“If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise” – these opening lines from the popular children’s song ‘Teddy Bears’ Picnic’ might take on a different resonance in Ljubljana, where ‘forest pedagogy’ is one of several recent innovations in education to have taken root.
“Usually on a day like this, the children go to the forest and spend a day there,” says Melita Oven, Head of project sections at the department of education for Ljubljana. “They don’t bring any toys, they just use whatever is in the forest, and the teachers are there only to observe and ensure they are safe. My son first went around the age of three,” adds Oven.
Of course, the aim of Ljubljana’s forest pedagogy is not to return children to the wild, and definitely not to dispense with their education. Rather, the aim is to promote a positive attitude towards the environment and develop children’s green conscience from an early age.
In fact, Ljubljana’s focus on education in early childhood is very strong. “For example, kindergartens must always have two adults in the class with teaching qualifications,” says Oven. “Here in the kindergartens and schools, children socialise, they mix, they learn, because in kindergartens we don’t only have care, but also education,” she adds.
Since 2006, Ljubljana has focused a lot on early childhood education and care so that nowadays any child with a permanent residency will be accepted into the kindergarten system. In 2020, 95.5% of children in the city took up this offer, surpassing the national average. Parents are supported with pre-school fees, adjusted according to their income, to ensure that all children, no matter their family’s economic situation, can have a quality education. The city also covers part of the costs that families face at the beginning of the school year, as well as school meals, so that economic factors do not pose an obstacle to children’s right to education.
There are other benefits of the public school system too – three meals per day are provided to all children, which is included in the fees for kindergartens. In addition, each kindergarten is associated with a food expert who can direct the menu, ensuring each child gets enough vitamins and minerals through a balanced diet.
And it’s not just forest days for children in Ljubljana, but cultural days also offer children trips to the cinema, the puppet theatre, or the opera for example – some of which are funded by the city.
“We have really long summer holidays,” says Oven, “up to 9 or 10 weeks, which can be a problem for the parents, especially of the younger children, who cannot get the time off.” With this in mind, the city subsidises holiday care programmes to ensure all children, especially those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, have a chance to engage in creative sports and cultural activities, during the holidays (winter and autumn too), and NGOs prepare a range of activities and camps. Last year more than 3,000 children took part in these activities.
Part of the philosophy for Ljubljana’s educators is that in a child’s full development informal education is just as important as mainstream classes, which is why the mayor has agreed to fund a myriad of free time activities. New sports areas and playgrounds are constantly being built because of the understanding that such infrastructure contributes to learning through play, and to the development of skills for living in a community.
“For me and my children it’s important that we have so many public playgrounds here in Ljubljana that are open 24/7, as we live in an apartment,” says Oven. “We also have a lot of green areas to enjoy,” she adds.
It’s “definitely a good place to raise children,” concludes Oven.
On Thursday, 18 February, Eurocities will be hosting the event ‘Growing up and out of poverty: Lessons from cities for the EU Child Guarantee’ to discuss approaches by cities to alleviate child poverty and help children succeed.