Art and Culture Iceland Iceland Reykjavik

Culture & Happiness at Reykjavik Festival of Children & Culture

Reykjavik Children's Festival
Written by Kirstie Pelling

Reykjavik Festival of Children and Culture

When we set out to visit the Reykjavik Children’s Cultural Festival we knew relatively little about Iceland, Icelandic culture or language. We couldn’t make much sense of the early Icelandic versions of the  programme and didn’t know if we’d understand anything that was going on. But it turns out you don’t need to; for visitors the festival is a family friendly education in all things Icelandic and the local culture means you will be welcome, included and likely as not creatively inspired by the people and the incredible Reykjavik festival locations.

Culture and happiness: For children, by children, with children

A rumble of drums swamps Reykjavik’s City Hall as 50 instruments are bashed and banged with glee. At Iðnó, next door, the oldest theatre in town has been turned into an ‘Adventure Palace’. In the auditorium a string quartet from one of Reykjavik’s most respected orchestras plays Beethoven while excitable toddlers weave in and out of their legs and climb up onto the stage.

Iceland Music Festival with Children

A string quartet plays and talks classical music with families

A magician rushes up the stairs, dressed in coat tails for an hour of illusion, brushing lightly past the paper snake curled around the door. In the art room a historian helps kids put the finishing touches to rod puppets with googly eyes and smart hats. And I’m focussing on receiving a shot of ‘happiness’ through a squeeze of my hand in a sunlit circle.

Turning the mirrored concert hall into a glitter ball of creativity

The Reykjavik Children’s Cultural Festival, now in its second year, started with an explosion of colour earlier in the week when 10 year olds from every primary school in the city (1200 in total) performed a single dance in the Harpa concert venue along with a 300 strong choir. “It was a case of calculating how many students we could fit into a square metre and still give them room to move,” says Reykjavik Festival Organiser Karen Maria Jónsdóttir. The impressive mirrored building became a moving glitterball; a swirling, whirling reflection of children’s culture in the city.

Drumming workshop in Iceland

Taking part in the drumming circle, City Hall, Reykjavik, part of the Happiness Workshop

Even the sun joins the fun

The festival coincides with the official start of summer in a country where snow and darkness prevail for many months. Even the sun is joining in this week; like a festival judge it presides over every activity, surrounded by sharp white glacial peaks, and deep, dark volcanic shadows.

The Reykjavik Children’s Cultural festival is about art and culture for kids, with kids and by kids. It’s clear that culture is important to this city; you can see it in the myriad museums, galleries and performance spaces that pack out with locals and visitors all year round. But the arts weren’t always as important to the city as they are now, according to Karen.

Puppet making in Reykjavik, part of the Children's Festival

Making puppets, one of many craft activities on every day

“The economic crisis in 2008 meant we had to rethink all our values,” she explains. “Everything fell. It was all stripped away overnight. But one of the things that did not fall apart was art and culture. Audience numbers around that time went sky high. People went to concerts to find peace, a place to reflect or a place to cry.”

In a city where the financial crisis touched the lives of almost everyone, the lessons people learnt were not what they expected, “We found out that art meant a lot to our society. It was really interesting to see that when everything was taken away, all you had left is yourself. You are culture.”

When culture is a giant book or bearded man on a stick

In the City Library, a bunch of small children are busy ‘being’ culture as they climb into a huge book made out of recycled materials. My own children put the finishing touches to tiny coloured boxes that will join those lining the walls of the library. The Icelandic children have covered theirs with butterflies and flowers, while Hannah attaches the head of a bearded man to a spring, and Matthew makes an electric bear you can plug into the mains. It’s apparent that our kids need to get out more.

Inside the walk in book at the City Library, Reykjavik

Inside the walk in book at the City Library, Reykjavik

Reykjavik’s ‘plugged in’ children are enjoying the family session going on down the road at the University where children and parents are using iPads to explore music composition and science in a taster workshop devised by Bjork. A new educational project, linked to the singer’s new Biophilia album was piloted in Iceland last autumn and the plan is to roll it out to schools across her home country while Bjork exports it in person to countries like New York and Argentina. Nature is at the root of this initiative; but then nature is at the root of everything in Iceland; even in the city.

A great way to explore the culture and geography of a city

As a parent who travels a lot with children, I find this festival the perfect way for a family to see a city. Instead of dragging the kids around art galleries and monuments, we wander around the temporary cultural venues, dipping in and out of things designed specifically with the children in mind. It’s all free and it’s all accessible. Even the language barrier doesn’t exclude us; many Icelandic people speak perfect English, and they spontaneously give us a little introduction to each event when they discover we are visitors.

After the break-dancing demonstration, it's time for kids to have a go

After the break-dancing demonstration, it’s time for kids to have a go

A microcosm of the country

As an outsider, it seems to me that this festival is a microcosm of Iceland. It is widespread and inclusive. It celebrates simplicity and rejoices in nature. It values the opinions and input of children. It is about people, not about things. It is quirky and kooky, doesn’t take itself too seriously and everyone is catered for, whatever age you are. At it’s heart its about uncluttered family time, about being together and being creative.

As we leave Hannah squeezes my hand. “I’m just giving you some more happiness, in case yours has run out,” she says. But you know what? It hasn’t.

Hallgrimskirka in Reykjavik, Iceland

Hallgrimskirka in Reykjavik, Iceland

This post is part of our Iceland Season.  We visited Reykjavik in April for the Children’s Culture Festival, then spent a summer exploring the wilder parts of the country expedition style by car and bike.  We’re grateful to Visit ReykjavikIcelandair and Icelandair Hotels, Reykjavik Excursions and The Blue Lagoon for their support in helping bring you this season of posts from the Reykjavik Children’s Culture Festival. 

Read more from our Icelandic Spring Reykjavik Children’s Festival season:

About the author

Kirstie Pelling

Kirstie is the Editor of The Family Adventure Project. A professional writer and poet, she's the creative and journalistic force behind many of the stories and features published here. She's a co-founder and co-director of The Family Adventure Project and also works as the #poetinmotion producing and performing poetry for print, video and live performance.


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