How to work with the Travellers culture in kindergarten – PART OF OUR COLLAB W/ TRAVELLERS’ TIMES

How to work with the Travellers culture in kindergarten

The Travellers are a national minority group which has been in Norway for the last 500 years. The minority has been through a harsh assimilation policy which has affected their attitude in today’s society. The article gives a small summary of the Travellers history in Norway and shows how many have a fear even today. Many Travellers feel they don’t fit in, and some are afraid of sending their children to kindergarten. The article show how a project focusing the Traveller culture help to feel pride and also accepting kindergarten as something important to their children.

By Anne-Mari Larsen

Anne-Mari Larsen is an associate professor in drama working at Queen Maud University College of Early Childhood Education in Trondheim, Norway.  She has since 2004 worked together with the Travellers Organization. The aim for the projects is to visualize the Traveller culture in kindergarten and schools. 

The history and culture of the Travellers

From historical and language studies (Theil, 2010) it is claimed by most historians that the Travellers have originated from India, and settled in Norway in the 15th century (St. meld. nr.15, 2000-2001, Gotaas, 2000). The assimilation policy towards the Travellers has been harsh, and the group has faced problem trying to keep their culture. In 1999 the Travellers were recognized as a national minority group in Norway.

The Travellers were known as small-scale sellers and craftsmen. They travelled round the country, offered their goods and took different jobs as craftsmen and brought news, songs and music to the farmers. The core of the Travellers’ culture is travelling as indicated by the name of the group. Many of the Travellers say life has no meaning without travelling, and as soon as the smell of spring appeared they packed all their belongings and took off. Their travelling was family based. If the father got work somewhere, the whole family would join him. The number one reason for travelling has been work. They also travel to meet family, siblings, friends, and to attend different cultural and religious arrangements. Many Travellers also mention the feeling of freedom, and to be able to go whenever and wherever they want to. These days travelling are less. They all have a permanent house and most Travellers travel only during holidays.

The authority’s politics against the Travellers

Ever since the Travellers came to Norway in the 1500th century they have faced problems, been persecuted and looked down upon.  They have been discriminated because of their culture and their travelling life style which was different from the majority in Norway.  The Norwegian authorities have used a very harsh assimilation policy towards the Travellers in order to make them “proper” Norwegians, stop the travelling, and deny their language and culture (Gotaas, 2000). The Norwegian authorities made use of strong methods, like the law about sterilization from 1934. The aim of the law was to eliminate unwanted genetic material from the population and reduce mentally retarded people, criminals and alcoholics. The Travellers were looked upon as a group with a criminal and scandalous way of living. This resulted in use of the law, and many travelling women were sterilized during the period of 1934 – 1977 when it was prohibited. The tragic history has made the Travellers a group with many challenges and problems even in modern society.

The Norwegian mission for the homeless – “The Mission”

In 1935 the Norwegian Mission for the homeless, called “The Mission” was established. This was a private organisation, with economical support from the official authorities and was by the Ministry of Church and Education given the responsibilities for the assimilation policy toward the Travellers. The reason to establish “The Mission” was to get the Travellers fully assimilated into the Norwegian culture and society and to prevent the children from the travelling life. Many children were taken from their parents and put in orphanage, or with a foster family. These children grew up without knowing anything about their biological family and background. Parents were not told with whom or where the children stayed, and many did never meet each other again. This was also the aim of the Mission who claimed; every child who is  united with their Travelling parents is a lost child (Kjeldstadli, 2003:450).  If you have lost a child or a child is taken from you by the authorities the sorrow will never leave you, and even today many Travellers have problems with anxiety. Between 1900 and 1989 about 1500 children were taken from their parents (Eide & Aanesen 2008, St.meld nr. 15 (2000-2001)).

