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‘Play first, school second:’ how to parent like a Scandinavian

What Americans can learn from the Scandinavian approach to parenting.

‘Play first, school second:’ how to parent like a Scandinavian

In most places in North America parents wouldn’t dream of leaving a baby outdoors while they ducked into Starbucks for a minute, but in Scandinavian countries seeing a stroller or three outside a café is actually pretty normal—even when the snow is falling. It sounds a little chilly, but the bundled babies are actually warm, it’s just the lifestyle that’s chill.


Now, if you’re not actually in Scandinavia, leaving your baby next to a bike rack while you run in for a coffee is probably neither safe or legal, but some parts of the Scandinavian approach to parenting do translate to life on this side of the Atlantic.

Here are four to consider:

Their warm feelings about winter

The sleepy babies left outside cafés are a prime example of how Scandinavians are not scared of winter. They let their babies sleep outside all the time, and the babies seem to love it. One study out of Finland actually found that babies who nap out in the cold winter air stay asleep longer than those sleeping indoors.

The practice has benefits beyond preparing children for Finland’s longest season (and is common in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland, too). It seems napping out in the cold might actually prevent colds.

In her book, There's No Such Thing as Bad Weather: A Scandinavian Mom's Secrets for Raising Healthy, Resilient, and Confident Kids, author Linda Åkeson McGurk quotes a Swedish pediatric specialist who recommends outdoor napping, citing a Swedish study from the nineties that found preschoolers who spent six to nine hours outside per week were sick less often than peers who were indoors more.

The nordic notion of gender neutrality

Pink and blue baby stuff is not the norm in Nordic countries. Parents there are more likely to bundle babies in yellows, browns and stuff that can be passed down to a future sibling of either gender. And the neutrality goes beyond clothing.

According to the BBC, at the Egalia pre-school in Stockholm, Sweden, kids aren’t referred to as “boys” and “girls”, they’re just “kids.” The teachers don’t use gendered pronouns, referring to the kids by their names, or using genderless terms.

As one Swedish researcher put it, at that age, “Girls and boys are more alike than different. It’s the adults’ expectations for the children that make them different.”

“Play first, school second”

Scandinavian parents are not obsessed with academic achievement in the early years, and kids don’t start formal schooling until they are six or seven years old.

While Kindergarten here is basically the new first grade, Kindergarten there is all about play, not worksheets or reading. The idea of a child not learning to read until they are seven scares some parents in non-Nordic countries, but the research shows they catch up: By the time they are 11 years old they’re reading at the same level as peers who started at five.

The extra years of play time may help kids in ways that academics can’t. A recent study out of Stanford found children who started kindergarten a year later show significantly lower levels of inattention and hyperactivity, and the benefits were still measurable when they were 11 years old.

Research shows kindergarten play improves motor skills and helps kids become more engaged citizens, so maybe the Scandinavians are onto something with the late start on formal schooling.

They say “no” to spanking

Spanking is still legal in North America, but it’s been illegal in Sweden since the seventies, and other Scandinavian countries have outlawed it in the years since. Research shows that spanking makes a child’s behavior worse in the long run, so perhaps we should follow the Swedes’ lead and find more productive ways to deal with discipline.

Without camps and back-to-school plans still TBD, the cries of "I'm bored!" seem to be ringing louder than ever this summer. And if you're anything like me, by August, I'm fresh out of boxes to check on my "Fun Concierge" hit list. It's also the point of diminishing returns on investing in summer-only toys.

With that in mind, we've rounded up some of our favorite wooden toys that are not only built to last but will easily make the transition from outdoor to indoor play.

From sunny backyard afternoons to rainy mornings stuck inside, these toys are sure to keep little ones engaged and entertained.

Meadow ring toss game

Plan Toys meadow ring toss game

Besides offering a fantastic opportunity to hone focus, coordination, determination and taking turns, lawn games are just plain fun. Set them up close together for the littles and spread them out when Mom and Dad get in on the action. With their low profile and rope rings, they're great for indoors as well.

$30

Balance board

Plan Toys balance board

Balance boards are a fabulous way to get the wiggles out. This one comes with a rope attachment, making it suitable for even the youngest wigglers. From practicing their balance and building core strength to working on skills that translate to skateboarding and snowboarding, it's a year-round physical activity that's easy to bring inside and use between Zoom classes, too!

$75

Sand play set

Plan Toys sand set

Whether you're hitting the beach or the backyard sandbox, this adorable wooden sand set is ready for action. Each scoop has an embossed pattern that's perfect for sand stamping. They're also totally suitable for water play in the wild or the bathtub.

$30

Water play set

Plan Toys water play set

Filled with sand or water, this tabletop sized activity set keeps little ones busy, quiet and happy. (A mama's ideal trifecta 😉). It's big enough to satisfy their play needs but not so big it's going to flood your floors if you bring the fun inside on a rainy day.

$100

Croquet set

Plan Toys croquet set

The cutest croquet set we've ever seen! With adorable animal face wooden balls and a canvas bag for easy clean up, it's also crafted to stick around awhile. Round after round, it's great for teaching kiddos math and problem-solving skills as well.

$45

Mini golf set

Plan Toys mini golf set

Fore! This mini golf set is lawn and living room ready. Set up a backyard competition or incorporate into homeschooling brain breaks that shift focus and build concentration.

$40

Vintage scooter balance bike

Janod retro scooter balance bike

Pedals are so 2010. Balance bikes are the way to go for learning to ride a bike while skipping the training wheels stage altogether. This impossibly cool retro scooter-style is built to cruise the neighborhood or open indoor space as they're learning.

$121

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