Finlanders Love Nature, and Their Education System Thrives Because of It

One of the best education systems in the world exists in a country where the connection to nature and the outdoors is weaved into their constitution. Coincidence? Probably not.

Imagine you’re 4 years old—would you rather play in the dirt, or sit in a classroom all day?

words:: Ben Osborne

If you’re an outdoor enthusiast, you’ve likely heard of the Japanese affliction for the practice of shinrin yoku—or, in English, ‘Forest-bath’. The Japanese are some of the leading researchers on the physiological benefits of spending time in nature, and their practices have spread far and wide.

With government-funded forests helping to facilitate forest bathing for a culture known for a tendency to overwork, the Japanese have gotten plenty of positive press for their efforts in the world of biophilia.

But there’s another country that takes their affliction for the forest to an entirely different level—Finland. The small country of just over 5.53 million is uniquely intertwined with the natural world, and their affliction for nature shows in their constitution, national culture, and their geography. It is the most forested country in Europe, with trees covering 74% of the land (or an estimated 13,000 trees per person).

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With 72% of the country forested (the highest percentage in Europe), access to nature in Finland is easy.

What do they do with all that greenspace? Well, in their own words—it’s every man’s right to make use of it.

From the top-down, the government facilitates every Fin’s ability to enjoy all the land in the country—private or not.  Jokamiehenoikeus—, or “everyman’s right” means anyone can use anyone’s land to camp, bike, ski, cycle, bike, camp, fish, or use as they wish—a familiar concept and many Nordic and Baltic countries.

There are a few things that are not allowed in “everyman’s right” like cutting down trees, collecting moss, disturbing the privacy of homes, and littering amongst other common-sense rules. In contrast to much of North America, private property is space that is to be shared when it comes to outdoor activities—emphasizing the value that the Finnish government and people have put on these ways for Fin’s to disconnect.

At the forest schools, children spend 95% of their time outside learning, touching, and feeling—an invaluable experience in one’s formative years.

With their intimate connection and respect for nature comes a number of added values—one of the most obvious being an education system that is one of the best in the world, and has other countries scrambling to mimic the practices of the small nordic country.

In a 2000 study, Finland’s young readers ranked as the tops in the world, and that is when researchers started to catch on. While there are many socioeconomic and cultural factors at play, the countries ability to foster a healthy educational system is no doubt at least partially owed to its reverence and respect for the outdoors.

In a typical school setting, students get fifteen minutes of outdoor play between lessons at school, allowing them to burn off some steam and re-focus in time for their next lesson.

Teamwork, problem-solving, and camaraderie are all at play when it comes to playing in nature. The best part? It comes naturally when kids are outside.

While school isn’t compulsory until the age of 7, kids have the option to attend “Forest Schools” that replaces traditional early childhood education—because let’s be honest, who really remembers what they learned in pre-school? These years are more about exploring than learning hard facts—and that’s just what playing outside facilitates.

At the forest schools, children spend 95% of their time outside learning, touching, and feeling—an invaluable experience in one’s formative years. The schools are low cost and widely available no matter your income bracket, which largely avoids any problem of unequal opportunity.

Overall, Finland’s education system is structured to require less time in the classroom, and more time outside, especially with a number of laws and cultural practices that promote outdoor play. It’s no surprise that a country that has an innate connection with the natural earth massaged into their psyche from a young age is one that thrives socially, economically, politically, and most importantly, environmentally. Now, all we can hope is that the rest of the world takes notice. —ML