 “The Mission” was also the owner of various” family homes or work-camps were they offered the Travellers a place to stay. The rules which they had to obey were strict, and the Travellers were not allowed to travel, to speak their language Romani, to sing their songs or to have contact with other Travellers and family members. The manager of one of the homes put it this way: What we are doing is deliberately exterminating a people’s individuality, their language, their way of life

The consequences of the politics

From interviews (Larsen, 2010) we have registered that many Travellers still have an anxiety towards the greater society, and express they are afraid the history might be repeated. Some parents tell they are afraid someone might come and take their children, and this could be the reason for a very protective attitude towards children. I know I have transferred my anxiety to the next generation, says one elder Traveller. We find the same situation in other minority groups. The San people in Botswana (Gunnestad, Larsen, Nguluka, 2006), the aborigines in Australia and the Navajo Indians in New Mexico (Søbstad, Lillemyr, 2007) have all experienced oppression from the greater society and transfer some of their anxiety and unsafeness to the next generation.  Also among the Roma people in Slovakia we find similarities. Krajocovicova (2009) refers to Rosinsky (2006) who says only 80 % of the Roma people in Slovakia have completed primary school. One of the reasons is the bad experience their parents and grandparents have from their own schooldays which they transfer to their children and grandchildren. The formal educations among the Travellers are also less. Many have had bad experiences with school; they have been mocked both by the teachers and pupils. If problems occurred many chose to drop out or changed to another school. Some Travellers have not completed primary school, and even today many youngsters drop out of school because they don’t feel they fit it. Difficult or painful eexperiences can give people low self-esteem, and less confidence that they are able to complete a formal education. When a child has a positive self-esteem he or she will have a better chance to develop good relations to others. Children with good experiences and positive expectations to own role will see possibilities, while those with negative experiences will have focus on negative situations and might not be able to see possibilities (Lillemyr, 2007).

Family boundaries and attitude towards the society

The Travellers have always been, and still are, tight attached to the family. The boundaries can be explained from the history and the way they have been treated. When the greater society is a threat, family becomes important, and is the place one feel comfortable, safe, and get protection. It is important to have support in the family, but if a relation within the family is too strong it can prevent the Travellers from taking part and get a role in the society. We live in two worlds one at home and one in the greater society, say may Travellers.  In a study from 2000 the researchers say, because of the harsh assimilation policy in the past and the anxiety today there are many who struggle to belong to the group and to be proud of being a Traveller (Bjerkan & Dyrlid 2000). The fear and anxiety also might also be the reason that some Travellers want to hide their identity and culture. They are not one homogenous group, and there are different opinions on how or whether the culture should be communicated to others. Hylland Eriksen (2011) calls this process ethnic revitalizing which he describes as a collective effort to strengthen an identity which is in danger of being vanished, a culture which might get lost.   He speaks of three different types of revitalizing using Norwegian immigrants as an example. Some forget their own culture and want to be as modern and westernized as possible, some join cultural events now and then and others work to maintain the culture and are worried of the traditions and loss in values. We can say the same about the Travellers. Some marry non Travellers and reject the culture; others participate in cultural events once a year. In the third group they communicate well with both Travellers and non Travellers. They are worried and fear the culture might vanish and fights for its right to live and develop.

A project about the Travellers culture in the kindergarten

Travellers look upon children as a treasure, with a special value they must take good care of.

But because of the former policy many Travellers are extra consciously towards their family and children. In interview (Larsen, 2010) Travellers express: We are afraid our children might be mocked, but we want the best for them, and we are very conscious in the upbringing trying to make the children feel strong and proud with an equal status though they belong to a minority group. Bjerkan and Dyrlid (2000:17) say the harsh assimilation policy has made many Travellers struggle to lift their head and admit they belong to the Travellers group. This observation is very important to everyone who works with young Travellers in kindergartens and schoosl. It is not only the Travellers themselves who can help the children to feel strong and proud; also the pedagogues have an important responsibility.

Children from travellers group meet their own culture in the kindergarten

Children from travellers group meet their own culture in the kindergarten

Travellers and kindergarten

Almost 100 % of all the Norwegian children have the possibility to join kindergarten if they want to. A kindergarten of high quality can stimulate to social equalization, early achievement and lifelong learning ( 42 2008 – 2009 Kvalitet i barnehagen). Also the basis for social fellowship, friendship, development and learning is founded in the early years (Løkken, 2000). Children from different cultures and social levels meet in the kindergarten. They make friends and learn to know and respect each other. Children who don’t attend kindergarten loose this experience and knowledge and might start school with a gap towards the others.

