Wednesday, April 25, 2012

More musings on life in Helsinki...

With the nicer weather, we are spending more and more time at parks and playgrounds. 

kids on trike ride

Today, as I watched the many, many, MANY children playing in our neighborhood park, I started thinking about the benefits of this kind of unstructured, outdoor play for children. 

But let me back up just a bit.  Why are kids outside so much in the first place? 

My personal opinion is that being outdoors is a Finnish core value. Finns are great lovers of the outdoors--no matter what the weather. I mean, consider outer clothing for children (see blog posts here and here). It is designed to make it possible for children outside, get dirty and have fun.

Rob writes about recess for students in one of his latest blog posts. Joey and Sam have 2 -3 recesses each day.  Many of the kids I see at the playground are there with a preschool, kindergarten, daycare or grade school. When a daycare takes a group of kids to the playground, it isn't just a brief visit. Kids are there for a long period of time. They play in the sand. They play on the playground equipment. They sled in the winter. They run.  They climb.  Being outside is an important, substantial part of their day.

As I watch kids play, I can see many benefits of this kind of play.

First, kids here are very creative in their play. I think my kids are creative.  And, I am a park mom. I take my kids to playgrounds and open green space a lot--but they usually rely on ME to direct their fun:

-Sharks and minnows? I'm the shark.
-Hide and go seek? I'm the seeker.
-Just plain running around and playing on the equipment? "Mom, look at me. Mom watch what I can do. Mom, look how fast I can..."

But today, I watched several Finnish kids as they played. One took a play broom and swept the footprint for a house into the pebbles of the playground. Another took the broom and attached it to one of the tricycles set out for kids to use and fashioned a sort of primitive street sweeper. Still another child used the broom in a more typical setting and swept out the little house at the top of the slide.

(On the flip side, I rarely see Finnish parents playing with their children on the playground.  I guess there is a fine line!)

Second, I notice a lot of children with incredible upper body strength and really well-developed gross motor skills. I've watched many kids shimmy their way up the frame of the swingset and dangle from the bar on top that holds the swings.

Obviously a third benefit is the socialization they get from so much unstructured play time. I rarely see kids fighting at the playground. I see them take turns. I see them share. I see these playground skills reflected in daily, adult life on public transportation, while waiting in line at the Posti or the grocery store...pretty much in everything I do here. After all the adults were once children on the playground too!

lily on esplanadi

I think it's important to add, by the way, that there isn't tons of supervision and adult intervention on the playground either.  In fact, I think in the U.S.,  all of our rules would take the fun out of a typical day at the Finnish playground!  I can hear it now..."too many kids/not enough supervision; not enough structured activity; kids are getting too dirty; it's too dangerous to climb to the top of the climbing allowed...too spinny, kids will throw up."  (I actually heard this last one when I helped design a playground in Chicago--the kids wanted a tire swing, but I was told NO NEW tire swings will be added to Chicago playgrounds.  They make kids throw up.) 

"Ah phooey" is all I have to say!   


  1. I've noticed this as well (as I now live in Northern Ireland and see how the things are here). In the Finnish daycare kids go outdoors twice a day, in the morning and in the afternoon. I'm not sure how much time they spend there in reality (as my knowledge is based on my own experiences 20 years ago) but probably an hour or two at a time (2-4h daily). There are also "forest kindergardens" (google metsäpäiväkoti), my friends kids go to one and they do everything outdoors including meals and naptimes.

    In primary school we went out on a 15min recession (longer during lunch time) between all the lessons, so during a 6-lesson day there would be 4 recessions + lunchbreak = at least 1h 15min of outdoor time. And we could only stay in if it was more than -20C.

    Did you know that most of the Finnish babies take their naps outdoors in the pram, also in the wintertime!

  2. ... and still we are worried that our kids aren't outside enough. That they are having too little unstructured playtime for themselves.
    According to UKK-insitute: "All 7- to 18-year-olds should be physically active for at least one to two hours daily, in a variety of ways suitable for each age group. Continued periods of sitting for more than two hours at a time should be avoided. Screen time with entertainment media should be limited to two hours per day"
    (and this is only to maintain children's health, no to make them sportsmen!) Appr. 1/3 of this time can be superwised action (PE or sports as hobby), 2/3 of the time should be unstructured physical activity.

  3. As a child I could not imagine my parents joining in to play. When I was tiny I used to play next to my parents when they were busy outside, we would go skiing or walking together. As soon an I was old enough (5-6) I joined the local children and for example learned to swim, row a boat and skate with them with minimum adult help.

    Here in the UK health visitors have been very upset that my babies sleep outside in the pram, even in the snow. We are one of the few families who have a giant sandpit at home and use it too. Sadly many children in UK cross the road alone first time when they go to university.

    If you look into the playgrounds on Saturday and Sunday morning you'll see many families, especially fathers out playing with the younger children.

    Looking ahead 1st of May (Vappu) is fast approaching. That day I always got my new summer dress on first time (vappumekko) and sandals too, regardless of the weather. Get prepared for a big celebration!