As a Swede, she was brought up with the concept of friluftsliv, or “outdoor life”, is a true believer in the motto 'There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes', and she admits she “goes stir crazy” if she doesn't get fresh air every day.
It struck her that children in America grow up with so little contact with nature, and that many suffer from numerous health issues from a sedentary lifestyle.
Being so passionate about friluftsliv and the benefits of outdoor recreation for children, she brought her daughters back to Scandinavia for six months, and decided to write a book about her experiences.
The Local spoke to her ahead of the release of her book 'There's No Such Thing as Bad Weather: A Scandinavian Mom's Secrets for Raising Healthy, Resilient, and Confident Kids (from Friluftsliv to Hygge)'.
This isn't merely a book, it's a manifesto. What inspired you to write it?
I had lived in the US for several years before I had my first daughter, and I felt I was pretty American. But when I had my daughter I realized how different it was to raise a child in the States versus in Sweden. One of the big differences was a lack of a nature connection: on all levels of society, people encourage outdoor play and friluftsliv, and here in the States I did not find that. I feel really passionate about it, and that is what drove me to write the book. There are several books in the market that talk about “raising a wild child”, and getting kids outside, but there was no memoir, no one that came out from a parenting angle. So I feel like my book can fill a need there.
Rainy day selfie. Photo: Linda Åkeson McGurk
Who should read it?
Definitely parents, but I think it's also a great read for anybody who works with young children – early childhood educators and also teachers in the higher grades. And I think it can be inspirational for grandparents as well, people who might have children in the future, or are interested in the way that nature helps strengthen family bonds. So anybody who either works with children or is around children.
Maya and Nora watching the great crane migration at Hornborgasjön in Sweden. Photo: Linda Åkeson McGurk
What would you say are the greatest benefits of outdoor activities for children?
There are so many. There is so much skill-building going on in nature: physical skills, motor skills, strength, balance, coordination; cognitive skills, which pave the way for academic learning later on; and social skills – kids learn how to be around other kids, they make up their own game, they figure out their own rules, and they learn how to solve issues that come up. And there are the health benefits: it can help reduce ADHD symptoms, prevent obesity, and also, children who play outside more have fewer sick days, as they become more resilient to infections. It also reduces stress and improves concentration.
Maya and Nora in front of the old homestead McGurk rented during their stay in Sweden, in the small town of Äspered. Photo: Linda Åkeson McGurk
And on the other hand, what are the effects of “making children as safe as possible” at all times?
I think we've really gone overboard with trying to keep kids safe, especially here in the US. We tend to think that society today is more dangerous than it actually is: when you look at the statistics for violence against children, it's actually gone down, so I think our fear is out of proportion to the actual risk. And the problem with that is that when kids don't have a chance to practise taking risks, they don't learn how to manage risks.
I think people really mix up risk and hazard, and it's important to be able to tell the two apart: you don't want to put kids in hazardous situations, where they can't predict an outcome. But we need to let kids do more risk management of their own, because kids who take risks do build those skills, and they don't venture into situations they can't handle.
The girls swimming at Malö camping. Photo: Linda Åkeson McGurk
What are the main differences between the US and Sweden when it comes to outdoor play?
You don't have as much access to green spaces because there is no allemansrätten here – most of the land is private, and there are 'no trespassing' signs are all over the place. So that's a huge difference right there: you can't just go outside with your kids and take them into the woods – if it's privately owned, you have to have permission. And even in public spaces, there are a lot of rules and regulations that restrict children's play in nature, that we don't necessarily have in Sweden. But one of the biggest differences is that, in Sweden, it's just seen as such an essential part of childhood that it's promoted throughout, from doctors to teachers, parents and grandparents. Everybody just has this shared vision that nature should be part of a good childhood, it is a given part in a good childhood.
*Allemansrätten – translated “everyman's right”, is the right to access, walk, cycle, ride, ski, and camp on any land, with the exception of private gardens, the immediate vicinity of houses, land under cultivation, and protected areas. Swedes consider this a form of human right.
Maya and Nora crab fishing on the coast of Bohuslän. Photo: Linda Åkeson McGurk
What reactions have you had in the US to your Swedish approach to raising children in the outdoors?
Well, people here in Indiana thought I was crazy, I think. When I first moved here I didn't have kids, but I did have two dogs, and I would walk them around town all year round. People would stop and comment, and people who didn't know my name knew that I was the woman who walked the two black labs around town. And then when I had my kids and walked around with them, I had people stop and offer me rides, especially in the winter, because they felt sorry for me. They thought I didn't have a car, and they felt bad that I was out in the freezing weather with my baby when in fact I was just trying to get some fresh air.
But at the same time I had a lot of positive responses too, especially from older Americans, who tell me that when they were kids they always played outside, even in the winter. That all changed over the years, so I think at least a lot of the older Americans could sympathize with what I was doing.
You are also engaged in your local community in Indiana, and you helped revamp the Covington city playground. What would you say are the first steps people can take in their own communities to support and sustain children's engagement in nature?
I think the first step is to try and find your tribe. Try and find likeminded people, because if you try to go at it alone, it's just an uphill battle. One thing that has become popular around here is to start family nature groups, or hiking groups, where parents meet up either once a week or once every two weeks and let the kids play together, or go on a hike together. I think that's a first step, and then you can try to take your activism to the institutions, like the preschools and the public schools. And there is always the options of getting involved through volunteering: my girls have always been involved with the girl scouts, so I volunteered to have the girl scouts here at our house, and we would do outdoorsy things that they don't typically do for girls scouts here in the US, like making fire. So I think that's a good place to start.
McGurk hiking with daughter Maya in Björkliden, Lapland. Photo: Linda Åkeson McGurk
Do you see your book influencing parents, schools, and policymakers worldwide?
I would love that, that would be fantastic! That's part of the purpose of writing, you know. I am really hoping that it will go big for that reason.
We see Scandinavian concepts like hygge and lykke becoming global trends. Do you see friluftsliv going in the same direction?
I hope so. I think allemansrätten is a huge part of friluftsliv, and that is hard to extrapolate to other countries because they don't have that tradition. But I think everyone can have their own version of friluftsliv, where you just recognise the importance of outdoor recreation and being outside in nature for our health – not just for kids but for adults too. It is important that people start looking around their own communities to identify green spaces and see where you can actually engage with nature close to home. You don't have to buy an RV and drive hundreds of miles to the next national park – you just have to create these opportunities, either through partnerships with private landowners, or working with your municipality to create more green spaces. What friluftsliv really is, is a democratization of access to nature: it's just an attitude that you can have regardless.
What are your plans for the future?
Well, it's all up in the air, but I'm hoping I'll be able to continue to spread this message whether through speaking or writing more books. I could definitely see myself spending more time in Scandinavia in the future, but I don't have anything definite yet. It's all up in the air.
'There's No Such Thing as Bad Weather…' (Touchstone) is on sale from October 3rd.