Winter post #2: Big splash in the bucket

This weekend we, 3 friends of mine and myself, treated ourselves to a weekend at the sea. Though I´m not a big fan of the Belgian coast with its fully built shoreline but rather prefer the Dutch coastline and its many dunes, we couldn’t and wouldn’t turn down a chance to overnight at an ocean front apartment.

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Oostende was recuperating from a northwestern storm called Dieter that made some big waves and caused the gusts of wind to be mighty powerful. These gusts also brought ashore a bunch of seabirds that would normally not make their way to the coast. One type of seabird, on the other hand, made its business to get to know us much more intimately.

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We were walking down the shoreline, slowly making our way to the city for some fresh fish, when we suddenly crossed paths with a bird. This bird immediately headed towards us, directly to the feet of my friend, making a noise and not looking very happy at all. We had the impression it had hurt itself – why else would it so fearlessly approach humans. And fearless it was, and very determined to be making contact with one of my friends. I thought of the shelter for injured birds close to where I live and how there would have to be something similar in a city as big as Oostende. I quickly found the number and called them and as luck would have it, they answered and sent someone to pick up the bird immediately!

As I grabbed my phone,  my friend grabbed the bird who almost immediately stopped the weak attempts to peck at my friend´s glove covered hands and settled down in the warm woolen mittens. We could´t figure out the type of bird that this was, though we agreed it looked a bit like a penguin. Suddenly one of my friends remembered the name of the bird her 6-year-old son, who happens to be into birds, had taught her. This bird could be a razorbill (ruokki in Finnish, alk in Dutch).

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After the bird was rescued by one of the volunteers from the Middelkerke Vogelaziel, we continued our weekend of good food and wine, long conversations, belly laughter, no tears (this time, how odd) and lots of walks in the sea breeze.

The next day we were back in action. As we walked along the shore, we started noticing more and more crap that had washed ashore. It was incredible: everything from pieces of fish nets, ropes (heavy-duty and just normal-duty), lots and lots of plastic bottle caps and plastic bottles, and pieces of torn balloons.. Everywhere we looked, there was crap to be picked up. We finally picked up the old plastic baskets that once probably belonged to some fishermen who had lost their fishing baskets as they were blown off from the deck to the sea and landed back on the shore. They worked out well as our trash carriers. We must have emptied those things to the trash cans on the boardwalk  4-5 times on our trip, which took about an hour.

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Cleaning up the shore or the forest is something I am in the habit of doing. I don´t go to the forest or the seaside with the intention of cleaning up, but I cannot help but pick up the crap that I come across.

Though not all of my friends were into this immediately because following the we-are-only-drop-in-the-ocean-philosophy, they didn’t see the point of starting on this never ending task. In the end,  however we were all squatting on the beach picking up the trash.

This kind of catch could make one depressed, but to me it works just the opposite. It gives me a rush of hope, of competence and a feeling that I can do something. I can help out, by making sure my crap doesn’t end up in the ocean, educating my children to protect the ocean and keep on picking up the crap that I come across and to lead by example.

Similarly, us attempting to save that birdie, was a reminder that indeed, small drops can together make a big splash in the bucket.  This birdie was not supposed to be where it was,  but nevertheless ended up on the Belgian coast being cuddled by a Finnish woman, with three other Finnish women fussing over it. She (or he) certainly made an impression on us – it was a lovely contact we had with nature, and though we worried about how the poor thing would turn out, we were happy because we knew it ended up in a warm and safe place where it had the best chances of making it out and back to where it should be – alive.

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Winter post #1: The Wonder of Snow

Last night it started snowing in Belgium.

The snowfall came as a result of the storm that is said to be the strongest in 50 years time. But where we live, we have only seen a heavy snowfall. Snowfall of snow flakes the size of two euro coins.

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Talvi means winter in Finnish

I am a winter´s child, born  in the middle of the coldest winter. I love winter so much I couldn’t help but run outside at 11pm last night, just to enjoy the wonder of snow.