            It’s hard to say the exact numbers of Travellers joining kindergarten. But during interviews and work among the Travellers since the last 10 years we find there is no tradition of making use of kindergarten. The Travellers give different reasons for keeping the children at home. Fear towards the greater society might be the reason number one. Among the elder generation there is a suspicion and fear towards teachers and school in general, and this attitude is often transmitted to the younger generation. Another reason is that many women among the Travellers don’t work outside the home, and they want their children to stay home for as long as possible. Some women who have made use of kindergarten have faced critical comments from other Travellers telling her it’s expected you take care of your own children. Others mention that the culture in the kindergarten is so different from what they are used to, and there are no other Travellers there, neither children nor adults.  Lately we have noticed a change and Travellers have started using kindergarten, but some tells its frightening leaving the children there, and the first weeks they had to sit in the kindergarten for hours to make sure the children felt comfortable (Larsen, 2012).


How to work with the Travellers culture in kindergarten

In the following we want to share experiences from a project which have focused on the Travellers culture in the kindergarten. The project has run since 2010, and has been conducted in many different kindergartens in Norway.


  • Children from the Travellers group shall meet their own culture in the kindergarten
  • All the children shall learn something about the Travellers culture
  • The teachers and staff shall learn about the history and culture of the Travellers
  • Motivate more Travellers to send their children to kindergarten

Children from the Travellers group shall meet their own culture in the kindergarten

If the children meet their own culture in the kindergarten, it may help them to adjust and feel comfortable there. Some Travellers have in interview (Larsen, 2010) mentioned they have too little knowledge of their own history and culture, and wish it was a theme in the school. Knowledge about own culture and history is fundamental for ones identity as a Traveller, to develop it, pass the knowledge to the coming generations, and to make it visible in the greater society.

All the children shall learn something about the Travellers culture

From work with other minorities we know the chances of strengthening a group’s status increases when the society gets more knowledge.  Knowledge focused on the positive side of the culture reduces speculative thinking, fear and thoughts like; Travellers are just thieves, make problems and have a bad behavior. The Sami people are a good example. They have walked a long way from being harassed and looked down upon to be respected in the society and have their own Sami Parliament. Knowledge about the Sami people is compulsory for all children in the primary schools and kindergartens. In the Framework plan for kindergarten (Rammeplan, 2011) it is pointed that in addition to the greater society Norway consists of the Sami people, the national minority groups and the new minorities with multicultural background. It is also said the cultural diversity must be reflected in the kindergarten.

The teachers and staff shall learn about the history and culture of the Travellers

When the staff has knowledge of have the Travellers have been treated in the history they can easier understand the present situation. The knowledge gives better qualifications and confidence to work with the children, talk to, and understand the parents, their behavior and attitude towards children and kindergarten.

Motivate more Travellers to send their children to kindergarten

If the parents experience that the children enjoy, benefit and adjust in the kindergarten, they might tell others who in the next run will make use of kindergarten for their children.


To make the Travellers proud of their culture, and make it more visible in the society it is relevant to start with children in the kindergarten and schools.  One of the aims in the Framework plan for the content and task of Kindergarten (Rammeplan, 2011:7) is; cultural diversity should be reflected in the kindergarten and kindergarten shall support children related to their cultural and individual assumptions. The content in this project is related to many of the subjects in the Framework plan: “Art, culture and creativity,” where we relate the work to steel wire which is one of the important handicrafts from the Travellers culture.  “Ethics, religion and philosophy,” where ethical questions are related to the Travellers background and the importance of respecting each other no matter from which cultural background one belong to.  Through the Travellers own stories about buying, selling, camping and travelling the children will learn about   “Nature, environment and technology”.

We consider it as important to have people from the Travellers group involved in the work. They know the culture; they live in it, and are the guarantee for correct information. In our program the Travellers have also collected material related to the culture, which makes it easier to understand and can give inspiration to the children’s play.


Every program starts with a lecture to the staff about the Travellers culture and their history in Norway. We find it important that the staff get this knowledge even it is not a theme in the kindergarten. In the kindergarten the focus is put on the positive side of the culture. And as a Traveller expresses very clearly; it is not our culture to be sterilized and lobotomized, it is only part of the history. When the staff knows the history they will have a better fundament and background to understand the Travellers, their attitude, fear and concern for their children, and they will hopefully feel they have a better basis to arrange for children and parents.

