Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Finland, Finland, Finland... the country where I want to be…

I’m still digesting and processing everything I saw and gathered in Finland, it’s a lot of very inspiring things to absorb and take in!
Rastaala School is in Espoo, near Helsinki.  It has a forest around it, the Baltic Sea nearby (all frozen at the moment) and a real mix of houses, industry and nature immediately on the doorstep.
Four of us went from Dunkirk Primary School and we’re really looking forward to the return visit of the staff from Rastaala School to England in April; we feel we’ve made some really important connections and want to deepen and continue these.

 One of the powerful things that happened was being able to use Skype to talk with everyone back at Dunkirk during the whole school assembly there.  We were able (with the aid of technology!) to be outside in the grounds of Rastaala School, with some of the staff and pupils there – and behind us the children from the school were sliding in the snow, playing ice-hockey, making things and generally being happy outside.   It meant that when we spoke to everyone at Dunkirk that they could see exactly what it’s like being at school in the thick deep snow and freezing temperatures.   I won’t forget the wonderful “WWWOOOWWWWW” that erupted from the entire assembly at Dunkirk as we panned the computer round and showed them what we were standing amongst!

We’ve been working outside in the snow a lot at Dunkirk (when we’ve had snow) and I could tell how the children there were really excited by the amount of snow in Finland.

 One of the other things that was very striking to see was the way everyone met the deep in snow in Finland with a sense of fun, practicality and welcome.   Everyone really looks forward to the snow there - and people great it by wearing very warm, practical clothes (which are still stylish and beautiful) and then getting outside and enjoying the things the snow offers…   Another striking thing is just how much inside space is given for coats and boots – the school had big, wide corridors with big coat and boot racks; and cafes, museums, restaurants etc all had lots of big space for you to hang up your coats and scarves etc.   (One of the things I’ve always found hard in the UK is just how tiny cloakroom spaces are in schools).

We are working on a project exploring “Why is Water Precious” and exchanging ideas about ways we can investigate this in school. I made a set of origami boats with the older children in Finland and they added their thoughts about water onto these. With the younger children we asked them to draw their favourite things to do outside, so that we could share these with the children back in Nottingham, it was powerful to see how the Finnish children all drew images of themselves making snow castles, ski-ing or skating and sliding in the snow. 

The children wear no uniform at the school and the school staff in Finland dress in a smart but more casual way than you find in UK schools – I really like this because it enables the adults to do practical things.  The children also call the staff by their first names and again this gave a feeling of calmness and respect.  I think that all challenges a conception in the UK about how adults in school should dress etc – its a really important thing to be mindful of.

Cars are all fitted with snow tyres, snow-ploughs continually plough the streets (we very quickly got used to the trucks of snow being driven around!) and pavements and roads are gritted. People seemed to be out everywhere on cross-country skis, sledges, ice-skates and I was really struck by the images this gave of people engaging with their landscape.
Another lovely thing was the way people take off their snow boots inside and wear slippers or thick socks; it gives a sense of calm and gentleness. It’s something we’re trying to set up at Dunkirk and the children and staff there are really embracing that (and I have strong memories of my childhood in the 1970s when we took our outside shoes off and put plimsolls on inside!).

Another thing, common in Scandinavian schools, is that Rastaala School has no fence around it - so there is no imposing physical barrier.  The children know where the edge of the school is and respect this.  I know the context in the UK is totally different, but it makes a huge emotional difference to be at a school where you are not feeling hemmed in by a huge metal fence…

We were lucky enough to take part in one of the regular sports sessions at the school; in the winter this involves cross-country ski-ing, skating or ice-hockey.  I was so struck by the way the children embraced the snow & laughed so much.  I went ski-ing with the younger children, my first time on skis and I was very wobbly!  But I found it incredibly inspiring to see how the 7 year olds were so at ease on skis and how they kept flinging themselves into the snow and laughing so much as they rolled about and tried to get up again!   They were confidant and happy in their bodies, in the landscape and in the weather.   And the pictures in my head of the line of young children in their winter outfits,  ski-ing into the forest near the school will stay with me - it was such a striking visual image.


I’ve been to Finland a few times before, and to other Scandinavian countries, and it always strikes me how calm and gentle people and places are there. I know I’m drawn to the sense of wilderness and connections with nature which are so strong there; even in the midst of cities you feel that a respect for the natural world is close by in everything.

 For me, it was incredibly inspiring to be outside in the thick snow in the forests outside Helsinki – they are magical places and filled me with a sense of stories and calmness.  There were many animals and birds around but I quite loved that they kept themselves hidden away, it meant there were many hints, tracks and signs of creatures but fewer actual sightings; you got the sense that you had only just missed some hares / foxes / deer / red squirrels (or moomins)…  On one morning I was stood in a park in Helsinki, watching some blue tits move amongst the trees and bushes - they suddenly became very agitated and as I watched a stoat in its white winter coat came scampering out from the undergrowth, a really wonderful sight.

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