With days growing shorter and Earth Day and Nature Play Week behind us, a recent trip to the other side of the planet came to mind, where dark winter days and extreme weather showed how differently humans live with and in nature.
The fog had cleared by the time we landed at Oslo’s Gardermoen airport on a mid-December Sunday morning last year. From inside the airport the day looked deceptively sparkling. Outside it was minus 14 degrees Celsius. We had the recommended shoes, feather-down coats, scarves and beanies. We had tested combinations of merino socks. The secret was dry, warm feet we’d been told. Living in one of Australia’s coldest cities, Canberra, made us veterans of minus temperatures (admittedly while asleep and under a doona). We were prepared.
What I wasn’t prepared for was how even the youngest Norwegians insist on living and playing outside in weather Australians would normally ‘sit out’. Whether it was dark or light, no sun or feeble sun, sub zero or delicate two-degree maximums, children, adults and animals are outside getting on with life. Waiting for the weather to ‘clear’ might mean never going out.
So I smiled at Educated by Nature’s post about building children’s all-weather resilience. Norway and its youngest citizens had me thinking about my approach to the corner of the planet I inhabit.
Our rented Oslo apartment overlooked what seemed to be a playground, silent and covered in thick snow when we arrived. With sunset just after 3.00 pm, our first walk began in growing darkness. Despite warnings, I immediately almost fell on footpath ice, every step treacherous. ‘Take small steps’ was the advice, ‘walk like a child, roll sideways from hip to hip, not one foot in front of the other’. After 10 minutes, progress was slow and my hips hurt. I learned to listen for the crunch of snow, indicating a less slippery surface. I felt like a child, vulnerable and unsure, relearning a skill in an unfamiliar domain where everyone else seemed to ‘get it’. I wondered how babies learned to walk and balance here. How did the frail elderly or families with young children get about without injury?
Over the next week we saw part of the answer.
It was still dark at 9.00 am the following morning, but lights were on in the building below, revealing it to be an early education centre. We watched in astonishment as the playground came to life in gloomy light. By 9.30 am, the first group of children were outside playing under the eyes of three or four educators. The children were between 12 and 20 months old, some obviously new to walking. They took turns on swings, interacted with each other and their educators, dug in the snow. The ground was so deeply layered in snow that the educators—dressed for blizzard conditions—lay full length above it nudging the swings rhythmically. With only their faces peeping out from thick clothing, sometimes a child could be seen standing patiently next to an educator, wordlessly holding out an exposed hand and an empty glove waiting for help. Safety, observation and supervision are different concepts when tiny hands can freeze so quickly.
After an hour, those children went inside and were replaced by a group of two to three year olds. For the next hour they played in pairs and small groups, taking turns on the equipment, digging in the snow, playing chasing games with educators and each other. By 11.30 am it was the turn of the four to five year olds. Some children brought little plastic mats and began sliding down a small incline, over and over again. Slipping, experimenting with head first or feet first, they were encouraged by the educators. Each day seemed to follow a similar pattern. Sometimes the sounds of their chatter and laughter carried across to our balcony. But mostly I watched from behind thick glass where the joy and energy of the children’s play was unmistakable and the temperature was warm! One educator was in the chill air for more than two hours each morning.
The next day we caught the train to frozen Sognsvann Lake, 40 minutes from Oslo. At minus 6 degrees Celsius, and with light snow occasionally falling, it was nevertheless like many Australian nature walks: joggers checking their metrics, dogs frolicking, pairs of women power-walking and friends ambling in conversation around the pathways. On another evening catching a suburban train to an historic hill top lookout above the city, office workers alighted, attached skis on the railway platform and slid away into the night. A few young men produced bobsleds from somewhere (was there a bobsled parking bay?) and made their way down the path between the trees. On such a delightful, snow-lit evening I thought of city-living Australians going from train to car park to sitting in slow traffic on journeys home.
Such a different experience of how humans live across the other side of the earth made me think about how much of the time I keep the earth at bay; avoiding sun, rain and wind, saving outdoor activities for ‘ideal weather’. The Norwegian experience didn’t make me want to move there (although it would be interesting to see it in summer), but it did make me question how many daily activities we insulate from nature. It made me conscious of language about the earth and weather too, how I live large chunks of each week separate from what is happening in nature.
Living on this earth is an all-weather sport!
Appreciating the sun, the blue sky and the intense warmth is not hard in Australia. But a short experience of deepest, darkest winter also taught me to notice small beauties every day rather than wait for nature’s ‘big hits’. It’s easy to admire a dramatic sunset on a warm evening, but the special quality of stillness in the air after rain or the subtle gradations of light on a sunless day are revelations too.
Children’s idea of normal and their sense of wonder is as diverse as the planet
Heat, cold, snow, desert and everything in between are part of the beautiful diversity of earth and are normal and wondrous. Children know it. Seeing their capacity to be excited and take pleasure from whatever is around them, to learn and develop mastery in extreme weather was inspiring. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures living in harmony with Country for thousands of years show us the way here. Yet too often we are not looking or listening. In urban Australia we could spend part of every day in nature, or at least outside. Instead we often save nature experiences for ‘good days’, for weekends or when we ‘go bush’.
How often do routine expressions reflect dissatisfaction with this earth and a sense of waiting for the weather or the landscape to be better, to reach some idea of perfection before we can be happy or take action? We talk about the day being too wet or too hot to do something and complain about grey days and gloomy weather. What are we modelling for young children about happiness and participation? One of the Australian expats we spoke to about winter in Norway said he missed the sunlight of home but has a new realisation about the capacity to be happy wherever he is, whatever the weather.
Why spend so much time indoors?
So many activities can be done outside, but are reserved for indoors. Breakfast, a coffee break, listening to or playing music, writing and reading, napping or sleeping—whatever you are doing, can it be done outside? Technology is making it possible: I started writing this blog at an outside table, in afternoon sunshine and now under clouds. Some years ago, visitors from communities in central Australia on a chilly Canberra winter night gently insisted on gathering under the stars in our courtyard.
Norwegians have what they call ‘the blue hour’ when the sun is almost gone and a soft blue light settles on the snow making everything look magical. A photographer friend here in Australia says it’s the golden hour because of the way light plays on landscape and people, making it a photographer’s dream. Too often the last hour of light is when many of us are still at work, bustling to get home or inside preparing dinner. Where are you and the children in your care when the golden hour is upon us?
Night time is nature time too
Getting about in the dark whether at 9.00 am or 3.00 pm, made me reconsider the night and how much of it I spend inside. It has prompted me to step outside at night whenever I can, especially just before bed, to notice the moon, breathe in the night air, sit under stars or clouds in the darkness for just a moment, listen, watch and feel the night. The recent Songlines: Seven Sisters Exhibition at the National Museum of Australia changed forever how to see the southern night sky.
And finally merino socks
It’s true, there is no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing (although it was Scotland’s freezing, wet summer a few years ago that taught me this). Merino socks kept my feet warmer and drier in Norway than they have ever been outdoors in Canberra’s winter, but I had never owned a pair before.
What is a favourite experience of planet earth that you can introduce into every day or week?
This blog was written by Clare McHugh, Strategic Communications Executive, Early Childhood Australia.