Equally important is to give room for discussions and planning in small groups with the Travellers and the staff. Through experience we have learnt that these group talks are most valuable. The staff gets the possibilities to ask for example questions like: Where are the Travellers today? How can you recognize a Traveller? What do the Travellers do for a living? Do they still travel, and if so, where do they travel? In the meetings one can also discuss the length and the structure of the project. Usually our programs have a duration of three to six months which is a suitable time to give the children knowledge and experience of the Travellers culture. A Traveller spend one day in the kindergarten every second or third week and works with different aspects of the culture. In between her visits the staff continues her work.

Concrete suggestions for work

Talk about the Travellers and how they travel and stay

We start by sharing information about the Travellers, where they came from, how they travelled inland and by boats. How they earned their living and where and how they found places to stay. We focus on the importance of the family and how they always travelled many together. Equally important is to inform how the Travellers live today.

Activities based on travel and accommodation

Look at the map

Look at the map and find India.  Find the route the Travellers travelled to Norway.

Draw the route and print pictures of the different ways the Travellers travelled.


Tell stories about the life on the road and how and where the Travellers slept.


Pictures in books, TV and other media are important in the children’s world today. It makes it easier to understand how the Travellers lived in the old days and also how they live today.

Pictures can be used as inspiration to make own stories based on the knowledge and stories the children have got.

Suggestions on how to work with the pictures

Look at pictures of a horse and a carriage or a boat the Travellers used for travelling.

How do you think it was travelling when it was cold? How far do you think they could get in one day? What is the difference between travelling in the old days and today? Is there any similarities on how the Travellers are travelling and how other Norwegians are travelling?

Is there any similarities in how the Travellers are camping and how other Norwegians are camping? Look at pictures from tents, old houses the Travellers stayed in and houses they stay in today. Are there any similarities, differences? 

Make a story based on the picture of a horse and wagon with people inside

Give time to look at the picture, wonder and think about it. Who is in the picture? Can we give the people names? Where do you think they have been? Where do you think they are going? Have they gone far? Is it hard to walk? Do you think the horse is tired? What do you think is inside the wagon? What do you think might happen when they start travelling?

Make a story based on the picture of the boat

Do the same as in the example above

Draw or paint

Make illustrations to the story you have made. Make a book with drawings and text. Take photos of the drawings and make a digital book.

Figurative theatre

Figurative theatre is an art where one makes life to the figures and objectives by manipulating them. Figurative theater is a very useful pedagogical method.

Examples on different types of figures and objectives:

  • Draw a figure, a man, a horse, anything you might want on cardboard, put on cloths, cut it out and put on a stick.
  • Put eyes on kitchen equipment, like a bowl, plate, spoon, knife, fork etc.
  • Put eyes on “everyday – ordinary things” like shoes, cups, umbrella etc.
  • Put eyes on nature material, like branches, stones, seeds, shell, anything that can give life to the story
  • Scarf –dolls

Scarf in different sizes and colors. Make a knot on the scarf and the doll has a head

It can fly, move and is often very graces  

  • Hand dolls – finger dolls

Put your hand on a piece of cloth, draw around your hand, cut it out, stich it together and draw or stich on eyes, mouth and nose.

            (Paulsen, 1992)

Make room and space for role play

If it is possible to use one particular room, or a corner of a room, while you have the project it will give inspiration to the role play. The room can be decorated with pictures, drawings made by the children, equipment from the Travellers culture and cloths. The atmosphere in the room might give an extra inspiration to the role play. If it is possible it is even better to make a camp outside with tent and a place to have bonfire. 

Role play and dramatizing

Cloths can give inspiration to role play, and children are often fascinated by dressing up in different cloths.  For the girls it is useful with long skirts or dresses along with scarfs in bright colors. For the boys it is nice to have shirts, waistcoats, hats and small scarfs.

Pretend you are Travellers on a journey. You can buy and sell goods, make tents where you sleep, make food and visit each other.

