There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather
1 A RIGHT TO NATURE
The wild is a voice that never stops whispering.
When I went to Perth, Australia, as an exchange student in college, I really didn’t expect to come back with much more than a great tan and a backpack full of good memories. Instead, I returned with a boyfriend from rural Indiana. On one of our first dates, he told me that as a child he used to build dams with debris in the creek in his backyard. In a different creek in Sweden, I used to clear the debris from the stream so that the water could flow freely. We were immediately drawn to each other.
As it turns out, the unlikely union between a Swedish environmentalist and a Midwestern industrialist had more staying power than our families would ever have imagined, and after we graduated we decided to move to Montana, where my husband had spent many of his school holidays skiing with his family. Fresh out of journalism school, I got my first job working for a start-up internet business that might as well have served as the inspiration for the movie Office Space, complete with soulless cubicles, mysterious forms, and disgruntled white-collar employees, who were all kept in check by an overzealous supervisor. Still, the move was a smooth transition for me. The mountains reminded me of home, the wildlife was spectacular, and the intensity and length of the winters rivaled those of my homeland.
Bozeman, where we lived, was in the middle of a transition from sleepy ranching community with world-class fly-fishing waters to hipster college town and up-and-coming vacation spot for people from all over the US. This change was not well received by everybody, but with my Scandinavian lineage and experience with harsh weather I fit the mold of a “true” Montanan and was readily accepted by the locals. In contrast, anybody who was the slightest bit hesitant to driving in heavy snow or complained about the cold was jokingly dismissed as a “Californian,” whether they were actually from the Golden State or not. Ironically, most of the people who complained about out-of-staters were themselves from somewhere else. Being a Montanan, it turned out, was not so much about the stamp on your birth certificate but more of a state of mind. Success was not measured by how many steps you had climbed on the corporate ladder but rather by how many days you had spent in a tent instead of a cubicle. Wealth was not necessarily measured by the size of your bank account but by how much elk meat you had in your freezer. Skills were assessed not according to what you had learned from a textbook but by how you handled real-life challenges like how to avoid getting buried by an avalanche or attacked by a grizzly bear.
I was clearly not in Sweden anymore. Most of the people I now hung out with put me to shame with their in-depth knowledge of nature and advanced wilderness survival skills. One thing was for sure: If I ever stood face-to-face with the Apocalypse I would grab onto a seasoned Montanan in a heartbeat and not let go.
But I noticed that, parallel with this hard-core outdoor culture, there were forces at work in American society that seemed to create a divide between humans and nature. One of the first lessons I learned in my new homeland was that pretty much all the things I was used to doing either on foot or by using
public transportation in Scandinavia could be done without ever exiting your car in Montana. Here, you could go straight from your comfortably heated or air-conditioned house in the morning to your equally comfortable climate-controlled car and drive to work. Actually, this was the only way to get to work unless you lived within walking or biking distance, since public transportation was nonexistent. At lunch, you could go to one of a slew of fast-food restaurants with a drive-through window, idle in line for ten minutes, and then inhale your lunch while running errands in your vehicle. Returning a movie at the video store? There was a drive-by box for that. Mailing a letter? No need to get out of the car. Buying a six-pack? Give your order to the guy at the drive-up window. Even bank errands could be done from the driver’s seat. At school, parents waited in their vehicles in a long, winding line until a teacher with a walkie-talkie called on their child to come outside. I had never seen anything like it.
Many roads lacked sidewalks, and just walking across the parking lot at the mall sometimes seemed borderline suicidal. Then again, assuming that I made it, all the stores I could ever need were conveniently located under one roof. I noticed that some people even went to the mall to exercise, walking or jogging down the long corridors. This phenomenon was so well established that they had a name: mall walkers. I was intrigued. I could understand why some older people would want to avoid slippery sidewalks or bumpy trails in the woods, but I saw people of all ages participate in this activity. What were they doing in here when the awe-inspiring Rocky Mountains—and all that they had to offer in terms of outdoor recreation—were just a stone’s throw away? I obviously still had some cultural codes to crack.
Since so many people just seemed to be moving from one climate-controlled indoor environment to another, there was no need to dress for the elements, and I found that people often
dressed as if they didn’t expect to go outside at all, not even putting on a coat in the dead of winter. In one of my columns for a Swedish newspaper, I wrote that, due to the way American society was designed, most people could probably get by with walking less than a thousand feet per day. Now I was starting to think that this was an overly generous estimate.
Back then, I didn’t reflect much on what all this might mean if we were to have children. We were too busy enjoying our carefree lives. The biggest decisions we had to make at the time were where to go camping and which peak to hike come the weekend, and we were pretty contented with that. But as I neared my thirties and the idea of having children beckoned, we decided that it was time to move back to my husband’s hometown in Indiana to be closer to family. I was yet again about to embark on a cultural journey.
There Is No Such Thing as Bad Weather
In Scandinavia, where I was born and raised, it would be very easy to make excuses for not going outside. The northern part of Scandinavia—which truly comprises Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, but for all practical purposes of this book also will include our eastern neighbor, Finland, which shares much of the same culture—reaches well beyond the Arctic Circle, and the climate in the region is partly subarctic. Heavy snowfall is common in the winter, especially up north, although white Christmases are not guaranteed. The Gulf Stream helps moderate the temperature, especially along the western coasts, making it warmer than is typical of other places on the same latitude. Still, anybody who has spent a winter in Scandinavia knows that it is not for the faint of heart. Temperatures can range from Let’s Bring out the Patio Furniture to I Think My Eyelids Just Froze
Shut, but one facet of Scandinavian winters always remains constant: the darkness.
Each year for twenty-seven days, peaking with the winter solstice in late December, the polar nights blanket northern Scandinavia. During that time, the sun doesn’t rise over the horizon at all, and life enters the twilight zone. Literally. The south is less unforgiving, offering up to seven hours of precious daylight per day in January. Even then, overcast skies often submerge Scandinavia in a perpetual semi-dusk-like state that has a way of putting people’s resilience to the ultimate test. How bad is it? Consider that in 2014 the Swedish capital of Stockholm logged just three hours of sunshine for the whole month of November, a new record. “People on the streets are ready to start eating each other,” a friend exasperatedly reported toward the end of the month. “The zombie apocalypse is here.”
