Think the Scandinavians have succeeded in reconnecting children with nature? Think again

Tower in Valbyparken, CopenhagenEarlier this month I went to Denmark to give a speech at the Nordic Adventure conference, whose theme was reconnecting children with nature. It was not my first visit to the region. I can clearly remember that trip: a study tour in 2003 during my secondment to Whitehall to lead the first UK Government review of children’s play. Back then, I came home inspired by what I had seen – like the nature park at Valbyparken, which had just been built, and which is now one of the city’s most popular parks.

Many of the international delegates to this conference also came looking for inspiration. But this time, I had a different goal. I wanted to get behind the success stories – the beautiful spaces, the switched-on educators, the generously funded programmes – and find out whether it really is so easy for the Nordic nations to make nature a meaningful part of children’s everyday lives. I wanted to hear about the problems, the barriers and the challenges.

Photo of kindergarten outdoor spaceMy hunch that things are not perfect in Scandinavia was swiftly confirmed by the chair of the event (and designer of Valbyparken), my friend and kindred spirit Helle Nebelong. She showed an image of the outdoor space of a Norwegian early childhood centre. She claimed that in Norway, it is seen as a beacon of good practice.

During the event I also heard of a pre-school in Copenhagen that stopped children from digging in its outdoor space, seeing little or no educational benefit in the activity. Other delegates visited one Danish secondary school where the grounds were attractively landscaped, but where several teenage girls they spoke to complained that the teachers did not give them enough opportunity to enjoy them. Experienced pedagogues in adventure playgrounds talked about the challenges in sustaining children’s interest in nature and the outdoors, in the context of their ever-expanding online lives. And we heard of a wider shift in educational philosophy in Denmark and Sweden towards what leading Finnish educational thinker Pasi Sahlberg calls the global education reform movement (or GERM for short): curriculum standardisation, an emphasis on core subjects, and high-stakes testing.

Of course, this is not the full picture. There was plenty of evidence of the value Scandinavians place on children’s outdoor experiences. I was struck by the fact that not one but two Danish ministers gave speeches at the opening session of the conference. What is more, Environment Minister Ida Auken spoke eloquently and convincingly on the topic, declaring “when you see nature as a big playground you see an infinity of possibilities.” (Though by contrast, one Swedish delegate told me that if the event had been organised in her country, she doubted that a single minister would have attended.)

Ida Auken, Danish Envt Minister

We heard hard facts about the degree of political support for children’s outdoor play and learning. For example, Copenhagen’s 23 staffed public playgrounds – the focus of a previous post of mine – have not only survived the economic downturn, but are also set to be joined by three new ones in the coming years, according to an official from the City Council. The Council has just decided to invest DKK 8 million (£1 million; $1.4 million) in improvements to school and pre-school grounds in this financial year (last year, the budget was zero).

We also heard about Norway’s long tradition of outdoor nature preschools. Academic Olav B. Lysklett of Queen Maud University College in Trondheim cited a 1961 government report that recommended that “not more than 2 hours a day should be spent indoors.” Current guidance is less prescriptive! But support for outdoor-based settings remains strong, and there are clear incentives to encourage their creation. For example, the government’s building standards for nature preschools are more relaxed than for conventional ones, meaning that it is cheaper and faster to set them up. Somewhere between 5 and 10 per cent of Norwegian preschoolers attend nature preschools (defined as settings with a focus on outdoor learning, where nature is a fundamental pedagogic principle). I suspect few countries can compete with this – though some delegates were surprised the figure was this low.

Friluftsliv’ – the Nordic ‘fresh air life’ culture of valuing the outdoors – also shone through in many of the places we visited during the conference. My personal highlights included Rødovre construction playground, an after-school haven for hundreds of children (and their 186 rabbits, plus chickens, birds, horses, goats and pigs) tucked away in a Copenhagen suburb.

Rodovre Construction Playground

Skabersjoskolan densI had seen Rødovre on a previous trip. But another highlight – Skabersjöskolan, a primary school in the countryside outside Malmö, just across the Øresund Bridge in Sweden – was new to me. Here, around half of the children’s curriculum time is spent outside (in varied outdoor spaces that included den-building areas, a fire pit and a forest garden) and they begin every school day with an outdoor lesson.

