Icelandic “work school” pays young teens to learn about the environment while doing manual labour tasks with their friends
It is a beautiful Friday morning in Hljómskálagarðurinn park. The sun shines brightly and the air is crisp. A group of 15 and 16-year-olds gather around different areas of the park, weeding, raking leaves and planting trees. They are participating in Vinnuskólinn, a programme that educates kids about the environment while providing many of them with their first job.
Founded in 1951, the programme draws nearly 1,500 kids every summer. “Most Icelanders have done Vinnuskólinn at least once,” Group Leader Íris Cochran Lárusdóttir explains. “Even my grandmother did it.”
The kids, who are put into small work groups based on their age and place of residence, work from eight thirty in the morning to around three thirty in the afternoon five days a week, earning 408–543 ISK per hour depending on their age.
“They mainly do gardening work, but there is also a group for kids who are allergic to grass and pollen. Those kids do other tasks like painting, although they can’t paint on rainy days. Sometimes, they do something else like pick up rubbish or other things to make the city clean,” Íris says. “The point is to make the city look good and to teach the kids about the environment and how to work.”
What The Kids Really Think
“I’ve done this for two summers,” says Elín Kjartansdóttir, a tenth grader who is weeding with her friend Ástrós Sigurjónsdóttir. “I like it here. It’s not too much work. It will be easier to get a job next summer, but now we’re still too young.”
Ástrós nods her head in agreement. “It’s a good way to be outside and to enjoy the summer while working. But it’s not so nice sometimes. When it rains, it gets a bit cold.”
Two boys, Tómas Thoroddsen and Kristinn Sigurðarson, dressed in fluorescent vests walk over with wheelbarrows full of leaves. They too are back at Vinnuskólinn for the second summer in a row and share similar opinions with the girls. “It’s good to have something to do in the summer and to have some money,” Tómas says. “We like it… but it’s not fun in the rain,” Kristinn continues.
Meanwhile, Íris Sævarsdóttir sits alone, seemingly focused on weeding, but not overly enthusiastic about her work. “I don’t really like it,” she says honestly. “I chose to do it because I can make some money and it’s better than wasting time at home on the computer. I mean, it’s not very fun doing this!” she says, laughing as she holds up a handful of soil.
That said she recognises that it’s a great opportunity. “I’d rather be working in an ice cream shop or something, but I’m too young and small, and people think I’m younger than I actually am,” she says. “It’s not bad overall, I guess. We get to work and relax at the same time. I’ve also made many friends here. I’ve known them before but we got closer here.”
Fun And Rest
In between working hours and regular breaks, the kids break for games and activities. “They love this game called Shovel,” Íris says as she waves to get the attention of the kids who were all hard at work. “Let me show you.”
Upon hearing that they are going to play their favourite game, the kids leap up excitedly, leaving their shovels behind for a more desirable shovel. The game works almost exactly like Twister. The first person throws the shovel into the ground and the next person has to pull it out. The person is only allowed to take one step and has to stay in that position until it is his or her turn again. If a person falls or fails to pull the shovel out in one step, he or she loses. The game ends when there is one last person standing.
There is plenty of screaming, throwing, twisting, bending and falling over. The game finally ends with everyone feeling happy, energised and ready to return to work. Laughing and dusting the dirt off their clothes, the kids walk back to work.
In many other places in the world, kids spend the sunny months of the year at summer camps or doing different enrichment and sports programmes. In Iceland, kids spend their summers doing menial labour. But hey—they get to make friends, learn new things and earn some cash while enjoying the wonderful Icelandic summer heat! It doesn’t sound too bad after all, does it?
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