I’m kind of old school when it comes to reading – I like my books in a paper copy, ideally from a library. But, DK doesn’t give me a lot of time to just sit and read these days – so I mostly read on my phone in bits and snips nowadays – while waiting in line for a coffee, while waiting for the shower water to heat up, while rocking DK to sleep in my arms, while sitting in my car while DK sleeps in the carseat…I can log some serious word count doing these activities.
There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather by Linda Akëson McGurk is one book I read in its entirety on my phone while waiting around for things.
It is an easy and engaging read about a mother from Sweden raising her two daughters in rural Indiana. In it, she reflects on her own childhood and Swedish parenting traditions in contrast to how things are typically done in the United States. Whilst growing up in Sweden, she spent tons of time outdoors, in all kinds of weather, and she realized that her daughters were not receiving the same outdoor childhood experiences because so much of American culture is sheltered indoors. And so, she decides to take them for a six month live-abroad experience to her hometown in Sweden to expose her daughters to a different attitude towards the outdoors and simultaneously investigate Swedish parenting trends and whether, just like the in the USA, children’s time is increasingly spent indoors on technology.
I would not consider myself an outdoors-y person. I am a beginner hiker, I hate mountain switchbacks, my bike seat hurts my butt, I am afraid of most wild critters big and small. I find vegetables I’ve grown myself in my garden to be untrustworthy and unappetizing. I know the names of about six plants in my yard (grass, moss, umbrella tree, cactus, chives, rose bush). I’m not exactly sure what a weed is. I have gone tent camping but not without my car, my cooler, my Coleman stove and bottled water. I’ve never slept under the stars. I do not know what “gaiters” are. I do not compost. I’d probably die in the woods before I figured out how to use a compass. Actually, I don’t even own a compass.
So many books in the man-and-nature subgenre seem to be written by hard-core nature people, which I guess is a good thing – we don’t want the blind leading the blind here. I wouldn’t want a nature guidebook written by Paris Hilton when I’m about the trek into the trees, but I was genuinely surprised at how “normal” Linda Akëson McGurk’s life and experiences with nature were – kind of like mine. A lesser writer would have easily come across as holier-than-thou. But Linda Akëson McGurk seems like a pretty normal mom going about and doing her life in pretty normal ways. However, differently from many of her American peers in the Midwest, she gets outside with her daughters and her dogs everyday. She doesn’t let the weather tell her “no”. I feel like we could be friends, she and I, and so I’m going to refer to her as Linda and not as McGurk for the rest of this post, because it just seems more fitting to the friendship I’ve conjured in my head.
As a Canadian raised in the 90s, I grew up similarly – outdoor recess every single day: wind, rain, snow or shine. Linda writes,
“Scandinavians get through the winter by maintaining a sense of normalcy. Snow happens. Sleet happens. Ice happens. Cold temperatures happen. Life goes on. The trains may not run on time after a big snow dump, but society doesn’t shut down either. Weather-related school closures are virtually unheard of.”
The only days I remember recess being indoors is when it got frigidly cold (I think the rule was if it was colder than -22˚C without a windchill, we got to stay inside and play card games). The only time school was ever cancelled for snowfall was March 1998 when we had over two feet of snow so the bus couldn’t come to get us. And school was only cancelled for extreme cold a handful of times (the rule for cancellation was colder than -38˚C without a windchill). You were expected to go to school dressed for the weather outside, and we did, for the most part (until junior high school and we wanted to look “cool” in our Chuck Taylor sneakers and bell bottomed jeans in ankle deep snow. Now looking back, we didn’t look cool…we looked cold).
“There’s no such thing as bad weather – just bad clothing” is a Scandinavian phrase repeated over and over in homes and in schools. I know this is true – when I dressed for Canadian winters, I could walk the twenty minutes to work every day of the year. When I didn’t dress for the weather and wore Chuck Taylors on ice – it was a misery.
Inspired by Linda’s example with her girls, I resolved to get outside with DK every day, rain or shine. This is not hard here in California. It’s beautiful most of the time and even when it rains it is rarely windy and cold. It was a lot harder to do when we went home to Canada for Christmas. I had all the gear for DK. Snowpants, waterproof mitts, toque, snow boots, winter jacket. I even got him a little sled. But oh man did he ever hate the cold air on his face, made even colder by the tears now freezing to his cheeks. He also hated to wear his mitts – ripping them off as soon as I put them on only to cry because his fingers were freezing. My visit home in winter gave me a deep appreciation and sympathy for what my best friend Amanda goes through when she bundles her toddlers up every day in layers and layers of snowsuits to send them outside for a total of the ten minutes they can handle it. Amanda and I may have the same widely-shared Canadian belief that fresh air is good for you – but she truly earns that badge doing outdoor Canadian winters with toddlers.
