Childhood: Freedom to Play

During this summer I moved from UK to Finland with my family. The main reason for our move was to raise our children here and to give them opportunity to grow up more freely. According to research by the University of Westminster, Finland ranks top in children’s freedom to play outside unsupervised, whereas England comes seventh.

This summer has been about learning to live in the Finnish way. Although I am originally from Finland, 18 years of living in the UK has left its mark. As a parent this summer has been about letting go of ‘unnecessary’ worrying. There is a great sense of space in Finland, which I believe contributes to the fact that the Finnish are more relaxed about letting their children out on their own to cross roads and even after dark at an early age. Finland also has amazing pedestrian/cycling paths that make it easy and safe for children to travel on their own.

Just how have our lives changed since our move? We lived in a typical terraced house in Cardiff in Wales and we never let out children to go out of the front door to play outside without us. Although the road in front of the house was closed at one end, we didn’t feel safe to let them play outside there due to cars and other people who were regularly hanging out at the end of the street. Our children ended up playing in the small back garden that was surrounded by high walls and they could only hear the neighbour’s children and if they climbed up to the bottom branches of our tree they could see their heads. I feel so sorry for them now.

We are now living in Oulu in Northern Finland, which is claimed to be the capital of Northern Scandinavia with around 92,000 people living here. At the moment, we are renting a semi-detached house with its own yard around it. There is a low picket fence around the yard but no gate. Our children are allowed to go out to play on their own as they wish as long as they stay in the yard. Even our two-year old is allowed to do that on her own. Little by little we have learnt to trust her and she is loving it. I occasionally check the children through a window and let them play uninterrupted.

Our older son is starting school today at the age of seven. After a few times walking the school journey he will be walking it on his own like his classmates. Fortunately, it is only a short distance. We have already started to practice how to travel safely and let him walk on his own between home and the nearby skate park, crossing the quiet road in front of our house.

There is generally less fear and anxiety about letting children play outdoors in Finland and you can clearly sense that. There are, for example, no fences around any schools – the children are trusted to enter and exit the school themselves.

How does freedom benefit our children? There are many articles that suggest the health benefits of children playing outdoors, including imroved physical fitness, better distance vision, increased intake of vitamin-D and reduced stress. I also believe that there are other benefits relating to the sense of responsibility and achievement that comes from looking after yourself. I am curious to observe my children and see how their freedom to play will shape them in the future.

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