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We spent two-and-a-half months in Finland this summer. The kids love it there because they can roam freely. After breakfast they told us where they’re going — to their grandmother’s, who lives next door; to their friends’ house, two houses down; to the park, a block and a half away.

They would play in the woods. They rode their bikes. They showed up at mealtimes or when they needed a parent to get something done. They occasionally needed band-aids.

They were calmer and acted – not older, but more mature. One of their grandparents joked that there’s no Finnish translation for “melt-down”.

Returning to the U.S., I was reminded of an article in the UK Daily Mail entitled How children lost the right to roam in four generations.

The article describes how the grandfather of an eight-year-old boy in Sheffield, a couple of hours north of London, was allowed to walk six miles to go fishing at a lake in 1926 when he was a boy of eight.

Today, his eight-year-old grandson enjoys none of that freedom, being entirely confined to their fenced-in back yard. And sadly, the article says, “Even if he wanted to play outdoors, none of his friends strays from their home or garden unsupervised.”

Here in the U.S. our children are dependent on us parents or their nanny to take them places and connect them with their friends. Their day is pre-programmed, and for many of their friends, a lot of it is spent doing homework.

The author of the U.K. study believes without access to nature, “children’s long-term mental health is at risk”. Our children love Finland because they can come up with meaningful things to do on their own there. They feel in charge.

Nowadays, the only world many American kids can roam freely in is a virtual one, such as Minecraft (which is popular in Finland, too).

It’s hardly a replacement for the real thing, though.

I originally posted this on our learning log.

Comments

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Liz Hunt
September 2nd, 2014 at 10:43 pm (#)

Hi. I’m now not sure how I ended up on your site…

Did you see the article in The Atlantic recently on this topic? It’s quite good on why playgrounds have become so sanitized.

http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/03/hey-parents-leave-those-kids-alone/358631/

Marcus
September 2nd, 2014 at 11:41 pm (#)

Spot on Jyri. I am insanely frustrated by this too. I need to find our Finland.

Jyri
September 3rd, 2014 at 9:05 pm (#)

@Liz Yes, that’s a great article – thanks for sharing! For those of us in the Bay Area, there’s an Adventure Playground in Berkeley, but it’s supervised (only 7-year olds and up are allowed to use the zipline, etc.)

http://www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/adventureplayground/

Jyri
September 3rd, 2014 at 9:14 pm (#)

@Marcus How about camping or a weekend home within a reasonable drive?

Marcus
September 4th, 2014 at 2:05 am (#)

My kids actually live in the countryside, far away from a city. Still, the way that roads are built and people drive in the UK it would be careless to let them go beyond the garden fence. In addition it is socially completely unacceptable. It’s nuts. Almost ever child gets driven to the little village school, causing a massive traffic chaos every morning. Nobody walks. There are no sidewalks. People drive like idiots.

Jyri
September 4th, 2014 at 12:07 pm (#)

@Marcus I had a similar experience when I lived in Lancashire. Tiny storybook villages, world-class traffic jams in the mornings.

King Yiu
September 5th, 2014 at 11:25 am (#)

It makes me thinking of creating villages without cars with a radius of less than 2 miles in the country side. I think they could become really popular. I would start living there, even if it would mean I have to cycle 2 miles to get to my car every morning for going to work.

Tuomo Aalto
January 28th, 2015 at 12:21 pm (#)

Very interesting topic! As a Finn it’s always embarrasing to read about the cultural and historical variations in this issue – Children’s Independent Mobility.

Here in Finland it has been and still is quite common that even the first graders (7 y. >) can walk alone or with friends e.q. to school and the nearest grocery etc.
… but the times are changing – the free range to roam has long had a tendency to shrink – from many kilometers to some hundreds meters. Of course this varies a lot from different reasons.

There is some interesting research done about this –
in England: http://www.psi.org.uk/site/news_article/851

and

in Finland (unfortunately only in Finnish):
http://www.lts.fi/sites/default/files/page_attachment/lt413_4-11_lowres.pdf

You might also be interest in studies done in Australia and Asia by Karen Malone:
http://uws.academia.edu/KarenMalone

Best wishes from Stadi and HY,

– Tuomo

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