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Oct 30

Why Being Outdoors in Winter is So Very Good for Kids

by Meghan Fitzgerald

By design, winter is a time of rest for the natural world. Plants and animals in all different climates slow down in winter and benefit from the chance to restore. Even most cacti won’t set flowers if they do not get their winter break.

Winter also offers unique sensory experiences that, when you slow down to take them in, are inspiring and enriching for all ages. Even through a quick stretch to delight in nature when it’s terribly cold out, we grow more resilient when we learn to manage challenging conditions—something kids struggle with more and more.

Increasingly, misconceptions have rebranded winter as the season to stay indoors. On the surface it makes sense—animals hibernate, so humans follow suit and stick inside the house. But, no matter how animals rest in winter, they are never disconnected from nature—they simply shift their approach. Nature remains where they belong, and it’s where we belong too.

We can't lose winter for our kids

We can’t afford to keep our kids indoors and inactive. Studies show that kids today spend, at best, anywhere from 50% to 70% of the time we did outdoors. Kids have lost 12 hours of play time out of each week since 1970— a huge loss. As a nation, we gave ourselves a D- on our US Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth with more than ¾ of our kids failing to get the minimum required daily physical activity.

Worse yet, the increase in sedentary, indoor lifestyles coincides with increases in many chronic childhood health conditions, including childhood obesity, asthma, attention deficit disorder and vitamin D deficiency. Kids have already lost so much time for healthy play outdoors; how can we take 25% of what is left away by eliminating an entire season?

Plus, being outdoors is a great way to safely see the people we love!

There is so much reason to hope, and the answer is right outside our doors. While alarming trends continue to increase, the evidence that exposure to nature and play directly benefits health continues to mount. 

Just a few of the wellness benefits of outdoor play:

  • Kids who spend more time outdoors are more physically active, and there is no shortage of research that physical activity drives positive health outcomes.

“To be healthy, children need several hours (not minutes!) of movement a day — preferably outdoors, where the senses are fully alive and their bodies are free to move in many different ways.”—Angela Hanscom

  • Doctors also know daily doses of fresh air and sunlight increase circulation, vitamin D, boost immune systems, and promote overall wellness. We parents know it too when we look at happy kids who sleep soundly and just look healthier.
  • Time spent in natural settings also contributes to healthy sleep patterns in babies, toddlers and kids. And proper sleep drives all kinds of beneficial health outcomes.
  • Kids who spend time outdoors get sick less often. The perception that you’ll catch a cold outside is just plain wrong. Stagnant, indoor environments are breeding and sharing grounds for all kinds of germs, and some studies show that being cold may even trigger the immune system.

"It is not only medically sound, but plain common sense that running around outside in the winter is far more beneficial than being cooped up indoors." — Dr. Michel Cohen, Author and Founder of Tribeca Pediatrics

  • Nature and play lower stress. Time spent in natural settings is restorative and reduces anxiety for kids and for adults. Children are particularly vulnerable to the impact of stress and stress hormones, and this time is extra stressful on us all. Plus, if you can join your kids, your stress will reduce too, making it easier to provide a more supportive environment for kids.
  • Nature and play bring joy: Learning to find and experience that joy s another way to give children enriching, positive emotional experiences that they can carry forward into the world.
  • Play in the cold gives kids grit. Winter gives kids the opportunity to learn that they can manage when life gets a little challenging. They get the message that they have the resources to persist and make the best of what life hands them. There may not be two more important capacities kids need for long term wellness than grit and resilience.

On board with cold-weather outdoor play?

Commit to winter outdoors by trying to get outside every day this winter, even if just for a little while. Find a play group or even just one other family that wants to join you in getting out each day. Set a big goal for 2022 like the energized group of families in the 1,000 Hours Outside community. Or, check out our Tinkergarten classes with a curriculum that’s designed to fill your weeks with outdoor play.

And spread the word! If we all flood social spaces with images of healthy, active time spent playing outdoors this winter, we will shift culture and counter misconceptions. We’ll help you amplify your efforts too—post about your winter play experiences on Instagram and tag @tinkergarten so we can share them in our Stories. Or join our #OutdoorsAll4 Facebook Group, a perfect place to connect with thousands of caregivers, educators, and Tinkergarten Leaders all working to build purposeful outdoor play into their routine.

Gear matters—and getting cozy after may be the best part!

To make outdoor time last and last, check out our winter gear guide to find affordable ways to make cold and cool winter play comfortable for you and kids. At holiday time, put gear for you and the kids on your wish lists or go online for ways to freecycle and exchange outgrown gear with other local families.

Then, build a great “come back inside” practice. Think hot cocoa, blankets, warm socks on the radiator. Make “returning to coziness” a part of being outdoors. It’s a part that we can easily nail, that kids love and that they start to associate with the joy of being outside.

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Meghan Fitzgerald

Founder

After 20+ years as an educator, curriculum developer and school leader, Meghan has her dream gig—an entrepreneur/educator/mom who helps families everywhere, including hers, learn outside. Prior to Tinkergarten®, Meghan worked as an Elementary School Principal, a Math/Science Specialist & and a teacher in public and private schools in NY, MA and CA. She earned a BA with majors in English and Psychology at Amherst College, an MS in Educational Leadership at Bank Street College, and was trained to become a Forest School leader at Bridgwater College, UK. When she is with her kids, Meghan is that unapologetic mom who plays along with them in mud, dances in the pouring rain, and builds a darn good snow igloo with her bare hands.
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