September 05, 2012

By Molly O'Brien-Foelsch

LEWISBURG, Pa. — At Denmark's "forest schools," small children spend virtually all day in the woods, by themselves and with little supervision. Last year, students from Bucknell University visited one of those schools, where they saw three-year-olds cutting wood with real saws. The school's teachers had given some safety instructions, but none seemed concerned about the risks of cuts or splinters to tiny fingers. Instead, the children learned for themselves.

For the Bucknell University students observing the scene, it was a perfect illustration of the Danish approach to childrearing: en god barndom, or the good childhood, according to which Danes view children as competent, trustworthy and fully engaged members of society who learn from experience, said Professor of Psychology Chris Boyatzis. Seeing this philosophy in action is just one part of the students' broader experience through Bucknell in Denmark, a three-week summer study abroad course Boyatzis developed two years ago to have students explore the contexts of the family and education as well as surrounding cultural issues that influence child development.

Boyatzis has taught a course on culture and child development at Bucknell for many years, but said he wanted to create a more meaningful and lasting experience for students. "Bucknell in Denmark immerses students in Danish society so that they can analyze and compare the experiences of children in the U.S. and Denmark," he said.

In addition to en god barndom, the students learn about, witness and discuss factors influencing child development and education, including Denmark's socialist economic system and its reaction to an influx of Muslim immigrants. The goal, said Boyatzis, is to help students gain broader insight into how culture shapes child development anywhere in the world and learn how culture shapes what we think of as normal and good, and abnormal and bad.

A 'moveable feast'
Boyatzis conceived Bucknell in Denmark as a "moveable feast" after he spent time teaching in Copenhagen several years ago.

In addition to meeting as a class for seminar discussions, the students talk with experts at different universities and organizations throughout Copenhagen and visit Bucknell alumni who live, work and are raising children in Denmark. In a typical day, the group might hop on a train to a university and visit with faculty who study Danish day care, then hear a provocative presentation at the Danish agency that handles family planning and sex education in Denmark. The group might then go back to the classroom where a guest speaker discusses how Muslim immigration is affecting Danish identity and Danish education, and maybe later visit a castle or museum, said Boyatzis. On some days, the class may speak with leading scholars on alcohol in Danish youth culture or hear from a midwife on birthing practices in Denmark.

A major part of the program — and a big draw for the students — is its practicum component, through which the students spend three full days working directly with Danish children and teachers at after-school programs and day-care centers. "This short-term immersion is an excellent way to help students learn and have a transformative experience," said Boyatzis.

The influence of Muslim immigration
Throughout the course, the students find that not everyone in Denmark subscribes to en god barndom — and that has caused something of an identity crisis within the formerly homogenous society. For example, while Danes like to think of themselves as very liberal and tolerant, they are seeing increased prejudice and concern over "foreigners" moving in. Over the last 30 years, a growing number of Muslims have immigrated to Denmark, bringing with them childrearing philosophies and worldviews that might conflict with the Danish way of thinking. "Danes are profoundly gender egalitarian and they see Islam as being contrary to that," said Boyatzis. "They're also wrestling with immigration quotas and grappling with how to accommodate outsiders who don't look or dress like them."

"Many Danes oppose Muslim immigration because it is diluting the nation's 'tribal' community of trust and similarity," said Megan Snider, a psychology and anthropology major in the Class of '13 who participated in the summer 2012 program. "I think it is a very difficult change for the nation to cope with, but I am hopeful that a solution can be found to successfully accept immigration while preserving the native Danish culture."

Boyatzis said that learning about the difficult issues facing Denmark helps students better understand similar issues back home. "They see that we could be talking about Mexican immigrants, we could be talking about racism in the United States."

Socialism and quality of life
Boyatzis said the course also provokes students to examine their assumptions about the government's role in people's lives. "Danes have positive feelings toward the state, recognizing that the government takes care of its citizenry," he said. "Some American students come into the course questioning how Denmark's socialist economy could be a good thing — until they see the Danish quality of life."

"On so many indicators Denmark looks better," he said. "It has among the lowest income inequality in the world, very low poverty and crime rates, and Danes regularly score as the 'happiest' people in the world on international comparisons." The majority of Danes feel comfortable paying the highest taxes in the world-up to a 65-percent rate —because they believe it allows everyone to have a good quality of life. "Education through graduate school is free, and their national health insurance works well," said Boyatzis. Danish schools and daycare centers are aesthetically pleasing, and teachers are well-paid and respected. "The Bucknell students see this quality of life throughout the program, and many reconsider the American system," he said. "But then, we do a reality check, and students recognize that what works in a tiny country of 5-and-a-half million people who feel like a homogenous tribe won't necessarily work in a country of 314 million who are from all over the world and have mixed feelings at best about the role of government."

An 'intense experience'
Beth Klunk, a religion and psychology major in the Class of '14, said that diving into another country and culture for three weeks was a "far more intense" experience than she had expected. "Learning to adapt to this new culture was mentally and emotionally challenging every day," she said. "I wanted to challenge some of the ideas that I had grown up taking for granted and gain a more global understanding of the world and my place in it."

Kaisha Johnson, an education and sociology major in the Class of '14, summed up her experience saying, "It is unbelievable how much more you can absorb when you are immersed in a culture that is so different from ours."

Snider concurred. "My views on parenting have changed significantly. I plan on putting my Danish influences to use by giving my children the freedom to make their own choices and to learn from experience without being overbearing or overly worried about them making mistakes, falling down on the playground, or getting hurt."

She said her career plans to become a clinical child psychologist have been transformed as well: "I feel much more knowledgeable about child development as a whole, and the Danish-American cross-cultural perspective will certainly influence the way that I view and handle children in the future."

Contact: Division of Communications

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