Blog post written by: Elina Hasanen, researcher living next to a forest in Jyväskylä, Finland
Outdoor activity in nature promotes well-being and growth among children and young people in many ways. Worryingly, the activity has seen a decline in recent decades. So has physical activity in general. The concern for children’s health is worldwide.
This is also the case in Finland, the Nordic country with abundant forests and tens of thousands of lakes. The majority of children in our country are engaged in organised physical activities, for example in sports clubs. However, at the same time the amount of overall physical activity is too often too low to maintain health. I find it descriptive to say that natural and self-initiated nature activities of children are replaced by sitting in the back seat and participating in structured activities indoors.
It is not simple to get – and let – children and young people out to nature in the western societies today. We approached the issue by having a close look at what 9–12 year-old children themselves think. What kinds of physical activities do they find fun and enjoyable in nature? What kind of outdoor activities would offer something meaningful to the children of these technology-driven times?
By taking this point of view, we aimed at providing knowledge which would be useful when organising and enabling outdoor activities in nature – the kinds of activities which would best enhance children’s health and well-being and strengthen their connection to nature.
Activity days in 3 seasons, by the Moved by Nature project
That was the ground for the collaborative project Moved by Nature and its intervention we called nature activity days. The intervention included scientific background, data collection and data analysis, thus enabling also scientifically reliable results.
The location was the Forssa region with national parks, an outdoor centre and other nature sites. Have a look at this fantastic video to get a glimpse on the nature activity days, the activities, the sites and the participants!
The nature activity days were organised for four pilot classes of 4th-5th graders (9–12 yrs). The children came from different living environments from a city district to a rural village. They also differed on their previous engagement in physical activity and outdoor activity in nature.
The classes took part in three activity days in three seasons. The weather conditions in Finland in May, September, and February set very different stages in nature for outdoor activities. This also means that the intervention could offer diverse activities. The days included for instance hiking, camping, paddling, adventure tasks, SUP-boarding, fatbike riding, snowshow walking, building with snow, even a pump trolley excursion.
In addition to trying out various physical activities, the days also included art, knowledge on wildlife and cultural history. The days were mainly designed by the project personnel and by local service providers, comprising nature and wilderness guides and students. The activities were also mostly guided and taught by these adults. However, there was also time and place for free time and action during the days.
Highlighting the children’s voice
In the study I did with my colleague Kati Vähäsarja, we focused on highlighting the voice of the children. We examined their views of the activities and the days. We also investigated the role of outdoor activity in nature in their daily lives. We identified factors that strengthen children’s experience of meaningful and rewarding nature activities.
Our main data were surveys answered by the children after each activity day and interviews with a smaller number of children. I combined a quantitative analysis of the survey data with a qualitative analysis of the interview data.
The children’s views on the activity days, the activities, and different elements of the activities were mainly highly positive. Among the top experiences was roaming around freely in nature. When free from guided activities, the children would also invent action on their own, such as throwing themselves in snow and playing games utilising the natural environment.
Of the guided physical activities, the pump trolley excursion, paddling, swimming, and building with snow were rated “ace!” most often. New and challenging experiences were fun and inspiring for the school children. Hiking, snowshoeing and dragging sledges were evaluated mostly as nice activities but not as often top experiences as the other activities. These activities were tedious and tiring for some and lacking in novelty value compared to the more exciting nature activities.
Space for autonomy
We divided the most meaningful experiences into three categories. The first one was freedom, autonomy and adventure.
Unstructured adventures and choice regarding the ways and goals of action were important for the children. Contrast to normal school days enhanced the charm and significance of feeling free.
This means that when organising nature activities, special attention should be paid to the balance between adult-led and self-initiated activity. Learning requires some guidance, and safety concerns are important in nature, but too much guidance takes room from the children’s sense of autonomy. Pedagogical courage is certainly needed and knowing the individual group is also essential.
Leaving room for autonomy is especially important when we see outdoor activity in nature as a counterbalance for the children’s daily social and physical environments. Children’s eagerness to be set free in nature should not be suppressed with excessive guidelines. As stated in previous research, nature is especially suitable for spontaneous action and free play on its behalf promotes nature connectedness.
Inspiring learning experiences
The second type of the most meaningful experiences include learning new things, challenging oneself and succeeding. Learning new things was systematically an enjoyable element of the activities. The nature activity days also gave experiences of exceeding one’s own expectations. The challenges were often big enough but without loosing the feeling of safety. Exceeding your own expectations is a great feeling to anyone, let alone a young person in the midst of identity formation.
The fourth and fifth graders can be characterised by a desire, joy, and also ability to learn about nature and nature activities. This is clearly a favourable age for learning outside in nature, and also for adopting nature-related values.
Learning was connected to more inspiration for outdoor activity in the everyday. Getting to know ways of moving about in nature, seeing one’s abilities, learning about animals and plants, and getting first-hand experiences of the positive effects of outdoor activity to well-being were all motivating and inspiring. Several children reported how this inspiration had also already led to action. For example, they could go for a jog instead of staying inside or walk the dog in a near-by forest instead of a road.
Co-operation and connectedness with peers
Being together, friendship and community spirit formed the third category of the most meaningful experiences. Working together was among the top elements of the activities. In nature, the children had been able to spend quality time and whole days together. They had been able to cooperate with their peers and also survive together. Cooperation with classmates was seen more meaningful than for example competing against each other.
The nature activity days strengthened social relationships in the school classes. Their sense of solidarity grew stronger from event to event. This was particularly meaningful for the children’s daily lives, their social and mental well-being at school. This is an outcome of the intervention and of nature activities worth stressing.
Take use of the school hours
What about nature activities during normal school days? Almost half of the participants felt that there was too little outdoor activity in nature at school. It was also common for the children to feel that lack of time was preventing them from going to nature.
Schools reach all children in the western countries, and school hours take up much of children’s daily lives. It is clear that schools play one of the important roles in familiarising children and young people with nature and outdoor activity. After listening to the children in this study, I see school hours as a time frame and opportunity for outdoor activity not to be missed. The positive experiences and outcomes shine bright in the data.
Taking school classes out to nature makes it possible to strengthen the children’s connection to nature and to enhance their health today and in adulthood. It supports the children in finding meaningful outdoor activities and places in nature, the ones that are significant to them in their worlds and in their own daily lives. This requires that children’s views are taken into account and their voices are heard.
The complete research report in English can be found on the website of Parks and Wildlife Finland from July 2019, titled “Moved by Nature – School-children’s experiences of outdoor activities in nature”. You may also have a look at my seminar presentation on the results.
About the author
Elina Hasanen is a researcher living next to a forest in Jyväskylä, Finland. Elina’s main research field is Social Sciences of Sport and her interests at the moment revolve around physical activity cultures and environments in people’s everyday lives. Elina got her PhD in the University of Jyväskylä in 2017, her dissertation handled young people’s self-organised physical activity. One of her current research subjects and working areas is cycling promotion – also a subject with impact on our natural environments, health, and welfare. Elina has previously also worked on physical activity services in the municipal sector and as a teacher. Links: Research gate, Twitter.