There I was, standing in the snowfall, sticking my tongue out, and enjoying the wet snow. Immediately, when there´s a snow cover, the landscape becomes quieter. Somehow, the snow absorbs the sounds, or at least this is how I have always experienced it.

Finally, I went inside hoping that the snow would stick until the morning so my kids would be able to enjoy it as well.

And it stuck! It must have snowed all through the night to have the snow stick even if the temperatures stayed above freezing.

And boy did my kids enjoy it! Especially the smallest one for whom this was the second contact with snow in his young life. He smelled the snow, and he tasted it. He walked in it, he crawled in it. He dug it. He made snowballs out of it. He smashed those. He threw the snow. He rolled in it and he made snow-angels in it.

And he had a fit when I dared to suggest that we go inside to have lunch.

After his nap, he wanted to go back out, especially, because it was snowing again. Luckily I have spare outdoor clothes, because the first outing´s clothes were completely drenched.

Same routine, now with bike included.  After his nap, he wanted to go out yet again. And again, there was a fit when it was time to go in.

 

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This is my son, almost 3-yrs-old, making snow angels.
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This is me, almost 39-yrs-old, making tractor marks.

Though we have over 30 years between us, it seems that we feel the same way about outdoor play. I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Luckily.

Skipakje vs. ballerinas: how to dress your kid against the cold.

“Oh, what a cute skipakje (Dutch for skiing outfit) your child is wearing!”, is a sentence that probably most Scandinavians or at least the Finnish mothers in Belgium have heard. The comment is followed by a well meaning laughter and a smile. This happens when our children appear to any outing wearing what is very common in our cold corner of the world: the winter overall.

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In Finland, this type of clothing is common, convenient and coveted as children still spend a lot of time outdoors even in the winter. Yes, even when it´s below freezing. Outdoor playtime is valued as the fresh air is known to be good for the immunity, refreshing our little ones and guaranteeing a good night´s sleep, not forgetting the better appetite and less complaining at the dinner table.

This sentence used to make me agitated. Nowadays, with the importance of outdoor play  gaining more weight in the media,  I sometimes also hear encouraging comments like, “My kid could use a pakje like that”. Indeed,  more and more articles, newsletter pieces, blog (mine included) and Facebook posts and Tweets are underlining the importance of nature and outdoors for everyone´s health. Still, us, parents who choose for these outfits that aim at keeping the kids warm from head to toe, allowing them to move flexibly in sturdy and warm outfits that on top of everything else are easy to clean, are in the minority.

And, to add to the amusement of the majority, it´s not only in the winter that we choose to dress our kids in the so called skipakjes. We also have lighter versions of those pakjes that include only a thin lining or no lining at all (AND, the pakjes also come in two-piece suits). As a result, our children are the ones running across the playground in their pakjes, or whizzing over the frozen puddles in their play-enabling clothes. In rainy weather, we dress them in full rain gear, i.e. more than the rubber boots. In fact, our rain gear includes a jacket, pants and even gloves that, ones you have on, it´s impossible to resist the urge to  run into the biggest puddles head first.

And, while our kids are enjoying their getting-dirty-&-wet action, the  rest of the  parents choose to keep their children´s upper bodies warm, while lower bodies are kept cool. Or this is how it looks with the current winter attires that often include warm  jackets, scarfs, in 60% of the cases, beanies or other head-wear and sometimes also gloves. And then, regular pants or jeans for boys (with or without long underwear?) and stockings and dresses for girls. Shoes that are worn are pretty, but pretty does not always equal pretty warm in this cool and damp weather. In case rubber boots are worn, I hope the little toes are dressed in woolen socks in those boots because, without them, the kid is getting cold in an instant (leading to an unhappy, shivering child).

