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Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Outdoorsy Parenting - "There's No Such Thing as Bad Weather, Just Bad Clothing" (Book Review and Highlights)

If you "know" me, you are probably really sick of me talking about the Swedes.

I'll admit it, I'm obsessed. I've become absolutely infatuated with their culture, their home design, the way they parent, and the way they approach life and the outdoors. It started with the change of the season as I felt like an outsider for getting outside every day through the winter with my son (for his sanity and mine). All winter long, you could find him in a sled while I towed him on my cross country skis, out for a chilly winter run in his jogging stroller, or snowshoeing the trails with him on my back. Side glances and comments were cast my way as we headed outside despite the temperatures, sometimes for ten minutes, sometimes for two hours. 


I knew I wasn't the only one who believed in the importance of the outdoors despite the season and I kept blurting out my defensive response "What do you think Canadians and Nordic countries do, stay inside for four months of the year?" Well, now I know exactly what they do. I started to do some research and it was all over by the time I finished reading a Swedish/American parenting book. "There's No Such Thing as Bad Weather: A Scandinavian Mom's Secrets for Raising Healthy, Resilient, and Confident Kids (from Friluftsliv to Hygge)" by Linda Åkeson McGurk


This book is the perfect reflection on this stage of life I'm currently in. An outdoor advocate and a parent in love with the outdoors. I read this book and so much of what the author said resonated with the way I want to raise my son.  I understand why Scandinavian countries are so passionate about the outdoors, why they are so green/environmentally conscious, and how they truly embrace an active outdoorsy lifestyle in all sorts of weather. I grabbed a copy at my local library and devoured this book in a few days. I kept the notes app open on my phone, quickly jotting down the points that I wanted to remember and share with you. Today's post is a bit of a review and a highlight reel of some of my favorite points from the book. 

Swedish-born Linda McGurk moved to small-town Indiana with her American husband to start a family and quickly realized just how different American parenting was from the life she knew back in Sweden. Here in the U.S., she found a lot of empty playgrounds and a heavy focus on academics from a very early age.  Linda compares the parenting styles and even takes her American-born children to live in Sweden and experience the differences firsthand. Her writing is witty and thought-provoking as you make your way through the pages and the fundamental differences in childhood from two very different cultures. It turns out that in order to have a society of adults who value nature and their environmental impact, you have to start from the beginning. You have to foster this love of the outdoors and environmental education in our children and at a young age. The habit of seeking emotional support in recreation and inspiration from nature is established in childhood.  

"If we want children to care about nature, they need to spend time in it first". 

"Nature-centric" Culture


Scandinavians have a nature-centric culture, embodied in the terms of "friluftsliv" (we talk about this in a bit). This term is a key component to raising healthy well-rounded eco-conscious children (to turn into adults of the same standards). Scandinavians make outdoor time a priority. Recess makes up 20% of the school day in Sweden and many schools are moving more of their instructional time outside as well. Forest schools are nurseries where children spend the better part of the day outside all year round and are an increasingly popular choice among nature-loving parents. 

This daily interaction with nature has raised many environmental advocates. Scandinavia is a world leader when it comes to renewable energy, recycling, and sustainable living. Parents and educators across many cultures believe in the benefits of unstructured outdoor play however, research shows that this generation of children plays outside significantly less than their parents did. 

This book really looks at the amount of time our kids are spending outside here in the US and it's striking when compared to Swedish schools. One cross-sectional study representing 4 million children in the US showed that roughly half of all preschoolers don't have daily outdoor playtime. Many schools are cutting recess to "cram more required instruction into a day that hardly had any free time to begin with". Linda asks "What if more schools increase the length of recess instead of the number of standardized tests?"

"We pass on our ideas, belief systems, and traditions to the next generation to leave our small imprint on the world long after we're gone. Our attitudes about parenting are thoroughly steeped and cultural norm".


The Scandis believe that "unstructured nature play is not just key to raising children who will take apart nature, it's also essential to their personal health. The World Health Organization stated that childhood obesity is one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century as it is believed to be a risk factor for diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure later in life. It takes only a quick peek into the average American elementary school classroom to understand the proportions of this epidemic."

