To be honest, I’ve spent a fair deal of this past year observing Norwegian children playing in nature. Picking berries, building shelters, “selling” all varieties of stone and pinecone merchandise in imaginary boutiques. There is romping and clambering. Clothes get muddy.
When I recently stumbled upon this excellent Slate article by Emma Marris, “Let Kids Run Wild in the Woods,” it struck a chord. In Norway, there are a great many kids running wild in the woods.
The article decries the lack of opportunities for American children to really get hands-on in natural settings: to build forts, climb trees, dig, move rocks, pick flowers or explore off trail. This type of play is generally considered “too destructive” for American parks and natural areas. The signs are ubiquitous: stay on the trail, don’t touch, don’t pick. Definitely don’t take branches and make them into a little fort that might ruin someone else’s experience of this natural setting.
In the article, one researcher travels to Scandinavia (Sweden, but might as well be Norway) and observes kids engaging in this sort of “wild play.” However, “after millions of kid-hours of use by children gleefully doing their worst, these play zones remain functioning natural areas.” What’s more, Marris posits that this type of play has the potential to create lasting joyous memories of nature, and to potentially inspire environmental concern or activism later in life. Place-based researcher David Sobel has written, “If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the Earth before we ask them to save it.”
In Norwegian uteskole, ‘outdoor school,’ classroom teachers take their students outside for a full day once a week, or once every other week. The students learn curricular content—often in a hands-on way—but they also have a chance for unstructured play in the natural setting.
One morning, I observed in a 6th grade class as the teacher explained the day’s uteskole plan. “Any questions?” he asked at the end.
“Do we get free play time?” asked one kid.
“Of course you get free play time!” the teacher answered, and the class cheered.
In the forest near their school, some of those kids worked on the large shelter that they had been building with branches and a tarp. Three boys directed the process, and the others gathered long branches and leaned them against the frame. At another area, a group of girls used rocks and logs to make a bridge across a small swamp. A few kids wandered through the woods and a few others tried (with mixed success) to play football on an uneven slope.
For the majority of uteskole, students are involved in academic activities—school-based outdoor learning. However, free-play is always a significant component, and I started wondering why. Perhaps it connects to friluftsliv, the Norwegian value placed on “joy of identification in nature,” an enthusiasm for spending time being active outside. Friluftsliv was first coined by writer Henrik Ibsen, cemented as national identity by polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen and evoked by deep ecologist Arne Naess. Traditionally, it referred to unorganized, low-cost activities that could be done in natural areas near home: everything from a Sunday hike, to mushroom-gathering, to a cross-country ski trip, to grilling food over a campfire in the woods. While it is still considered a cornerstone of Norwegian culture, in recent years, friluftsliv has been transitioning to more risk-based or adrenaline-pumping activities (think kiteboarding or off-piste skiing). Thus, children’s free-play in nature is one way to get back to the heart of friluftsliv, just having a good time and connecting to nature.
However, this type of free-structured play can be initially foreign to children accustomed to set playground games and equipment. The same urban teacher whose students cheered for free-play time recalls the beginning of his year, right after beginning to implement uteskole:
“The first time I took them out here, they didn’t want to sit on the ground and they were bored,” he said. “They just looked at me and said, ‘What should we do?’ After 10 minutes or so, they finally got up and started exploring around. And now, when we come out, they can’t wait for free-play time.”
If children are bored outside, perhaps it’s because they’ve forgotten what it’s like to play in a natural, unstructured environment. It’s an environment without the flashy screens or snappy gadgets that tend to dominate our cultural landscape. And yet, with imagination, curiosity, one could stay outside for hours. Furthermore, it may be that a natural setting is one of the best ways to engage children’s innate inventiveness. In 1971, architect Simon Nicholson proposed the “Theory of Loose Parts,” the idea that loose materials—those that can be moved, manipulated, tinkered with—provide more opportunities for creative engagement than static materials. The degree of inventiveness and creativity in an environment is directly proportional to the number of variables in it, he wrote. Nature, with its sticks and mud and stones and cones, is the quintessential Kingdom of Loose Parts, but children will only reap the benefits if they can ‘run wild’ and interact with these parts. Not everywhere, but somewhere. The Scandinavians are onto something.
In Norway, free-play in nature often begins early, sometimes in outdoor preschools, a popular concept in Scandinavia (as well as Germany and a scattering in other parts of the world). The premise is that the children are outside for the majority of every day, regardless of the weather. Sometimes they do planned activities, but most often they are engaging in unstructured free-play. Even “normal” preschools feature significant outdoor playtime. “But what do they do?” one of my friends from the States asked once.
And then I had to think hard, trying to think about what they didn’t do. When you’re allowed to really interact with your environment: to climb and roam and dig and pluck and build and smell and explore, the natural world opens to you in a whole new way. It is way that roots itself deep in your hands and heart, a way that connects you to the land and lingers in your mind for years to come.