Every Scandinavian has his or her own way of dealing with the dark winters. The Finnish stay awake by drinking more coffee than people anywhere else in the world. The Swedes build elaborate sunrooms and go on vacations to Thailand. The Danish have hygge, one of those unique phenomena that doesn’t translate well but evokes images of a family cozying up in front of a fireplace, drinking hot chocolate, and playing board games. The Norwegians eat cod-liver oil to boost their vitamin D levels and seek refuge in their rustic cabins in the woods. Many a Scandinavian has dreamed of calling it quits and moving to warmer, sunnier, and more hospitable latitudes. Some entertain the idea every winter, and a few retirees actually act on it. But more than anything, Scandinavians get through the winter by maintaining a sense of normalcy. Snow happens. Sleet happens. Ice happens. Cold temperatures happen. Life goes on. The trains may not run on time after a big snow dump, but society doesn’t shut down either. Weather-related school closures are virtually unheard-of.
In the spring, crocuses and coltsfoots start poking through the ground, the days keep getting longer, and vitamin D stores are finally replenished. In the cities, wool blankets pop up on café patios—a sign as sure as any that the season is about to turn. As the snowmelt starts to drip from the rooftops, survivors of the seemingly everlasting winter flock to the cafés, wrap themselves in blankets, and turn their translucent faces toward the fickle sunshine. The fact that it’s forty degrees Fahrenheit outside is irrelevant; by Scandinavian standards it’s completely acceptable to enjoy a latte wearing mittens. And by June, when Scandinavians celebrate midsommar by making flower wreaths, dancing around a maypole, and worshipping at the altar of the sun that never sets, they are ready to recommit to their homeland, body and light-starved soul.
In the summertime, the weather can be a toss-up, occasionally sunny and warm in the south, where the majority of the population lives, but quite often cool, cloudy, and rainy. More than three days straight of temperatures in the seventies is pretty much considered a heat wave, and it’s no coincidence that Swedish supposedly is the only language that boasts the word uppehållsväder to describe a break between two periods of intense rainfall. Solfattig—“sun poor”—is another commonly used Swedish weather term that speaks for itself. On those few precious summer days when balmy temperatures and cobalt skies converge in perfect harmony, anybody voluntarily staying inside would be declared legally insane. “Whenever the weather is nice, you really feel like you have to take advantage of it. That’s what our parents always told us, and that’s how I feel with my kids,” says Cecilia, a mother of two in Stockholm.
Considering the capricious nature of the Scandinavian climate, it’s maybe no wonder that the saying “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes” originated here. It prob
ably started as a coping strategy, or was perhaps born out of defiance of the weather powers that be. If you were ever a child in Scandinavia, you’ve heard this phrase more times than you care to count, from teachers, parents, grandparents, and other adults in your life. As a result, Scandinavians grow up with a certain resilience to the weather. The children who once dressed in rain gear from head to toe to go out to recess or play in the woods after school turn into adults who feel a certain urgency about getting outside every day. “If I don’t get outside every day, I go crazy. And if I don’t have time to take my son out after work I feel guilty about it. I think it’s a very Scandinavian thing to feel that way,” says Linda, a Swedish friend of mine.
Several researchers have spent much of their careers trying to figure out why Scandinavians are so consumed with the idea of getting their progeny outside every day. One theory is that it is a form of precaution. We believe that outdoor play is good for kids, but we cannot necessarily pinpoint why. We can tell that it’s not hurting them, and we worry about what would happen if they didn’t have it.
The government is also heavily invested in promoting outdoor recreation for children and adults alike as a preventive health measure. For example, the health care system in Sweden’s Skåne region encourages parents to get outside with their children from an early age as a way to prevent obesity and establish a healthy lifestyle from the get-go. “We all know that fresh air and movement benefit both your appetite and sleep,” says an informative pamphlet for new parents. “That is true not only for older children and adults, but fresh air every day makes small children feel well too. This also establishes good habits and a desire to exercise.”
The idea that fresh air and outdoor play are crucial to good health is so prevalent that it has even found some unlikely
champions in the pharmaceutical industry. Kronans Apotek, one of the largest pharmacy chains in Sweden, offers the following advice for flu season on its website: “The first step toward fewer runny noses and less coughing is to let the child spend as much time outside as possible,” the company says. “When children are outside, the physical distance between them increases, which reduces the risk for contagion through direct contact or the air. The more time spent outside the better.”
Aside from the obvious personal health aspects, having positive outdoor experiences in childhood is seen as a way to build a lifelong relationship with nature. To paraphrase David Sobel, advocate of place-based education and author of Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education, if we want children to care about nature, they need to spend time in it first.
“Do You Need a Ride, Hon?”
The sweet corn is just starting to tassel when we move cross-country, into a turn-of-the-century home in rural Indiana. We start the mother of all remodeling jobs, gutting the house room by room. Around the same time, I’m starting to feel the ticktock of the infamous biological clock, which is interesting, since I’ve always felt awkward around children and didn’t realize until I was in my twenties that I wanted to have some of my own. Now it’s the only thing I want, aside from a new kitchen.
In between working as a freelance writer and tearing out carpet, I explore my new hometown on foot. With two black Labs in tow, I quickly become an object of curiosity. People that I’ve never met or talked to come up to me and start chitchatting like they know me, simply because they’ve seen me walking my dogs. Cars slow and people roll their windows down to shout friendly
comments. On Facebook I get questions from strangers about my training methods, and people are constantly awed by how well my dogs walk together. (For the record, this is purely an illusion; in reality, they are constantly tugging in different directions. Barney, the youngest, was once singled out by a trainer during an obedience class as an example of how not to behave.) In Sweden my entourage wouldn’t raise any eyebrows, as going for walks is a popular form of outdoor recreation all year-round. Here, I quickly become The Woman Who Walks with Dogs.
At some point in between refinishing the living room floors and painting the guest bedroom, I take a pregnancy test and finally see the two pink lines I coveted. The guest bedroom, it turns out, is going to be a nursery. I keep walking and prepare for the new arrival.
