On these cold, dark December days, it’s tempting to crank up the thermostat, “lose track” of kids’ screen time, and daydream of an existence where we could teleport from car to house with zero exposure to the elements. But some recent reading is convincing me that I need to toughen up and get myself—and the kids—outside as much as possible this winter.
For one thing, studies are showing what kindergarten teachers have always known: Fresh air, even and maybe especially during wintertime, boosts attention. It’s something that Finland, which typically gives students 15 minutes of outdoor recess for every 45 minutes of classroom time, year-round, credits for its top rankings in the Program for International Student Assessment survey of reading, math and science scores. What’s more, outdoor activity in the colder months, specifically, may give us an extra health boost. Muscles work harder in slick or snowy conditions, and we burn more calories as our bodies have to work harder to raise our body temperature. Also, people who spend a lot of time outside in the wintertime are less likely to encounter germs that proliferate indoors when it’s cold, which can help protect us against some nasty bugs.
And yet, weather is the thing most likely to keep kids from playing outside, cited even more often than safety concerns, homework, and busy schedules by parents in a 2012 survey by the National Wildlife Federation. So what can we do to successfully nudge ourselves and kids outdoors when artificial light and heat seem so much more inviting?
Pay less attention to jackets, and more to hats. Kids are notorious for balking at and shedding their coats. In reality, children do have an elevated metabolism and energy level that does cause them to feel hotter than us, so they are apt to get overwarm and annoyed if the are overly bundled. But they also lose body heat more rapidly. Get them a winter jacket that they, above all, will want to keep on, and don’t sweat too much the “temperature ranges” that fancy puffer coat companies market. Where to spend your money (and your nagging quota): Hats. “A hat can go a long way toward keeping your child warm,” pediatrician Lee Bears, M.D., recently told the Washington Post. “If you are going to fight over something, that might be the thing to fight over.” As goofy as they look, you can’t beat bomber hats with chin straps for warmth. L.L Bean makes them in boy- and girl-friendly styles, and if parent reviewers in places like northern Maine and Newfoundland are satisfied, you probably will be, too.
Counter empty-yard syndrome. There’s nothing that makes backyard play less appealing than an empty patch of dead grass or crusty snow. Kids are far more apt to engage in active play when given more toy choices, according to research, so don’t stash all of the toys away with the skateboards and sprinklers when the temperature drops. Certain playthings are meant for cold or snowy conditions. Some kid-tested crowd-pleasers:
Hearthsong’s Fold and Stow Snow Scooter: This nifty scooter “floats” on the snow thanks to a ridged bottom. Ages 4 and up.
Glow-in-the-dark frisbees: Frisbees are great because they’re easier to grab than balls when you have gloves on, and these Nite Ize “Flashlight” LED-illuminated discs come in four super-bright colors that will be easier to see in the darkening pre-dinnertime hours.
Snow Fort Building Set: Much more than some plastic molds, kids can really sculpt a fortress with this kit. Ages 5 and up.
Lead them in some simple games. We love Fix.com’s great (and simple) list of cold- and kid-friendly games, like Snow Spray Paint Art. Find it here.
Keep it short and sweet. Keeping outdoor play intervals short are more appealing as well as safer when the temperatures drop below freezing. To help motivate, set a timer on your watch or phone for 15 minutes, Finland’s typical recess interval—even this short a stint can get the heart pumping and is totally doable, especially if you ensure that kids have a set place to find and deposit their outwear on the way in and out. And a promise of sweet incentives upon their return indoors, like a cup of Silly Cow’s pricey, but truly excellent marshmallow-swirl flavored cocoa, hurts very little.