‘Tis the season for snow storms, record-low temperatures and winter weather advisories – so do we all just have to roll up in a ball and pull a blanket over our heads? Not so fast. Spending time outside in extreme temperatures can certainly be dangerous to newborn babies, the elderly and those with certain medical conditions. But when adults use good judgment and dress kids appropriately, there’s no reason for them not to play outside when it’s cold. If the storms mean school closures for you and your kids, all the better! Why not look at it as an opportunity to play outside together?
In Scandinavia, where I grew up, most people stay active outdoors throughout the cold season (that’s how they produce so many great winter athletes!), rain or shine. Winter storms come and go, and you learn to live with the climate. These are the things I learned from growing up in Scandinavia that to this day help me and my kids play outside in the cold on a daily basis:
Dress for the weather
I cannot overstate how important it is to wear good gear to stay warm, and it all starts with layering. The standard advice is to wear three layers: a base layer to keep you dry, a mid-layer to keep you warm and an outer layer to retain the heat and protect against rain, snow and wind. If it’s very cold I sometimes double up on my mid-layer on the upper body to make four layers total.
I layer everything, including socks and mittens, since hands and feet are particularly vulnerable to frostbite. For example, try wearing a thin pair of gloves under a pair of thick mittens that are lined with wool or fleece.
For the kids, I prefer Stonz Mittz, which are warm, waterproof and go over the sleeve of the jacket to keep snow out. To keep their necks warm, fleece turtle necks are warm and stay in place. And, of course, don’t forget the hat. I like the kind that come down over the ears and have snaps or velcro under the chin, to keep it in place. For more advice on layering, check out this post from earlier this year.
Protect your face
On extremely cold days, or days with very low wind chill, the face is especially vulnerable, since the skin is exposed to the elements. On those days, don’t wash your kids’ faces in the morning – the oils in the skin will help protect against frostbite – and avoid using moisturizers or other creams on the face. You can also let your kids wear a balaclava under their hats to prevent their faces from getting cold. If wind chill is a concern, you can combine it with ski goggles to protect the whole face from exposure to the elements.
When you move, your body generates heat that gets trapped under your clothes and make you feel warm. Stand still and you’ll inevitably get cold. Younger children are usually more likely to stand around in the cold, as they sometimes have a harder time moving around in heavy clothing and tire more easily, so try to keep them as active as possible. Standing still can also be a sign that they’re cold, so be observant. In extreme cold, choose activities that keep you moving without sweating, since perspiration will cool you off.
If road conditions are dangerous or you’re worried that your kids will get cold quickly, stay home and explore your own backyard or neighborhood. Playgrounds and parks can be a lot of fun in the winter, especially if there’s snow! If you’re close to home, you can get inside quickly if somebody gets cold.
Keep it fun
When it’s very cold, the snow is usually not conducive to building snowmen, but there are many other things you and your kids can do together outside. Sledding, ice art, snow paintings (using food coloring in squirt bottles), blowing bubbles and tracking animals are a few simple outdoor activities that make for cold weather fun. Or hand them a snow shovel and ask them to help clear the driveway – I was surprised to find out that my kids actually love helping out with that chore. As a carrot, tell them to put the snow in a big pile that they can play in later.
Bring hot drinks
Hot chocolate has been a great way for my kids to warm up and recharge their batteries outside on cold days. Since it’s something they don’t drink every day, they’ve come to associate it with our outdoor adventures, which makes it an even more special treat. Plus, this mamma likes it too! Hot cider is another good option for the little ones.
Use your judgment
When the weather forecasters call for the Winterpocalypse, Snowmageddon and Arctic Blast all at once, it’s easy to get caught up in the alarmist rhetoric. Sure, it’s always good to be prepared for extreme weather and know when to stay off the roads, but that doesn’t mean that you and your kids have to stay cooped up inside. If you’re concerned about frostbite, check out the National Weather Service’s wind chill chart, to get an idea for what is safe and seek out sheltered areas outside. The wind speed can vary greatly between different locations, so use good judgment and be observant on your kids’ signals. In general, you can always go outside for a little while, even if it’s cold, as long as you’re properly dressed and minimize skin exposure.
Stay positive but know when it’s time to call it quits
If you’re excited about going outside, chances are your kids will be too. In my experience, kids are less fazed about challenging weather conditions than adults anyway – especially if there’s snow to play with. If they start to complain about being cold once you’re outside, troubleshoot. Where exactly are they cold? Is it because their mittens are wet from snow? If so, change them. Do they need a warmer hat? How about a hot drink? If nothing helps, go back inside. At the end of the day, playing outside is supposed to be fun – not a pain!
If you’re looking for more tips and inspiration for playing and staying active in cold weather, check out these posts by my fellow outdoor bloggers:
The Pine Project explains how playing outside in cold weather makes children more resilient in this great article.
Kari at Active Kids Club has put together a really neat video that shows how to dress kids properly for winter in a few simple steps.
In this post, Sharon Koch of Active Kids Active Family shares how her son geared up for playing outside for over an hour every day during an extreme cold spell recently.
Michael Lanza at The Big Outside blog has some great ideas for how to stay warm while keeping active outdoors.
Tanya Koob of Family Adventures in the Canadian Rockies was in for a very cold weekend in Banff recently – read about how she and her family handled it here.