Danish nursery. In one place, the prams were under a cover in a shared public courtyard. English me thought this was a prime pram-snatching spot and so that nursery was crossed off the list! The babies are of course frequently checked on by the pædagoger (nursery educators) and they all use baby monitors. When the children turn two years old, they nap inside together on the floor. The staff at Lydia’s first Danish nursery were happy for her to sleep inside, when she joined at 20 months. I couldn’t imagine her reacting well to that new style of napping. Fast-forward two years and it’s the only way Sofia naps.

Play

Pædagoger are nursery educators and have many years training in child development. Most institutions dedicate the morning to a planned activity. Then the afternoon is free play, which in børnehave is from 12pm, after an 11am lunch. In vuggestue, it is from 2pm, after a 12-2pm nap time. They also do many trips out of the institution, in both vuggestue and børnehave. Some places have cargo bikes, others have big prams that seat four children. At Lydia’s børnehave, they have a trip every Wednesday. It could be an outing to a different playground, a farm, library, museum. We aren’t told where they’re going, there are never forms to fill in, we just know it’s happening and then see the photos uploaded to the nursery app, and look….there’s Lydia in a goat pen! Lydia’s børnehave seem to stick to walking distance locations. But it is a common sight in Copenhagen to see a group of under six year olds, in florescent vests, with a few adults, boarding buses, metros or trains for a day out. 

Outside play is big in Denmark. The children’s kit-list is extensive and specific, as I’ve mentioned in a blog post before, because they all play outside, no matter what the weather. Many institutions love taking the children to the forest. Some have dedicated weeks that they spend there. And some kindergartens are entirely based on forest play. The forest nurseries in Copenhagen, often involve a 30-40 minute bus journey, from the city institution, out to the forest. The bus leaves at 0800 each day and returns at 1500. Once at the forest, they have a building so they can spend some time inside but the emphasis is on outdoor forest life. These institutions often have a building in the city too, where the children will spend one week a month.

In Lydia’s English nursery, the activities were more planned and structured, including music time, sensory corner, baby yoga.  There was also a lot of impressive arts and crafts work that was brought home, making you feel like your child was a genius. Every activity was documented, along with how she was developing socially and physically for her age. 

Feedback

When you collect your child from an English nursery, you’re often presented with a write-up of the day. Included is a log of of what your child has eaten, when they napped, when they had their nappy changed and by whom, and what the contents of that nappy was. Lucky nappy-changer! In Denmark, Lydia’s pick-up at nursery usually went like this:

Me: “Hej! Har hun haft en god dag?” (Hi! Has she had a good day?)

Pædagog: “Ja, rigtig god.” (Yes, really good.)

{Pause, waiting for any more information to be offered about that good day…}

Me: “Har hun spist og sovet?” (Has she eaten and napped? – I asked this when she was younger.)

Pædagog: “Yeah I think so…” (Usually converted to English by this stage of my Danish conversation.)

Me: “Ok….

Pædagog: “Vi ses i morgen. Tak for i dag Lydia.” (See you tomorrow. Thanks for the day Lydia.)

Me: “Oh yes, tak for i dag. Vi ses i morgen.” 

And off I’d go, feeling a bit baffled as to whether I should have asked more or not asked at all. I’d look at Lydia’s dirt-covered face, often a few scratches and bruises added to her collection and think, what did they do?! Sometimes a photo and caption would have been uploaded onto the nursery app, sometimes not. Sometimes I’d ask, “Hvad lavedede hun i dag?” (What did she do today?) but I got the feeling they found this an unnecessary discourse. At Lydia’s børnehave, they now write on a white board about what they’ve done that day and you just pick up your child, wave and say “farvel” (goodbye) to the pædagoger you can see, and go home. You can of course, have a chat with them if they’re not busy but it’s very much no news is good news. As for bumps, grazes and scratches, again it’s no news is good news – your child just had a minor fall. You’re only told of the pretty big bumps, and even then it’s just a mention at the end of the day. In England, a form is filled out for many accidents, especially bumps to the head, detailing exactly what happened. It sometimes includes a phone call to you during the day. 