Given my earlier comments, you might question the value of visiting Scandinavian services and outdoor spaces. But that would be too hasty. First of all, who could fail to be inspired by seeing a dreamlike tower in a public park, or a mythic boat sailing across reclaimed marshland (part of land artist Alfio Bonanno’s Himmelhøj installation)?

Amager ark play space outside Copenhagen

Second – and perhaps more valuable – is the opportunity to share practice, research, and tactics, and to gain mutual support. More than ever, those of us around the world who are calling for a rethink in the way children live and learn are up against the same pressures:  safety fears (and even more insidious, fear of being blamed if a child gets hurt or upset), busy and at times anxious parents, threats to green spaces within and beyond schools and other settings, the growing attractions of the media and the virtual world, and competing political priorities. Helle Nebelong neatly summarised these challenges in talking of the ‘triangle trap’ of institutions – home, school and out-of-school services – that circumscribe too many children’s lives.

So should you come to Denmark, Sweden or Norway if you get the chance? Of course you should. But do not think the Nordic nations have all the answers. The truth is, they are fighting the same battles as the rest of us.

28 responses to “Think the Scandinavians have succeeded in reconnecting children with nature? Think again

  1. This was very informative. I am a registered early childhood educator and I strongly believe in the importance of nature in education. I would like to see less I pads and more field trips involving a field. Most recently, I have had to express my opinion on replacing grass with artificial turf in our infant playground. What are they thinking?! Thanks for a great post. :)

  2. Thanks Tim, that was a great blog post and really summed up the experience very eloquently. I agree that it is somewhat comforting, if nothing else, to see that even these places in the world that we hold in such high regard and look towards for inspiration are having similar struggles to us, however the fact that they are still forging towards their ultimate goal of providing authentic experiences for children outdoors is still in spite of the battles is wonderful. Always great to hear your perspective! :)

  3. Good, slightly contrarian stuff and thanks for the triangle notion, Tim.

  4. Yes, what a nasty GERM we are all dealing with! A relief and joy to share the struggles and have perspective and solutions from all over the world. Thanks Tim.

  5. Thanks again Tim. On the subject of the outdoors vs iPads/ever-expanding online lives, I keep coming across Scandinavian research studies which explore how teachers are using digital technologies as part of outdoor learning – I’ve seen all sorts of things – estimating and calculating distances – collecting soundscapes and video and pictures and interviews and compiling stories – augmented reality in museum sites (norse ships and so on). The assumptions behind the ideas that that scandinavian teachers and researchers come up with in response to the question ‘it’s here so what can we do with it’ seem to be quite different. One of the big problems they come up against is the effect of cold cold temperatures – the kids are fine in the cold, but the technology isn’t!

  6. I have just come back from a study tour to Denmark and heard about educational reforms which are due to be enacted in 2014 and which will have a major impact on children’s free time and lives. Currently the school day finishes at 1 or 2pm and the majority of children stay in the school to attend an after-school club or go to a public/community playground. Most of the projects that I visited close at 5pm. The proposal is that the school day will be extended to 4pm in an attempt to raise academic achievement and for Denmark to become more economically competitive. The implications for children’s time, opportunity and space are huge as well as potentially undermining the sustainability and quality of current ‘play provision’. Does anybody know any more about these reforms?

  7. Thanks for the comments so far. Nice to hear from you Dan – hope your trip home was ok. Arthur – yes I liked Helle’s triangle trap too. Sarah – your closing remark brought a smile. No such thing as bad weather, only bad technology, perhaps? John – the Danish reforms have been in the pipeline for years, as a policy response to perceived failings as shown by international comparisons such as the PISA tests run by the OECD. The Pasi Sahlberg article I linked to is relevant, of course. I don’t know much about the detail – I would think Helle would be able to point you in the right direction (I linked to her website in the post).

