When thinking about Scandinavia, we imagine wide and dense forests, endless open spaces, rocky shores, and gilded meadow vistas. In these pictures from Northern Europe, we see people jogging, enjoying their saunas, and picnicking in unspoiled natural surroundings. Why do the Nordics seem more nature-focused than the rest of us? And what does education have to do with it?
The Nordic educational model
The Scandinavian region (Denmark, Norway, and Sweden) is broadly regarded as being one of the most eco-friendly places in the world, with Sweden ranking at the very top with its strict carbon tax and the promise of becoming a greenhouse gas-neutral country by the year 2045. The egalitarian politics, slow living (the famous Danish hygge), and the omnipresence of pristine nature are some of the contributing factors. But as usual one of the major factors contributing to the positive approach to nature and sustainability, is most certainly the way children are brought up and educated. Throughout their years of schooling Nordic children learn to love the environment, appreciate it, and care for it.
Even though Scandinavian countries attain only average scores in PISA rankings (cf. the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment, 2018), their soft power and creative power make up for their ostensible shortcomings. Sweden in particular is the country of innovation, with companies such as Skype (now owned by Microsoft, but founded in Sweden), Spotify, and Minecraft exemplifying its technological power, and with one of the most dominant and dynamic music businesses in the world. While Denmark, with its world class design and fashion industries, does not fall short of its neighbours, and Norway is steadily gaining recognition for its long-term investments in sustainability and renewable energy.
The main selling point of the Nordic education system is definitely its inclusiveness. Education in all Nordic countries is free for all citizens, at every level for all age groups. Not only can students study at no cost, they also receive generous monetary incentives to pursue higher education in the form of subsidies for living expenses, government funded lunches, and even monthly cash allowances. Ever since the latter part of the 20th century, efforts have been directed towards creating a new curriculum encompassing the values of creativity, cooperation, and communication – ideas crucial for the smooth functioning of Nordic states of today. But in the North, the idea of connection to nature and sustainability were already being implemented in the 1960s and 70s.
Nature education from the cradle
In 2018, the entire world heard of a teenage eco-activist from Stockholm – Greta Thunberg. She single-handedly organized and led a protest against carbon emissions called Skolstrejk för klimatet. She was awarded the recognition of being Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2019. Linda Givetash and Vladimir Banic (2020) from NBC News claim that her appearance was not a surprise, but rather a logical consequence of the Scandinavian model of environmental education.
The concept of uteskola /udeskole (outdoor school) is a simple, yet smart one. The idea of getting children out of the school buildings for outdoor learning experiences has been practiced in the Nordic countries since the 19th century. Experiments such as open-air nurseries have enjoyed broad success. The trend intensely caught on in the Scandinavian countries in the late 1960s. It was then that outdoor activities were officially introduced into curricula, and many places went as far as to open kindergartens and other schools in genuinely natural environments.
Indeed, Northern Europe seems to be the perfect area for such experimentation. The Nordics are known for their close connection to nature. It is what the Norwegians call friluftsliv :theoutdoor lifestyle. There, it may take the form of climbing glaciers, ice-fishing, or camping. In Sweden, it may be expressed through weekend hiking trips or their famous Nordic walking. And in Denmark – through tending to their getaway cottage houses and gardens, or their avid cycling even throughout the entire winter.
Children are introduced to these lifestyles very early. It is not a myth that Nordic dwellers put their sleeping toddlers’ cribs outdoors or out on their balconies, even in relatively low temperatures. The idea is that early exposure to nature makes for better mental and physical health later in life.
Learning in the woods
But the practice shifts into high gear in kindergarten. Even with temperatures below freezing, in Denmark, you will find primary school children playing and studying in nearby woods. They run, climb trees, roll down hills, collect moss, while poking around rocks and underbrush to search for life forms such as millipedes. They play with water, sand, and soil. They even learn how to tie knots and use knives properly. They get wet, cold, and very dirty.
Danish forest schools and kindergartens have been around since the 1950s. There, children spend most, if not all of their day, outside. They do not focus on calculus or Danish language classes, but rather acquire knowledge holistically through exposure to nature. They get basic learning skills and – most importantly – get interested in learning about the world. And that, in the long run, can be the most beneficial for their education. As it turns out, “nature-based pre-schoolers” are equally, to their more conventional peers, prepared for the challenges of the education system. But one of the extra benefits they get is that they tend to be more open-minded and ready to think outside the box.
