In 1960, an American psychiatrist, Herbert Hendin, was looking through statistics showing the rates of suicide in various countries. He was surprised to find enormous differences across the three Scandinavian countries, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Of all the countries Hendin surveyed, Denmark had the highest rate (along with Japan) whereas Norway had the lowest. Sweden was also well up the list, much closer to Denmark than to Norway.
Hendin was so intrigued by the contrasting rates that he travelled to Scandinavia to investigate the likelihood that cultural differences lay behind the differences. He spent four years there, learning Swedish and Norwegian in order to undertake his research. Although many factors influence the incidence of suicide, Hendin was able to conclude that differences in childrearing values and practices across the three countries were part of the explanation.
In simple terms, Norwegian children played more freely, enjoyed more independence, had more opportunities to investigate the natural environment and spent more time learning by doing rather than being instructed. In contrast, childhood in Denmark and Sweden was more subject to adult control and expectations concerning education, careers and life goals generally. Under these conditions, Hendrin believed, Danish and Swedish children were more likely to experience failure, to have feelings of inadequacy and diminished self-worth and to develop anxiety and depression as a consequence. Norwegian children, on the other hand, encountered much less external pressure and, through their greater participation in free play, were more likely to develop self-confidence and resilience rather than self-doubt and vulnerability.
These different worlds of childhood reflected the contrasting economic and social environments that existed in Scandinavia at the time. The rugged terrain of Norway had fostered small-scale, family-owned farming and fishing activity that kept many Norwegians in close touch with the natural world. For the children this meant that playing in this world was an integral part of life – indeed it was their life to a very large extent. Just as their parents had to exercise independence, self-reliance and resourcefulness, so too did the children. It is no surprise that their fairy-tale folk hero, Ash-lad, was a reflective, nature-savvy and highly enterprising individualist who found all sorts of unconventional ways of coming out on top.
Independence and individuality were much less valued elsewhere in Scandinavia. The flatter landscapes of Sweden and Denmark were much more conducive to large-scale and technological farming and to the centralisation of ownership. This gave rise to much less economic and social autonomy at the personal level and the strengthened perception that it was necessary to compete through personal achievement in order to get ahead.
Unlike its neighbours, Norway resisted Germany in World War 11. This strengthened the Ash-lad ideology. Then, the post-war economic boom spurred the rebuilding and development of Norway’s fisheries, farming and industry, a process that was greatly accelerated by a work-force steeped in the Ash-lad ethos. But this transformation ultimately brought Norway into the world of corporate capitalism and international economic competition, to the detriment of small-scale farming and fishing. In this new world, the influence of the Ash-lad is weakening even though his example of learning through, from and in nature continues to shape Norwegian educational values and practice. Norwegian children are now behaving and striving much more like their counterparts in other Western countries. Free play in natural surroundings is much less the norm.
And what of the Norwegian suicide rate at the end of this era of change? It is one of the highest in the world!
Now, the Norwegian story does not conclusively show that a link exists between:
(a) a pressured childhood in which there are fewer opportunities for free play and contact with nature and
(b) heightened anxiety, depression and suicide risk in later life.
But we have to consider the possibility of such a link. There is mounting evidence that outdoor play has long-term benefits for physical, social, emotional and cognitive development. Among other things, it fosters a sense of identity, feelings of autonomy and psychological resilience – all important contributors to a healthy sense of self-worth and a decreased risk of anxiety and depression.