Bundle Up and Get Outside:
Why Kids Should Play Outdoors in Winter
As winter and cold weather approaches, children’s play is often limited to the indoors. Adult fears about safety and negative attitudes toward exposure to cold weather are the barriers that prevent children from accessing play in winter months. It is common to hear adults say that “my child will not like being in the cold weather,” or “the cold is too dangerous to play in,” or “there’s nothing to play with.” It is up to adults to focus on the importance of children’s play, regardless of the season. After all, play should not be restricted to warm weather. Let’s welcome this upcoming winter season with a playful attitude.
How Snowy, Cold Weather Benefits Children’s Development and Health
When the weather drops into the single digits, it is common for parents to want their children to stay indoors to play. Before you go and curse the cold weather for keeping your playful children indoors all winter, let’s consider all of the benefits that cold weather has when it comes to children’s health, development, and well-being.
1. Children get to see the outdoors through a new lens
During the summer months, children become used to the warm, green climate that the season has to offer. After the change in season or the first snowfall, children view their environment through a different lens: fallen leaves, brown grass, snow, ice. This new lens enables them to imagine the outdoors differently and to be creative and play in different ways.
2. Increases in Exercise and Using Different Muscles
The winter months provide us with different ways of moving our bodies, such as sledding, walking up a snow hill, or building a snowman. Our larger muscles are put to great use in the winter months due to the challenges that snow provides. This large-muscle use and increase in physical activity support children’s gross motor development and overall health.
3. Getting Fresh Air and Avoiding Bacteria
Most adults associate the winter months with getting colds and illnesses such as the flu. However, it is not the cold weather that necessarily causes colds and flus—it is increased exposure to indoor environments where bacteria and viruses live. For example, during the winter months, you turn on your home’s heating and venting systems. The bacteria and viruses within your home are continuously being moved around inside. Adults and children who spend long periods of time in a heated and poorly ventilated home, without exposure to fresh air, can easily pass germs to each other.
4. New Challenges and Problem-Solving
Weather that we consider “messy” provides environments and materials that are inspiring and fun for children; for example, patches of ice, large snow hills, and trees covered in snow. These environments provide children with opportunities for new challenges, such as sliding down the ice patch and climbing a snow hill. Engagement with outdoor environments in the winter provokes new problem-solving skills—“How can I slide down this ice patch without falling?” “How fast can I run up this snow hill?” “Can I climb this tree using a branch as a snow pick?” The ever-changing environments that the winter months have to offer provide children with the challenges that they so often crave.
5. Vitamin D Exposure
When we stay indoors during the winter, we are not only missing out on play, but also on necessary vitamins that the outdoor environment gives us. Children get vitamin D through sun exposure, and absorb it even though the sun is not as warm in the winter. Vitamin D helps regulate mental and emotional moods, doing so by increasing serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin plays an important role in regulating mood and keeping us happy. So the more exposure you have to the sun, the higher your serotonin levels will be. It is recommended that you get at least half an hour of playtime outdoors in the winter.
Activities That Will Make You and Your Child Love Winter Play
Sometimes we think of winter as being a time of “nothing to play with” because everything is covered in snow. Parks may be empty, local outdoor events may decrease, and items that we use in the summer months may not be practical anymore. However, creating and engaging in winter play activities is actually fun for both you and your child, and very easy to do! Here are some activities that you and your child can do in the backyard with very little prep or materials to buy.
Gear Up: How to Best Dress Your Kids for Winter Play
For you and your child to have a great time in the cold weather, the most important thing to consider is appropriate clothing. Here are some tips to make gearing up easier for you and your children.
Layers are really important for outdoor winter play. If you dress your child in layers, their body heat stays close to them and they are able to play for long periods of time. Also, layers are easy to add or take off as needed, depending on the weather that day. To appropriately dress your child in layers, you will need: a base layer, a middle layer, and an outer layer.
A base layer such as a long polyester shirt wicks moisture away from the skin and keeps your child dry and warm for long periods of time. You want this layer to be snug to the body so that any moisture will be wicked away. The middle layer should be made of down or fleece material, as the purpose of this layer is to insulate the body. You want the middle layer to be close to the body, but make sure that it does not restrain movement. The outer layer should consist of a waterproof winter coat, as this layer protects your child from winter weather elements such as wind, rain, and snow. You want this layer to be loose enough to have at least two other layers under it.
Mittens are better for keeping children’s hands warm, as fingers generate more heat when they are not separated from each other as in gloves. Gloves are also important to include in your child’s dry pack because gloves allow better dexterity than mittens. Choose mittens that are waterproof and insulated with either down or a synthetic down.
It’s important to choose a hat that covers the whole head, including the ears. Children often do not enjoy wearing hats, so you may want to consider getting one that is childproof, such as one that has long strings to tie around the neck or tuck into a coat. Hats are also one of those items that can be very personalized and fun, so involve your child in the process of choosing their gear to ensure comfort and likeability.
You want snowpants that your child can move in, that are warm, and, most importantly, waterproof. Suspenders built into the snowpants will ensure that the pants stay secure and do not fall down during play. Some snowpants also have drawstrings at the bottom to tighten around boots.
A good children’s boot is one that is both warm and stays on during active winter play. You want a boot that is waterproof, is insulated with down or synthetic down, and has drawstrings at the top to ensure a close fit to the legs. This will prevent any water or snow from soaking in. Some boots also have velco fasterners over the top of the foot that you can tighten for extra protection. Don’t forget to choose a good pair of warm (non-cotton) socks for your child’s feet. Wool and down are great choices.
Other Gearing-Up Rules to Consider:
- Try to avoid cotton as this material absorbs sweat. Wet cotton mixed with cold weather makes for cold kids!
- Extremities such as ears, hands, and feet are more prone to cold-weather exposure. Be sure to get the appropriate gear for these areas.
- Bring extra clothes that will keep your child dry and comfortable all day. The dry bag should consist of extra gloves, a scarf, pants, and a long shirt.
Support your children's health and happiness
Let’s have a playful and positive attitude toward winter this season. It’s important to show your children that winter can be very fun. You can model various ways to fall in love with cold weather and snow—stomp your feet on ice patches, have a snowball fight, make snow angels, and be sure to engage in activities with your children. Take a breath of that cold winter air and remember that you are supporting your children’s health and happiness.