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LESSONS FROM SWEDEN: It Takes a Village to Raise an Outdoor-Loving Child

About the Author

Linda Åkeson McGurk is a journalist and author of the parenting memoir "There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather: A Scandinavian Mom’s Secrets for Raising Healthy, Resilient, and Confident Kids (from Friluftsliv to Hygge)." She believes that the best childhood memories are created outside, while jumping in puddles, digging in dirt, catching bugs and climbing trees. McGurk blogs about connecting children with nature at Rain or Shine Mamma, and hopes to inspire other parents and caregivers to get outside with their children every day, regardless of the weather.

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When I had my first daughter in Indiana almost ten years ago, I quickly realized that she would have a very different childhood from the one I’d had in my native Sweden.

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When I walked her around the neighborhood, I rarely saw other parents or caregivers outside. The playgrounds, which I’d expected to find teeming with children, were mostly deserted. At daycare, the kids seemed to spend most of their time glued to screens and at preschool they sat at their desks, tracing letters and working on their kindergarten readiness. Once my daughter started school, outdoor recess was sometimes canceled for weeks at a time during the colder months.

In Scandinavia, the idea that nature is an essential part of childhood and that kids should play outside every day, regardless of the weather, is so widely accepted that I had come to think that this was a universal parenting tenet.

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But as I was trying to raise my daughter in the American Midwest, I realized that this was not the case. Instead, I felt completely lonely and isolated in my quest to raise a child who loves the outdoors.

By the time my second daughter was four, I decided to take both girls to Sweden for nearly six months to discover whether kids over there still play outside like they used to when I was young. What I found was a rich culture of outdoor play that is upheld not only by parents and other primary caregivers but also early childhood educators, teachers, the healthcare system, policymakers and even city planners. At the core of this culture is friluftsliv, which loosely translates to “open-air living” and refers to the habit of recreating in nature in a non-competitive fashion in everyday life.

So, what exactly do the Scandinavians do differently?

  • Nurse-midwives and doctors in the public health system encourage all new parents to take their babies outside every day for fresh air. In fact, they even recommend that babies and toddlers nap outside year-round to reduce their risk of infection.
  • The national curriculum for preschools (which function as daycares for children aged 1-6 over there) specifically grants children the right to play outside, since this is considered crucial to learning and healthy growth and development. The curriculum also emphasizes that the preschool should foster a love of nature through friluftsliv.
  • Forest schools, where children play and learn outside the better part of the day are common and regulated the same way as traditional preschools. Even at traditional preschools kids typically spend several hours outdoors every day.
  • Mandatory schooling doesn’t start until the year a child turns 7, and the first couple of years the school day only lasts five hours, of which at least an hour is made up by outdoor recess.
  • Many schools, even in the cities, have a special “school forest” that is used for outdoor learning, and throughout the year, schools reserve several days for friluftsliv, when the students may spend the day ice skating, cross-country skiing, hiking or orienteering.
  • After school, kids have the option to attend fritids, a subsidized childcare service for working parents, where they continue to play outside, sometimes for hours on end.
  • Both at school and at home, teachers and parents dress the children for the elements and expect them to play outside regardless of the weather. 
  • Parents foster a culture of friluftsliv at home, which is easy to do since public natural areas abound, even in the cities. (For example, 40 percent of Stockholm is made up of public greenspaces, compared to just 6.7 percent in Los Angeles.)
  • Children are gradually given more and more freedom to move around on their own and by the time most kids are nine or ten they walk, bike and even use public transit to get to many places on their own.

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Pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom recommends that children play outside for at least three hours every day, not including organized sports, for a normal and healthy development. Unfortunately, this is not the norm for children in North America today. In all honesty, until we went to Sweden, it hadn’t even been the norm for my children, even though I’d made a serious effort. Yes, instilling a love of nature and establishing a routine of outdoor play begins at home, with the parents or primary caregiver. But it shouldn’t end there.

During our stay in Sweden, I noticed that getting my kids to play outside for three hours a day – and sometimes more – was very doable, but only because I had the support of a village of people who all recognized the importance of daily outdoor play. The growth of the children and nature movement in North America the last decade goes to show that many people here share this belief. The challenge now is to make it mainstream, so that all American children can have access to the outdoor play that they so badly need, regardless of where they live or the socioeconomic status of their parents.

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In There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather, the parenting memoir that my Scandinavian journey resulted in, I show how growing up in a nature-centric culture helps children stay healthy and makes them passionate advocates for the environment. Some aspects of the Scandinavian model are easily transferable to the U.S., others less so. In either case, the Scandinavian story should be both inspirational and proof that if we want profound and lasting change in the U.S., we need to work on many levels beyond the family unit.

Rachel Carson, the godmother of the modern environmental movement, once famously said, “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” The qualifying factor in that quote is “at least.” While it may only take one adult to ignite a passion for nature in a child, you’re bound to be more successful if you have the help of a village.

Photo credits: Linda Åkeson McGurk

Additional Reading & Resources

What is Nature-Deficit Disorder?

IN SWEDEN, TEACHING OUTSIDE IS IN

NATURE IS THE ULTIMATE SENSORY EXPERIENCE: A Pediatric Occupational Therapist Makes the Case for Nature Therapy

The Great Fear of the Great Outdoors

COMING TO OUR 30 SENSES: In an era of sensory dysfunction, are we creating environments in which our children are less alive? And in greater danger?


 

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2 Comments

  1. Ahh… this makes me feel so good but so sad for American children. I t was not like this only a generation ago. I grew up in the 1970s-80s in suburban Houston and we walked to school and prowled around our neigborhoods even though we didn’t have alot of natural areas. (I played in the bayou). The American media and 24-hour news cycle have done a number on the public’s mind to portray a fearful world that adults are unwilling to allow their children to explore.

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  2. I think this is great – more hours outside! I have seen the suggestions of how to do this in extremely cold weather (more clothes!) but what about extremely hot weather? I am in Florida where it can be exceptionally hot and muggy in the summer. We can’t take more clothes off – so how can we do this when licensing won’t allow wading pools?

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