Affordable childcare: Norway’s secret to success


By Alexis Newman

Two years ago, Jessica Pfeffer gave birth to her first daughter. One year later, she had her second. In those two years, Pfeffer has faced challenges but perhaps the biggest has been finding daycare. Without reliable daycare, Pfeffer has been working night shifts while her husband works days. And sometimes grandparents fill in the gap. 

“We have to rely on his parents a lot, but it’s almost impossible to find a place for our girls,” she said.

Affordable childcare is something the Canadian government has been working towards. The federal government has been trying to roll out a national daycare strategy that would make daycare more affordable, but the plan isn’t without its own struggles. Even with cheaper daycare, licensed daycares have struggled to keep up with demand, meaning some waiting lists have grown to a year or longer. In the meantime, Canadian parents like Pfeffer struggle to find a compromise, often sacrificing time with her husband working opposite shifts just so her children will be looked after. “If I could get my girls in a daycare, I would have done it ages ago. It’s exhausting trying to even apply for spots. I get let down so often that I’m not surprised when I get put on a yearlong wait list anymore,” said Pfeffer, as she walked down the street with a double stroller.

The struggle to find reliable, affordable childcare is why, in 2022, the Canadian government set out a plan to offer $10 a day daycare by 2025. The plan only applies to licensed daycares. Pfeffer agreed that the plan is going to help many Canadian parents but “it takes more than a promise to lower prices to solve the overall issue,” she said.

The history of Norway’s barnehage

One country that has years of experience in affordable childcare is Norway. In 2022, Parents magazine voted Norway as the best country to live in as a new parent — partly because of the county’s childcare system.

The Norwegian version of daycare, or preschool, is called barnehage and runs for children from the age of one until six years old. Barnehage directly translates to kindergarten, but it’s not the kindergarten many Canadian parents are used to. While kindergarten in Canada is a stepping stone many young children take before entering grade school, the Norwegian version is akin to a Canadian preschool or daycare, and is more focused on developing creativity, interpersonal relations and playing. 

The first Norweigen barnehage schools were built in the 19th century to help single mothers or mothers who had to work. The first barnehage was built in 1837 in Trondheim for children between aged two and seven. According to an article in the International Journal of Child Care and Education Policy, the goal of the childcare centres, called barneasyl at the time, was to keep the children of working- and low-class families off the street. At the time, children without reliable childcare would either work or be left to wander the streets while their parents were at work.

Increasing attendance in pre-grade school education

As someone who moved to Oslo from Quebec in 2012, Catherine Chamberland has first-hand experience with how well the Norwegian childcare system works. Chamberland has two children, aged one and four, who have both been part of a barnehage

“There is even a discount for the second child of a family, and you can get a reduced price is you’re from a low income family,” said Chamberland. 

The Norwegian government subsidizes barnehages, which allows for more affordable and consistent pricing. About two per cent of Norway’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) — or around $10.7 billion CAD a year — goes towards funding the barnehages. 

The lower cost of childcare in Norway has allowed participation in pre-grade school education to increase. Barnehage is the main source of childcare for parents and while it’s not the only option, an annual education report released by the Norwegian government in 2022 found that 93 per cent of children five and under in Norway are enrolled in a barnehage. That’s largely because of a policy change in 2009 that guaranteed every child in Norway a place in a local barnehage.

According to Statistics Canada, in 2022 only 52 per cent of Canadian children are in childcare programs. There are many issues when it comes to participation in pre-grade school education in Canada, the more prominent ones ranging from accessibility to spaces to hours of operation. 

“It sucks even trying to get a spot for my oldest who is more than capable of moving around on her own now and would require less work than my youngest,” said Pfeffer, who grew up in Brantford. 

The role of the government in early childhood education

Today, Norwegian barnehage is generally run using a “play-based” model that uses play and child-led curiosity, instead of the common North American theory-based, teacher-led model. 

“My kids are all ‘played out’ at the end of the day, so I could focus on getting my own work done when I got home,” said Chamberland.

But as often as Norway’s childcare system is praised, it’s not without its own critics. Kelly Hunter, a Canadian-Norwegian, has been working as a kindergarten teacher in Norway’s capital Oslo for about 30 years and said over the years policy changes have challenged the traditional idea of the country’s barnehages

“Play as a concept is, in my opinion, under threat,” said Hunter. Different views from government parties in Norway directly impact how the schools are run, she said. Hunter explained that some political parties prioritize more conservative beliefs of childcare, such as focusing on teaching basic grade-school skills, meanwhile other political parties prioritize the aspect of play and interpersonal relations gained from barnehages. Depending on which party is in power, how barnehages run could change, said Hunter.

The government involvement in education is not exclusive to Norway. In Canada parents like Pfeffer think that the government plays too big of a roll when it comes to classroom activities. Pfeffer worries if the Canadian government involves itself more in early childhood education, that her children will be affected by changes in politics from an even earlier age. That’s what Kisa Ferstad, who lived in Norway for five years, and recently moved back to Canada with her two children, experienced. After living in another country for that long, Ferstad said that, while both countries’ education systems are heavily influenced by the government, she found there to be more freedom in the early childhood education sector in Canada.

