Quick Q&A: Linda Åkeson McGurk

The secret to raising a healthy child? This author, and mother, emphasizes the importance of outdoor play.

Linda Akeson McGurk, a photographer and writer from Sweden, lives in Covington, Indiana, with her husband and two daughters. Her first book, There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather: A Scandinavian Mom’s Secrets for Raising Healthy, Resilient, and Confident Kids (TouchStone Books) just came out last week amid an increasing amount of scientific research indicating the importance of outside free-play for children. American kids are spending less and less time playing freely outdoors, choosing instead to spend their days inside staring at screens or outside in highly controlled environments. There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather is a deeply personal argument against the current trends of “helicopter parenting” and the “professionalization of childhood.”

A big part of your book is comparing child-rearing practices in Sweden and America. What are some of those differences, and why do you think they exist?
One big difference is that Scandinavian kids play outside in all types of weather, hence the title of the book. It’s just something we grow up with there. Adults and kids go outside every day; it’s considered healthy to go outside and get fresh air, and exercise. You dress for the weather and go outside even if it’s raining or snowing or sleeting. That’s a big part of growing up.

In Scandinavia, being outside is something that’s not only pushed by parents, but preschools, too. Doctors also recommend it. It’s supported by all of our society. We even let our babies nap outside, even in the freezing weather.

The early years of childhood are sacred as far as play goes. There is no striving for kindergarten readiness or pushing kids to start to read and write early, because people are more concerned that the kids just get to be kids and play. Research supports that young children need physical, unstructured activity to grow up healthily. All preschools in Sweden take the kids outside every day for child-led activities with no push to get them to learn academic facts early on.

Yeah, we saw that in a documentary.
Yes, it’s something we do, especially for daycares and places where there are a lot of kids in small spaces. The more time the kids spend outside, the less risk of infection.

We’re curious about the psychological impact of being outside more. Depression is a serious issue in the U.S., and some of that’s brought on by how we handle bad weather. It seems like a lot of people just treat winter like a catastrophic event they’re meant to survive. Do you think Scandinavia’s approach has an impact on depression there?
While I don’t have the statistics on that, I do know that it’s important to get outside to counteract seasonal affect disorder. The problem is that, in Scandinavia, we’re so far north that, even if you do go outside, it’s often very dark.

You still get the benefit of fresh air, but when it comes to season affect disorder, the light has a lot to do with it. If you can get outside in the middle of the day, that definitely helps.

It’s interesting that you brought that up, however, because there is evidence that teenagers and young adults are suffering from depression at a much higher rate in the U.S. because they’re so engrossed in electronics and don’t have the freedom to play like they used to. We tend to think of play as something frivolous, but for kids it’s really essential. It’s how they learn and figure things out. It’s essential to well-being.

In the book, you discuss a time you and your two little ones got in trouble for playing in a creek. Could you tell us about that incident?
We were wading in a stream at a nature preserve here in Covington. The Boy Scouts used to own the property and camp out there, but it’s a nature preserve now, which means it’s highly regulated. The locals around here have made a habit of letting their kids go into the creek, and I had, too. It never even occurred to me that we would be breaking any rules, but I found out one day that wading in the stream was against the rules, so we got slapped with a fine and told that the only thing you’re allowed to do at the preserve is walk the trail, which was devastating to me.

How does one strike a balance between nature preservation and allowing children (and adults) to experience those spaces?
There’s a very fine line. I understand that there are national parks in this country that see millions of visitors every year and it’s important to protect those areas from problematic behavior. There are areas that need those extra protections, but those are not the areas that kids typically frequent.

That prohibitive attitude has spilled over and applies to children’s play areas and nearby nature, too. A national park is not typically where kids go to play. The green spaces close to home are where we really have to make accessible to kids. Places where they can have hands-on activities, where they can use all their senses, because that’s how children best interact with nature. Nature can withstand that, too. Kids being able to do those things in nature is what makes them care about it later in life, and that’s more important than avoiding a little bit of damage when they play. What nature can’t take is all this industrial pollution that is caused by adults.

Akeson McGurk stresses the importance of outdoor play on adolescents.

Have you noticed how the media represents this unhealthy relationship we have with nature? If you think about sitcoms, for example, there are rarely scenes in nature—and in movies, if you’re in the woods, you’re probably about to be murdered.
That is definitely something that thinkers in children-in-nature-movement point out. My family often DVRs nature shows, and they’re so sensationalized. It is all about the biggest predators, killing, and danger. It’s all drummed up to show nature as a violent place. Yes, nature is full of life and death as part of the life cycle, but these programs give kids a stilted idea. We need more shows geared towards a slower, more peaceful narrative.

In America, we have a doomsday fear about nature, often brought about by our mistreatment of the environment, but then we’re also often very dismissive of environmental problems. Is there anything comparable to that duality in Sweden?
In Scandinavia, it’s different because children grow up with a close relationship with nature, fostered by trips into the woods with their parents and teachers, where they learn to cohabitate with nature. They learn from a very early age that they are part of nature, and that is the big difference between Scandinavia and the U.S. In the U.S., there is more of a human-centered view of nature that considers it an entity to extract resources from. Something that is separable from humans. The other view here is that humans are stewards of nature, which we take care of it. Both are opposed to the dominating view in Scandinavia: that we’re just part of nature.

End on an easy question: What’s your favorite warm-weather activity and cold-weather activity to do with your kids?
For warm weather, I have to say the beach. Summers are hot here in Indiana, so we stay close to the water during that time. In the winter, we all enjoy downhill skiing—which is missing in Indiana—but we also enjoy sledding.