Danes have a relaxed frame of mind about their children playing in the woods. Risk is seen as a possibility for growth rather than a threat to them. One might say that in those circumstances, getting some bruises and cuts is a good thing for children to a degree. Through it, they learn endurance and responsibility. And through contact with animals and nature, they also learn empathy. In the Danish school curriculum, empathy is considered one of the most important skills to learn, to become a functional adult who will be a responsible member of their community. The cross-disciplinary approach also serves to teach children about interconnectedness of the world.
A day outside
While the forest school approach may seem extreme, the Scandinavian focus on natural education does not stop there. Toys made out of natural materials are provided. In primary school, kids explore the surroundings of the city, nature reserves, and other natural settings. They spend a lot of time on the playgrounds, and use school grounds as their learning environments. Lessons on the environment and nature cross many subjects, from science to home economics.
Most schools maintain gardens within the brick and mortar reality of their school buildings. It is not unusual to see a child dressed in a beekeeping suit. Yet again – the risk is worth the reward. But the outdoor schooling does not stop at the woods and school grounds. Children also go out to get to know their neighbourhoods, visit local parks, build relationships with neighbours, and through such activities develop a sense of community.
In all Nordic countries, the outdoor schooling continues all the way through secondary school. Students are taken on day-trips as often as possible and many classes are taught outside when weather permits. Children continue to learn about their environment through interdisciplinary approaches. The goal is to provide young people with sustainability skills. In the rapidly changing world they live in, Nordic societies see sustainability as being crucial.
The system provides them with the knowledge and skills, and helps them develop the values needed to participate in and contribute to a sustainable society. Beyond this, they learn solidarity and develop social skills through teamwork with others. Even something as mundane as eating or reading outdoors can have an amazingly calming and relaxing effect on students. For these reasons, nature education conducted in the outdoors has proven especially beneficial to students with special needs.
The idea behind nature education lies in long-term thinking and responsibility for one’s surroundings. Lifelong learning is another great approach widespread across the Nordics. Universities are full of mature students, and it is not unlikely to see retirees learning new skills and crafts. Children who learn to get excited about understanding their environment stay curious for life.
Dirty soil for a healthy life
So why exactly is it important to get your hands and clothes dirty when you are still a child? Firstly, for children, nature is a source of creativity. It allows them to make broader use of their senses and gives them freedom, as well as privacy, and a safe space for creating their own learning experiences. But nature does not only hold a utilitarian value – as Richard Louv (2010) says – at a deeper lever, nature provokes humility.
The roots of “biophilia” can be found in the history of our species (Jones, 2021). During the times of hunter-gatherers, every member of the community needed to have a certain holistic knowledge of the environment to contribute and survive. Specialized members were but a few. When understood and treated in a sustainable way, the natural environment provided humans with shelter, nourishment, food, and well-being. Trees are still seen as symbols of safety, that we gravitate towards naturally. By getting our hands dirty metaphorically, we learn about the environment and become closer to it, and therefore – closer to who we have always been.
And as for literally getting dirty? Through playing in dirt children get exposed to different immunoregulatory microorganisms. A lack of biodiversity and missing microbes, on the other hand, lead to a more widespread prevalence of inflammatory diseases. Getting your hands dirty is also a great preventive measure against mental instability and depression.
Still, the human relationship with nature and knowledge of it deteriorates with every generation. We cannot name as many birds’ species as our parents could, and we are not as good at telling mushrooms apart as our parents are. The lost connection to nature is a generational problem caused by urbanization, rapid advances in technology, and social media that are taking over children’s concentration time. Online education during the COVID-19 pandemic has not been helpful either.
Many countries are looking to Scandinavia for inspiration. Educators from New Zealand, North America, and the UK are taking notes. The nature-based early childhood education model is taking off around the globe. There are schools opening, where children spend at least 30% of their time outside and the curriculum is centred around nature and whatever is happening seasonally. In this environment, teachers are rather co-learners than all-knowing leaders. The experience is immersive and children learn with nature rather than about it. The environment and sustainability permeate every aspect of their learning. These schools are different from traditional forest schools, where kids would spend even 70-100% of their learning time outdoors. But they are a step in the right direction. From boy scouts to forest therapy, human beings will always strive for natural balance.
Author: Małgorzata Sidz
Banic, V., Givetash, L. (2020, January 10). Sweden’s environmental education is building a generation of Greta Thunbergs.
Jones, L. (2021). Losing Eden. Why our minds need the wild. UK: Penguin.
Louv, R. (2010). Last Child in the Woods. Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Copenhagen, Denmark: ATBO.
The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (2018).