In Norway, even when she didn’t work, Ferstad’s children were in barnehage. But Ferstad couldn’t afford to do that once she had moved back to Canada. 

“When we lived in Bergen, we paid approximately 2200 NOK ($315 CAD) [per month] per child which included lunch. But, when we moved back to Manitoba, the cost of childcare was over $500 a month with no meals,” said Ferstad, who now stays home with her children.

In 2005, the Norwegian government changed the Kindergarten Act which allows the government to set a maximum price barnehages are allowed to charge every year. In 2022, barnehage across Norway cost 3050 NOK ($325) a month. According to, a Canadian daycare information site, in Ontario the average cost of full-time daycare is $677 a month.

Balancing start and end times

The Norwegian system is not without its own challenges in accessibility. In Norway, barnheges start and end at different times. Those start times are determined by parents.

Hunter, the Norwegian kindergarten teacher, starts her days early. She arrives at school before the sun and drops off her things in her office before making her way to the classroom. It’s quiet, like the calm before the storm. As the sun peaks its way through the classroom windows, she stands in the doorway welcoming students. Hunter’s school runs from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. The school’s hours are determined by parents, who meet at the beginning of the school year and decide what hours work best for the majority. That means every school’s hours may differ, depending on what parents decide. 

The school where Chamberland takes her children begins at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m. Most parents drop off their kids at 8 a.m. and pick them up at 4:15 p.m. 

“I usually come at 4:30 and I feel like I’m late because my kids are the last ones to leave,” said Chamberland. 

The early start though means every school offers breakfast for a small charge, though parents can also pack a breakfast and send it with their child. 

In Norway, children in barnehage spend most of their day outside, and rarely come inside, except for meals. After breakfast, children go outside, where older children play with whatever they can reach such as branches on the ground, or snow in the winter. Some turn to each other and start playing games. Younger children sleep outside in strollers that their parents provide. 

“If only I could nap whenever I wanted to,” said Hunter with a laugh, describing one of the tiring days she had at work.

On this day, the children are brought inside slightly earlier for lunch, where they’re fed a processed meat, similar to pate that comes out of a tube. Chamberland, whose children go to a different school than Hunter’s but eat similar things for lunch, described it as a salmon-coloured snake onto the piece of toast. 

“I’m more than happy to pay a little bit extra to cover the food cost, especially on days like today when I’m a bit overloaded and don’t have the time to make it myself but it is usually quite processed foods,” said Chamberland. 

Finding enough teachers

While Norway seems to have affordable daycare figured out, the country still struggles to get enough qualified teachers for their barnehages.

After guaranteeing a barnehage spot for every child in Norway in 2005, the country struggled to keep up with the demand and there was a significant lack of teachers. In the article from the International Journal of Child Care and Education researchers said that was mostly because the government didn’t invest enough money or time in teachers.  

“I know many assistant teachers here that are in the middle of completing their schooling. They got hired before they were even qualified for the position,” said Hunter.

To overcome staffing shortages, the government made an exemption in 2007 to the laws that required teachers to have an early childhood education degree. Since then, fewer staff in barnehages have a completed degree in early childhood education. According to the 2019 Norway Education Mirror, only four out of 10 staff in barnehages are registered, educated, teachers. 

“You get what you get,” said Geoffery Gilpin whose three kids, aged 12, 10 and eight attended a kindergarten in a small Norwegian village.  

Gilpin and his wife, Liv, grew up in Canada, and both saw Norway’s play-based education as a setback for their children’s education. 

“Many of our peers, who are also international parents, worry about our children learning the fundamentals like reading and writing,” said Gilpin — something they feel their children don’t get with play-focused education. 

That’s why Gilpin and his wife began teaching their children to count, read and write at home.

Education aside, Gilpin said he’s also had to navigate other behavioural issues.

“We’ve had to deal with homophobic and racial comments downplayed by staff around our kids, requiring us to have lengthy moral and ethical discussions at home,” he said. 

The Norwegian government is trying to address the level of education among barnehage teachers. In 2022, the government rolled out a new plan where at least 60 per cent of barnehages staff must be qualified teachers. 

What about Canada?

Canada hasn’t fully rolled out its $10 a day daycare plan but staffing is already an issue. Researchers of a 2021 Early Childhood Education report found there are 58,867 registered early childhood educators in Ontario, but only 44 per cent worked in a licensed childcare facility. The report also found that only half of childcare workers in Canada have post-secondary qualifications. 

Along with the lack of educated early childhood educators, there is also a lack of licensed facilities in Canada. In 2021, only 42 per cent of Canadian childcare providers were licensed — a stumbling block since the federal government’s $10 a day plan only applies to licensed daycares. The limited spaces in licensed places also made some wait lists years long. Pfeffer said one of the daycares she was looking into had a wait list of two years and another one had one that was just over a year long.

“The lack of licensed places to run the $10 a day program makes the wait lists unreasonable,” said Ferstad. “Even though there can be wait lists for schools in Norway for certain reasons, it is never 300 applicants.” 

Having experienced these wait lists firsthand Pfeffer said she wished getting a daycare spot for her daughters was easier. “If I had known it would be this hard, I would have started planning before even giving birth.”