With a tiny life growing inside me, I’m heading into uncharted territory. I was never a natural with children and I know it. As a child I was more interested in listening in on the adults’ conversations than in playing with their kids and their Barbies. And the precocious child I once was turned into an adult who gravitates toward predictability and structure. My life runs on a schedule. I’m set in my ways. I make to-do lists and get a kick out of checking things off. The books in my bookcase are, if not alphabetized, then at least neatly organized by category. Given all of this, I realize that I have to approach motherhood from a different, more intellectual angle. I start devouring books about pregnancy, Lamaze, breastfeeding, and child-rearing. It’s a brave new world. Not only does this literature represent my first introduction to the many parenting styles I’m expected to choose from, it’s also full of intriguing new phrases like “baby wearing,” “tummy time,” and “elimination communication.” Despite the fact that my experience with babies is limited, to say the least, and my ideas of parenting mostly stem from the way my parents
raised me, I know exactly what I want for this child. Natural childbirth—check. Cloth diapers in gender-neutral colors—check. Homemade, organic baby food—check.
On a February afternoon nine months into my pregnancy— twelve days before my due date, to be exact—I take the dogs for a walk around the trail that encompasses the town, six miles in total. (Actually, the dogs walk: I waddle like an obese penguin suffering from a bad hernia.) At one point an older guy with a big, dark mustache and an even bigger grin drives by in his pickup truck and honks at this spectacular sight. Toward the end of the walk I can literally feel the baby’s head between my legs. Less than twelve hours later my water breaks and we are on our way to the hospital. The next morning, after an epic sunrise and a not-so-epic pushing phase, Maya is born in a tub of water, just as I had planned. Water birth—check.
Had I lived in Sweden, my motherhood experience would have followed a predictable pattern at this point. The Scandinavian countries lead the world in terms of paid parental leave, and Swedish parents get a total of 480 days, with a certain quota reserved for the mother and father, respectively, plus unpaid leave for up to three years. This means the chances of me knowing at least a half dozen people who were on maternal leave at any given time would be pretty good, and I would have devoted my days to doing everything that is expected of a Scandinavian mom. In a simplified breakdown, this would be breastfeeding, napping, and caring for the baby. Sometimes I would get together with other moms for fika (generally understood as a coffee break accompanied by a pastry) and take walks in the park or around town, possibly with a stop at an öppna förskolan, or “open preschool,” a free resource that provides developmentally appropriate activities for babies and children up to five years and, maybe more important, gives parents on leave a chance to socialize and treat cabin
fever. Then I would have gone home and napped some more. When my child was around the age of eighteen months, I, like 84 percent of all Swedish parents, would enroll her at a government-subsidized preschool and go back to work. As anybody who has ever cared for an infant knows, it is rarely easy: naturally, Scandinavian moms struggle with the same hormonal roller coasters, sleepless nights, blown-out diapers, and bouts with postpartum depression as their American counterparts. But having a stable income without the pressure of going back to work soon after the birth undoubtedly softens the transition to parenthood and gives Scandinavian parents a chance to bond with their baby at a crucial time of their development.
In the US, I discover that mothers—and fathers, too, for that matter—don’t have these luxuries, as labor laws grant very few rights to parents who want to stay home with their baby. Those who do usually have to do it on their own dime, as the US ranks at the bottom of all industrialized nations when it comes to parental leave, guaranteeing only twelve weeks off after the birth of a child. If you work for the government or a private company with more than fifty employees, that is. Only a little more than half of all American moms meet those criteria, and nearly a quarter of American moms go back to work just two weeks after giving birth. Forget about pay, unless you work for an unusually generous employer.
Considering the limitations of maternity leave in the US, it’s not a big surprise that I have trouble connecting with other moms after Maya is born. Most of them are probably at work. And those who aren’t don’t seem to think that late winter is a good time to socialize. At least not outside. I see no other strollers during my daily walks. The park, where I would’ve expected to find at least a few mothers or babysitters, is deserted and the gate to the main entrance locked. “I wish it was summer so my
baby and I could go for walks,” a fellow mom tells me when she and her son come over to our house for a visit. “When do you think it would be safe for me to take him outside?” I’m puzzled over the question, since I’ve never even considered it not safe to take Maya outside in the cold. Slowly, I’m beginning to understand that my perspective on parenting in some ways is vastly different from that of my American peers.
Until this point, I had felt, if not as American as a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, then at least like a pretty well assimilated citizen. To get there I had jumped through all the hoops, filled out all the required forms, taken the tests, and spent countless hours waiting with other hopeful foreigners in drably carpeted government rooms that felt like they had had their already dull life sucked out of them. Then, in 2008, I had finally become sworn in as a naturalized American. Sure, I still mispronounced English words like porcupine and adage every now and then, and I’d probably never fully grasp the fine print of my American health insurance policy, but overall I had adjusted well to life in my new home country. Even though there were many things I missed about Sweden—seeing my family only about once a year was the hardest part—I was excited about becoming a full citizen, with all the rights and responsibilities that it entailed.
The naturalization certificate should have made me feel more American than ever. Ironically, the opposite happened, because that same year I also became a parent. I think most moms and dads have an idea of what they want for their children, based on their own upbringing. 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 in cultural norms, and our children in a way become an extension of ourselves. We try to re-create the good experiences and eliminate the bad ones, giving our chil
dren the best childhoods we can feasibly offer them. This is true of most American as well as Scandinavian parents; we just have different ways of getting there. This soon became obvious to me in many ways.
When Maya is about two months old, I gradually start working from home again. Luckily, she’s a good napper. But as she approaches the six-month mark it gets increasingly hard for me to get work done, and I sometimes need to travel for interviews and work-related events. It’s time to get a part-time babysitter. As is often the case in small towns, childcare is mainly provided by relatives, churches, or stay-at-home moms who are looking to make a little extra money. There are also a few larger in-home day cares run by older women with grown children. After some searching and asking around, I find a sweet young woman who has a son Maya’s age. She and her husband have recently moved to town and she’s planning to watch only a few children to make a little extra grocery money. The house that they rent is small but clean, and adjoining it is a large fenced-in backyard where I envision Maya tumbling around with her new little friends. Perfect.
