About the Author

Erik Shonstrom is an assistant professor of rhetoric at Champlain College. He is also the founder and director of Nomad Youth Adventures, a summer camp based in Vermont.

WHAT THE FINNS KNOW: “Friluftsliv” Gets Big Results in Finland’s Schools

Students play outside in Oslo, Norway.

Students play in Oslo, Norway. Creative Commons photo by Wen Nag.

The connection between child development and the outdoors can be seen clearly in Scandinavian educational systems. The cultural heritage of Scandinavia venerates nature experience. There’s even a word in Norwegian for it – friluftsliv (frí-loofts-live). The literal translation is “free air life.”

Friluftsliv promotes direct experience in the natural world — picture a three year old gamboling about in the woods, picking up leaves and peering into hollow logs: that’s friluftsliv.

It’s a philosophy that plays a vital role in Finland’s educational system, which consistently ranks as one of the world’s top three countries in academic performance. U.S. schools place well below Finland — 20th in the world, according to the United Nations.

Our response is less physical activity, more time in the classroom. According to a 2012 report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, half of all high school students nationwide have no physical education at all.

The Finns do things differently. Higher teacher wages, more independence for teachers, shorter school hours and more outdoor playtime — especially unstructured, outdoor play, even in the coldest months of winter. In fact, students regularly get fifteen minutes of outdoor time between lessons in addition to their regular recess. In a 2011 article in the New Republic, a Finnish principal said, “The children can’t learn if they don’t play.”

This idea — that time spent outdoors playing is more than just time to decompress and is in fact a prerequisite for learning — is central to the concept of friluftsliv. An ideal that has existed for over a hundred years, friluftsliv is rooted in 19th century Romantic literature about getting back to nature. Through the 20th and 21st centuries, friluftsliv become part of educational policy for Norway and its neighbors. The central tenet of friluftsliv is the importance of entering into a nature in an uncomplicated way. No Matterhorn ascent required – we’re simply talking about kids playing in the woods, parks, and fields.

How can the U.S. help our students learn? How can we improve our schools? Adopting Finland’s model would require an overhaul of our current system that would take years. But we could begin the process by introducing more unstructured, outdoor playtime.

This isn’t easy, especially for more urban schools, but it’s not impossible. I taught middle school math and science at a charter school in Los Angeles, and instituted an hour of outdoor time every morning for some ninety junior high students. We’d tromp through the streets (a learning experience in and of itself) to a nearby park. The kids would play or just sit in the grass.

The benefits were immediate. My students were more focused, less wired, and more settled when we came back to campus.

Our talented teachers could easily incorporate more nature play into their daily schedules, if its value was made clear. Nordic and Scandinavian countries have the benefit of a cultural ideal that celebrates the inherent benefits of being in nature. Developing a culture of nature-appreciation in the U.S. — an American friluftsliv — will take time and grassroots efforts. Dedicating more of the school day to outdoor play will be a fundamental first step.

More Reading and Resources

Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful? - Smithsonian Magazine

What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success – The Atlantic

The Hybrid Mind: The More High-Tech Our Schools Become, the More They Need Nature - Richard Louv

You Can Get Your Students Outside — and Still Meet Your State Standards

10 Ways You Can Add “Vitamin N” to your Classroom & Beyond

Smart Pills vs. Nature Smart: Want Your Kids to Do Better in School? Try a Dose of “Vitamin N”

Share your ideas with other Natural Teachers: Join the C&NN Connect Natural Teachers Group 

C&NN’s Natural Teachers Network. Download the free Natural Teachers eGuide.



Comments (4)

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  1. Doug Hulmes says:

    Thanks for sharing this article. I was first introduced to Friluftsliv when I taught at Olavskulen Folkehøgskule now Bømlo Folkehøgskule (Norwegian Folk HIgh School) in 1991, and have incorporated many of the ideas into my teaching at Prescott College. Two books that have been published in English that give more insight into Friluftsliv are Wisdom of the Open Air, by Peter Singer and David Rothenberg, and Nature First, Ed. by Bob Henderson and Nils Vikander. We can gain valuable perspectives by considering how other cultures identify with nature and believe it is critical for our physical, intellectual and emotional development. Also, Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, comes to a similar conclusion that children who do not spend enough unstructured time in nature suffer from he defines as Nature Deficit Disorder.

  2. Erik Shonstrom says:

    Thanks for the readings recommendations Doug – I’ll definitely look those up! I’ve been reading mostly scholarly articles/transcripts of lectures to get up to speed on friluftsliv. Appreciate you pointing me in the direction of more reading!

  3. I have discovered Richard Louv’s books few year ago and I hope I can share it with other French people when it is published into French .
    Your post about “friluftsliv” (first time I read this name) is really interesting.
    Our recent innovative school, located in France in the Morvan National Park- a protected area of outstanding beauty, is a pilot project combining Montessori education with a working equestrian centre. The children spend their school days surrounded by nature and horses – through their close relationship with these animals they can construct an important support for their personal developmental needs. The story of this school is inspirational. It marks a milestone in the quest to combine the formal needs of education with a unique sense of freedom and environmental awareness.

  4. Erik Shonstrom says:

    Hello Vanessa!

    Your description about your school made me want to attend! I rode horses a bit as a kid, and one of the things I’ve noticed as I’ve grown older is how it helped me relate to animals in general – how I interact with them and their environment is bases in part on the personal experience I had with animals as a kid. No doubt your program will be amazing. Thanks for reading! Lucky kids!

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