Many Norwegian children spend a great deal of time in early childhood education and care (ECEC), that is, in kindergarten. Kindergarten plays a large and significant part of their lives. Naturally, everyone wants the children to experience a high degree of well-being. Not least in ECEC settings. But do they?
A great deal of research has been done on how parents and employees experience children’s well-being in ECEC institutions, but little research has been carried out on the children’s own subjective experiences. Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter and Monica Seland were eager to change that. Along with three research assistants, they interviewed 171 children between the ages of four and six from 17 randomly selected ECEC institutions in Sør-Trøndelag County. Among other things, the researchers asked how the children experienced everyday life in kindergarten, which activities they participated in, and about the physical environment in the kindergartens. Many questions also explored children’s subjective experiences of participation and the opportunity to decide for themselves what they want to do.
The researchers found that most children experience a high level of well-being and thrive in an ECEC institution. For example, there were slightly more children who responded that kindergarten is fun, than those who found it boring. Many responded that they liked to be in kindergarten, and that kindergarten is a good place for children.
‘However, there are also quite a few who find it just so-so. Perhaps that figure was higher than we expected, precisely because parents and staff paint a more favourable picture’, Sandseter clarifies.
The two researchers also found that about 10 per cent of the children in the survey experience a low degree of well-being. This is an important finding.
‘The fact that many like being in kindergarten is, of course, wonderful. The fact that some are just “okay” is a reminder that there is still room for improvement. The ones we really need to devote attention to, though, are the one in 10 who fail to thrive. How can we make ECEC institutions a better place for these children?’ asks Sandseter
Indoors and outdoors
The results also indicated that the children who liked the outdoor setting, the games/toys and the rooms in the kindergarten generally felt a higher level of well-being. Moreover, it was important for children to have more or less free access to all the rooms in their kindergarten.
The children in the survey could play in an unstructured manner outdoors, while the indoor activities were organised by staff to a greater extent. The children quite simply felt a higher degree of autonomy when outdoors. For example, 27 per cent of the children responded that they could say no to an activity outdoors, while only 12 per cent said the same about indoor activities. Sandseter believes that this may be due to the kindergartens’ tendency to organise learning content indoors because it is more manageable.
Field trips in the immediate vicinity are a familiar activity for Norwegian kindergartners. Sandseter and Seland found that most of the children enjoyed the field trips immensely. All the same, about six per cent never like going for a walk. It turned out that children who responded that they had too little time for unstructured play on their walks were the same ones who experienced less well-being in ECEC settings.
Adult-run circle time
Group circle time is a fixed element in Norwegian ECEC settings. Most of the children surveyed like circle time, but nearly 15 per cent responded that they never or almost never like circle time. Circle times are structured and adult-run, making them among the most school-like activities in kindergarten. The fact that so many say that they dislike circle time makes it natural to ask whether more focus on learning impacts on children’s well-being.
‘That is a good question that calls for further work on our part. We know a lot about how important opportunities to participate in decision-making and being allowed to make choices are for well-being’, says Sandseter.
She emphasises that it is not possible to make any general statement about this based on the data in the study, adding that it is important to examine this issue in more detail.
‘Were we to transition into a situation in which the adults decide even more, it would be natural to think that this might impact well-being’, she comments.
Out for a walk – whether they want to or not
Field trips and circle times are generally compulsory. More than 70 per cent of the children in the survey responded that they can never refuse to take part in these activities. Further, about 70 per cent of the children responded that they are never asked to take part in deciding where to go on field trips. About 54 per cent answered that they are never allowed to help decide what to do on the field trips.
‘This may be a bit difficult for employees or parents to hear, but this is the children’s subjective view of their experiences’, says Sandseter.
‘When we interview them, it is the children who are in charge of defining their responses, and we don’t question what they tell us. The children cannot decide where to go on field trips, or what a field trip should include. I think that is too bad, and it should be possible to do something about it’.