Nature intelligence and Scandinavian friluftsliv

Nature intelligence and Scandinavian friluftsliv

by Gunter Grün


The term Friluftsliv refers to a strong Scandinavian tradition of being out and about in nature and connecting with it. Friluftsliv, as it is still actively taught in Scandinavia today, offers a wide range of possibilities and techniques. What are the reasons for us in the rest of Europe to consider this Scandinavian phenomenon?

It was about a year ago in February 2022: I first got a call from Prof. Dr. Agnes van den Berg in Holland. She told me about the Erasmus plus program “Nature Intelligence for our children” offered by the Annatta Foundation. Now I look at the project’s website, that shows a flower-shaped diagram. In the petals, abstract terms are arranged in a circle around the letters NQ, the synonym for natural intelligence. Every word evokes a real feeling, a real memory, a living image in my mind.

In the red petal Emotion I read connectedness and spontaneously remember my overwhelming feelings when I walked barefoot over a fjäll, a Swedish high mountain plain, for the first time in summer. My feet sank into the cool moss soaked in water. I stepped over rough, warm rock, over springy Fjällbirch branches, while in my nose was the spicy scent of marsh tea and in the air the calls of golden plovers …it all spoke of connectedness.

The word socialising highlighted in a green petal on the diagram under Action. The image of a campfire on the riverbank immediately comes to mind. I am with my classmates singing and laughing in the firelight. It was while we took the Friluftsliv training together at a Swedish adult education center about 20 years ago. A pot of fragrant stew bubbles over the fire, the ingredients of which we had planned for
together, chopped up and brought all the way out into the wilderness in the canoes… Yes, socialising.

In the blue petal of cognition I find the term outdoor skills, among other things. A whole cascade of images rushes past my inner eyes: me carving my first spoon on a hike, our Friluftsliv mentor Bosse, who taught us to read whitewater before we canoe down it, a quickly pitched camp in the forest where, despite the rain and cold, all are warm, dry, full and in a good mood… A cabin in a snow-covered mountain range that emerges at the end of the day from thick fog exactly where it should be according to the map… Outdoor skills.

In the last petal Spirit I read the word transcendence alongside authenticity and mindfulness. Then I immerse myself in a midsummer night shimmering in pastel tones on the Baltic Sea. The silky surface of the water merges with the horizonless orange, violet and turquoise sky around us. In the kayak, our bodies lift and reflect with the deep soothing breath of the swell. The round head of a seal silently appears in front of us. The seal and we gaze at each other for a long time in quiet agreemen about the beauty of this moment… transcendence.

I am aware that I already and especially as a child, have had countless of valuable nature experiences, and that without them, I would never have had the idea of starting a Friluftsliv training in Sweden. And yet precisely this most formative phase in my life gave me access to so many more great experiences. As part of a one-year full-time course, I became familiar with the Scandinavian tradition of Friluftsliv, and trained my ability to explore and learn about different natural areas such as mountains, forests, rivers, and the sea in traditional ways. We often use self-made equipment such as canoes, wooden skis or kayaks. Also, as a so-called Vägleder, I accompanied and taught groups of different ages. Friluftsliv and Vägledning became more than a hobby or a job for me, it became a way of life.

As familiar as the term Friluftsliv is to every Norwegian or Swede, this tradition is still unknown outside of Scandinavia, even though interest in it has increased significantly in recent years. I will therefore try to outline what is behind it and why it cannot be equated with the popular term outdoor life. The people who settled in Scandinavia after the last Ice Age were always dependent on ensuring their survival through precise knowledge of nature and they used a variety of skills in dealing with it. This involuntarily created a deep connection to nature, which was reflected in diverse traditions over the centuries. Nevertheless, even in Scandinavia, it was not until the 19th century, with the beginning of
industrialization that large parts of the population began to move regularly to the mountains and forests, driven by their distance from nature in urban life and having an increase in leisure time to reconnect with these roots.

However, it was never just about outdoor exercise’s sporting or health-promoting aspect. The aesthetic experience and reflection of nature was always an essentialmotivation for Friluftsliv too, as well as experiencing community under the simple conditions in nature. And last but not least, the spiritual perception of nature as something larger, of which we humans are a part. Due to the external perspective that Frilufsliv offers on our civilization from the outside, a socially critical, political and environmentally active component was increasingly added to Friluftsliv from the 1970s onwards.

For me, the fundamental difference between Friluftsliv and the usual concept of outdoor, which commercial players and interests heavily dominate, lies in the specific nature of the relationship between people and nature: while in the case of outdoor, nature provides the necessary framework for adventure consumption, sporting challenges, active health promotion and in times of social media increasingly also provides for self-presentation, it becomes an object of use. Nature in Friluftsliv remains a subject, that I try to approach by further developing my abilities, to go into resonance with it, also to sometimes come up against it and recognize myself in it, so that I learn to love nature more and more deeply in this way. The German neurobiologist Gerald Hüter says in this context: “Love, on the other hand, is the unconditional interest in the development of the other… You can only love what you don’t want to use.(1)”

However, that does not mean that the Scandinavians do not use nature at Friluftsliv, on the contrary: collecting berries, mushrooms and herbs or fishing and preparing fish on the way, using firewood from the forest for cooking, are traditionally part of Friluftsliv for most people. How could I connect more intensely?! It mustn’t be about the value of what is “captured”, but about doing and being connected to the senses, and therefore it includes behavior that conserves resources. This makes it understandable how a code of conduct recognized by the general public established itself under the name allemansrätt (transl. Everyman’s Right). This expressly allows such use and at the same time limits it to a sustainable level.

