Why Being Outdoors in Winter is So Very Good for Kids

by Meghan Fitzgerald

Any season, even winter, is a perfect time for wellness - and yet, somehow Winter is dubbed a dangerous time for our kids.

First, the perfect part. By design, winter is a time of rest for the natural world. Though it may be more obvious in colder places, 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 if it’s a stretch to delight in nature when it’s terribly cold out, just like animals, we grow more resilience when we learn to manage challenging conditions—something we’re finding kids struggle with more and more.

Which brings me to the danger part. 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.

And, quite frankly, we can’t afford to keep our kids indoors and inactive. Studies show that kids today spend, at best, anywhere from 70% to 50% of the time we did outdoors. Kids have lost 12 hours of play time out of each week since 1970—that is a huge loss, and a big chunk of their waking hours. 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?

Okay, time for some good news. There is so much reason to hope, and the answer is right outside our doors. That is why we are so bullish about focusing on wellness—both physical and mental—this winter season. While alarming trends continue to increase, the evidence that exposure to nature and play directly benefits health continues to mount. We are not at a loss for a solution—we just have an awareness problem on our hands.

Here are just a few of the benefits of outdoor play on physical wellness:

  • Play: According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), play allows kids to develop cognitively, emotionally and physically.

  • 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. Parents know it too, as we see 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 also 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

And, a few of the benefits to mental and emotional aspects of wellness:

  • 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. Plus, parents who have less stress can provide a more supportive environment for kids.

  • Nature time becomes a lifelong strategy to manage stress. If we teach kids to turn to nature for peace and relief early on, they’ll have that in their back pocket as adolescents, adults, and even when it’s their turn to parent.

  • Joy: Learning to find and experience the joy that nature and play provide is another way to provide children with enriching, positive emotional experiences in the short term. If we can engrain that joy practice for them, they can carry forward this powerfully positive way of being in the world.

  • Resilience and grit: When we avoid the cold in order to protect our kids (or, because we ourselves are not feeling up for it), at best, we miss an opportunity to show kids that they can manage when life gets a little challenging. At worst, we actively teach them to avoid challenge and instill the message that they lack 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, so that is a lesson we can’t afford to undermine.

Okay, So what can we do right now

Build in JOY! Slow down. Be present. Look for the amazing things you can notice only in winter.

Commit to winter outdoors. Try to get outdoors every day this winter, even if just for a little while.

  • Find a like-minded social community to join. If you can join a Tinkergarten class, that community comes with it. If not, join forces with local families. The social support will keep you going and enhance the wellness benefits too.

  • Join the pro-winter campaign: If we all flood social spaces with images of healthy, active time spent playing outdoors this winter, we will shift culture and counter misconceptions about winter. We’ll help you amplify your efforts too, just use hashtags #tinkergarten and #playoutdoorsall4.

  • Get the right gear for you and your kids. Check out our winter gear blog post to find out what you need to make cold and cool winter play comfortable for you and kids. If it’s the holiday time, put gear for you and the kids on your wish lists. Or, look online in your community for ways to freecycle and exchange outgrown gear with other local families.

  • Build a great “come back inside” practice. Hot cocoa, blankets, warm socks on the radiator just waiting... Make “returning to coziness” a part of being outdoors. And, it’s a part that we can easily nail, that kids love and that they start to associate with being outside.

  • Learn ways to spark marvelous play in winter. We’ve learned so much about this over our four winter seasons, and we’re so excited to share it. Find a Tinkergarten class near you, or look for DIY activities that can help you get started.

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