There have been several newspaper reports and commentaries recently holding up Finland’s education system as a model to be followed. Apparently Finland’s children lead the world in literacy, numeracy and other markers of educational progress. They manage this even though they do not start formal schooling until they are seven years old and they have more free play at school than children elsewhere. There is a mandatory 15-minute play break every hour during the school day. Fresh air, nature and regular physical activity are considered engines of learning. Outdoor play is encouraged even in the harsh Finnish winter. “There is no bad weather; only inadequate clothing” is a guiding maxim.
Finland’s approach to education is grounded in several entrenched and powerful cultural values. A high respect for and trust of teachers is one. Egalitarianism is another. A third – and the one that has really caught my attention – is referred to throughout Scandinavia as frituftsliv (free-tuufts-leave), which literally means “free air life”. Frituftsliv is a lifestyle philosophy that is a conspicuous part of educational policy not only in Finland but in other Scandinavian countries as well.
The central message of frituftsliv is the importance of experiencing the natural world directly in an uncomplicated way. This image of a three-year-old simply collecting sticks on a bushland track is highly likely to be a depiction of frituftsliv.
Frituftsliv is a relationship, not an activity. While the frituftliv’s deep emotional and spiritual connectedness can arise from many of the things we do in nature, most nature activities have nothing to do with frituftliv. Any activity in which the features and resources of nature are treated as means to an end is unlikely to qualify as frituftliv. That is why learning about nature as a hobby or as an academic undertaking is not frituftliv. Nor are “adventure” activities such as backpacking, rock climbing, mountaineering and white water rafting. Even living out-of-doors is not necessarily a frituftliv experience. The same can be said of activities that use or “consume” nature as a therapy or as a means of escaping urban life.
Frituftliv is an unconditional relationship with the natural world – a relationship with no strings attached. It involves encounter, an I-you rather than an I-it form of participation with nature. Frituftliv is an acceptance of nature as it is, with all the challenges it can pose and the discomforts it can deliver. In frituftliv, there is no attempt to change nature to serve one’s own purposes; rather it is a relationship of co-operation harmony or “oneness” with nature.
In a frituftliv relationship no purpose is needed to connect with nature – just as being with a loved one is a sufficient end in itself.
That is why having no purpose for seeking the companionship of nature is the best “purpose” for doing so.
The nature that most reliably evokes frituftsliv is “true”, authentic or undisturbed nature. Scandinavia is richly endowed with nature of this kind. Irrespective of whether it is part of the public estate or privately owned, Scandinavian nature is regarded as “free” – free in the sense of being accessible to all in accordance with the unwritten convention of allemansrätten – The Right of Public Access, which provides the possibility for everyone to visit someone’s else’s land for the purpose of engaging with nature.
This “right” is bound up with the belief that “free” nature is our true home and that frituftliv is the way back to that home. While the foundations of that belief are historical and philosophical, it is now supported by a strengthening scientific case. Having evolved in natural environments, our brains are adapted to the rhythms and forms (especially fractal shapes and patterns) of nature. When we give these brains of ours the stimuli they are looking for, we are rewarded with feelings of harmony and of “coming home”.
If you have experienced a campfire experience, you may recall these feelings of calm and contentment.
When looking into a fireplace we feel the flames alive and attracting our attention. No artificial light, like the cold mechanical lifeless light of a flashlight, will ever attract us in the same way. What is the difference between the dead flashlight and the living spirit of the flames, if not the fractal rhythms that so much stimulate our perception? (Hans Gelter)
This photo reminds me that frituftliv also provides a social experience that many people in our urban, high-speed society are missing, that of sharing a nature activity where participants are dependent on one another. Through such activities, frituftliv, recreates the tribal life with the same sense of security that comes from belonging to an interdependent group. This is a human resource and a form of human wealth that we have lost in our urban life. In this and other ways, frituftliv fulfils basic human needs and creates a sensation of wholeness.