To keep good on my promise to myself and to DK, today, in spite of the rain went outside. We put on his splash pants, his rain coat and his rain boots, my rain boots, my rain jacket and my travel coffee mug and we went exploring. I’m glad we did, because DK loves drains. He always has to walk on them when we are out and about and it wasn’t until we were out in the rain that I realized – duh, drains are WAY MORE FUN TODAY! We spent quite a long time following the flow of water, dropping sticks and leaves toward the drain (don’t worry, I didn’t let them clog the drains) and stomping in the “river” of water.
I was further inspired by Linda’s chapter on the Swedish mentality towards environmentalism and building sustainable communities. While living an “eco-friendly” lifestyle is something I had heard of before, I kind of thought of it as either way too hardcore (umm sawdust toilets anyone?) or a way to further pad the pockets of big companies trying to get you to buy the more expensive “eco” version of their exact same product. “Organic” to me, was just an extra tax on the wealthy. To me, the problems on the planet seem so massive and I’m only one person who can control so little – so I’ve just kind of approached it like, “What’s the point? I’m not going to get a sawdust toilet.” I like how Linda frames it that we are not teaching our children to be activists, we are teaching them to love nature and respect nature. She quotes Mulle,
“If you can help children love nature, they will take care of nature, because you cherish things you love.” -Mulle
Teaching DK about taking care of our planet is not about telling him (yet) about deforestation and species extinction and global warming and the plastic island floating in the Pacific ocean. Right now, it is about teaching him what goes in the recycling, in the compost, and in the garbage. As he gets older, it’s about giving him ownership over what he consumes and wastes. And even older, it’s about the major problems our planet faces and what he can do about it.
I already diligently divide my waste into recycling, compost (we recently got a city collected compost bin), reusables for kids crafts, and finally, trash. After reading this chapter, I made a couple resolutions:
- First, to bring a bag to collect bits of trash Devon always inevitably finds along our walks at the park or around our neighbourhood and pick some up myself. Currently, most of the time I say, “yucky! Don’t touch”. But really, it’s usually just a candy wrapper, it’s not that gross, and he’s usually already touched it by the time I’ve said anything – so at that point, is there any point to making him drop it? No. He should put it in the trash. And then use some hand wipes that I keep in the stroller.
- Second, to re-educate myself on the organic/conventional debate for what is better for our planet in terms of what I buy. I looked into this in 2014 when “natural” products were the all the rage. I still think a lot of them are complete hogwash…but I do concede that eating locally equals a much lower carbon footprint in terms of transporting the food from the field to my face.
A third and final chapter that I will talk about (because dang this post is getting long, can you tell I enjoyed this book and it made me think?!) is aptly titled, “A little dirt won’t hurt (nor will a little rain)”. In it, she talks about the culture of unstructured outdoor after school play in Sweden and how bringing her girls there for six months ignited a lot more imaginative play as they played outside with the local neighbourhood kids. She writes,
“Back in Indiana I had always been the one orchestrating outdoor play as soon as the girls got home in the afternoon, trying to entice them with sidewalk chalk, creek investigations, and picnics at the park. Some days it didn’t matter how hard I tried; they still weren’t up for it…[Now in Sweden] For the first time, they will spontaneously stay out and play for hours, and I’m the one saying no when they want to go back outside after dinner. Something has happened and I think I know what it is. I was a good enough playmate for them for years, but what they needed was other children to inspire them.“
As I read this, I reflected on my own childhood experiences. We did a lot of outdoor things with my parents – we built snowmen together, we played in giant piles of raked leaves, we played basketball together…and they are all great memories. But the outdoor experiences that stick out far more than any of the other ones are when I was alone with my brother and my peers playing “horses” or “fairies”.
DK is still little – and I *think* I’m a pretty good playmate for him but as he gets older, I want him to be able to have some of these outdoor play experiences with his peers outside of organized sports. While I’m still noodling around with how I can achieve this without moving to Sweden, not too mention the oxymoron of “scheduling” or “arranging” unstructured play time…(is it even possible if it’s not part of the culture?) – I’ve got some ideas – but more on that next week!
All in all, I would highly recommend reading “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather” by Linda Akëson McGurk if you’re looking for an easy read to inspire you to try things a little bit differently with your kids. While we all can’t just leave for Sweden, I do think it is possible, following Linda’s example, to encourage more of an outdoor-first culture at home.