There is no such thing as bad weather when it comes to outdoor play

Benefits of Play  |  2 years ago

There is no such thing as bad weather when it comes to outdoor play

Many of us have been looking ahead to this winter with a certain amount of trepidation, and now it is here, at least for those of us in northern climes. And even though there may be fewer safe indoor options for your kids this year, you still need to get out of the house. Now is the time to commit to getting outside more. Cold weather outdoor play can be a lot of fun, and it has big health benefits for your kids and you. 

Here in Maine, we know the only way to get through a long winter is to play outside, and we are lucky to have tons of outdoor winter recreation options, but if you live in a more urban area or a place that only occasionally gets cold weather, you might be used to spending cold days curled up inside, or you have go-to indoor activities that might not be an option this winter due to covid-safety. No matter what, your kids are going to want to get out of the house sooner or later. The good news is, kids are basically the honey badgers of outdoor play: they don’t care if it’s cold or snowy. The even better news is, there are a ton of benefits - physical, emotional, and social - to playing outside in the winter.

The fresh air is great for your kids, and, contrary to the popular myth that you can catch a cold from being cold, it can actually help prevent getting a cold by getting a break from indoor air where germs tend to hang out. 

Outdoor play is also good for gross motor development and has all the other benefits of active play, even helping kids’ cognitive development. One of the best benefits of cold weather outdoor play, at least for parents? They’ll sleep better!

Outdoor play may also be one of the few ways your kids can safely get together with other kids this winter, so the social benefits are clear, and a lot of outdoor activities naturally promote social play (think of building a snow fort or snow sculpture, for instance) which helps them learn how to share, negotiate, and resolve conflicts. When your kids play outside, they have fun, get exercise, and you are way less likely to hear the “I’m bored. There’s nothing to do” complaints.

So you know it’s good for your kids (and you) to get outside, but it’s still kind of daunting when it’s so cold out there (and warm inside).

To be as comfortable as possible in the cold, dress in layers and make sure your kids’ heads, hands, heart, and feet are well-covered. They should have a good hat and coat (waterproof is best), snow pants, waterproof insulated boots over ski socks or wool socks, and good mittens (mittens are warmer than gloves). Additionally, starting with a long underwear base can make a big difference on a really cold day. A good neck gaiter or balaclava will be more effective and comfortable for keeping their necks and faces warm (even if your kid does look like a tiny bank robber) than a scarf or a hood. Don’t be afraid to double up layers, but start with close-fitting, lighter layers then add thicker or more insulated layers on top. Avoid wearing cotton, especially as a base layer. It may sound tempting to start with a cotton t-shirt, but cotton doesn’t wick moisture away from the skin, and a wet kid is going to be a cold kid. If your child is warm and dry, they will be happy to play outside for long periods of time. If you are going to be out for a while, it’s a good idea to bring extra mittens and socks to make sure their hands and feet stay dry.

Food is key for a successful outdoor session, especially in the cold. Cold weather play requires more fuel as your child’s body is working hard to stay warm. Plus, fun snacks will elevate the whole experience into a special event. If you’re playing out in the yard, you can take an inside break for your snack, but if you’re out and about, or you just want to do something special, pack a thermos of hot cocoa or hot cider - hydration is important, too -  and some high energy snacks. Sit at a picnic table or on your playset or even throw down a blanket and some outdoor cushions and enjoy a winter picnic. Even the most ordinary snack will seem special in such an out of the ordinary setting. Just remember to avoid snacks that could freeze solid in the cold like chewy granola bars or squeeze pouches of applesauce or yogurt! 

So what are you going to do while you’re outside? Like we said, Mainers are lucky to live in a place with a wealth of outdoor recreation like skiing, ice skating and sledding, and we tend to start our kids young so we can all enjoy the outdoors. If you’ve got those kinds of activities handy where you live, well, you probably don’t need this article, but if you don’t, don’t worry: enjoying winter outdoors doesn’t have to involve a major expedition or tons of equipment.

If there’s snow, no matter where you live, your kids will have no trouble finding ways to enjoy it. Snowmen and snow angels and sliding down any kind of incline - even if it’s just the snow banks left from plowing the driveway - are just as fun now as they were when you were a kid. Make snowballs and take turns trying to hit a target with them. Kids also love “building” with the snow - turning piles of snow into seats or trying to pile all the snow into a snow mountain. You can also use the buckets and shovels and other sand equipment you usually take to the beach to make snow sculptures or form bricks to make a snow fort. Do you need to shovel the walk? If you’ve got a small shovel, let your child help. Young children love to do grown up work.

Indeed, it’s rarely a challenge to find things to do on a snowy day, but even if you're looking at the kind of winter day that has all of the cold and bluster with none of the snow, you can still have fun. Look for activities that involve a lot of movement. It might just mean going to the playground or your backyard playset. It could be even simpler, like an active game of red light, green light or a homemade obstacle course for kids to complete. A walk or a hike is a great way to keep everybody moving, but if your kids balk at that, try turning it into more of an adventure with a scavenger hunt or “find it” walk where you come up with a list of things for kids to find that could range from something as general as “5 signs of winter” to a list of specific items (an acorn, a red car, a person walking a dog, anything there’s a good chance of seeing on your route) or take turns coming up with items to find. If the list is intriguing enough, your kids will forget  they’re on a walk.

As important as it is to encourage your kids to go outside, know when to say when. It’s okay for kids to be a little uncomfortable, in fact, it’s a great way to learn that you can still have fun even in less than perfect conditions, but if they’re truly miserable, and you can see the meltdown coming, it’s okay to head back inside and try again later. The idea is for your child to associate being outdoors with fresh air and adventure, not exhaustion and frozen toes.

Those cold, windy, or snowy winter days can seem daunting, looking out from the inside, but if you dress right and go into it with a positive attitude, you and your kids can find plenty of fun and excitement outside which will make winter a lot easier for everyone.

Other resources to check out

The Importance of Outdoor Play in Winter, Montessori Academy

Outdoor Play on Winter Days, Penn State Extension

Get Smart newsletter, University of Pennsylvania

Yes, Kids Can Play Outside When It's Cold! Rain or Shine Mamma

Yes, Your Kids Can Play Outside All Winter, New York Times