How Scandinavia’s forest preschools boost children’s health and confidence

At some of Scandinavia's special outdoor preschools, children play outside and nap outside, even in freezing temperatures.

How Scandinavia's forest preschools boost children's health and confidence
Children from the Ur och Skur preschool are pictured as they eat a sausage stew for lunch in Järvastaden, Solna, Sweden. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP

Come rain, sleet or snow, young children nap outside even in mid-winter all across Scandinavia, where outdoor preschools teach children a love of nature.

Sitting in the forest on a tarp laid out over the snow in Solna near Stockholm, Agnes and her friends – all around five – are lining up sticks.

“We use pieces of wood to show them that you can use anything you find in nature to do maths,” said their preschool teacher Lisa Byström.

In a scene that would shock some parents elsewhere, the children whittle sticks with large knives, their teachers seemingly unperturbed.

“Once they get to school, they will sit down with a piece of paper and a pencil but here we think this is more fun,” Byström said.

A child uses a knife to carve a piece of wood through the process of whittling, part of the preschool outdoor activities in Järvastaden. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP

In Sweden and Denmark, school is mandatory from the age of six. But before that most children attend daycare or preschool, with many parents opting for outdoor ones where children play in the woods and learn to appreciate nature.

“Technology today takes over most (things), so I think it’s necessary to be in nature from a young age to learn how to behave and to respect nature,” said Andreas Pegado, one of the educators whose daughter also attends the preschool.

Every day, the little ones eat lunch seated on wooden benches around a wood fire – unless heavy rain forces them indoors.

After their meal, kids that are two and under settle down for a nap, bundled into sleeping bags under a canopy – even when the temperature falls below zero.

Children from the Ur och Skur preschool are prepared for their daily outdoor nap time. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP

“They get a lot of fresh air, (so) they sleep longer, they sleep better,” said Johanna Karlsson, the head of the Ur & Skur (“Come Rain or Shine”) preschool, unbothered by the day’s temperature of 5C.

‘Forest buses’

In neighbouring Denmark, many preschools use “forest buses” to bring “asphalt kids” to nature areas.

Every day, a group from the Stenurten preschool – one of 78 Copenhagen preschools that offer daily excursions like this – leaves the Nørrebro neighbourhood in the city centre on a 30-minute bus ride to the forest.

A little wooden house provides shelter if necessary, and a large field leads to the forest where the kids can run free.

In the open air, the educators can vary their pedagogical approaches and develop the children’s independence.’

“Their curiosity is a bit different here,” said Iben Øhrgaard, one of the preschool staff.

Snowsuits for all

Everyone is kitted out in snowsuits, kids and adults alike. A popular Nordic saying goes: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.”

In this picture a boy rests at a forest camp on the outskirts of Ballerup, Denmark. Photo: Sergei Gapon/AFP

But is it really reasonable to stay outside all day, even when it’s -10C?

The educators all agree: young children who spend their days outside have better self-confidence and are sick less often.

In the 1920s, an Icelandic doctor recommended that babies sleep outdoors to strengthen their immune systems, a practice now common across the Nordic countries and which the medical community has never contradicted.

A study published in 2018 in the British Educational Research Journal suggested that outdoor preschools improve children’s team working skills by encouraging kids to collaborate through play, among other things.

Children board a bus at a forest camp on the outskirts of Ballerup, Denmark. Photo: Sergei Gapon/AFP

Outdoors “they try different solutions themselves”, said Øhrgaard, helping limit conflicts.

“If they climb a bit too high in a tree, they know there are adults there. But they try a little more themselves. And they grow up with the feeling that ‘I can do it’,” she explained.

“That gives them the strength to try once more before asking for help.”

For parents, the days spent outdoors are a “gift”.

“When you live in the city, in the capital Copenhagen, there’s not really any nature. It’s an enormous gift for the kids,” said Line Folkhammar, mother of five-year-old Georg.

And the added bonus for parents? “He comes home tired,” she said with a laugh.

Article by AFP’s Viken Kantarci in Solna and Camille Bas-Wohlert in Ballerup.

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How to dress your child up as a Swedish Easter Witch

Help! I've received a note from our Swedish school telling me to dress my child up for their Easter party. What should they wear?

How to dress your child up as a Swedish Easter Witch

Anything vaguely Easter-related will do, such as bunny ears, a sweater with a bunny print, a chicken costume, or wearing all yellow will do – but the classic outfit, at least for girls, is to dress up as an Easter witch (known as påskhäxa, påskkärring or påskgumma in Swedish).

Folklore alleges that witches flew off on broomsticks to dance with the devil at a meadow known as Blåkulla (“blue hill”), which Swedish parents are seemingly unfazed about their kids re-enacting.

In most of Sweden, Maundy Thursday (skärtorsdag) is the traditional day on which to dress up as an Easter Witch (it’s Easter Saturday in western Sweden) but in practice you often spot children with painted faces, headscarves and broomsticks throughout the holiday.

So what do you need to dress up as an Easter Witch?

In our experience, parents’ efforts range without abandon from the ambitious to the half-hearted, so you shouldn’t have to feel that you have to go further than what you and your child think is fun and manageable.

For a minimum viable product, all you need is a kerchief, scarf or shawl to wear on the head.

Tie it under their chin and they will be immediately recognisable as an Easter Witch.

This use of the headscarf in Sweden can be traced back to the late 18th century, when it was worn by farmers’ wives.

Another relatively easy item to include is an apron. Similarly, this harks back to the notion of what a rural woman usually looked like, which is also associated with witch trials in Sweden in the 1600s (which tended to be held in the countryside).

Thirdly, for a basic Easter Witch outfit, makeup in the form of freckles and rosy cheeks.

If you want to step up your level of ambition, you can also include accessories. These include first and foremost a broomstick, but also an old-fashioned coffee pot (not even dancing with the devil can make Swedes forsake their coffee) and a soft cat toy, ideally black.

Can boys be Easter Witches? Of course they can, and in any case it would hardly stand out as the most peculiar thing about this tradition.

That said, in practice you’ll see few boys, if any, in the full Easter Witch outfit. The more modern equivalent for boys instead often includes a shirt, braces/suspenders, freckles with a moustache (instead of or in addition to rosy cheeks), and some kind of hat.

Hear Jonas Engberg from the Nordic Museum in Stockholm discuss Easter traditions in Sweden, including witches, in The Local’s Sweden in Focus Extra podcast

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