How Finns encourage kids to play outdoors

Moving is learning

Think about your happiest childhood memories – how many of them happened outdoors? Maybe you remember the day you finally conquered the rope swing across the creek, or the summertime freedom of running along meadow paths.

The reason these memories stick so well in your mind is because children learn through outdoor play. All of those seemingly small feats are undercover learning experiences which shape children, helping them to develop physically, mentally and socially. For example, swinging on a rope swing not only helps to develop coordination and muscle strength, but increases self-confidence after learning how to do it. Even the failed attempts are learning experiences – falling or not making it across the creek on the first try helps kids learn the importance of cause and effect.

The global challenge of screen time

Sadly, children are not spending much time outdoors these days. Every parent knows how difficult it can be to pull their kids away from the lure of a glowing screen. Many would rather stay indoors and play video games, and doubly so during bad weather.

The Nordic countries are trying to battle this growing sedentary lifestyle. Even though spending time outdoors is a huge part of Nordic culture, according to the World Health Organization’s survey, Finnish and Swedish children in particular were more interested in gaming than outdoor activities.

Nordic know-how to the rescue

In general, Finnish schools focus on playful and interactive learning rather than rigid learning structures like Common Core or standardized tests. And it seems to be working – Finland and the other Nordic countries consistently rank as the best school systems in the world.

Finnish schools are determined to allow kids the outdoor playtime they need to grow and learn. Innovative institutions like the udeskole form an important part of the Nordic learning experience. Children attending these “forest schools” spend the day outdoors learning and studying in green spaces – and according to research, they’re benefitting from it. For example, one Swedish study (Grahn et al. 1997) discovered that forest school children get ill less often than traditional school children.

This learning system perhaps works so well due to the Nordic countries’ passion for nature. It even has its own word – ulkoilmaelämä in Finnish – which translates literally to “open-air life” or “outdoor life”.

The Nordic “outdoor life” focuses on fostering children’s love for outdoor exploration and a passion for play. When they experience the joy of movement, they learn, and the good habits they pick up today – and the good childhood memories, too – will stick with them for life.