“Just go outside and play! Go be with nature! Get out of this damn house!”
I have been saying (yelling, begging, screaming?) these sentences to my children for almost two decades. There is just something biologically unnatural about having little bodies that are warehouses for stocked energy, to be held metaphorically captive inside the four walls of their home. And yet our country’s children, even the ones who regularly participate in competitive outdoor sports (and if they’re lucky get 15 minutes of recess three times a week), have become mostly inside beings.
But it’s not just the children living their lives inside, it’s also their parents. We’re tethered to screens for hours on end, only seeing the blue sky from car windows and school buses, and only breathing fresh air in parking lots — as we drag our kids in and out of retail stores.
Maybe this is why we’re also a nation of stressed out, anxious, and depressed kids and parents.
But it’s not this way everywhere. As a matter of fact, when I was yelling to my kids to “go outside and be with nature,” I was inadvertently practicing a well-known Scandinavian parenting and good living practice. It’s called “friluftsliv” (pronounced FREE-loofts-leav), and it’s a living concept that rose to popularity in Scandinavia after WWII, when people were anxious to escape their urban and industrialized kind of living, and retreat to the great outdoors.
Having realized the healing potential of nature, friluftsliv –– which translates to “free-air life” — has since become deeply ingrained in Scandinavian culture, and is now a way of life, especially when it comes to parenting practices. Now being practiced across the region by Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians, friluftsliv is so common, it’s quite normal to see people biking to work and then taking lunch time trail walks, and to see preschool children playing in parks at temperatures and in conditions that would even give polar bears reason to pause.
There is a saying in Sweden that says, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” These people unconditionally love the outdoors, and they’re healthier and happier because of it.
So what is it about being in nature that soothes our weary souls, recharges our internal batteries, and returns our scattered brains and wacky biorhythms back to their naturally occurring state? Linda McGurk, the author of “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather: A Scandinavians Guide to Raising Healthy, Resilient, and Confident Kids,” explains it like this: “We have internal, biological clocks that synchronize with the rhythms of nature, functions that are suppressed by our modern lifestyle.”
Translation: human beings were not meant to be inside staring at iPhones all day.
In her book, McGurk goes into great detail about the emotional benefits that families (and especially children) can all gain from spending more time outdoors, and practicing the friluftsliv lifestyle. But American children have much less opportunities for exactly that, seeing as how their outdoor time is highly restricted at school, and the time they do spend outdoors is often spent competing in coordinated sports — something that friluftsliv doesn’t necessarily support.
In other words, kids need to be left alone and outside and without direction and supervision, to reap the true benefits of friluftsliv –– like higher self-esteem, curiosity, and greater creativity. Even the Swedish government makes clear the distinction between friluftsliv and competitive sports, defining friluftsliv as “spending time outdoors to get a change of scenery and experience nature, with no pressure to achieve or compete.”
Sadly, back here in the States we’re all afraid to let our kids play outside because of irrational fears of things like a neighbor calling CPS on us, our children playing on unsafe playground equipment, or scary germs and kidnappers. McGurk is quick to squash those worries and encourages American parents to let go a little more, for the sake of their children’s resilience building.
“When children play in nature they tend to be calm yet alert and if we look at the stats, it really isn’t more dangerous now to let kids play outside,” she states. “The only difference is that we hear more about the horrible incidents.”
Our children here are cooped up like chickens, and it’s wreaking havoc on their natural temperaments, and that of their parents too. Nature is naturally calling all of us to get out there, but unfortunately, school and work policies seem to be getting in the way. McGurk says we need to be more proactive in embracing the benefits of the outdoors, especially to those that can help make necessary changes.
“For real change to happen here, we really have to get more parents, as well as teachers and other caregivers, to become aware of benefits of outdoor play,” she says. “They are the people who will go to policymakers and city planners making big decisions about public green spaces and preschool regulations.”
Spending time in nature should actually be second nature, not a privilege or something we have to beg for. And the next time you hear yourself screaming, “Go outside and play, dammit!” pat yourself on the back, because it’s not a patience or parenting failure, it’s friluftsliv — “a philosophical lifestyle based on experiences of the freedom in nature and the spiritual connectedness with the landscape.” Yea, that too. Thank you, Sweden.