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No matter how us English-speakers choose to spell (and mispronounce) it, the Danish concept of hygge has nestled comfortably in our vocabularies by now.
Newspapers, parenting blogs and travel shows promote hygge as the secret ingredient to Denmark’s chart-topping happiness. But as the concept moves away from Denmark, it gets mistranslated, repackaged and repurposed. So when you look at how we use hygge in early education, it can sometimes be hard to figure out what it really means.
How do we give hygge to children? What does hygge look like? Is it just about buying loads of candles?
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the hygge hype in early education, and explore just what makes the concept such an appealing one to share with children. You’ll also learn a bit more about how you might use the concept in your own practice, and we’ll bust a few hygge myths along the way.
The good news is, getting a handle on hygge is easier than you might think.
Because the word might be Danish, but the moments and feelings it describes are things you’ve known since you were a child.
When hygge left Denmark and landed in the US and UK, it gained one distinct new feature: a price tag.
As she explains, the foreign export version of hygge is often attached to something that’s for sale. Maybe that’s hygge accessories, or a book explaining how you can master hygge. But back home in Denmark, it’s just a nice word to capture those cozy social moments you experience just about every day.
You don’t need to buy something, remodel, or get certified in order to share hygge with children. In fact, children might understand the idea of hygge better than any of us grown-ups.
“That’s a matter of bringing hygge back to its original Danish focus: slowing down, being together and building relationships. It’s about simply being, and rather than doing all the time,” Ellen says. “That might be something to aspire to, rather than thinking that hygge has got to look a certain way, or that you’ve got to purchase or master it somehow.”
The word itself might feel new, but the ideas behind hygge have always been part of your life. So when you introduce children to the idea of hygge, it’s important to show them that it isn’t something you need to demystify.
“We should avoid teaching children that ‘hygge’ is something exotic. If you start seeing hygge as something foreign, that you have to consume or decode, you won’t notice that these hygge feelings of togetherness, slowing down and being cozy are already in your own life.”
-Ellen Kythor, PhD, University College London
When you ship hygge overseas, you can lose track of what the word meant in the first place.
Some parenting blogs will tell you that hygge is about slow-paced, unplugged activities, like building a jigsaw puzzle instead of watching a show on an iPad. You’ll find others who say hygge is about the things you buy, as though the concept itself lives within wool blankets and beeswax candles. These suggestions often come connected with words like coziness, togetherness, and warmth.
But if you look at these different interpretations within early education, you’ll see one common thread: hygge speaks to some of the most fundamental experiences we want to give young children.
Here’s how the core concepts of hygge tie into key aspects of child development.
All of these ideas are beautiful, and there’s nothing wrong with using hygge as a way to connect with them.
The trouble is in thinking that these concepts are really some Scandinavian secret.
How did we get to hygge, anyway?
Hygge is far from the first Danish export that’s taken off abroad.
Before hygge, we had LEGO bricks, H.C. Andersen fairy tales and sleek Danish furniture. Then came the ‘Nordic noir’ genre, with chart-topping crime thrillers like The Bridge or The Killing. Then, in the early 2010s, books about “living Danishly” started popping up on international bookshelves — which Ellen connects to Denmark’s high rankings on the annual World Happiness Report.
With this growing interest in Scandinavia, hygge emerged as our cute catch-all term for the trend.
“Lots of us think very positively about Scandinavia, so it’s natural to then think about what we can grab hold of, and learn from them,” Ellen says. “A big part of the overseas interpretation of hygge is just packaging up a lot of those positive feelings we associate with Scandinavia.”
By Ellen’s estimation, the overseas hygge craze was biggest between 2016 and 2018. “We’re a bit past peak hygge, from a marketing point of view,” she says. And yet hygge lives on, woven into gift-shop books, training courses and classroom accessories.
At this point, hygge has taken on a new meaning as it’s moved abroad. So perhaps it’s best for us to look at our intent behind using the word.
Maybe it’s worth accepting that the foreign export version of hygge is its own word, regardless of what the Danes think.
After all, you’ll find hygge in English dictionaries now, which suggests we’ve made the word our own.
Sure, it’s a bit of a buzzword. But do buzzwords have to be bad? You might argue that forest schooling and outdoor learning are trendy right now, for example. But if it’s a trend that’s getting children outside and active in nature, where’s the harm?
We might see hygge in the same perspective, Ellen suggests.
“If people understand hygge as a shorthand for being cozy, comfortable and together, maybe it’s just a good way to take another approach to those concepts, even if it’s not ‘authentic’ by Danish standards,” she says.
So, don’t let hygge hide behind this Scandinavian mystique. If your version of hygge is making an absolute mess finger-painting with the little ones, more power to you. Or if hygge is what spurs you to decorate a cozy home corner for children to enjoy their quiet activities, that’s great too. What’s important is that hygge helps you think about how you can make children’s early education a more comfortable, enriching, social experience.
The only real mistake you can make with hygge, is thinking that you’ve got to buy it or learn it from someone else.
Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.