Important Swedish Terms 


Friluftsliv- physical activity outdoors to get a change of scenery and experienced nature with no pressure to achieve or compete.  Linda describes it as a fun way to stay healthy and do things together as a family and it's the highest form of appreciation for nature. It can only be passed down to the next generation through first-hand experience.

Allemanstratten- the right of public access grants anyone the right to walk, ride a bike, ride a horse, ski, pick berries or camp anywhere on private land except for the part that immediately surrounds private dwellings. This really encourages everyone to get out in nature and to respect the land. 


Education/Daycare


Linda quickly discovers the American pressure to send your kids to preschool not just for socialization, but for kindergarten prep. There has been a huge shift in our school systems as they face pressure from public schools to adapt to "kindergarten readiness". 


"Parents still think they are sending their kids to kindergarten so they can learn how to share and take turns but that's just not how it is anymore".

Linda discusses the idea of learning from play or simply put, play-based learning. "It's two completely different ways of looking at it you either view children as empty containers waiting to be filled by adults through teaching or you believe that they have the innate capability to learn together with others in Sweden we have faith in the child's own curiosity and desire to learn we call this concept the competent child."

The culture here in the US does not promote early childcare and Scandinavians have several things that make sending your child to daycare/preschool much easier like lengthy paternal leave and subsidized programs (before and after school to help working parents).


Is Busier Better?


American society is guilty of being notorious over planners. Parenting often feels like an "invisible competition." This over scheduling often leads to burnout. The Swedes have far less organized activities for children after school (and they don't push into organized sports too early)

"The prevailing idea that children are the sum of their weekly activities and that busiest schedule by 3rd grade wins... We over schedule our kid's lives with after school activities, so desperate for them to be something".  


A study showed that children got more exercise at recess or recreation centers or from simply playing in the neighborhood than in organized sports. Studies also found that not all outdoor free play is created equal the more versatile and varied the outdoor environment is the longer children will stay outside in the more physically active they will be.

"If downhill skiing is a given kid-pleaser full of adrenaline and instant rewards its cross country cousin is more of an acquired taste that may or may not grow on you over time". 


Go Green


Reading this book, I was so inspired by how children are taught at such a young age to be environmentally aware. Children are taught to sort their garbage as early as preschool - they know what goes in the compost bin, the recycling bin, and so on. Environmental education is a mandated part of the national curriculum not only for preschool but also for grade school in Sweden understanding how your own lifestyle affects your health the environment and society at large is considered just as important as mastering math problems and knowing the difference between past and present. 

"99 percent of waste in Sweden is reused, recycled, composted or incinerated to generate energy. Less than 1 percent goes to landfills". 

"Many cultures in the industrialized world are dominated by an anthropocentric view of nature they see nature almost as a detached entity, something that is mainly there for humans to master and extract resources from other cultures is described to the idea that humans are stewards of nature". 

The concept of teaching students outside the classroom is called udeskole, outdoor school. 

I also loved how Linda addresses some of the unintentional consequences of the "Leave No Trace" principle here in the US. I have personally seen the TIRADES of comments on Instagram when a child is shown with a wildflower. 

"It is too strict for children and can exacerbate the perceived separation of humans and nature. Allow children more freedom in their interactions with nature. Instead of never having an impact where you're going it's more about reducing that impact and knowing what it does". 



Food


The menu is climate adjusted which means each meal is carefully composed based not only on its nutritional value but also on its impact on the environment.

Linda discusses the schools where the children had competitions to see which school had the least food scrap/waste. Food was fresh, with healthy ingredients, nothing like our standard menus offered at schools here in the US. 


Independence and Risk-Taking


The attitude is common across Scandinavia as both parents and early childhood educators have traditionally had a higher tolerance for children's risk-taking than in the US. They look at their role of raising children in an important way - Parenting is a way to foster resilience. 

"Freedom with responsibility - Independence resilience and self-esteem are highly coveted qualities in children and Scandinavia these qualities can't be taught they must be learned through first-hand experience over time." 