Health and Safety

When I was shown around one nursery in England, the playground was overlooked by flats. I was told not to worry, the teachers look up at the flat windows before every play time and check no one is looking at the playground. So with this in mind, I started to panic at every Copenhagen nursery viewing, as they were all surrounded by apartments. I would look at the quality of the fencing, any potential child-capturing opportunities or great escape moments. It was something that had been instilled in me from the culture of English nurseries. A biometric finger code to enter the door, a password to use if someone other than a parent collected your child, CCTV outside the building and in one place I visited, CCTV inside the nursery rooms. Contrast this to my tours of Danish nurseries, where sometimes there wasn’t even a lock or code on the front door. Rather than passwords used for collecting children other than your own, there is an electronic app system, where each day, you type who is collecting your child and at what time. This electronic system is used to ‘check-in’ and ‘check-out’ your child and book in sickness or holiday days, so the pædagoger know who should be there. But from my translation of emails over the years, I have gathered at each of Lydia’s different institutions, that a child has accidentally been left in the playground because they weren’t checked in, and the pædagoger weren’t aware they were there. I have also seen a child nearly escaping a børnehave once (not Lydia’s). He was immediately helped back over the fence by members of the public. But still….(worried face emoji).

Staff-to-child ratios

And this brings me to the point of contention. 

The reason for the biggest parent protest of its kind in Denmark – as I wrote in my last blog post.  There are a lot of children in Danish daycare and not so many staff. And there are no regulations on what staff-to-child ratios should be. 

In England, most nursery staff-to-child ratios are 1:3. In Denmark, the ratio is often 1:4. There will be 12 children and three adults in a room. Except one of those adults goes home at lunchtime. So from 1pm, there are 12 children and two adults. These children are aged 0-2 years and 10 months. I have looked around 15 different nurseries in Copenhagen and all had this ratio. The summer months are particularly disconcerting, as the rooms all come together and play outside. So if you collect your child after 1pm during the summer, there are many little ones playing without an adult near them. In børnehave, the children are aged 2 years 10 months – 5/6 years. They have 3 adults in a room with 22 children. Again, one of these adults goes home after lunch. This is why the afternoon is free play, with scattered adults around. So when you collect your child, you sometimes can’t get a full answer about their day because the person who may have done their morning activity, or fed them, have left.  The stretched staffing just about works. But the trouble happens when someone goes off sick. Sometimes the institution can’t get full cover. So those ratios become quite frightening. Other times, there will be a temporary worker in place, completely unknown to the children. This often happens during staff holidays. In Danish, staff substitutes are called vikar. For some time, I thought vikar was a popular name for pædagoger, as he kept popping up on the staff lists at Lydia’s børnehave. Lydia is pretty non-plussed about the vikar because she only cares about playing with her best friends. But for the babies in vuggestue, the need for consistent familiar adults is important.

Over the last few months, the parent campaign,”Hvor er der en voksen?” (Where is an adult?) has gained huge momentum. They want the government to introduce a minimum staff-t0-child ratio of 1:3 in nurseries and 1:6 in kindergartens. A new government has just been elected and they have made some positive noises about this. But implementing it is another matter.

I have personally found childcare to be the hardest part of parenting, both in England and in Denmark. It was one of the reasons I decided to become a freelancer, so I could have more freedom in work and family life and I realise how lucky that makes me. Having come from a culture of over-protecting and health and safety, it has taken me a while to ease into the Danish way of child care. I’ve had to let go of those uptight English genes and embrace my laid back and trusting Danish genes. And as I’ve done so, I have started to see the benefits of childhood freedom and outdoor life, as they become confident, resilient little people. I am content with Lydia’s børnehave and we have a good relationship with her pædagoger. I still have a few “eek” moments, especially the relaxed attitude to sun hats (seems to be a Danish thing)  but Lydia is so so happy there. I have seen changes since the parent protest. It’s hard to ignore thousands of parents across the country all saying the same thing. But more does need to happen across all institutions in the country and regulations put in place – for the sake of the staff as well as the children. And then the Danish model of childcare can go back to being its best.

 

 

 

 

 

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