It doesn’t take long before I realize that while Scandinavian parents obsess over their kids getting outside to play every day, this is not necessarily the cultural norm here. Maya is not getting out nearly as much as I had hoped; instead, she seems to be spending her days mostly watching TV. When winter rolls around, outdoor playtime grinds to a total halt. Granted, this is not completely the babysitter’s fault: A lot of times the other kids in the group arrive in the morning with no jacket and wearing only thin sneakers, which are not really conducive to rolling around in the snow or stomping in mud. The parents clearly had no expectation of them going outside and dressed them accordingly. Playing outside in the winter, I figure, must not be a thing here.
To cure my guilt for Maya’s lack of outdoor playtime at day
care, I take her for hikes and walks as often as I can. When she is almost a year old, I’m walking her to the sitter’s house on a beautiful but cold winter day when a white SUV pulls up next to us and a woman who looks to be in her fifties rolls down the window and pops out her head. “Do you need a ride, hon? It’s really cold out there,” she says. I thank her for the offer but politely decline. “We’re both well bundled up and I enjoy the fresh air,” I tell her. “Are you sure?” she says, looking genuinely alarmed. She drives off with a puzzled look on her face, and I can tell that the idea that I would voluntarily take my daughter for a walk in fifteen-degree weather (−9°C) is beyond her. I’m equally surprised that a complete stranger would offer a ride to me, my baby, a decent-size stroller, and one ginormous diaper bag. Getting that kind of mess into my own car seemed like hard work a lot of the time. As it turns out, this will not be the last time a friendly Midwesterner takes pity on me.
When Maya is three years old and the locals are finally starting to get used to my entourage, her little sister, Nora, is born. Getting around town on foot with a new baby in the mix takes some ingenuity. I order a stroller board—a platform with wheels that attaches to the back of the stroller—which allows Maya to ride behind her sister either standing or sitting while Nora is lying in the stroller. Once again, in Sweden this is not an uncommon way for parents to get around with multiple children, but here it’s a surefire way of flying your freak flag. With the two dogs in one hand and the stroller in the other, I don’t just cause people to turn their heads. They roll down their car windows and tell me they wish they had their camera. One morning, a woman walking a small dog on the other side of the street actually pulls out her cell phone and snaps a picture of us, as if we were an exotic exhibit at the zoo.
That fall, Maya starts preschool and I get a chance to meet
some more parents. At the school’s Thanksgiving party, I’m chatting with some other moms, when the grandmother of one of Maya’s classmates approaches me. She’s one of the involved grandmothers, one who regularly drops off and picks up her grandson, Alex, from school, keeps tabs on the other kids, and always shows up to every class party. “I’ve been thinking about you,” she says sympathetically. “Really?” I say, puzzled. I can’t think of a single reason why this woman, whom I have talked to only a couple of times, would be thinking of me. I haven’t been thinking of her. In all honesty, I can’t even remember her name. “I’ve seen you walking in the cold,” she says. “I wish I could offer you a ride, but Alex’s mother never lets me know until the last minute whether she wants me to take him to school.” I still don’t know where she’s going with this, or why she thinks I would want or need a ride, but I explain that I live only half a mile from the school and don’t mind the walk. “Well, I still wish there was something I could do to help,” she says. I nod, smile politely, and change the subject. Not until I get home does it dawn on me that she probably thinks I don’t own a car and have no choice but to walk in the cold.
The Outdoor Recess That Wasn’t
Unstructured nature play is not just key to raising children who will care about nature—it’s also essential to their personal health. The World Health Organization calls childhood obesity “one of the most serious public health challenges of the twenty-first 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. As my daughters’ pediatrician,
Dr. Sean Sharma, puts it: “A generation ago, there were maybe one or two overweight or obese children in a class of twenty. Today, being overweight is so common that the normal kids sometimes are the ones that stand out. Our expectations have changed: Overweight is the new normal.”
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that childhood obesity has almost tripled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past thirty years. In 1980, approximately 7 percent of American children age six to eleven years were obese; in 2012, that number was nearly 18 percent. Among adolescents age twelve to nineteen years, the obesity rate increased from 5 percent to nearly 21 percent in the same period. When you include figures for those who are simply overweight as well, more than one-third of American children are considered overweight or obese. That means children in the US are nearly six times more likely to be obese and nearly twice as likely to be overweight as children in Sweden. Similarly, approximately 11 percent of American children between the ages of four and seventeen have been diagnosed with ADHD, whereas only 3 to 6 percent of school-age children in Sweden are estimated to meet the criteria for the disorder. Although the number of ADHD diagnoses has increased in Sweden in the past few years, too, the incidence is well below the US trend. When combined with children on the autism spectrum, as many as one in six American children have a developmental disability, representing a 17 percent increase between 1997 and 2008, according to a 2011 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meanwhile, a 2009 study showed that the prevalence of myopia, or nearsightedness, increased from 25 percent in 1971–72 to nearly 42 percent in 1999–2004. The fact that children spend more time indoors is believed to be the main culprit behind this increase. Sensory issues are on the rise
as well, with more young children than ever before needing occupational therapy, speech therapy, and physical therapy, even at the preschool level.
Outdoor play can help combat childhood obesity as well as sensory issues and myopia, and many studies have shown that spending time in nature improves ADHD symptoms. Even so, it seemed to me like the deck was stacked against outdoor play in many parts of the US. With no uniform rules guiding outdoor play at day cares and no cultural norms calling for it, I noticed that toddlers and preschoolers were more likely to spend their days watching TV or trying to get to the next level of Candy Crush Saga on their handheld electronic devices than connecting with nature. Over and over, I saw infants strapped into their car seats parked right in front of a TV, their inquisitive gazes and developing minds feeding on an unending string of cartoons and commercials. Older children didn’t seem to fare much better, as recess, a source of outdoor play that I had taken for granted, was far from guaranteed in American schools. With this in mind, I’m relieved to hear that Maya will at least get two fifteen-minute recess periods every day when she starts kindergarten, which is a pretty intense, all-day affair in Indiana. At least she’ll get them through second grade. And as long as the weather is nice. On paper the students are supposed to have recess outside if the temperature is above twenty degrees (−6.6°C) with wind chill. In reality, however, I find that there are many exceptions to the rule and that the arrival of winter is seen less as an invitation to go outside and make snow angels and more as a signal to bring out the iPads. Weather isn’t even the only factor affecting recess: I’m surprised to learn that it can also be withheld as a disciplinary tool to penalize individual students or an entire class for things like talking during lunch or not listening to the teacher. Similar offenses can also be punished by making the
children spend the first part of recess standing still on a yellow line on the blacktop. The first time it happens I brush it off, thinking that maybe Maya misunderstood the situation. But as it turns out, it won’t be the last.