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My Spanish friend is used to the very warm weather and has asked me for some help in clothing her kids for the Belgian winter. This same friend´s Spanish mom was once horrified when she witnessed her daughter´s Finnish friend (that would be myself) readying her baby to take a nap outside in the buggy “in the freezing cold” (I believe it was about plus 5 degrees Celsius outside then). I get it, it´s a totally different climate and southern Spaniards have no to little experience of freezing cold temperatures in their latitudes. I, likewise, welcome my warm blooded friend´s advise on keeping my kids cool during the hot summer. She´s an expert on that.  In Finland, those hot summer days, though they do occur, are still limited to only few and far between.

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Different occasion, but still, napping outside is common to Nordic babies. Heck, our buggies are bigger for that reason too.

So here´s my advise to my Spanish friend as well as for all those parents who find our skipakje choices odd. If you plan on spending time outside with your child this winter, these clothing tips are guaranteed to keep it more fun for both of you.

For a cold winter day (anywhere colder than +5) these clothes include:

Also include:

  • Mittens, rather than the types of gloves that separate fingers. Mittens are warmer.
  • A kauluri , i.e. a neckwarmer or a polo shirt to keep the neck warm. I would advise against scarfs for little children because…well, you do the math.
  • Warm shoes that are water tight and that can fit a pair of preferably woolen socks in them.
  • Add a water proof or water resistant layer, according to your judgement, unless your overall is water resistant.
  • A beanie

By dressing your kid accordingly, they can have more fun, be more daring in their experimenting with the natural elements and the parent will have much less washing to do in the end. Win-win.

Forest school in Belgium

Quite unexpectedly, I heard about a forest school in Belgium. Someone who had the same trajectory as the kids in their reflecting vests heading toward a big park in Gent mentioned it to me. Apparently there had even been a piece in the newspaper about them. How could it  be that I did not know this?

My guess is because the “Buitenklas” (Engl. outside classroom) takes place as part of the Steiner school and for most people, the forest school sounds like something the Steiner school could have invented by themselves. After all, the Steiner school is all about the natural material, the softer approach and closeness to nature (says me, who has little to no exposure to the Steiner school — until recently).

I had a date with Claudia, a Swiss born teacher at the school in the early afternoon, when the class had already returned from their site. Claudia asked me to come at an occasion when the kids are not there, so as not to disrupt the class. For me this was perfectly understandable, and also something I didn’t deem necessary. After all, I do know what the kids are bound to do in the natural surroundings.

We first went to check out the first site they had had. This was a hilly little forest corner at the outer banks of Bourgoyen park. However, because the site was not closed off , there was no way to protect the tree houses or other structures the children had built from being broken down by others. On top of it, there was too much dangerous trash being left behind at the park, so Claudie went to look for a new site. They finally found one, from the large garden of a nice couple very close to the initial site.

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Claudia and the parents build a shelter for the children and acquired other materials that would be needed at the Buitenklas, such as a fireplace, storage facility. Because this edge of a garden was for the children´s use, they were able to start their own little vegetable patch and a herb spiral and claim the site for themselves. They were also able to leave their treasures as they were knew that they would be able to find it all back the same way they left it.

img_20161024_150728The Buitenklas is outside every morning  until about  12.20. Claudia is at the site  from 8 onward and the children are brought there directly by their parents or they walk to the site  together with the child carer who waits for the chidlren at the school. By 8.45 they are ready to start the day. By the time everyone has arrived, the children who have arrived as first ones, have already had the time to play.

The day starts with a moment sitting down in a ring in the shelter and greeting everything around them, the plants, trees and the bird. The day is filled with singing,  moving, doing handicrafts and having a chance to participate in the chores, such as making soup, cracking nuts etc. On Tuesday´s the children get to enjoy an open fire, an important natural element to us all. The nature around invites the children to use their imagination so toys are not necessary though there are some dolls and hand puppets that can be used. There is also a “mud kitchen” where getting hands dirty is a requirement. The chidlren get used to using tools such as  saws, hammers, sandpaper, wool  etc. to build structures to play house in, to play the supermarket, etc. On top of that, their site invites them to run through the bamboo thickets, play hide and seek and observe the nature around.