  8. Tim,
    Thanks for another thoughtful post. We are all on this path and yes the Nordic countries are further along, of course they have their own challenges as well. As an Architect I still struggle with how much damage my peers and those in Landscape Architecture have done while thinking they are doing the right thing (Slide in your post of a barren play space held up by some as good design is a pretty typical example).
    So it’s always a question of what to do about it. How do we push and sometimes claw through to make progress on providing our children with access to nature and to rich learning environments that place the children’s voices and needs at the center.
    So here is my next twelve months of action:
    1. Hold the 2nd Children Learning with Nature Training Institute with Claire Warden here in the Northern California.
    2. Host a Study Tour to Scotland & Norway next May / early June to experience spaces that are wonderful places for children.
    3. Do at least three pro bono projects for Preschool centers and Family care here in the United States.
    4. Work with the Richard Louv and the folks at Children & Nature Network to host / participate in a conference on Risk & Children here in the USA. The purpose being to bring some sanity back to the process by having a dialogue with all parties from insurance folks;teachers; parents; Government staff; risk management folks; nature educators; etc.
    5. Hold a Training Institute on Designing for Children (Indoors, Outdoors and Beyond). The purpose is to train Architecst and Landscape Architects as well as center directors and teachers.
    6. Begin teacher workshops on Design and Nature in early December
    7. Open a Nature Preschool here in Vallejo to be structured as a model center (Training Facility to follow).
    8. Make a difference by continuing my work as part of the Global Collaborative OnDesign for Children, part of the World Forum on Early Care & Education.
    I guess its going to be a busy year!!!
    What are other folks doing in the next twelve months?

    • It sounds as though you will have a very busy year next year!! Some amazing projects in the works – all the best with them.

    • That’s a heavy workload Paul. Good luck in particular with tackling the risk issue. My sense is that this is a huge barrier in the US, and especially difficult to address there, compared to other countries.

      • Tim,
        Oh yes it is a huge issue and we have got to tackle it head on by getting everyone in the room. Its not reasonable to expect instant or evenquick success (More likely 10-15 years of hard work), but insurance companies as an example are motivated by lowering their paid claims. As we have learned from recent studies on risk, natural play may seem less “Safe”, but the accident rates actually go down when children are deeply engaged in nature, and therefore claims do as well.
        One layer of insanity here in the USA is the requirement where highly supervised early childhood play environments are subject to the same restrictions as unsupervised areas. While I would like to change many of the CPSC guidelines, there certainly seems like there is low hanging fruit in changing things for supervised play as a start, and to seeding more industry and government funded research in this area.
        Thanks for inspiring the dialogue!

  9. as a British preschool teacher living and working in Sweden for the last 20 years I can totally agree that we are fighting the same battle about the respect and value of playing outdoors – we do though play outside EVERYDAY no matter what the weather – and the weather IS more extreme here than in the UK – and maybe this IS part of the attitude that should be admired. My preschoolers are out in temperatures well well below zero during winter (and the winter is long) as well as rain and snow etc… not like in the UK when they stay indoors when the weather is extreme or slightly inclement.
    My children in school go outside everyday – no matter what the weather – which involves that we as parents need to equip them with the right clothes. My son also has his Wednesday afternoon lessons outdoors in a nearby nature area/forest – again regardless of weather.

    At just about every preschool I have worked at there has always been big discussions about how to develop the preschool yard and how we as pedagogues should be using/exploiting the outdoors(play/learning scenario – some manage this wonderfully while others it is simply not their strong point – and far too many adults are just not so enthusiastic about spending time in nasty weather – and this rubs off on the children of course.

    I believe in the power of nature and the outdoors – but I would never want to work at a ur och skur preschool (forest preschool) where I am outsoors all day. As a child I hated being outside when I ate, when I was doing art with paper and other things, I also hated daydreaming outside as the world felt simply too big and I felt too small – I NEEDED to be indoors – I needed a balance of the too.

    I have read some paper somewhere that children who are at outdoor preschools have a harder time to adapt to school – they have a harder time with voice regulation and have a harder time with social interactions etc (I need to find that paper again – I think it’s written in Swedish). I am not saying we should abandon forest schools and the like but I am calling for a balance.

