The Art & Science of Taking Babies, Toddlers, Preschoolers and Beyond Outside in Winter Wonderlands & Dreary Days Too
Winter weather may require some extra precautions and some extra gear, but it’s no reason not to take our little ones outside for learning and play. My son is six now, but back in the day, when he was just a teeny toddler, I suited him up for every snow. He looks forward to the time we spend outside exploring snow, sleet, rain and chilly temperatures. And so do I.
Why is that time so helpful for us? Well, science tells us it is. And, in my family, so does experience.
What research tells us about playing outdoors in any season:
- Outside time is active time for children. And we know that kids these days (and adults) aren’t getting as much active time as they should.
- Nature sparks learning in special ways. The sounds, sights and smells of the outside world mold little brains. The great outdoors also offers a perfect place for free play. When children can dream, build and explore in open-ended ways, they learn a lot. What do they learn? Problem-solving, cause and effect, physical skills, and habits of curiosity!
- Contrary to what we may have heard growing up, going outside doesn’t make you “catch a cold.” In fact, indoor air carries more germs than outdoor air does.
- Of course, in extreme weather, taking precautions is key. We take lots of warm-up breaks indoors, proper attire (read more below) and keep an eye on the wind chill. Read more about cold weather safety to stay safe.
Children need activity year round.
Little legs, busy brains and eager hands don’t take the winter off. Getting my highly active child outdoors keeps him (and me) on an even keel year round. And there is plenty to do in the great wide open, even during winter’s short days. Check out a few of my favorite chilly-day activities:
- Finding animal tracks in snow
- Seeing how long a glass of water takes to freeze
- Taking slushy sidewalk walks
- Shoveling the steps together
- Observing birds gobbling up late-season berries
- Listening to the sounds of winter, from icy crackles to birds calling out in the frigid air
- Hiking through gray woods and looking for other colors
- Of course, making snowballs and having snowball parties
There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.
Proper outdoor clothing makes outside play possible — and it teaches a smart life skill. I’ve found that working in layers makes a huge difference for my son. We pop on a shirt, sweatshirt, coat leggings (pajama pants can work too), pants and a snow bib on the coldest days. During in-between weather cycles, we usually skip the bibs and the sweatshirt. Add some comfy gloves (or mittens when my son was smaller) and a cozy hat, and he’s off to our yard, a playground or a hike in wintry woods.
All of those pieces can be pricey, but I’ve had great luck buying them second-hand. Where I live in Central Indiana, snow isn’t a guaranteed event these days. So, it’s hard for me to invest a lot of money in one- or two-time use items. But the good news is that other families have typically only worn them once and twice before I buy well-loved items.
I’ve also used winter weather as a way to boost science understanding and my son’s self-care skills. Before we head outside, we check out the forecast on my smartphone or the television. Then, we talk about how cold 20, 30 or 40 degrees is. We also discuss what precipitation, from sprinkles to sleet, may mean for our apparel. Finally, we work together to pick out and put on the proper gear.
Outdoor Play Is Good for Me Too
I think the best part of my pro-outdoor play stance has been playing outside too. And seeing my husband do the same. The morning of the first big snow of this year, my son’s pre-K bestie was over. We all pulled on our gear, hopped outside and began work on our snow angels — and snowballs.
After a bit, I went back inside to make some hot chocolate. While I stirred in the cocoa, I listened to the squeals, shouts and giggles coming from our yard. And when I peeked out the window, I saw big smiles on everyone’s faces. I’m sure we would’ve had fun inside, too. Still, I can’t help but think that we were making a pretty spectacular memory, thanks to getting outside in winter weather.
Kirsten Eamon-Shine directs Early Learning Indiana’s communications efforts, including the Brighter Futures Indiana website. She loves telling stories that help adults nurture the curiosity and potential of children. She spent over a decade in the youth development field at IUPUI, the Marion County Commission on Youth and Peace Learning Center, and has diverse experience as a digital communications manager and strategist with community-focused organizations and businesses. Kirsten holds a Bachelor of Arts in History and Political Science from Indiana University. She spends her free time reading children’s and grown-ups’ books, enjoying Indianapolis’ cultural and food scenes, and listening to music with her husband and son Emerson, who is somehow old enough to be in kindergarten.