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.

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“It doesn´t rain in our forest” – visit to forest school in Tammela, Finland.

Finland is one of those countries, where the forest school movement has been rising in popularity in the recent years. In the last 10 years, some 30 forest schools have been established. Most of these are pre-schools that cater for 5-6-year-olds, who spend most days of the week or the most hours of the day at a specific, dedicated natural area, usually a forest.

I contacted the Tammela forest pre-school school  to see if I could visit them and was warmly welcomed by kindergarten teacher Mia Kaseva, who has just started her first year in the forest, though not her first year in the kindergarten.

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A bit before 9 am I arrive at the school where the group is preparing to leave. The kids leave the daycare and kindergarten facilities around 9.00 Tuesday through Friday, and they stay to play, learn, eat and move around in the forest until 12.30 when they walk back to the school. In the afternoon the kids either stay at school or are picked up by parents, grandparents or the school taxi (for kids who live firther away in the country side).

The walk to the forest school is approximately 1 km, and it gives the kids a good practice about traffic safety, as they have to walk next to the road.. On Mondays the kids stay at the day care  engaging in tasks that require a computer or writing and that would be more difficult to accomplish outside.

The kids arrive to the main school building  and already have their  outdoor gear (weather fitting clothes, shoes and head wear) on. They put on their  yellow reflector vests to be more visible on their walk. Leena Vasama, the brain and heart behind the forest preschool, tells me that the kids know to dress for the  school. The parents have been well informed at the start of the year, they have visited the site to see what their kids will be up against and have equipped their 5-6-year-olds well. That´s important, as cold and wet can cripple the play.

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The kids grab some things they need at the forest school site, e.g. shovels, and start walking in a row with one teacher in the front as the rabbit, and another one at the end  as the turtle.

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As we arrive to the forest, the kids take out their reflector vests and backpacks and hang them in a small wooden shelter at the entrance of the forest school site. Rather than allowing the kids to run around free immediately, the teachers have a message to share with them. It turns out, the teachers have witnessed a few “border crossovers” the day before and now it´s time to go through the forest school borders once again. According to Leena, this happens only at the beginning of the year, when the kids are not yet used to the border markings. Later on, they can remove the markings as everyone knows and obeys the borders.

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After the round, the kids are free to take off to their favorite activities – playtime! Most kids run to grab the shovels. Leena tells me that until last year, they didn’t  have any “toys” at the site. The saws, knives, hammers, and other tools were their only equipment which were used to build and repair, also by the children. The kids were fine without the toys and used sticks and stones and other natural materials that were molded by their imagination.

There are altogether 11 kids playing around the area. As for the ideal number of children, Leena has a quick answer. Ten is perfect, 11, maybe 12, is doable but any more makes it difficult to keep an eye on the kids and to ensure their safety, as well as to fit them in the “Himmeli”, their little shelter house where they spend some time in the winter months when it is really cold (somewhere below  minus 20 degrees Celcius).

IMG_20160825_112814The forest school has been popular from the beginning. There has been 17 kids some years ago, even 19 kids, but that was clearly too many. When interests were high,  some kids had to be enrolled in the regular (indoor) pre-school. However, this year, there is only one pre-school class and that is the forest one, as there are only 11 kids of pre-school age. Though for the forest school this is a perfect amount of children, Leena is worried. There´s been a dramatic drop in birthrate in the recent years in Tammela and the municipality is seeing more people leave (move or die) than be born.

The school has been through some difficulties of their own. When the forest pre-school first started in 2009, the shelter they had for them was an old army tent fit for many people. However, when the Tammela preschool got a new building in a new location, the forest preschool was in jeopardy as there was no nearby forest next to the new school to accomodate the schools forest class. However,  Leena didn’t let the idea die but went around scoping out possible locations near the school, and asking the landowners for their consent. And she managed to find a spot at the border of three different landowners. Luckily, all of the landowners were willing to give the parcel for free for the use of the school for a number of years. However, since the headmaster had other priorities than keeping the forest pre-school going, no funds were made available for establishing a new forest school.  Leena mobilized the board of the parents, the local entrepreneurs and finally was able to raise enough money and materials to build a winter warm shelter  which was erected with the help of the parents, a composting toilet and a laavu-shelter for year round daily use.

