Friluftsliv (pronounced 'free-luft-sleeve') is a philosophy that embodies the Nordic enchantment with nature. While it doesn't translate easily into English, the spirit of the philosophy is about the right of all humankind to roam free in nature. In Friluftsliv, ‘returning to nature, is returning home’. Experiencing nature—rain, hail or shine—provides children with the opportunity to learn, grow, and develop their own unique relationship with the world around them.
One of my favourite memories of my time travelling through Scandinavia was perhaps a very ordinary afternoon in Stockholm. Walking home from a day of wandering and exploring the city (with chilled red noses and frosty hair), my friend and I stumbled upon a snow-filled square, where children were laughing, tobogganing, singing and playing. They were dressed in colourful snow suites, no fixed playground equipment, and very few adults, in sight. A freezing cold afternoon, when many of us back home would be hidden inside, beside heaters, these children were basking in the glory of winter.
The Scandinavian way
'There is no such thing as bad weather… only inappropriate clothing.' This is a philosophy that the Scandinavians live by. For anyone who has travelled this far north of Europe or read anything about the forward-thinking Nords, you will know that they have always done things a little differently! The idea that it could be, ‘too cold’ or ‘too wet’, or that ‘you will catch a cold outdoors', just does not exist. With temperatures dropping to below zero for almost half of the year, hiding indoors really isn’t an option.
In the Nordic climates, it is quite normal for infants (from two weeks old) through to the toddler years to take their daytime naps in a pram out in the fresh air (all year round), be it at home, outside cafes and in childcare. Only in particularly cold temperatures are children moved indoors. Children are dressed in weather-appropriate outfits and wrapped in blankets. It is believed that the more consistently children are exposed to fresh air, the better their immunity and the better their sleep patterns.
Scandinavian educators have been utilising nature and the outdoor environment as a learning resource for children for many years. The majority of kindergartens and early learning settings use the outdoor environment all year round. Some settings do not have conventional classrooms at all—these are known as 'forest schools'. Originating in Denmark, forest schools are based on the idea that children need to be able to explore and challenge their own abilities in nature, with very little adult intervention. Forest schools place trust in children in order for them to develop the confidence to understand their own strengths and capabilities. There is much research that supports the correlation between time spent in nature, and improved overall childhood wellbeing and development.
The Environment as Teacher
‘The environment as teacher’ philosophy (inspired by the Reggio Emilia Approach) expresses that the environments (within which children spend their time) play an essential role in supporting children's learning and development. Developing opportunities for open-ended sensorial experiences, aids in challenging children’s sense of wonder, encourage their relationship with the world, as well as problem solving, theorising and investigative skills. From birth, it is vital that children have the opportunity for intimate sensory experiences with nature (such as feeling cool grass underfoot or mud between fingers, listening to leaves flitter and magpies sing, or catching rain drops on the tongue). Uninterrupted play in nature helps children to make sense of the world around them, and to build their own intimate relationship with it.
Nature and ‘risky’ Play
Play, by it’s very nature, involves many forms of unpredictability. Contemporary research espouses risk-taking as an integral part of children’s play and development. It is human nature to want to discover things for ourselves – understanding our individual limits, the cause and effect of our choices, and the chance to build our own understandings of the world. By avoiding and preventing risk, it is possible that children may grow into adults who are unable to identify their own abilities and limitations.
The weather elements and seasonal changes (wind, rain, snow and even the hot sun) all present their own challenges, and opportunities for the construction of knowledge. It might be discovering the strength of different branches when tree climbing; slippery or uneven surfaces when running; learning that becoming wet and muddy is one outcome of jumping in a puddle; or the equilibrium needing to balance on a rocky wall. Only by experiencing challenge and risk can children learn to take care of themselves and others around them.
So…what can we learn from the everyday Viking practice? For a start, there is no such thing as bad weather! Put on your winter woolies, gumboots and a raincoat and let go of adult preconceptions! We are not going to ‘catch a cold’ simply because it is cold!
I welcome you to embrace the weather, rain or shine, and head outdoors! Provide children with some open-ended time to explore nature and become attuned to the world around them. Try to take a step back from adult-directed activities and classes, and let children lead their learning and adventure. You may be surprised by what they know, what they will discover and the questions that may arise. Children need the time and space to experiment, and develop independent and creative ways of thinking—they can only do this through trial and error, exploration, theorising, repetition, leaving and, of course, the opportunity to return.
The natural environment provides for these many learning domains for children, as well as endless positive influence for our physical, creative, social, emotional and cognitive wellbeing. Our innate relationship with nature is primal to our being—and a child’s nature is testament to this! So let’s embrace our freedom to roam.. And return to nature!!
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