Unfortunately, the Friluftsliv tradition has not been able to prevent the outdoor industry from exploiting nature in Scandinavia, too. Here, too, ski slopes cut through sensitive mountain flanks. Companies (often from abroad) ensure overexploitation and overfishing with all-inclusive canoe and fishing trips. Nevertheless, the Friluftsliv awareness at the political level also has a reducing and protective effect preventing excessive damage.

It is interesting to ask whether Friluftsliv can be equated with the phenomenon of survival, which involves training skills, taking care of nature and deprivation, self-awareness and testing one’s limits. One can agree that the comfort of the Friluftsliv, for example, on a multi-day hike, is very limited due to the limitation of the weight that can be carried. That’s why Friluftsliv is also called “simple life”. According to the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, this simple life makes contemplation and aesthetic perception possible, making us rich in profound experiences and insights. Seen in this way, according to Naess, Friluftsliv is a “rich life with simple means (2).”

FL is, therefore on the one hand, a purpose in itself, on the other hand it has also been shown since the middle of the last century that the survival of a living tradition such as Friluftsliv under changing social conditions cannot be taken for granted. Among other things, a series of fatal accidents involving Norwegian ski tourers in the winter of 1967 led to state discourse with the insight that FL skills must be taught consciously (3).

The first FL college, “Norges Høgfjellskole” was opened. Several Folkhögskolar (adult education centers) with courses in Friluftsliv in Denmark, Sweden and Norway followed. The importance of FL to society has been recorded in Norwegian and Swedish legislation as a shared cultural heritage.

This laid the foundation for a conscious FL pedagogy. Its teaching has been declared an important task of the Norwegian education system. For example, a government reports no. 40 from 1986/87 states: “Friluftsliv is of great educational value, and should be emphasized in all levels of education. One benefit from the educational advantages outdoor life provides in physical education and other subjects” (4) FL techniques and safety have now been taught even more actively in pre-school, primary and secondary school and higher educational institutions and educational camps. But the non-physical aspects of Friluftsliv have also been integrated. A recent primary and secondary school curriculum in Norway states: “The subject aims to inspire physical activity and independent behavior in each pupil. It must also give the pupils experience in being outdoors, and teach them to use nature in a positive, environmentally friendly
manner.” (5)

This makes it clear that Friluftsliv’s pedagogy is not primarily about preserving a cultural tradition and national heritage but about individual development and the development of each individual in resonance with nature. It also shows that the Friluftsliv pedagogy is about enabling learners to have intensive experiences in nature using their abilities. This requires an accompanying rather than a guiding attitude on the part of the educator. The term vägledning was coined for this in Scandinavia. The Vägleder is part of the group he accompanies into nature,
leaving the responsibility to them, supporting them mainly with his suggestions and only taking leadership when the participants’ abilities and the dangers of the respective
situation require it.

According to brain researcher Gerald Hüter, intelligence arises from the immanent human need to create coherence with our environment. In our rationally designed urban living environment, it is quite possible to develop such coherence intellectually and thereby develop a high degree of intelligence in the conventional sense without this necessarily being good for our environment or
ourselves. However, to create coherence with nature and thus also with ourselves as natural beings, i.e., to develop natural intelligence, we have to go into physical resonance with nature and enable the soul and spirit to have sensual learning experiences. Because nature can only be actively experienced through the body and senses, just like our own human beings. For example, neither theoretical treatises nor digital video tutorials can enable us to slide across a frozen lake on the narrow blades of Scandinavian cross-country skates without falling and avoiding thin ice in good time. Our body has to do it. Our muscles and nervous system must learn by reacting at lightning speed to what our senses tell us about the nature of the ice and our bodies. We resonate with nature and ourselves.

A wide range of Friluftsliv techniques, as taught in Scandinavia, offers a wide range of possibilities to have such resonance experiences and thus to develop one’s own natural intelligence. It is, therefore, very worthwhile for us in the rest of Europe to deal with this Scandinavian phenomenon, but also to look for corresponding, possibly forgotten traditions in our own culture.







  1. Hüter, Gerald in „Naturschutz heute“ 1/2023
  2. Naess, Arne (1989) „Ecology, community, and lifestyle an outline of an ecosophy“Cambridge university press
  3. Faarlund, Nils (2007) in „Friluftsliv Entwicklung, Bedeutung und Perspektiven“ Meyer & Meyer
    Norwegian and Swedish legislation as a shared cultural heritage.
  4. Westersjø, Johne Henrik (2007) in „Friluftsliv Entwicklung, Bedeutung und Perspektiven“ Meyer
    & Meyer
  5. Ibid


Related Posts