‘Friluftsliv’ and the Swedish Art of Raising Happy Outdoor Kids
The author of 'There's No Such Thing as Bad Weather, Only Bad Clothes' explains why kids need to be outside every damn day.
Linda McGurk never considered herself the outdoorsy type. She didn’t rock climb after work or kayak on the weekends. There were no epic backpacking treks into the wild every summer. But growing up in Sweden, where kids play outside, snow or shine, for large chunks of the day, she developed an unwavering love of nature. And, after she had kids, she wanted to make sure they did too. The problem? McGurk was raising her children in the United States, where parents put more of an emphasis on early academic development and less on running around in fields. The common Swedish maxim “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes” sounds, in English, like a one-liner. In Swedish, its meaning is far clearer. It means “Go outside.”
READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Parenting in Other Countries
Longing to share her Scandinavian upbringing with her children, not to mention return to a place where kids play outdoors even when the mercury dips, the freelance journalist moved back to Sweden for six months and wrote a book about the experience and the virtues of raising outdoorsy kids. It’s fittingly titled There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather: A Scandinavian Mom’s Secrets for Raising Healthy, Resilient, and Confident Kids (from Friluftsliv to Hygge). It is, for lack of a better word, good.
Fatherly spoke to McGurk from her home in Indiana about the book, the importance of outdoor play, differences in American and Scandinavian parenting, and the most vital piece of outdoor clothing your kids can own. (Hint: It’s not gloves.)
You are a Swedish-born writer living in rural Indiana. Where in Sweden are you from? Where in Indiana do you live?
I am from the town of Dalsjöfors in southern Sweden, a 45-minute drive from Gothenburg. And now I live in Covington, Indiana. Long story short, I met my American husband in Australia when we were exchange students. He is from Covington and we moved there partly to be closer to his family and partly because he wanted to work in the family business.
Covington has less than 3,000 people. It’s small. Dalsjöfors is very similar in size, but that’s about where the similarities end. It was a pretty different childhood. Like most kids in Sweden, I grew up playing outside a lot. And not just at home but also at school. About 20 percent of the day is outdoor recess in Sweden. It’s an important parenting foundation in Scandinavia.
So that philosophy, “there’s no such thing as bad weather” is, obviously, the premise of the book. But what’s the story about? How did you come to write it?
At preschool, the kids were busy learning all these academic skills. To me, preschool was supposed to be about playing outside, climbing trees, digging holes to China, and looking for earthworms. And, instead, they were teaching them how to read and write and pushing these academic skills which was so different from what I had expected. By elementary school, I noticed there was a lot less recess, longer school days, and so many standardized tests. Americans put a lot of pressure on their kids. Pressures you just don’t have in Scandinavia. Kids there have more freedom in childhood. They get more time to figure out who they are and what they want to do.
I realized these were things from my childhood that my kids were missing, and so I decided to take my daughters to Sweden for six months. A contributing factor, I should note, was that my dad got cancer and so I also wanted to spend some quality time with him. That said, the three of us headed over, and I enrolled the kids in school. The book follows our journey back to Sweden and what we experienced over there, contrasted with what it was like to come back to Indiana.
What grades were your kids in when you did this?
My youngest turned five while we were over there. She would have been in preschool had we stayed in the U.S. My oldest was in second grade.
What is the argument in favor of the Swedish approach? There’s an obvious appeal for those of us who like being outside, but not everyone does and learning to read certainly isn’t bad. What the best argument for ‘Go play outside’?
There are just so many benefits to outdoor play for kids ⏤ physical skills that they build, and social skills, and cognitive skills. And since parents, educators, doctors, and nurses, everybody in Scandinavia is on board and understands that, it’s become this mantra: Hey, we got to go outside even if it’s just for a little bit. It’s refreshing. It’s good for the body and soul. And we’ve adjusted accordingly ⏤ all kids are expected to dress for the weather, with their rain gear when it’s rainy and snowsuits in the winter.
Swedes are very connected to nature. It plays a huge part in our lives. A Swedish author once wrote that trying to get a Swede to explain why they love nature so much is like asking them why they want to have children. It’s just so obvious that there’s no explanation for it. So we raise kids to be connected to nature.
So the goal in Sweden is to get the kids outside every day?
Yes, very much so. But parents in Sweden also get more help; they don’t have to do it all by themselves. I like to say that it takes a village to raise an outdoor child and it starts with the preschools where kids will be outside for hours. It partly originates in the concept of Friluftsliv, which I talk about in the book, and has been around for about 150 years or so. It a philosophy that revolves around immersing yourself in nature, and enjoying nature for what it is without competition. It can be simple things like going for a walk around the neighborhood or the woods. Or it could be foraging for berries. Who knows. There are a lot of different aspects of Friluftsliv, and the government encourages it because it’s good for public health. It’s good preventive medicine.
