The connection between child development and the outdoors can be seen clearly in Scandinavian educational systems. The cultural heritage of Scandinavia venerates nature experience. There’s even a word in Norwegian for it – friluftsliv (frí-loofts-live). The literal translation is “free air life.”
Friluftsliv promotes direct experience in the natural world — picture a three year old gamboling about in the woods, picking up leaves and peering into hollow logs: that’s friluftsliv.
It’s a philosophy that plays a vital role in Finland’s educational system, which consistently ranks as one of the world’s top three countries in academic performance. U.S. schools place well below Finland — 20th in the world, according to the United Nations.
Our response is less physical activity, more time in the classroom. According to a 2012 report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, half of all high school students nationwide have no physical education at all.
The Finns do things differently. Higher teacher wages, more independence for teachers, shorter school hours and more outdoor playtime — especially unstructured, outdoor play, even in the coldest months of winter. In fact, students regularly get fifteen minutes of outdoor time between lessons in addition to their regular recess. In a 2011 article in the New Republic, a Finnish principal said, “The children can’t learn if they don’t play.”
This idea — that time spent outdoors playing is more than just time to decompress and is in fact a prerequisite for learning — is central to the concept of friluftsliv. An ideal that has existed for over a hundred years, friluftsliv is rooted in 19th century Romantic literature about getting back to nature. Through the 20th and 21st centuries, friluftsliv become part of educational policy for Norway and its neighbors. The central tenet of friluftsliv is the importance of entering into a nature in an uncomplicated way. No Matterhorn ascent required – we’re simply talking about kids playing in the woods, parks, and fields.
How can the U.S. help our students learn? How can we improve our schools? Adopting Finland’s model would require an overhaul of our current system that would take years. But we could begin the process by introducing more unstructured, outdoor playtime.
This isn’t easy, especially for more urban schools, but it’s not impossible. I taught middle school math and science at a charter school in Los Angeles, and instituted an hour of outdoor time every morning for some ninety junior high students. We’d tromp through the streets (a learning experience in and of itself) to a nearby park. The kids would play or just sit in the grass.
The benefits were immediate. My students were more focused, less wired, and more settled when we came back to campus.
Our talented teachers could easily incorporate more nature play into their daily schedules, if its value was made clear. Nordic and Scandinavian countries have the benefit of a cultural ideal that celebrates the inherent benefits of being in nature. Developing a culture of nature-appreciation in the U.S. — an American friluftsliv — will take time and grassroots efforts. Dedicating more of the school day to outdoor play will be a fundamental first step.
More Reading and Resources
Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful? – Smithsonian Magazine
What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success – The Atlantic