These types of restrictions on outdoor play are far from unique for Maya’s school. In fact, recess seems to be under attack across the US. In 1989, according to one survey, 96 percent of all elementary schools in the US offered recess every day, but this has changed drastically over the past twenty-five years as many school districts have cut it or eliminated it altogether. Today only 40 percent of American school systems even have an explicit recess policy, and minorities and children living in poverty are less likely to have recess than white students and those living above the poverty line.
It doesn’t take long before Maya starts complaining about not getting outside during the school day. The transition from preschool to full-day kindergarten has been rough anyway, and often she falls apart in the car on the way home, exhausted. Indoor recess is not helping. “I don’t like being inside all day. It’s boring,” she tells me one day. And then, even more crushing, “I hate school.”
When I bring up the subject of the lack of recess with a couple of the teachers, I learn that it’s hard on some of them too. “We try to get out most days unless it’s too cold or rainy,” one of them says. “But sometimes we don’t go outside for a week and it’s awful, because the kids have all this pent-up energy. We don’t have any space for them inside, so we usually just end up showing them a movie.” Another problem, they tell me, is that children occasionally show up to school without appropriate outdoor clothes. The school tries to provide gloves and hats for those who need them, but sometimes kids show up without even jackets.
To my surprise, the teachers tell me that parents’ attitudes
toward outdoor recess also seem to have changed over the years. “Parents give the teachers grief if they send the kids out in the cold,” one of them says. “We’ve got some parents lining up on the street to pick up their kids early, and if they see us out on the playground when it’s drizzling, they’ll call the office and demand that we bring the kids inside. We’ve had parents call and tell us to bring them inside just because there were dark clouds in the sky.”
This parental anxiety in turn fuels schools’ fear of lawsuits. What if Johnny slips on the ice or Lisa freezes her fingers while playing on the monkey bars in the cold? Better safe than sorry. And the safest option of all seems to be to keep them inside, playing computer games. I’m not surprised to hear that some children hardly know how to play outside anymore. “They don’t even know how to play Red Rover; that’s what we used to play all the time,” one teacher tells me. “One day I thought I would teach them, but I was pulled aside by somebody else who told me, ‘You know they’re not supposed to play that anymore, right?’ Apparently somebody broke their arm, so now nobody is allowed to do it.”
Games that involve balls, snow, or ice are even more likely to be restricted. Forget snowball fights, King of the Mountain, and sliding on frozen puddles of water—these activities have all been banned in the name of safety. This leaves the teachers in a tough spot. “I hate when it snows, because all I have to do is run around and tell the kids what they can’t do,” says one veteran teacher. When I ask her if the kids are allowed to play on the ice, she laughs, but it’s a sarcastic laughter. “Ice? Well, a kid fell on the ice and hit his head. He got a little goose egg and had to go to the nurse. Now the kids can’t play on the ice anymore. It’s all about safety.”
My talks with Maya’s school regarding recess go nowhere, so instead I take my effort to promote outdoor play and learn
ing to the Parent Teacher Organization, or PTO. Outdoor classrooms are just starting to become popular, and at one of the meetings I share my vision for a space where the students can learn hands-on in a natural setting. Imagine a butterfly garden! A reading nook! Stepping-stones! A building area! The responses from the other parents range from silence and mild skepticism to implicit opposition. The principal, however, is cautiously supportive, and I do find an ally among the teachers, who loves the idea. Over the next school year, I launch into full gear. I survey the teachers, bring in a designer, and work on cost estimates. The survey shows that a slim majority of the teachers like the idea, but many share the same main concern: How would they possibly fit teaching outdoors into their already packed schedules? “I believe an outdoor classroom would benefit children in all areas,” writes one teacher, “but I don’t see our requirements getting decreased, so I can’t imagine when we would use it.”
The principal puts together a committee of three teachers tasked with developing a plan for an outdoor classroom at a grassy lot on the north side of the school. But the idea never gains momentum and eventually the whole project peters out. At one of the last PTO meetings of the year, two parents suggest that, instead of creating an outdoor classroom, the school pave the grassy lot over and turn it into a parking lot. When I run into a fellow PTO member a few weeks later, she tells me that the group ultimately decided to spend that year’s funds on electronics. “We ended up buying a set of Chromebooks for the second graders. They will be on a cart, so the first graders and kindergartners will be able to use them too,” she says. I must have looked disappointed, because then she shrugs and adds, as if to explain, “These are the times we live in, you know.”
DRESS FOR OUTDOOR SUCCESS
A comfortable child can play outside for hours, so high-quality outdoor gear and play clothes are well worth the money. If the clothes are durable, chances are they can also be handed down to younger siblings.
Any advice about dressing children for the outdoors naturally depends on what they will be doing and where. For example, going on a long hike in the mountains or participating in other strenuous activities away from home requires more attention to layering than playing in the backyard. The child’s age also matters, since young children move around less and get cold more easily. Keep in mind that weather conditions can change quickly in some areas, and always bring some backup clothes for longer outings.
What to look for in outdoor gear and play clothes for children in general:
• Protects against the elements (wind, sun, moisture, cold temperatures, etc.)
• Stands up to wear and tear
• Easy to put on and take off
• Loose-fitting enough to allow for range of motion while playing
Layering clothes is key to keeping children warm in cold temperatures.
• The first layer, or the base layer, regulates the child’s temperature and keeps him dry. This layer usually fits snugly. Long underwear made from merino wool, synthetic fibers,
or a blend of both works best closest to the body, since these materials move perspiration away from the body. Cotton, on the other hand, soaks up moisture and leaves the child feeling wet and cold.
