With Helsinki being rainy and gray at this time of year, and missing all of the snow heaps my friends at home in Boston have been enjoying, I had to head north for a taste of winter. I traveled to the cities of Oulu and Rovaniemi to visit two schools. I’ll be writing some posts about the lessons I observed, but first I’ll share what I saw kids doing when they weren’t learning academic subjects.
Upon arriving at the Metsokangas School in Oulu, the first thing I noticed were the skis. It looked like I might be at a cross country ski center in Vermont. But then I saw the bikes. I’m 100 miles (160 km) south of the Arctic Circle, and kids are biking to school in February. Wow. It was quite a warm day, hovering right around freezing, but most bikes in the US at this time of year are stored in garages or basements, covered with a layer of dust, and in need of a tire pump. Most American elementary school students don’t even bike to school when it’s warm out. And the streets and sidewalks in Oulu were were sheets of ice flanked by huge snow piles.
When I asked about the skis, I was told that they were for physical education class. I also learned that it was swimming week for the school, and all students in grades 1-9 had a swimming class each day. Teachers accompanied students to the community pool, to which they were transported on buses, and the swimming lessons were taught by separate instructors while the teachers supervised. Every school in Oulu has a designated swimming week once per year, ensuring that all children learn how to swim. With over 187,000 lakes in Finland, knowing how to swim is probably one of the most the most practical skills that kids could learn in school.
Other opportunities for physical activity were available inside the school. Ping-pong, pool, and foosball tables could be used by students in their free time. Classrooms had exercise balls to replace a few of the chairs. One teacher told me she regularly rotated the seating chart, and students checked it in anticipation of their turn at the table with the balls. During a transition time in a lesson, a teacher turned on a video of animated characters dancing, and the kids got up and danced along. She does this on a regular basis to get the kids up and moving. This is in addition to the 15-minute outside breaks that occur every hour. To encourage activity when outside, one class operated a library in which all kids in the school could sign out sleds, shovels, and other toys for playing in the snow. Funding for some of these items came from Finnish Schools on the Move, a government program that encourages physical activity during the school day, when commuting to school, and in after-school sports.
Next I traveled to the Ylikylä School in Rovaniemi, a city in Lapland. The streets and sidewalks were covered in hard-packed snow, and the temperature was in the mid 20’s (around -4ºC), quite unusual for the time of year. I knew I was approaching the school when I saw a steady stream of kids skiing, biking, walking, and sledding in the same direction. I want a kick sled! Just put your backpack on the seat, hop on the back, and glide to school.
I had been told to wear warm clothes, as the first graders would be going outside for physical education class, which today would be cross country skiing. At other times, students go ice skating or play typical sports. Finnish schools don’t have separate physical education teachers for the lower grades, and part of the teacher training for classroom teachers includes how to teach PE.
Students got dressed, put on their skis, and lined up on the ski trail along the ice skating rink. After a few laps around the rink, they headed off to a trail with a larger hill that crossed through a forested area. The class has an assistant to help with some of the special education students, and the assistant led students along the trail while the teacher worked individually with one girl. The kids had a great time, and it was a perfect break from work in the classroom. I only wish I had had some skis with me!
It was unseasonably warm during my trip, so I was curious about what happened when the weather was colder. I asked a class of 4th graders in Oulu how they get to school when it’s -20ºC (-4ºF), and nearly all of them said that they still ride their bikes. And why were the kids in Oulu biking rather than skiing or sledding? Because the sidewalks in Oulu were sprinkled with gravel for traction on the ice (salt isn’t used), while the sidewalks in Rovaniemi were covered in packed snow.
I also asked about whether kids always go out for breaks, no matter how cold it is. If it’s below -25ºC (-13ºF), kids have the option of staying inside, but most still go out. And skiing and skating are only done when it’s warmer than -15ºC.
You may be wondering how far kids bike/ski/walk/sled to school and how old the kids are. When kids are in 1st grade (age 7), they typically get to school on their own. This is also true in Helsinki, where I’ve noticed very small kids alone on the city buses. One parent in Oulu told me his 1st grader walks 2 – 2.5 km (1.2 – 1.6 miles). While in Rovaniemi, I stayed with a family that included a 2nd grader who attends the school I visited. In the winter, he rides his sled the 2.5 km to school (even when it’s dark, snowy and cold!). This makes practical sense on so many levels. Parents don’t have to waste time and oil while acting as chauffeurs. Kids get much-needed exercise. And most importantly, kids learn to be independent, something too many kids in the US are deprived of nowadays.
Not wanting to miss out on my own exercise, I recently invested in a pair of running shoes with spikes in the soles. They came in handy when running in Oulu, as the sidewalks were so icy that I walked like an elderly penguin. In the US, people tend to exercise inside during the winter, but it’s not the case here. As long as you have the right clothes, there’s no reason to stay indoors.