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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‘They will treat you like their own child’: What it’s really like having Danish in-laws

Having a Danish partner naturally means you'll integrated into their family life too, which can be particularly challenging for foreigners. Our readers share their insights and experiences of having Danish in-laws.

'They will treat you like their own child': What it's really like having Danish in-laws

Many of the readers who replied to the survey The Local published last week on foreigners’ experience of Danish in-laws seemed surprised at just how much time their Danish partner spent with their family. But all but a handful of respondents seemed to appreciate their adopted Danish families, even if family celebrations could sometimes get a bit much. 

“There are way more family ‘get-togethers’, with a lot more food and alcohol,” said Caz, a British citizen married to a Dane.

Jeanette, a British woman who moved to Denmark with her Danish husband, aged 52, agreed: “They meet up more often, they call and text a lot more often. They live closer together and spend more time with family than friends.”

Indeed, the near-obligatory events held by extended Danish families can be so frequent that Danes living abroad sometimes moved home just to save on travel costs, as the husband of  Ashley, a respondent from Canada, did. “It can keep them coming back several times a year if they live abroad, which was one of the reasons we chose to move to Denmark together.”

For some readers, meeting their partner’s families had transformed their idea of Danish culture. 

“Prior to coming to Denmark, I used to think that they were so individualistic,” said Chela, from the Philippines. “But now I think they express their love for their families in a different way. They value the individualism and independence of other family members, but they won’t hesitate to help when they’re in need. I have heard many stories from other Filipinos who married Danes about how good their relationships are with their in-laws and stepchildren.” 

Traditions and celebrations

Some Danish family celebrations, even for just a birthday, can also be so large as to be intimidating to some foreigners, with cousins, uncles and aunts all invited. 

One respondent, who is married to a Dane, said that the “big birthday celebrations” had for her been one of the most challenging things about moving to the country. 

“I am a shy person so I openly dread my birthday now,” she explained. “I know everyone means well and it’s tradition but it’s agony to someone not used to being centre of attention.” 

Alice, who is living with a Dane but has no children yet, agreed that the events could be “quite overwhelming and over-stimulating.”

“Their family is quite big compared to my family, so when there is a family event at their houses or venue, it’s very much packed,” she said. 

These events are also so hard to get out of that one foreigner complained it was impossible to celebrate Christmas or New Years’ Eve anywhere else or with anyone else.  

And it wasn’t only the amount of people that was was overwhelming, but the sheer amount of traditions, such as special birthday songs, dancing around the Christmas tree, activities for Fastelavn (Danish Mardi Gras), and bringing out the traditional Højskole and Efterskole songbooks for singing at family events. 

Danes can be so fixated on their own traditions, indeed, that some foreigners complained they had found themselves unable to celebrate their own traditions from back home. 

One foreigner complaining that when she hosted her own birthday party for herself, her mother-in-law had arrived with a large bag of mini Danish flags and a candle with the Danish flag on it. “God forbid we have one celebration without the Danish flag!”. 

It’s a rare Danish Christmas lunch that only has four family members at it, but woe betide the foreigner that tries to enforce their own traditions. Photo: Mikkel Heriba/Visit Denmark

Informal hanging out  

Danish families also like to spend time with one another without any single “central event”, reported Thomas, from France. Just coffee and sitting there, with everyone doing their own thing.”

Some respondents said they had initially struggled to adapt to the lack of such a strict division between hosts and guests, with all family members joining in to prepare food and do household chores. 

“Danish family members come over to your house and are at home doing things like helping with dishes, preparing food, and generally doing things together instead of “being hosted”, as it were,”  said Ashley, although she appreciated that there was always “plenty of banter”. 

Indeed, Thomas said that the traditional Danish ‘teasing’ seemed to function like a kind of entrance test. 

“Joking and teasing are ways to test your sense of humour and integrate you if you pass,” he said. “I’m French and My father-in-law served me Italian wine for the full first year just to to tease me!”

The downside of bonding over chores is that one foreigner, who gave no details about herself, felt there was never any ‘down time’ when she was with her Danish family. 

“They never relax, are always doing chores on the weekends, planning things months ahead, gardening, restoring the house,” she said. “It’s nice, but if you like to have peace and quiet, they don’t know how to do that and will often think you have a lazy attitude.”

Supportive but reserved

The same reader said she found her Danish partner’s family’s reluctant to discuss emotions. 

“If someone shares anything very personal such as disease or difficulty, they usually don’t comment too much on it, don’t give advice, and just answer with a “” or “for helvede”.

But she also reported that her Danish family had been supportive when she needed more practical help. 

“They are very sweet and attentive, my svigermor [“mother-in-law”] follows up on me often since she knew about the pregnancy, and she takes care of her granddaughter quite a lot for my boyfriend’s brother and family.” 

A Turkish woman said that while her Danish in-laws did not offer financial help in the way their Turkish equivalents might, they could be extremely thoughtful. “When I had a terrible period paid, my mother in law came with a warm pillow and medicine to ease my pain.”

Abi from Alaska said her in-laws had called her frequently when she had a fever. 

“If you’re on really good terms with the in-laws,” summed up Chela, from the Philippines, “they will really treat you like their own child.”