Connecting Childhood and Nature: Providing Opportunity When It's Not the Norm
Luckily for her inhabitants, Finland is still one of those countries where majority of inhabitants have access to nature within 300 meters from their doorstep. It is a relatively big country in European scale with very few people, translating as low population density and need for large personal space.
We, the neighborhood kids, spent countless hours on that yard learning the best spots for wild strawberries and that lichens can be found in different shades of green and gray on the many big rocks on the yard.
As we walked, we learned that our toes like the softness of the moss, but that under the pine trees it gets painful. Just outside our yard, there was a small forest where we flipped a coin to decide the direction we would take, and ate our packed lunch under the branches of the big spruces. We were always outside because that´s what kids did those days.
Where a good number of Britons might view themselves as gardeners, and Finns might call themselves Forest-Finns, outdoorsy- as much as it is a characteristic of some Belgians- is probably not how Belgians would characterize themselves on the whole. People generally do not appear enthusiastic about spending their time outside, except when it is “good weather”, i.e. clear blue skies and high temperatures. Belgians seem to view rain (which we see a lot here) and even cloudy skies as a wet blanket for any outdoors plans.
The low prioritization of spending time outdoors and nature contact on the whole, also means that children are not systematically encouraged to play outside at school. Since having a yard is not obvious for many in this country scrapped for space, the same attitude persists at home too. Part of the problem is the increased feeling of anxiety that parents feel about letting their children play outside without supervision.
While joining one´s kids outside would seem like the obvious option, it is hard to motivate this when outdoors is not a priority for the parent either.
Due to the lack of experience in spending time outside, it becomes hard to start, especially in the not-so-perfect weather. I mean, what would you even wear?
In Finland, this type of clothing is common as children still spend a lot of time outdoors year-round. Kindergartens and schools incorporate large amounts of time for outdoor play, mostly unstructured as outdoor playtime is valued.
In the wintertime, the temperature limit of playing outside can be anywhere between minus 15-20 degree Celsius. This is all motivated by the immune boost following contact with the natural elements, fresh air guaranteeing a good night´s sleep and a better appetite, as well as the benefits of moving in uneven, natural terrain. You´ve maybe heard of babies tucked in their prams for a nap, parked outside even during the coldest season? Yes, this is still a common practice in Finland. It´s not only in the winter that we choose to dress our kids in the so called skipakjes. We also have lighter versions of those pakjes. And full rain gear.
As a result, the children can play freely without getting wet or cold and feeling limited.
Since natural sciences and outdoor playtime is not high on the list of priorities, I have taken matters in my own hands. Instead of driving my kids to various hobbies after school, we try to spend time outdoors after every school day.
A few years ago we moved just outside of the city. Our house – in horrific state when it was still on the market - had one deciding factor going for it: a gigantic (in Belgian terms) garden. That´s what made us decide this was to be our home. This garden is now where we spend most of our time: the kids furnishing their treehouse and cooking up meals in the mud-kitchen. I´ve also found little bits of green in the surroundings where we walk or bike to.
However, evoking an outdoor enthusiasm in my half-Finns/half-Belgians remains a challenge. My 7- year- old would often rather stay at home and read, and she complains about having to go to the forest again. But I stay firm, even if it means relying on bribes to make the trip to the forest more attractive (a juice or a cookie in the car, hot chocolate in the thermos once we reach the big fallen tree, etc.).
I bribe them without an ounce of guilt because I have experienced, time and time again, that once I get them outside they will be begging to stay “just a little while longer” when it´s finally time to return home.
I have an inclination that my method of “forced nature time” will work.
But there´s something about the nature that you were brought up with that you bond with the most.
This same bond gets me to return to Finland year after year, especially in the summer time, because there is nowhere I would rather be then. I need that experience to not only recharge but to upgrade myself. Then I can return to another year in Belgium. This is what I want for my children.
Find her work at https://natureminded.be/ and http://www.forestmind.be/.