Activities and signs

When the Travellers travelled in the old days they used to put different signs on the road. It could be signs to tell other Travellers where they had gone, or signs to inform about a house where you find nice people, or the opposite (Ribsskog, 1945). Put different signs outside, either in the playground or if it`s possible in the neighborhood.  Let the children look for signs and try to find the whole route.


We tell the children how the Travellers travelled in the country with their small suitcase containing all their goods for sale. Sometimes the Travellers got food instead of money for their goods. Everyone in the family was involved with buying and selling, though it was mainly women’s work. Even young children took part which was important to get enough income to survive. Some Travellers, especially children, thought it was embarrassing to knock on the doors trying to sell their goods. Many of the children would rather go to school than work with their parents. Others were proud that they did the same work as the adults.

The children got experiences and learned certain things while they were out buying and selling. They learnt how to count and sum up to get or give the right change. They learnt how to behave, to be polite in order to make a good deal. They learnt how to find their way around in the country.

Suggestions to activities based on trading

Talk about the different goods the Travellers had for sale. Talk about the range of goods in the warehouse today compared to the goods the Travellers sold.

Draw and paint

Draw the suitcase with all the different articles, and draw a warehouse in 2014 to compare the two.

Role play

Fill up a suitcase with articles for sale. Play you are Travellers travelling, selling and exchanging goods. Pretend you are dressing up with all the jewelry to go for a visit. In a survey from Botswana, Norway, Sweden and Swaziland children were asked what they liked to do most and what makes them feel happy. In all the countries children answered that play is the most important activity and makes them happy (Larsen, 2014). Role play is important and central in children’s life. It is their language and one of the most important ways to social learning, understanding and empathy.  They adapt certain incidents in their life, things they have seen, heard, experienced by playing it.  Through play children get a better understanding of the situations. In role play children have to give and take, they have to keep to rules, each other, use the language which all give them experiences in social relations (Lillemyr, 2004).

Food making

The Travellers did not have their own traditional food. They ate the same as other Norwegians. The people who lived on boats fished their own fish, and sometimes they sold it or exchanged with other kind of food. The people who travelled inland used to get food from the farmers. They either bought it or they exchanged with their goods.   One difference to the farmers was that the Travellers often prepared their food outside on fire, and a popular dish among children was “kølbulle” which is a kind of pancake made of flour, milk, eggs and sugar. If they were extra lucky with their selling they could buy ham or bacon  and put it inside the “kølbulle”.

Suggestions to activities based on handicraft

Steel wire work and jewelry

The Travellers used steel wire to make beaters, candleholders, and bowls for sale. They used to buy steel wire in the shops, and sometimes they got it from the farmers. If the steel wire looked dirty they cleaned and polished it with sand paper. It was mostly men and elder boys who worked with steel wire. The Travellers were very fond of jewelry. The women used big filigree brooches in silver. The Travellers made ear rings, bracelets and belt buckles.

Work with steel wire

See if you can find a fence with steel wire – either out in the nature, or in a picture. Find an old steel wire, clean and polish it with sandpaper. Make a candleholder or a knob.


You can combine steel wire and pearls to make jewelry. Tread pearls in different shapes, size and colors on steel wire to make a bracelet or a necklace and let the children experiment.

Draw filigree brooches or jewelry you like today. Talk about how the women and girls liked jewelry in the old days, and what sort of jewelry girls like and wear today.

Songs and music

The Travellers were good singers. They used to sit around the fire singing and playing.

Some of the instruments were guitar, accordion, fiddle.

Activities with song

Look at pictures of the different instruments and listen to the Travellers music. Find a song in Romani and learn it.

Activities with language

The Travellers had their own language, Romani. Learn some words in Romani, or learn to count from 1 to 10.

Traveller culture is visible in the kindergarten

Traveller culture is visible in the kindergarten


Experiences and evaluation related to aims for the project

Children from the Travellers group shall meet their own culture in the kindergarten.

Many of the Travelling parents say the project has given children and staff a background and a better understanding of the Travellers culture which help their children to adjust and feel happier in the kindergarten. As parents they feel more welcomed, they notice more interest from the staff about their culture which makes it easier to talk together. We feel more valuable when it is focused on our culture, and we are very proud and satisfied that a Traveller is among the staff.  When the Traveller has been in the kindergarten the parents say the children are proud and tell more than usual from the daily activities.