How about the parents, how do they benefit from Friluftsliv?
I work in front of a computer screen all day and by the end, my brain isn’t exactly at the top of its game. I need to get out to recover and refresh and recharge my batteries. Not only that, but just like outdoor play for kids helps prevent obesity, it helps us stay in shape too. If we as parents go out there with them and run around, go for walks, or hikes, etc. there’s really no downside to it.
In addition to some of the mental and physical benefits you mentioned, are there any other positives of this parenting philosophy?
There’s a huge benefit that’s not directly manifested on a physical level, but it’s got more to do with developing a love for nature. Ultimately, you have to have a connection to nature early in life to develop the desire to protect nature later in life. The kids who don’t have that connection, it’s going to be hard for them to relate when the woods are being chopped down. They’re probably not going to care as much. The most important thing for a young child is to foster an emotional attachment to nature because that is something you can build on. So I think it’s important for the future of the planet, as well as the kids’ health, to get them out there.
Similarly, I think Scandinavian parents really try to make sure kids get this nature connection early in life so that once they reach the tween years, and electronics are starting to become more a part of daily life, the kids are still very much rooted in nature. They’re comfortable recreating in nature and they already have that need for being in nature.
If you have a parent who hears about your book and says I love this idea, what’s the easiest way to get started? Just go for a walk?
With little kids, a lot of times it’s just about having a place where they can explore freely without being driven by an agenda. Just because you might have this great three-mile hike in mind doesn’t mean they’re onboard at all. And if you try to set the pace and stick to a specific timeline, it could be quite disastrous.
If I was going to give one piece of advice, it would be to find something both you and your kids sort of enjoy doing, and start with that. Then you can branch out and try other, more difficult activities. Again, hiking isn’t necessarily the easiest thing to start with even though it might feel like it because you don’t need a whole lot of equipment. Motivating kids to hike can be hard. Starting with free play is crucial. Kids are usually able to entertain themselves.
How do you convince parents who aren’t necessarily outdoorsy themselves to get on board with outside parenting?
I didn’t consider myself that outdoorsy before moving to the U.S. I was not one to go backpacking or do hardcore outdoor stuff. I just appreciate nature on a very basic everyday level. You don’t have to be an outdoor nut to give your kid that kind of childhood.
As I mentioned, you don’t have to spend hours outside every day. Maybe you enlist the help of other people. If there’s a grandparent who loves fishing, they take the child out out. Or maybe you’re lucky enough to have a forest school or a nature preschool nearby. I know in Sweden, there are a lot of parents who are not outdoorsy themselves but want that experience for their kids. They solve that issue by enrolling them in a forest preschool where the child gets to play outside all day. Unfortunately, forest schools aren’t common in the U.S. yet, but they are becoming more so. And I’m hoping we’ll see more of them in the future, because they’ll really help parents who don’t feel like they have the skillset or interest themselves.
What’s it going to take to get the children-and-nature movement to catch on in the U.S.?
It will be crucial to get the educational institutions on board. I’m a working mother, and I know what it’s like to finish your work day and have to pick the kids up from school and make dinner, and they’ve got homework and you’ve got all these things you have to do. It’s not always easy to get outside, especially during the work week.
It’s vital to get this mindset into the curricula of the schools and preschools, and to get the teachers on board. And I know that’s a tall order, those are not institutions that change easily. It may be easier on the preschool level than on the elementary school level, but still, even preschool has become so academic these days that it will be a slow ship to turn around. It has to start with parents’ expectations and parents’ desire for their kids to play outside more. It’s going to take those parents asking for that from their preschools or daycares.
Quick, what’s the single most important piece of winter clothing?
You can’t pick just one. Oh gosh, I do want to stress boots. It’s important for kids to wear boots that can both keep your feet warm and dry. Waterproof and warm in the winter.
Now, you’ve been living outside of Sweden for 15 years. You went back for six months. Did you want to stay?
I have to think carefully about how to answer that one, I don’t want to put people off. There are definitely some things that I really miss and wish that my kids would be able to experience in Sweden. For now, we’re staying in the U.S., but I could definitely see myself spending more time in Scandinavia in the future just to make sure my kids are still rooted in that culture. That said, I don’t miss the weather.
And finally, you stress that kids should “run wild and get dirty.” Why is that so important?
In the U.S., I’ve found that parents are afraid to let their kids get dirty, or even their clothes dirty, because it’s seen as unsanitary. But it is good for kids to get dirty on a regular basis. There are good microbes in the soil that strengthen the immune system, for example, and it can also help prevent allergies. You can go a little lighter on the hand sanitizers, it’s okay. If they happen to put some dirt in their mouths, it’s not the end of the world. It can actually be pretty good for them.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
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