And finally, when everything was set up and everything was running well, the school is now threatened by too few students.

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Donors of materials are listed on the wall of Himmeli

After some playtime, it´s time to gather the kids for a morning snack – some bread with butter and a drink of water. They eat this in the laavu and then start discussing the calendar. They talk about the seasons and the signs that tell it is the end of the summer. After this, they collect their seat cushions and grab some writing equipment and make their way to the rocky outcrop that is bathing in the sun. The kids sit down in a row and with the lead of Mia, they continue their work around the theme of drawing a birch tree. They also practice writing the word “summer (kesä)”. There is no bickering, everyone has their spot, everyone is heard. And everyone is concentrating in their own work.

In the meantime, Leena shows me around the compound. The tepee turns out to be a wood burning sauna which the children have built themselves. Here the kids take a sauna sometime, a detail exotic to some, but  common in the Finnish culture from which the sauna originates. All materials of the sauna as well as everything on the compound is recycled or received as a donation. Or “begged for” as Leena puts it.

Leena has no problem begging for things. She loves her work. Both teachers especially love the effect being in nature has on the children. First of all, “it doesn’t rain in the forest”, say the kids. Secondly, there´s room to play and the days go fast.  The teachers have seen impressive developments in some kids with learning difficulties  who have already been made a plan to follow special education and who have miraculously been cured after some months in the forest pre-school. These children calm down and their concentration skills improve. In addition, the teachers see the kids find their place in a group immediately as they engage in their own games and plays in the forest. No one is left alone.

As one of the main comments from the parents, Leena mentions, is that the parents have a lot of their own time back in the evenings, as the children, who arrive home from the forest school want to engage in calm, solitary activities like drawing or flipping through books, or playing games. Gone are the difficult evenings where children refuse to go to bed, as their appetite is healthy they are ready to go to sleep after a a day in the fresh air and physical exercise outdoors.

But are the kids really outside all the time? Yes. Only in the winter, they gather inside the Himmeli to eat and to do some tasks. But even then, they stay outside. Only if the weather turns very bad, e.g. dangerously stormy, they stay inside or do not come to the forest site at all. In the winter, there is no “freezing limit”, the kids go out as they want, even when it´s -25 degrees Celsius or colder. There is a fire burning in front of the laavu warming up that shelter, as well as in Himmeli. And that, along side constant movement that being outdoors inspires, seems to be enough to keep the kids warm.

 

At around 11, the food arrives. The food comes from the central kitchen, heated, and is dropped off at the side of the road, where the kids have dropped off the dishes from yesterday just this morning.

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Dropping off yesterday´s dishes to the side of the road and picking up warm food.

Today we eat spaghetti casserole, watermelon salad and some crackers and water. Luxurious, if you ask me. And everything tastes delicious in the outdoors.

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Every child takes only as much as they can eat. There´s always room for seconds.

After food, the kids run out to play a bit more. Some are balancing on the tree trunk, some are playing  on a raft while others have collected a lot of snails and made a kindergarten for them.

The kids gather around for one more game they have asked Mia if they could play. Then it´s time  to start wrapping up and get back to the school where some kids stay until later in the afternoon before they are picked up. At the forest, the kids put their reflector vests on and form a line. “See you tomorrow””, they say, as they wave goodbye to the forest. Their forest.

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Isojärvi national park, FI, Trekking course

We, myself and my partner, had signed up for a trekking course in south central Finland. The course was my birthday present for my 40-year-old partner. Though I´ve gone hiking near the Icelandic glaciers, the Yukon wilderness, Hawaiian mountains and beaches, and the Finnish forests, it´s been years since the last time I´ve spent a night under the stars.

We had no expectations, other than to be able to spend a night in the nature with some experienced people and get a fair dose of trekking-related information.

We arrived at Isojärvi national park´s parking on Saturday at 12.00. It had started raining lightly just a moment before. The parking was, in Finnish terms, full of cars. I was surprised to see that many people. Were they all coming along?