• The mid-layer insulates the body by trapping body heat in pockets of air in the fabric. This layer can be made of either natural or synthetic fibers and can, for example, consist of a fleece jacket and pants or a sweatshirt and sweatpants.
• The outer layer should be waterproof, windproof, and breathable. This layer also needs to stand up to some wear and tear and is typically made of polyamide or nylon, preferably with reinforced high-impact areas like knees and bottom. For the youngest children, one-piece coveralls are usually the best choice, since they are easy to put on and prevent snow from creeping in. Underfoot straps help keep the coveralls/snow pants in place, and reflective trim or a high-visibility vest are a must for outdoor adventures after dark. Combine with snow boots or fleece-lined rain boots, as well as waterproof mittens with long cuffs, and a hat.
Spring and Fall
The same layering principles apply as for winter, but with lighter or fewer layers.
• For rainy days, the Scandinavian-style heavy-duty rain gear sometimes seen at forest schools in the US is the ultimate outer layer. Typically sold as a set consisting of overalls (bib pants) and a jacket, and made of polyester and polyurethane blends, these garments do a great job of keeping
wind and rain out. Layer them with a fleece jacket in cooler temperatures and combine them with a pair of rugged rain boots for endless fun in puddles of mud.
• For dry days, use regular, breathable shell pants and a windbreaker for the outer layer. Even if the temperature doesn’t call for shell pants, they save your child’s regular clothes from getting stained and torn.
Make a mental breakdown of your child’s wardrobe into “playclothes” and “school clothes” to avoid stressing over damage wrought by messy outdoor play. Hand-me-downs, yard sale finds, and older clothes with holes or stains that won’t come out make excellent candidates for playclothes.
• In cool, wet weather, layer with rain gear as needed.
• In sunny weather, a sun hat with a strap under the chin and thin, long-sleeved UV clothing help protect the child from the sun.
• Shoes are optional!
The Scandinavian zest for fresh air is maybe best summed up by the word for “outdoor recreation” in Swedish and Norwegian—friluftsliv. The term was first used in print by famed Norwegian playwright and poet Henrik Ibsen in 1859, and describes a culture and a way of life that heavily revolve around exploring and enjoying nature. Friluftsliv can encompass anything from skiing and hiking to berry picking and fishing, or be as simple as going
for a nature walk or bike ride near one’s home. In Sweden, friluftsliv is generally defined as “physical activity outdoors to get a change of scenery and experience nature, with no pressure to achieve or compete.”
To a great extent, friluftsliv is made possible by the Swedish common law of allemansrätten (the right of public access), which grants anybody the right to walk, ride a bike or horse, ski, pick berries, or camp anywhere on private land, except for the part that immediately surrounds a private dwelling. In short, that means you can pick mushrooms and flowers, as well as light a campfire and pitch a tent, in somebody else’s woods, but not right in front of their house unless you have permission. You can also walk through cattle pastures and other farm fields as long as you make sure to close all gates and don’t damage any crops. Unlike in the US, where private property rights are king, and land use tends to be ruled by the risk for potential lawsuits and the premise that if something can go wrong it probably will, allemansrätten relies on an honor system that can simply be summed up with the phrase “Do not disturb, do not destroy,” and trusts that people will use their common sense. What may sound like an impossible free-for-all works amazingly well, with little to no visible littering or destruction in natural areas. The law democratizes outdoor recreation and means generations of Scandinavians have come to view access to nature not only as an inalienable right that is protected by the constitution but also as very much a shared responsibility.
Some even suggest that nature fills the void left by the decline of organized religion in Sweden, which is now one of the most secular countries in the world. “Nature has become the ultimate point of reference,” says Carl Reinhold Bråkenhielm, a theology professor at Uppsala University, to Svenska Dagbladet, one of the biggest Swedish daily newspapers. “When traditional
faith is waning we search for something else to relate to. We need something to create narratives and gather strength from.” In what could be interpreted as a move to adapt to the new order, some churches occasionally congregate under the sprawling tree canopies in a forest, with the churchgoers taking in the word of God sitting on blankets on the moss-covered ground.
When the Swedish psychiatrist and author Nils Uddenberg surveyed his countrymen’s attitudes toward nature for his 1995 book Det stora sammanhanget (which roughly translates to The Big Connection), as many as 96 percent of them expressed an actual need for being in nature. But when asked why, they often provided vague answers, just referring to nature as “beautiful” or “relaxing.” “Asking [Swedes] why they like to be outdoors is like asking them why they want to have children; they are forced to find motivation for something that is so obvious to them that they have never given it a second thought,” Uddenberg writes. American researcher Louise Chawla made a similar discovery when she compared the backgrounds of environmental activists in Kentucky and Norway. She found that more of the Americans attributed their activism to positive childhood memories of experiences in the natural world, but only because several of the Norwegians weren’t sure whether the outdoor activities they had taken part of as children—skiing and hiking in the woods, for example—really counted. After all, they reasoned, that didn’t set them apart from anybody else. They were “just being Norwegian.”
Considering the popularity of outdoor recreation in the region, it comes as no surprise that Scandinavians are nearly unanimous in their support for environmental protection. In the 2007 Eurobarometer public opinion survey, a staggering 98 percent of the Swedish respondents—more than in any other country—declared that it is their responsibility to protect the environment, even if it means putting limits on human development. Denmark
and Norway were close behind. As a result, Scandinavia is often cited as a world leader when it comes to air and water quality, cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, and overall sustainability. For example, Denmark is a leading producer of renewable energy and environmentally friendly housing; Sweden recycles more than 99 percent of its household waste and is a primary exporter of “green” technology; and Norway was one of the first countries in the world to adopt a carbon tax.
From clean water, zero-waste policies, and green energy the leap to parenting may seem big, but, as Sobel and Chawla have pointed out, it all starts by forming a bond with nature in childhood. And the Scandinavians are experts at it.
A Crime at a Creek
On a hot and sticky Memorial Day afternoon, when Maya is seven and Nora four, I finally make a mistake at a local nature preserve that leaves me wondering if, after twelve years of living in the US, I will ever fit in.
