What if more toddlers spent their days watching real birds instead of playing Angry Birds on their iPads?
“I don’t want to go outside.”
My 4-year-old daughter Nora is standing in the mudroom, heels dug into the floor, lips pouting, and arms crossed in protest.
Her sister, 7-year-old Maya, chimes in:
“Do we have to, Mommy?”
They look like I just asked them to clean their rooms or, worse, offered them a bowl of fermented brussels sprouts.
“I want to watch a movie instead.”
“But there’s fresh snow on the ground. SNOW! Do you want to build a snowman?” I sing, channeling my inner Anna, betting that their obsession with all things Frozen will win them over. I know that if I can only get them outside they will soon start rolling around in the snow and quickly forget all about Barbie: A Fashion Fairytale. The hard part is getting there.
“It’s cold outside!” Maya moans. “Why do we always have to go outside?”
At this point I’m tempted to tell them all about how we used to play way back when the TV had only two stations (neither of which showed cartoons, except on Saturday mornings), computer games had to be loaded from a cassette tape, and I had to walk three miles to school with snow up to my knees, uphill both ways. Instead, when I open my mouth, my first-grade teacher comes out.
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes!” I blurt out a little too cheerily in my attempt to conceal my growing annoyance.
The kids stare at me in utter disbelief. Then Nora screams, “I hate my snow pants!” and throws herself on the floor, kicking off her new insulated pants, inchworm-style.
Deep breaths. Count to 10.
“How about we try going outside for 15 minutes and see what it’s like? Then we can decide whether to stay out a little longer or go back inside.”
With this compromise in place, we finally head out the door, into the cold February morning. I’m already sweating from the effort of putting snow pants, boots, a fleece jacket, mittens, a winter jacket, a neck gaiter, and a hat on a squirming child, and slightly exhausted from the heated negotiations. And I can’t help but wonder what the heck is wrong with kids these days—why don’t they want to play outside?
We drive down to the local city park in the small Midwestern town I call home. The air is brisk, the sky a saturated cobalt blue. We see a couple of squirrels chasing each other up a tree on the way.
Aside from that, we might as well be walking on the moon. There are no cars on the streets, no children outside, no sounds. The town is literally shut down.
The night before, the weather forecast had called for a chance of one to three inches of snow. In anticipation of being pounded with snow, sleet, and ice, people rushed home from work to fill up their generators and get last-minute staples from the store. By the end of the night, the bread and milk aisles at Walmart looked like a Cold War–era shopping mall in Moscow.
The area schools announced that they were going to be on a two-hour delay, and most nonessential activities were canceled preemptively. Come morning, the schools’ planned two-hour delay had turned into a full closure—better known as a “snow day”—and the local government had shut down as well.
Everywhere we go, including the park’s small sledding hill, the snow is virtually untouched. Initially, Maya and Nora are too excited about the dusting of snow to pay attention to the compact silence. The girls make fresh tracks in the downy powder and throw themselves on the ground to make snow angels, giggling and talking nonstop.
Then Maya, who by now has forgotten all about the mudroom drama and her own vocal protests, looks around and notices that something is awry. “Mommy, where are all the other kids?” she asks. “Why aren’t they at the park?”
Her question brings me back to a different time and place.
I was born and raised in Sweden, in a town that is on roughly the same latitude as the Gulf of Alaska. Growing up, my friends and I spent our free time mostly digging in dirt, climbing trees, collecting slugs, racing our pet rabbits, bruising our legs, and crisscrossing the neighborhood on our bikes.
In the winter, we skied, skated, rode sleds down steep tree-lined hills, ate snow from those same hills, built forts of questionable quality, and occasionally entertained ourselves with shoving snow in unsuspecting peers’ faces (an act commonly referred to as mula).
At preschool, we played for hours outside every day, rain or shine, and at elementary school, indoor recess was only allowed if there was a realistic chance of death by lightning. We knew that whining about it was pointless. We were expected to dress for the weather and endure the elements. And as we headed toward the small woods that bordered our school yard we quickly forgot about the inclement weather as sticks turned into horses, trees became castles, and we immersed ourselves in pretend play.
At the time, research about nature’s positive effects on the well-being of children (and adults, for that matter) was in its infancy, but the adults in our lives still instinctively knew the benefits of a walk in the woods. If anybody had asked them why they made us play outside every day, the answer would likely have been as simple as it was obvious: “Because fresh air is good for you.”
Scandinavia’s nature-centric culture, embodied in the term friluftsliv (which loosely translates to “open-air life”), is not just the sum of all outdoor activities people take part in. It’s a way of life that to this day is considered key to raising healthy, well-rounded, and eco-conscious children.
As research supporting the health benefits of spending time in nature has emerged, more and more schools and nurseries in Scandinavia have been making outdoor time a priority. Recess, most of which is spent outside, already makes up approximately 20 percent of the school day in Sweden. Many schools are moving more of their instructional time outside as well. Forest schools—nurseries where children spend the better part of the day outside, all year-round— are an increasingly popular choice among nature-loving parents.
In Sweden, nature is not an abstract concept that is taught only on Earth Day and through textbooks about bees and butterflies. It’s an integral part of everyday life. Daily interaction with nature has helped turn many children, myself included, into passionate advocates for the environment. Not surprisingly, Scandinavia is also a world leader when it comes to renewable energy, recycling, and sustainable living.
Until I moved to the US and had children myself, the concept of playing outside every day was so ordinary to me that I thought it was a universal parenting practice. But as my children grew older and I stood in many more deserted playgrounds, in summer as well as winter, I started to realize that playing outdoors is not the norm here—at least not anymore.
Even though most parents and educators recognize the benefits of unstructured outdoor play, research shows that this generation of children plays outside significantly less than their parents did. One cross-sectional study representing four million children in the US showed that roughly half of all preschoolers don’t have daily outdoor playtime, even though the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends encouraging “children to play outside as much as possible.”
Older children don’t fare much better, with digital entertainment on average now eating up nearly fifty-three hours of their time every week. By the time they reach their teens, only 10 percent of American children report spending time outside every day, according to the Nature Conservancy.
Meanwhile, many schools are cutting recess to cram more required instruction into a day that hardly had any free time to begin with, not even for the youngest students. Cities are banning sledding out of fear of lawsuits.
At home, fear of traffic, abduction, and nature itself, coupled with frenzied extracurricular schedules, is keeping more and more children inside, where they are becoming increasingly dependent on screens for entertainment. Streets and parks that used to teem with children are now empty.
Simultaneous with this development, obesity, diabetes, and ADHD and other behavioral problems have become rampant, with American children now being three times more likely to be medicated with stimulants and antidepressants than their European peers.
But what if more toddlers spent their days watching real birds instead of playing Angry Birds on their iPads? What if more kindergartners actually got to grow gardens? What if more schools increased the length of recess instead of the number of standardized tests? And what if more children who act out were allowed to get out?
Standing at this empty playground in the rural Midwest, I decide that it’s time for a fact-finding mission. It’s been 12 years since I left Scandinavia and more than 25 since I was a child there, so the culture has undoubtedly changed in profound ways since then. Do people over there still know how to raise healthy, nature-loving children in an increasingly high-tech world, and, if so, how do they do it?
Could the Scandinavians in fact be onto a great parenting secret?
Excerpted from THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS BAD WEATHER: A SCANDINAVIAN MOM’S SECRETS FOR RAISING HEALTHY, RESILIENT, AND CONFIDENT KIDS (FROM FRILUTSLIV TO HYGGE) by Linda Åkeson MGurk. Copyright © 2017 by Linda Åkeson MGurk. Reprinted with permission from Touchstone, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.