I remember roaming our neighborhood as a kid without a second thought (my parents didn't seem to worry either" Linda describes this as Social Trust).  "When there is Social Trust in a community, children are generally given greater independence and mobility... having social trust means that if problems arise we trust that we solve them together as a community". 

Linda describes this generation of children being a "backseat generation" that spends a significant amount of time getting transported to various organized activities and has little time for unstructured outdoor play.


"Research shows at 3/4 of all American parents worry that their children will get abducted despite the fact that violent crimes against kids have been decreasing steadily since the 90s. The risk of being kidnapped and killed by strangers is so minimal around 0.0007% or 1 and 1.4 million annually it's effectively zero. And a majority of sex abuse cases against children the perpetrator of somebody close to the victim a family member relative or acquaintance not a stranger off the street".

"Removing all perceivable risk from their lives has become a mainstream parenting strategy. Our culture mistrusts children's ability to assess risk to the degree that they're missing out on learning opportunities and physical skills. If every surface around a climbing structure is soft and spongy it gives children a false message they can fall and they may climb higher than they actually ship they don't learn how to assess risk as a culture we don't trust our children at all we basically live for their lives for them. Up until age 7 or 8 they're so bubble-wrapped that they don't get to practice any of their physical skills and now there's a huge fallout. Public kindergarten teachers are reporting that kids don't even have the hand strength to hold a pencil". 

"Broken bones heal quickly, the most dangerous thing of all is to sit still." 


We deprived children of free risky play ostensibly to protect them from danger but in the process set them up for mental breakdowns

Research suggests a shift from the prevailing attitude to keep children as safe as possible to the more nuanced approach of keeping them as safe as necessary. 

Scandinavian Forest schools are an example of a place for children are allowed to take manageable risks on a daily basis whether by climbing trees or using tools. Our children are independent because we let them do things not hazardous things, but real things.

Don't read this and think the Swedes just have no concept of safety. In fact, children are recommended to ride in a rear-facing car seat at least until their 4th birthday and bike helmets are mandatory by law until you turn 15.


"The level of risk in children's lives should be increased steadily in order to successfully prepare them for adulthood. If you overprotect them and don't let them take risks and have a certain amount of responsibility, they'll have a shock when they head out into the world later. This is not something you learn overnight it's something you have to learn gradually".

Swedish students don't get any letter grades until 6th grade but the teachers do record their progress and whether they are below or above the requirements for the grade level as specified in the national curriculum.

Linda's Tips


  • Prioritize daily outdoor time from when your child as a baby to make it a natural part of your routine from the get-go. 
  • Simplify childhood and resist the urge to keep up with the Joneses kids remember that a preschooler needs very few things besides ample time to play freely 
  • If you think your child's preschool is too focused on academics try to find other options that offer more child-led play in nature experiences. 
  • The best way to raise an eco-conscious child is to be an eco-conscious parent - live by the principle of the three R's (reduce reuse recycle) and involve your child in the process. Talk about how your personal choices can impact the environment and look for opportunities to make a difference. 
  • Try to embrace the weather for what it is and let your child run wild and get dirty while playing outdoors. If possible reserve a spot in the backyard where your child is allowed to dig in the dirt and create a simple mud kitchen with old pot pans cups and other utensils. If the dirt on your child's hands and clothes bothers you, remember the general problem isn't that kids are too dirty but they are too clean. 
  • Refuse to give in to the culture of fear that is squashed out their play as we know it dare to trust your child and as he matures gradually give more unsupervised time around the house in the backyard in the neighborhood network with neighbors and other families to increase social trust in your community.

Additional Reading List


If your thoughts on parenting align with Linda's thoughts, she has some recommended further reading:
  • "Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" by Richard Louv 
  • "Balanced and Barefoot: how unrestricted outdoor play makes for strong confident and capable children" By Angela Hanscom 
  • "Under Pressure Rescuing your Children from the Culture of Hyper Parenting" by Carl Honore
  • "Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the heart and nature education" by David Sobel
  • "Let Them Eat Dirt Saving Your Child from an Over Sanitized World" by  Brett Findlay and Marie Claire Arietta
  • "Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (without going nuts with worry)" by Lenoir Skenazy

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