    One thing I miss in Swedish preschools is the ability for children to move in and out of the classrooms/preschool as they please – but the fact that we have minus degrees for the greater part of the school year this just would not be viable to have an open door policy for the children to play and learn in and outdoors as they please/need. It would be great if a system could be created/designed for this to occur – as this is something I feel is lacking and also would fit in with our out-door mentality and the democratic feel of preschools and the rights of children…

    It is the case with all things… there is no ideal pedagogy – they all have elements of wonder and beauty but they all have flaws too – and some of these are a part of the social and cultural fabric that make it VERY hard to change. Others are a part of a modern fear of something happening to children and having to over protect all the time…

    I will continue to go to the forest every week, and play in different playgrounds and play-spaces and allow the children to be a part of THEIR world – city and nature here in Stockholm.

    I will continue to fight for children’s right to risky play and scrubbed knees!!

  10. I live in Sweden (I am from the UK) and have two children in school. The thing I love most about their schools is the fact that they let children be children. My kids (especially my youngest) come home filthy dirty every day because they are allowed to roll around and just PLAY! I haven’t noticed any ridiculous health & safety concerns here (unlike the UK, which is just OTT), children are allowed to experiment and to test their own boundaries. The school my six year old goes to has no fence or barriers – kids can literally walk off the grounds whenever they want to. But, here’s the weird thing: they don’t. They have been told where the boundaries are and they ALL respect them. I think that’s amazing. It would not happen in the UK – kids would be running off willy-nilly. Kids in Sweden are allowed to think for themselves, and knowing that the adults have faith in their ability to distinguish right from wrong instils a special kind of confidence in them.

    • Thanks for this comment suninsweden – and your point about fencing is very well made. How can we expect children to grow up with their own sense of boundaries, if we adults always define and reinforce them?

  11. What a great post that really shows both sides of the coin. As an EC educator and consultant in Australia, I have for many years felt envious of the complete and utter respect for childhood and nature that seems to exist in areas of the world such as Denmark. It is, however somewhat reassuring to see as Daniel Burton commented above that these places held in such regard are themselves facing ongoing struggles. It is just a reminder that no matter how much progress we make, the need to be advocates for the rights of children will never disappear!

  12. Tim, nice post. I’m particularly pleased that you highlight the areas of resistance and set back that you encountered. It has been a constant source of irritation, to me at least, that we endlessly encounter what amount to festivals of ‘good’ or ‘best’ practice where case studies are presented that suggest that everything works out all the time. The world does not work that way. So I never quite believe what I’m told when I am presented with a glowing case study or best practice example.

    Like you, I have been on my travels and have just returned from the joint International School Grounds Alliance/Evergreen Conference in Toronto where, guess what, I was speaking about risk. (Actually, what I really want to say about all this risk stuff is, ‘Get over it, release yourselves from your fears’.) But I was also informally, and oh so gently, suggesting we need a ‘Sceptics Conference’ where we hear about setbacks, wrong turnings, false hopes and, yes, out and out failure. It would strengthen us enormously, offering a more nuanced, rounded and sophisticated account of how the world works in practice. Perhaps we should put one on.

  13. Thanks Tim, it’s comforting to know that although there is much to be learned and gained by such conferences and study tours, there are still challenges to face and barriers to overcome, regardless of where you live. This moves us away from an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality, and provides an opportunity for real dialogue, real world problems, and conversations that lead to problem solving over creating utopian visions in our minds of what others do around the world.

  14. Thank you for your post and all your work of keeping play on the agenda. With regards to Skandinavia – and I can only speak for my experiences in Finland- I think you are missing a point. You are only talking about “structured” places or formal settings. For me the biggest advantage of Finland is the freedom that children have outside structured spaces. It is seen perfectly normal for a child to walk, cycle or ski to school; to play out independently in woodlands or the beach and have some space that is not monitored by adults. I think it is those spaces and everyday adventures that build the confidence of children and give them the necessary skills for when they are older. And this is the freedom I see lacking in London. Initiatives like playing out events are a good first step to re-introducing children into the public space. I have not given up hope yet that one dayit is considered normal again that children can walk alone to school or to their friends and that you can see younger children playing outside alone.

  15. Hi from New Zealand, nature and outdoor education is really taking off here at the moment. Check out Matapihi Kindergarten on facebook as a great example of an excellent outdoor programme. Keep up the good work everyone, as we all know children learn through real experience and nature provides the perfect classroom. One with no walls and infinite possibilities.

