Norwegian Hospitals Add Woodland Cabins and Forest-Play for Healing

©. Ivar Kvaal (used with permission)

The Outdoor Care Retreats let nature give a valuable boost in creating a respite from the sterile and stringent hospital environment.

We are fortunate to have hospitals – but they are not the most inspired places. They are stark and sterile, they have strict rules and not much soul. They may do wonders for corporeal concerns – but the more we learn about the importance of emotional well-being as it relates to good physical health, the more it seems that the hospital environment is lacking.

In Norway, however, they have taken this to heart and are exploring a workaround with young patients in mind – they have found a way to let nature help. The health benefits of spending time outside have been proven again and again, so why not let sick children have some time amongst the trees?

A Place to Play for Recovering Kids

With this in mind, the country's two largest hospitals, with the help of the Friluftssykehuset Foundation charity, have created Outdoor Care Retreats known as friluftssykehuset. Built in partnership with the architectural firm, Snøhetta, the spaces offer patients a welcome reprieve from the stringent treatments and isolation that often accompany long-term hospitalization.

The term friluftssykehuset comes from the Norwegian concept of friluftsliv – the importance of spending time in nature – combined with the word fro hospital, sykehus. The first of the retreats is tucked into the lush forest near a creek, a short walk from from the entrance of Norway’s largest hospital, Oslo University Hospital. The sister building cozies up to a pond in the deciduous woodlands by Sørlandet Hospital Kristiansand in the South of Norway.

outdoor care retreat

© Ivar Kvaal (used with permission)

Over at Apolitical, Jennifer Guay explains how these revolutionary spaces came to be.

Maren Østvold Lindheim, a child psychologist who works in the Oslo hospital’s Department of Child and Adolescent Mental Health, and her colleagues had been bringing patients into the woods near Oslo University Hospital for years. "It started with just a few children at a time," Guay writes. "soon, they were bringing groups into the forest to build fires and canoe on a nearby lake." Alas, the escape could only be afforded to children well enough to make the trip; so Lindheim initiated the idea of making a dedicated space that was more accessible to more children.

“Bringing patients outside the hospital helps them relax and find the strength to get through their treatment,” says Lindheim. “Being in nature gives them the feeling of possibility: they have more energy, more hope and more creativity.”

outdoor care retreat

© Ivar Kvaal (used with permission)

The 375-square foot spaces bring to mind tree houses and forts. Pictured above, you can see that the cabins are accessible for wheelchair users and the engaging zigzag entrance is large enough to make room even for hospital beds. As Snøhetta describes them, "the luminous cabins are formed like skewed blocks of wood that extend into the landscape through asymmetrical branches." The interiors are clad in oak, in harmony with the surroundings; the exteriors will fade to gray and become even more integrated with the landscape over time.

Inside, there is a main room, a more intimate room, and a bathroom. Colorful pillows transform from lounging pieces to fort building materials, or whatever else the imagination beings to mind.

The Power of Nature

outdoor care retreat

© Ivar Kvaal (used with permission)

"Nature provides spontaneous joy and helps patients relax. Being in natural surroundings brings them a renewed calm that they can bring back with them into the hospital. In this sense, the Outdoor Care Retreat helps motivate patients to get through treatment and contribute to better disease management," says Lindheim.

A circular skylight allows for tree gazing; and the large glass windows can be flung wide open, diminishing the line between outside and in. Snøhetta notes that, "In this way, visitors can peek into the woods, smell the damp forest floor, and listen to the sound of trickling water while still being inside the cabin."

That said, much of the benefit appears to stretch beyond the minimal confines of the cabin. While the cabins can fit around 10 people at once, most children play outside around the fire pit when they visit, even in frigid temperatures, notes Guay. Given that Scandinavian children are introduced to the healthy splendors of plunging temperatures at a very young age, this comes as little surprise. The kids may also be found fishing, chopping wood, shooting arrows and painting pictures – seriously not your typical hospital protocol.

The cabins are open to children up to 18, with their doctor's permission, and parents can come along during visits. Thankfully for older patients, the cabins have no age restriction in the afternoons and weekends.

outdoor care retreat

© Ivar Kvaal (used with permission)

"Although the cabin is integrated in the hospital campus, its secluded location and natural aesthetics allows it to be perceived as a place of its own. It is a place of muted magic, a place out of the ordinary that provides a generous and much-needed breathing space for visitors of all ages," notes Snøhetta.

The idea isn't a new one. Victorians flocked to the mountains and mineral spas in search of good health. In more recent times, the Japanese government introduced the concept of shinrin yoku, or “forest bathing,” urging people to make use of the country’s generous wooded areas for therapy. But to bring the idea into modern health care seems pretty revolutionary, especially given that dirty, rough-and-tumble nature seems like the antithesis of a hospital. The Friluftssykehuset Foundation plans to build more Outdoor Care Retreats near hospitals in Norway and abroad. And it seems like an idea whose time has come. Nature is out there waiting patiently to help us heal, why not embrace the assist?

See more at Snøhetta and the Friluftssykehuset Foundation.