The Buitenklas has been running since September 2012. Claudia says she is doing the same things she would be doing inside, only, she is using less paper and pencils. The children enjoy playing outside and the parents have been supportive. Those wanting to enroll their children in the Buitenklas need to still go through a waiting list.. The parents who sign up their children for the Buitenklas, are aware of what they are putting their kids into and therefore there have been no difficulties in having the children be correctly equipped  in terms of clothing etc.

Claudia feels lucky to be able to run her Buitenklas outside as she realizes that this  is not self-evident. However, as the ideology of learning outside is close to the ideology of the Steinerschool, it is less of a hassle and work to motivate the leadership to find the money for the extra child carer to accompany Claudia outside everyday.

The waiting list for this class goes to show there is need for such education. As I am about to send my 2.5 year old in the school, Claudia´s Buitenklas seems like the obvious choice. However, I take my children to nature and I make sure they play outside every day.Therefore,  I feel that there are more deserving kids out there who would need this place more than my little one.
I find it sad that the value of free form nature play has yet to be widely recognized in Belgium. It is still the privilege of a few children, whose parents are aware of the importance and let´s face it, probably anyway bring their kids to nature on a regular basis. Those children, who would need it even more urgently, i.e. children of parents who do not spend time outside in nature or see little or no value in environmental and nature education, are being left out as the schools are not pushing free form nature play. Though every bit is better than nothing, I doubt that a week at the sea, or a week in the forest class, is enough to help build a nature relationship where there has been none.
The Buitenklas allows the children to come in contact with the familiar nature, learn about it through observing it and interacting with it, and build a bond with it. What you know and love, you want to take care of as well.  Applies to many things, doesn’t it?

Power of N(ature)

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Today I took an extra little person to the forest with me, together with a friend of mine and my kids.

My kids are already so used to going to the forest, they walk in like it is their backyard.  They also have learned to maneuver in the forest and in other challenging terrains without tripping. My 2-year-old mostly navigates straight into the puddles, purposefully and with a with a big grin.

As soon as we got there, this extra little person told me his plan: he was going to collect this and that, climb all the trees around and definitely stomp around in the mud pools I had told him we would find in this particularly wet forest. He was goal oriented and determined. I couldn´t help but get the feeling he was there to process the forest, to do it, and get it over with. Mind you, it was a very positive place for him to be in,  but there was a feeling of hurry about him.

I tried to point out a few things (hear that sounds? see that little hole?), show a few things (the fungi on the tree trunks “eating” the dead wood, the heart-shaped seeds on the ground), but mostly leave them all to play freely as we walked along slowly.
I made them walk through the whole loop, which is less than 2km, and through the course of it, he calmed down. Not because he was tired, but because of the effect of the forest. It was quiet. We were the only ones there. And he could do whatever he wanted.

When we returned him home, I got a big hug and a question “when do we go again?”. Mission accomplished.

The feedback I got from the little ones mom made me even more convinced it had been the forest working on him as the mom reported seeing a calm child behaving nicely later on the same evening.

This experience reminded me of how crucial it is to enter the forest in a small group to be able to get the best out of it. In this country, finding a place without man made sounds (cars, industry, air planes) is difficult and therefore, we are all constantly bombarded with noise. Therefore, those moments we do find some silence, it´s best to make use of them in small groups, rather than having a whole class enter the forest and ending up filling that space too with man made sounds. In that case, we could just as well stay in the city playground .

I also learned that even if you take your kids to the forest every week, if you always plant ideas and expectations in their heads, and always tell them to ´quick, go climb a tree, pick a flower, do this and that…and remember to enjoy!!´, a lot of it is lost as there needn’t be any hurry in nature. So, let´s just open the door to nature without expectations,  and let the children do their thing, and nature WILL do its magic.