  16. I was a bit shocked by the barren nature of the outdoor playground pictured above. It reminds me of the paucity of play equipment we faced in suburban and country areas in Australia, when I was a kid. Digging in dirt, or sandpit was a favourite activity of boys and girls here, and useful in teaching all sorts of skills. We are fortunate to have a climate that allows for outside play all year round, (without the need for snow suits) so that the child who abhors outdoor play can move inside and use other play materials, toys or books as they wish. I guess the best thing is to have as many options as possible, so that kids have a choice and are exposed to both inside and outside play. Kids spend way too much time inside once the technology bug bites.

  17. Thanks for this article Tim. I was on the Ip-Dip Study Tour to Copenhagen recently and many pedagogues were talking about your attendance at the conference. I saw for myself the challenges they are facing with school reform and neoliberal economic pressures. It came as quite a shock to realise that the hallowed Scandinavians could also buckle under this pressure despite their respect and understanding for the value of free, outdoor play. I am writing up some of my thoughts and will re-blog your post alongside. PS maybe we could discuss at the FSA conf? : )

  18. Hi Tim

    This is a belated comment – mainly because I’ve been snowed under work wise but also because I was interested to see where the thread of comments was going. What is lovely is that the comments you have received so far have really complemented and extended the blog post nicely (now there’s the sign of a good blog :))

    My own experience does echo comments of many – that there is a greater cultural bias towards the benefits of outdoor play and the importance of risk taking in spite of political and media pressures. Changes are happening in Scandinavian countries too. Many more parents are now questioning the benefits of outdoor activity. For example, is the Swedish Friluftframjandet organisation still as large, membership wise as perhaps 10, 20 or 30yrs ago? One indicator to me is that 5 years ago, everyone thought it was mildly amusing that I should ask permission to take photos of children. 3 years later, that was not the case – permission had to be sought.

    5 years ago, I was made to think very hard about the UK’s obsession with risk by a Swede – an ex-headteacher who was totally shocked at the concept of involving children in assessing risks. This is not that the Swedish pedagogues pay no attention to risk – it’s just that this is not something to be so overtly and pointedly shared with children. The focus is much more on the practicalities. As a nation, I would suggest that the UK still has to question and think more diversely about risk. It remains in the health and safety umbrella of focus rather than a more broad understanding of what risk is all about and its wider contribution to childhood development and overall place in society and the human psyche.

    Returning to Suzanne’s comments about I Ur och Skur – mainly because I was chatting to a playworker earlier this week about a similar criticism he had raised about an outdoor nursery in Scotland – I think there are pros and cons to any system and indeed any nursery. Interestingly in Scotland, very few (if any) children attend an outdoor nursery for a full week. Most have part time provision. Also I think we have to avoid assumptions here. Whilst I’ve seen some very nomadic practice with little in the way of warmth and shelter, I’ve seen examples where there have been lots of warm dens, sleeping bags to snuggle into and shelter abound – quite seriously a yurt with a woodburning stove gets very very warm inside! So whilst an outdoor nursery may be “outside” the shelters can be extremely cosy.

    Generally care is taken these days to ensure that this provision does actually suit a child. Some children are naturally more outdoorsy than others and some naturally feel the cold less than others.

    Saying that some children need time to acclimatise. I worked with a pair of twins for two years – the first year they spent a lot of time crying outside – so the agreement was to go outside initially so they could see the activities and be part of them but not to let them suffer there – that they could go back inside if not coping. The second year of having my outdoor sessions, there were a lot less tears and a lot more time outside. I should point out these twins had additional needs of various sorts. Part of my work to to find out what they did like and could enjoy doing outside (the hammock was hugely popular, as were pulleys and sensory activities)

    For me, a lot of outdoor work is like these – we have to find ways of engaging children outside and in. What makes them tick? What makes them want to learn or play? For me, this is the challenge and also the joy of working with children. Outside and in!

    • Juliet – thanks for such a long and thoughtful comment. Interesting to read your comment about a Swedish educator’s concern that risk assessment “is not something to be so overtly and pointedly shared with children.” This post of mine explored the same issue. I remain nervous about the idea of inviting children (especially young children) to carry out risk – or risk/benefit – assessments.

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