The preserve is just a ten-minute drive from our house, near a small, unincorporated community that, in its heyday from the 1850s until the Great Depression, was a bustling trade hub thanks to its location by the Wabash and Erie Canal. The raucous hotels and taverns that used to accommodate weary travelers on the canal are long gone, and today only a church, a few scattered houses, and a smattering of dilapidated mobile homes remain in the area. If you take a deep enough breath when you drive into town, you’ll exit it on your exhale. Unless, of course, you turn onto the dusty gravel road that leads to the nature preserve on the outskirts of the community. The lush woods in the small preserve are home to many of the common Midwestern tree species—hickory,
sugar maple, black walnut, oak—as well as some white pines and an abundance of wildflowers. Meandering through it all is a shallow stream that flows to the northwest and eventually feeds into the Wabash River. Over time, the creek has carved deep ravines through the Pennsylvania sandstone that rises from the earth along its banks, creating dramatic ninety-foot drop-offs and jagged talus slopes. In one spot a tributary has whittled an archlike hole through the stratified auburn and ocher rocks by undercutting the sandstone bluff on both sides. The unique rock feature gave the area its name and remains its main attraction. During the canal era what is now a preserve was a popular resort with a park, dances, log cabins, and a dam with a water wheel and dynamo to power it all. A deteriorating concrete base from the dam still stands by the creek, now a giant gray leaf trap that pays quiet homage to busier days.
Among living locals the area is mostly known from the time it was a Boy Scout camp, from 1938 to 1966. Back then, kids would camp, swim, and create some of their most vivid childhood memories here until, tragically, a boy accidentally fell off the cliffs and died. The Boy Scouts eventually sold the property, and it was dedicated a nature preserve in 1972. Today it’s owned and managed by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Division of Nature Preserves. It’s also one of the best-kept secrets of western Indiana. Aside from the presence of some local dog walkers, a few camera-toting out-of-towners, and the occasional college students working on a science project, the preserve is usually quiet. Ten visitors in a day would be considered a crowd. To me, it had been an oasis for nearly a decade, a tiny island of reclaimed wilderness in a verdant ocean of corn and soybean fields. I had come here in the dead cold of winter and the sticky height of summer, on foggy fall days and in the wake of heavy spring rains. I had continued to hike both the north
and south trails throughout my first pregnancy; then I’d come back with an infant strapped to my chest. By the time Maya was two she could hike the rugged north loop unaided. The following year her new baby sister, Nora, joined us on the trail, tightly bound to my chest. Here, they slowly evolved from babies and toddlers to pint-size hikers.
On this Memorial Day, only a few other families have signed the logbook before us as we start trekking down toward the arch. When we get to the creek, the girls do what they have done several times before—they strip down to their underwear and jump into the foot-deep, slow-moving water. As I sit down on a log to watch them, the sun breaks through the clouds and a few stray rays dance on the rippling water while the girls giggle and play and get into a few friendly mud fights. After about half an hour they get out and dry off, and we start heading back to the car.
Maya gets back to the parking lot first, since I’m waiting for Nora to climb a rock. When I get there, I see a brown SUV emblazoned with the IDNR logo, and a uniformed officer. Then Maya comes running toward me. “Mom, there’s a policeman here who says we can’t swim in the creek,” she says. “Why, Mommy?” Thinking that she’s misunderstood the situation, I walk to my car and get ready to leave. But as it turns out, the officer, a blond guy who looks to be in his mid-twenties, has not only just told my daughter that swimming is not allowed in the creek. He’s also decided that we need a lesson.
“I’m going to let you off easy this time. It may not seem like it, but I really am,” he says when he comes back from his vehicle with some paperwork. He explains that rather than adding additional citations for all of us for getting off the trail and “disturbing wildlife,” he’s only going to fine us for violating section 312 IAC 8-2-9 of the Indiana Administrative Code—for “swimming in an unauthorized area.”
“The only thing you’re
allowed to do here is walk on the trail. That’s it,” he says.
As I’m standing in the preserve’s parking lot with my daughters tugging on my shorts, anxiously wondering why I’m being accosted by an officer, my heart sinks as if it were weighted down by a pile of serrated Pennsylvania sandstone. If walking on the trail is the only thing allowed at this preserve, they may as well put up a children not welcome sign at the entrance. It suddenly dawns on me that I’ve probably unintentionally broken several of the preserve’s rules over the years just by allowing my children to play freely here.
“There was another family downstream from you and I’m going to give them a ticket when they come back too,” the officer says, as if this is supposed to make us feel better. “We have these rules to keep you safe. There are some loose rocks and the creek is a health hazard. Manure from the farms upstream gets in the creek and the kids can get infected with E. coli.”
I stare at the pink ticket in disbelief, then buckle up the kids and go home. We have a month to pay our fine of $123.50, and a court date in case we want to fight the charge.
Over the next few weeks, I went through something akin to a mourning process. At first, there was denial. How could this possibly happen to me? After all, I was known as the town’s local environmentalist and resident health nut, who had helped start a farmers’ market, organized litter pickups, promoted recycling, and done Earth Day presentations at the elementary school. I had grown organic vegetables in our backyard to connect my kids with their food and had tried to persuade my daughter’s preschool to switch to eco-friendly cleaning products. My “crunchy”-parent credentials were solid. Yet now I stood accused of the bizarre crime of harming nature by letting my children wade in an agricultural cesspool.
Then came anger. Why this double standard? If the creek was full of agricultural waste, wouldn’t it be more productive for the state to track down and stop the source of the contamination instead of treating a hiking family like a weapon of mass environmental destruction? And if the state was truly trying to protect us, wouldn’t some sort of information about the contamination and other possible hazards have been more useful than a fine? (The fact that the shallow creek was barely moving and that nobody in our family to date had come down with a case of explosive diarrhea told me that it was probably reasonably safe.)
I bargained. If only I had showed the officer the empty Styrofoam cups and plastic bottles that I had picked up along the trail that day, he would’ve understood that we were really on the same team. If only he had known about the box turtle that my daughter had helped across the road on our way there, maybe things would have gone in a different direction.