The staffs agree, and tell that when the Traveller is in the kindergarten the children are more eager, freer and take more part in the activities. Focus on the culture gives statues and even more when it is a person from the minority who is in charge. In this way this particular Traveller is an important role model, can she, can others. Staffs working with Travellers and Roma children in Leeds, England have the same kind of experiences and say. Kindergarten and schools who have staff from the same  minorities  as the children show more proudness and interest than schools and kindergartens where none of the staff belongs to the minority (Ewa Jamroz and Zee James, Gypsy Roma Traveller Achievement Service, Leeds).

When the project has closed many parents have come to the staff and said: Now that you have worked with and know about the culture, I dare to admit to you that my family also belongs to the Travellers. To admit and to tell others is of great importance to consciousness and identity. It might also help the children to recognize and be more proud of the culture. 

All the children shall learn something about the Travellers culture

Our experience is that all the children, not only the Travellers have benefitted and learnt about the culture. The Travellers had horses. They lived in tents. They travelled and sold goods at the doors. They made many things for sale. They made food outside, are all statements from the children. They have learnt by stories told by the Traveller. Pictures have given the children a better understanding of how the Travellers lived and travelled. In many kindergartens the staff has made DVDs from their work which gives a good summary and makes it easier to remember the work they have done. Role play has been an important part of the children’s activities. They have pretended to be Travellers, built houses, travelled to visit, to buy and sell goods and they have made handicraft related to the culture. An interesting observation from the staff is that the theme has especially engaged the boys. The staffs tell that boys who seldom take part in making handicraft and role play have been very active.

Listening to songs and music the children have come to learn new songs. One of the songs is in Romani and it has given the opportunity to learn words in a foreign language. While making handicraft the children have learnt an important part of the Travellers culture, and how even children had to work to make a living. As one boy in the kindergarten put it while he was struggling to make a candleholder; I am happy I am not a Traveller. The children also enjoyed making food outside, and some were able to relate to their own life and what they do when they are camping.

The teachers and staff shall learn about the history and culture of the Travellers

Knowledge about the Travellers is often limited among the staff. Only the elder part of the staff told they had met Travellers in their youth. They had never spoken to them, but were told to go inside, and to be aware of their belongings since; you can never trust a Traveller, they are thieves, and make problems wherever they come. After the project teachers say they have got a better understanding based on knowledge and relations. They understand more of the Travellers way of living, their fear for the society, and they have got respect for a vivid culture. And they feel they can work and make the days in the kindergarten better for the children and their parents.

Among some staff the interest for steel wire work has been enlightened and they have organized workshops with the Traveller and learned more. Some have wanted to learn more about the culture, others have joined in different arrangements the Travellers have around Christmas time. The staff agrees at the importance of having a Traveller in the kindergarten. She makes them feel relaxed, there is always someone to ask, and they know the information given is the correct one. They feel the project is more accepted by the parents since a Traveller is involved.

Motivate more Travellers to send their children to kindergarten

The Traveller who is part of the project said in the beginning that she wants small children to learn about the culture. At the same time she admitted to be a bit skeptical towards kindergarten. She was afraid the children might not be taken care of. She was also afraid of reactions she could meet from other Travellers when she worked with their culture to small children. After many projects her opinion towards kindergarten has changed. She has experienced that the children are taken good care of. The staff is caring, they see the children, comfort them if needed, and guide them in their road towards knowledge and social life. Maybe she gives the best certificate when she says; I could have had my own children in all the kindergartens I have worked. She says she is amazed by the way the children learn, and how they grasp the new information which is passed to them. Her pride of her culture and being a Traveller has grown during the project. This is also something which she brings out to other Travellers. The experience she has is important. She is the door opener both ways, for the Travellers to the kindergarten, and for the staff to the Travellers. She talks on arrangements organized by the Travellers, and share her experience. She talks of kindergarten in such a positive way that she convinces other Travellers that it might be good also to their children.

We cannot conclude and say an exact number of Travellers who have sent their children to kindergarten, but we experience another attitude. People are more open towards kindergarten, many see the value, and they are less scared of sending their children there.


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Ewa Jamroz and Zee James, Gypsy Roma Traveller Achievement Service, Leeds