The organizers, Minna and Vesa, handed out our food containers, the dried food packages and a trangia, the cooker that was to be used during the trip to cook all our food. This we packed into out gear, or, my partner did. We were also handed out the maps of the area, a printed A4.

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When we all had packed up the gear we had received and all of the participants, all together 11 of us, had arrived, we headed to the forest.

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The Isojärvi park is formed around the  Lake Isojärvi, which is a lake formed inside a fracture in the earth’s crust.The  beautiful park is covered mostly by dry and moist forests, with a small area of old growth herb-rich forest but also rugged pine forests on top of the rocks.  Species of interest include the Canadian Beaver (Castor canadensis) that had been doing some extensive maintenance works causing the water level of the lake to rise, as well as the Black-throated Diver (Gavia arctica), which provided us with entertainment with its territorial battles as we enjoyed the fire by the lake side in the evening.

We walked only a few hundred meters when we had our first stop at the first camping site. Here, Minna and Vesa asked us to take out the cookers and demonstrated their use. We learned about the different kinds of cookers on the market, their pros and cons and then cooked some water to make us some coffee (just add water!).

After we had enjoyed our coffees and packed away our cookers, we took out the maps Minna had handed out. They quickly ran us through the different signs on the map, how to use to compass on the map and to show us the direction we were supposed to be headed to. I had a feeling I had learned all this at school, but since it is already more years ago than I care to remember, I had forgot about the details. It was about time for a refresher.

At the Finnish national parks, there are different kinds of camping sites. The facilities  include:

  • picnic sites with tables, cooking shelters and campfire sites with free firewood
  • free facilities such as wells and campfire sites in areas reserved for free camping
  • shelters where visitors may sleep overnight
  • compost toilets
  • waste collection points

(source: Nationalparks.fi )

During our hike, we saw rich forest areas covered with blueberry, areas where we could imagine at nightfall would be the working grounds of the busy beavers.

At times when something remarkable was to be seen in the  landscape, Minna made us stop and look for the spot on the map, to see if we could still “find ourselves on the map”. Places like these included sharp cliffs, big boulders, swampy areas etc that were easy to be seen on the map.

After a while we stopped for a small eating and drinking brake. This was a welcome stop as we had left with just a breakfast in our stomachs. The sandwiches and boiled eggs tasted heavenly in the fresh air. At the same time,the backpack in the back of my partner was getting lighter for him to carry.

We then arrived at our camping site where we found 4 people resting, having started a fire in the fire place. Turned out, that these people had left late at night, with a plan to do a night hike. However, in the dim light of the forest, they had  got lost from their originally planned path and ended up finding their way to the laavu (a type of lean-to shelter) at 4 am. There they rested and slept most of the day until we got there, at around 2pm.They later on excused themselves and walked further.

At these campsites the unspoken rule states that one must make room for others as well. If there´s a traveler who wants to spend the night at the laavu they have the right to stay there for that one night but they need to share the fireplace with others.

Around 4 pm,  we started cooking our dinners. The trangia we were using, was very handy, consisting of 2 pots, one bigger, one smaller, one frying pan, the stands (2 pieces), a sieve and a belt to hold it all together. We took some water from the lake and started boiling it. Tonight on the menu was Italian pata (Italian stew) – a ready made meal to which we would add dried soy. My partner who normally does not cook much, enjoyed the cooking seemingly much. Though the cooking water came straight from the lake, the water that we used for drinking was run through a water purification bag. This active carbon filtered water filter was, according to the organizers, a very effective purifier, having used it at lake Laatokka for very green, algae laden water. The filter would be effective in cleaning everything, except viruses. However, Vesa and Minna reminded us that in the northern Finland, it is not necessary to use this filter as the waters are so clean.

I was reminded of why I absolutely love the Finnish nature and why it is the biggest treasure Finns have. The fact that we could scoop our water from the lake and use that for cooking, and seeing the lichen covered trees with naava, luppo and tons of other kinds of lichens growing on the trees, reminded me again of the purity of this environment. Lichens, especially naava and luppo, are excellent indicators of the air´s quality as they only grow in clean air.

After dinner, MInna showed us the usual contents of her backpack. The back that weigh about 17 kilos, was equipped with everything one would need for 24 hours. Indeed, with the same stuff one could go for a longer time as well, as long as they would pack more food. But the basic things from safety to comfort were all included.

