Connecting Childhood and Nature: Providing Opportunity When It's Not the Norm

Katriina Kilpi

Connecting Childhood and Nature: Providing Opportunity When It's Not the Norm

Having lived abroad most of my life now, I have most probably developed a somewhat romantic idea about my native Finland. Though there are numerous facts about Finland that I can for good reason be proud of, but one thing is indisputable: the beauty of Finnish nature. In all its ruggedness, it is amazing.

Luckily for her inhabitants,  Finland is still one of those countries where majority of inhabitants have access to nature within 300 meters from their doorstep. It is a relatively big country in European scale with very few people, translating as low population density and need for large personal space.

Growing up in Finland,  there were swings and a sandbox in our yard, but more importantly,there were lawns to run on, stones and rocks to sit on, bushes to hide behind, and trees to climb into.  

We, the neighborhood kids, spent countless hours on that yard learning the best spots for wild strawberries and that lichens can be found in different shades of green and gray on the many big rocks on the yard.

As we walked, we learned that our toes like the softness of the moss, but that under the pine trees it gets painful. Just outside our yard, there was a small forest where we flipped a coin to decide the direction we would take, and ate our packed lunch under the branches of the big spruces.  We were always outside because that´s what kids did those days.

Years and several countries later, life took me to Belgium´s Eastern Flanders, one of Europe´s least forested corners. Belgium is a country that fits the land area of Finland 11 times over, but has twice the population of Finland. Not only are there a lot of people everywhere, there is always noise from traffic, industry or other human activity. Unfortunately, this high density of people and lack of green in proportion, also translates as polluted air and soil, and diminishing ground water.

Where a good number of Britons might view themselves as gardeners, and Finns might call themselves Forest-Finns, outdoorsy- as much as it is a characteristic of some Belgians- is probably not how Belgians would characterize themselves on the whole. People generally do not appear enthusiastic about spending their time outside, except when it is “good weather”, i.e. clear blue skies and high temperatures. Belgians seem to view rain (which we see a lot here) and even cloudy skies as a wet blanket for any outdoors plans.

The low prioritization of spending time outdoors and nature contact on the whole, also means that children are not systematically encouraged to play outside at school. Since having a yard is not obvious for many in this country scrapped for space, the same attitude persists at home too. Part of the problem is the increased feeling of anxiety that parents feel about letting their children play outside without supervision.

While joining one´s kids outside would seem like the obvious option, it is hard to motivate this when outdoors is not a priority for the parent either.  

Due to the lack of experience in spending time outside, it becomes hard to start, especially in the not-so-perfect weather. I mean, what would you even wear?

​“Oh, what a cute skipakje (Dutch for skiing outfit) your child is wearing!”, is a sentence that probably most Scandinavians or at least the Finnish mothers in Belgium recognize. The comment is followed by a well-meant smile. This happens when our children appear to most outings wearing what is very common in our cold corner of the world: the winter overall.

In Finland, this type of clothing is common as children still spend a lot of time outdoors year-round. Kindergartens and schools incorporate large amounts of time for outdoor play, mostly unstructured as outdoor playtime is valued.

In the wintertime, the temperature limit of playing outside can be anywhere between minus 15-20 degree Celsius. This is all motivated by the immune boost following contact with the natural elements, fresh air guaranteeing a good night´s sleep and a better appetite, as well as the benefits of moving in uneven, natural terrain. You´ve maybe heard of babies tucked in their prams for a nap, parked outside even during the coldest season? Yes, this is still a common practice in Finland.  It´s not only in the winter that we choose to dress our kids in the so called skipakjes. We also have lighter versions of those pakjes. And full rain gear.

As a result, the children can play freely without getting wet or cold and feeling limited.

The reference to the ski-pakje by the Belgian parents used to make me agitated. It reminded me of how differently we think about being outside in nature.  As a result of becoming a mother in this country, I have become a passionate promoter of free play in nature.

Since natural sciences and outdoor playtime is not high on the list of priorities, I have taken matters in my own hands. Instead of driving my kids to various hobbies after school, we try to spend time outdoors after every school day.

A few years ago we moved just outside of the city. Our house – in horrific state when it was still on the market - had one deciding factor going for it: a gigantic (in Belgian terms) garden.  That´s what made us decide this was to be our home.  This garden is now where we spend most of our time: the kids furnishing their treehouse and cooking up meals in the mud-kitchen. I´ve also found little bits of green in the surroundings where we walk or bike to.

However, evoking an outdoor enthusiasm in my half-Finns/half-Belgians remains a challenge. My  7- year- old would often rather stay at home and read, and she complains about having to go to the forest again. But I stay firm, even if it means relying on bribes to make the trip to the forest more attractive (a juice or a cookie in the car, hot chocolate in the thermos once we reach the big fallen tree, etc.).

I bribe them without an ounce of guilt because I have experienced, time and time again, that once I get them outside  they will be begging to stay “just a little while longer” when it´s finally time to return home.

I have an inclination that my method of “forced nature time” will work.  

Perhaps the silver lining to living in Belgium is the fact that I have come to recognize  how crucial the role of nature is in my life and for the life of my family.  Besides forests, my search has enabled me to find new kinds of nature in Belgium, even in the mostly built-up east-Flanders. Nature is along the canals and rivers, and in the small "landscape elements" in the countryside.  It is in my yard, as the blackbird nest in the woodshed. Nature is at the seaside, in the dunes and in the tide water. It can even be found in the city, in the hidden gardens and tucked-away courtyards.

But there´s something about the nature that you were brought up with that you bond with the most.

This same bond gets me to return to Finland year after year, especially in the summer time, because there is nowhere I would rather be then. I need that experience to not only recharge but to upgrade myself. Then I can return to another year in Belgium. This is what I want for my children.