Then I was engulfed in sadness. This was more or less the only public nature area available to us within a forty-minute drive, and I knew that it would never be the same to me again. Frankly, I wasn’t sure we’d ever want to come back.
In an attempt to make sense of it all, I wrote about our run-in with the law on my blog. The post quickly went viral and set off a firestorm of comments, shares, and discussions about children’s access to nature versus the need to protect it. Clearly, I had struck a nerve. Stories started to trickle in, from both locals and people across the country. “I hope my grandsons will get to see the beauty [of the preserve] before someone decides we can’t visit it,” wrote Terry, who used to camp there in his youth.
The majority of the locals sided with me and told me they let their children or grandchildren do the same thing. This of course didn’t make it legal, but it told me that I wasn’t completely off base for thinking that it was. One woman shared her frustration
over being fined for having a picnic at the preserve; another told me she wouldn’t take her kids back there after learning about my experience. And, unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long before I started receiving unsolicited legal advice from complete strangers, encouraging me to sue the IDNR for failing to warn the public of the contamination of the creek and, furthermore, to file a harassment complaint against the officer for basically ruining my day.
Other commenters were less sympathetic.
Of all the things I was accused of (stirring up sediment from the bottom of the creek, potentially destroying a raccoon’s nest on our way to the water, endangering my children’s health, setting a bad example, having an inflated sense of entitlement, complaining over first-world problems, etc.), what hurt the most was that some people thought that I, through my actions at the preserve that day, had earned myself an honorary membership in the American Association of Bad Parenting.
For some readers, the million-dollar question was whether the swimming ban was posted at the preserve. The answer was more complicated than a simple yes or no. The brown metal sign at the entrance does not say anything about staying out of the creek. It does say to stay on marked trails only, but there are several well-trodden trails leading down to the water and nothing posted on any of them indicating that they are off-limits. Whether we had left the official trail or not didn’t even matter, because the minute my daughters’ toes hit the water, we had violated a state code that makes it illegal to wade or swim in any public waterway unless it’s a “designated swimming beach or pool,” or it’s done from a boat. Even then, the permission comes with a litany of restrictions. The take-home message of the code seemed to be that unless wading and swimming is explicitly allowed, the presumption is that it is prohibited. Whether this was clear or not, and whether the state should have posted in
formation regarding the alleged contamination of the creek, is something that two overpriced lawyers could probably debate in court until the end of time.
All potential legal wrangling aside, to me the question was not mainly whether the rule was posted or not; I couldn’t wrap my mind around why it existed in the first place. The idea that we were damaging or disturbing anything that day wasn’t even on my radar. In Sweden, where you can leave the trail, have picnics, pick flowers, forage for mushrooms, and swim your heart out almost anywhere, including at nature preserves, the idea that children playing in a creek would be considered a crime or a threat to the environment is unheard-of. Different place, different rules. I got that. But the Swedish approach also told me that there is more than one way to go about conservation.
As far as the contamination goes, the IDNR’s own trail guide describes the creek at the preserve as a “very clean stream, nearly pollution free.” But when I called the Division of Nature Preserves I was once again told that it’s full of fertilizer runoff and agricultural waste. We will never know for sure, however, since I was also told that the state lacks the funding to test the water, let alone clean it up.
Regardless, what happened that day was more than the story of an overzealous conservation officer and my injured sense of pride. The reactions to my story from across the country made me realize that I wasn’t the only one who felt like outdoor play, which research has confirmed is essential to children’s physical and mental health, had come under attack. “My son was once yelled at for trying to skip rocks into a river because he ‘might harm macroinvertebrates,’” said Laura, one of my readers. Heather from New York chimed in with, “Sadly, something that was once normal is now incredibly regulated, due to liability, or simply as a means to make money.”
many parents and people in authority have embraced rules that their own parents would have scoffed at,” said Michael Lanza, author of Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks, in response to our incident. “Unless we push back against this trend, we risk raising a generation of children who don’t value outdoor time or even preserving places like this, where kids can’t even play in a creek.”
In some ways, our incident at the preserve symbolized a larger, national narrative, first depicted by Richard Louv in his best-selling book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. It’s a story that I’ve heard many times from Americans who are my age or older. The time and settings vary, but it always goes something like this: “When we were little we were out in the woods all the time, setting up forts, splashing in the water, using our imaginations. Mom kicked us out in the morning and we wouldn’t go back inside until the streetlights came on.”
There has been a shift from a time when playing outside at school and at home was the norm and young children, like the Boy Scouts who used to camp at this preserve, still learned valuable outdoor skills, to a time when many children’s only contact with the wild is through guided tours at air-conditioned nature centers. Any meaningful interactions with nature in many public parks and preserves are now forbidden—look, don’t touch!—and most private landowners would probably rather invite a leper for dinner than have unsupervised children playing on their property. Causing this shift were the usual suspects: electronic-media bingeing, frivolous litigation, overscheduling, standardized testing, and parents’ fear of strangers, traffic, and nature itself.
The last phase of mourning is acceptance. For a while I considered fighting the charge, but then I decided to let it go and
pay the fine. The rules are the rules are the rules, and I had unwittingly broken them. When I talked to John Bacone, director of the IDNR’s Division of Nature Preserves, about my experience, to my surprise I found that we essentially agreed on the problem. “Kids don’t play outside like they used to,” he lamented. “We need to get them out there again so they don’t just stay inside and play video games.”
But how? For seven years I had fought to keep my daughters as connected to nature as possible in a culture that didn’t seem to value outdoor play. The creek incident was just the straw that finally broke the possum’s back. I was starting to question whether it was at all possible for my daughters to have a childhood anything like my own.
Unless I took them to my native Sweden.
Scandinavian Parenting Tip #1
Prioritize daily outdoor time from when your child is a baby to make it a natural part of your routine from the get-go. Remember that not every nature experience must entail a grand adventure to a scenic national park—watching a caterpillar make its way across a sidewalk or simply lying in the grass and watching the clouds go by in the backyard can be a great adventure to a small child. Celebrate these everyday nature experiences together, and come back to the same places often to make sure your child forms a bond with your community and its natural areas.
Suggested reading: Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, by Richard Louv. Algonquin Books, 2008.