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What we learned is that if comfort equals discomfort and vice versa. This means, that if you want to camp and sleep comfortably, you will have to suffer for it a bit on the way. However, packing lightly and being comfortable during the hike would mean sleeping uncomfortably or missing some crucial pieces of equipment.

Then it was time  to set up our tents. Minna and Vesa had scoped out the spots were the tents would be best set up. This was also the reason we hiked to this exact location, because we could house that many tents in this spot easily. Plus, some usual spots could not be used as the ground was still wet fro the past days rain.

As we started to set up the tents, we had an introduction to the types of tents that can be found on the market and the kinds of specifics they come with.

 

We got to sleep in the (green one above) laavu looking tent. This turned out to be a nice tent, easy to set up, though a bit too wide for just the two of us who didn´t have much stuff with us on this trip. It would be better to surround yourself with as many backpacks and things around to keep you from rolling off your mat, which inevitably happened.

After the tents were set up and all our stuff was in, we headed down to the fireplace to just sit around and chill. We exchanged stories, took the opportunity to ask all kinds of questions to the organizers who have extensive experience in hiking in the wilderness.  Minna told us about the culture of exchange and how friendly and helpful people are towards hikers and campers in the wilderness of the north. For example, when the urge for lemonade hits, even multivitamin tablets work as an exchange items, especially if the other person has chocolate or rye bread to spare. This pleasant chatter was enriched by the territorial fight of the three Black-throated Divers (kaakkuri).

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Later on, when the evening started to get dimmer (remember, it doesn´t get dark at night in the Finnish summer), we decided to walk to where we had seen the beaver work grounds.  However, my greed for the blueberries and the mosquitoes that smelled us, distracted us and we never got to the beavers. The two people who left before us to the beavers did get to see 4 of them swimming around in their newly dammed pond!

It was finally time to hit the tent. I had forgotten the most crucual part of my camping equipment + the woolen socks. Luckily Minna has an extra spair (but of course!) which she let me borrow. I slept supringly well though the silence kept me up some time. I woke up only as my partner complained about my snoring or when i rolled off from the mattras.

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In the morning, I was surprised about how well I had slept. I was also mesmerized about the beauty of the place and the clear blue skies. I felt almost giddy.

In the morning we made breakfast, which consisted of rolled oats which we then pimped with some jam and butter as well as the beautiful blue berries (actually, technically they are bilberries, Vaccinium myrtillus, mustikka) found in the forest and the banana found in my backpack.

 

After breakfast, doing the dishes and packing up the tents, it was time continue our journey, and start returning back. The trail back was somewhat steeper and as the sun was out, it got warm very fast.  On the way, we could see some beautiful sceneries, lit up by the glorious sunlight.

Around 2 pm we got to our camp site, where we then cooked up our  lunch.

On the menu today was lihaperunasoselaatikko (a kind of stew made of  mashed potatoes, minced meat and vegetables). All the ingredients, besides the mashed potatoes which came in a premade and dried bag, were dried by Minna and Vesa themselves. Impressive! Again, we took water from the lake, removed the little moving insects in it, and started boiling the water on the trangia.  We added the vegetables, the dried minced meat and the spice cube (bouillon). After about 10-15 minutes, we took it off the heat and added the dried  mashed potatoes and a scoop of butter into it. Maybe it was the hunger or my taste buds that had been altered, but this all tasted seriously delicious.

 

We made a coffee from the excess water we had boiled and poured the rest of the water into our dirty dishes to soak.  We enjoyed the last bits of each others´ company, packed up and started heading back to the parking lot where we started.

By 15.00 we were back, as had been announced in the program.

The course did not feel like a course but a trip with friends. Friends who were well prepared. I got excited about taking our kids out to a hike the same summer, but Minna reminded me, that with small children, you will have to carry much more things, plus, most likely, some of the kids will need to be carried as well. Therefore, it´s better to do day trips but leave the overnight camping trips for later when everyone can walk and perhaps even carry some of their own things. But in the meantime, we can get into the mood of real survival by cooking our own food on our day trips with our brand new trangia.