It’s not a tough ask to get kids outside when the sun is shining and temperatures are warm. But once wintry weather moves in, parents might need to up their game a bit.
“A big temperature change can be an uncomfortable feeling,” says Jennifer Kusma, a pediatrician at the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. “So whether you’re in Chicago and the weather requires hats and mittens or Southern Florida where you may need a light jacket, kids might not want to play outside and may require encouragement.”
Like most pediatricians, Kusma recommends that children get 60 minutes of daily activity in order to stay healthy. Indeed, the research is clear that kids benefit from active play as well as being outside. Putting them together, says psychotherapist and parenting coach Alyson Schafer, is a no-brainer.
“Biologically, humans are meant to be outside,” Schafer says. “Our body’s systems are based on circadian rhythms, which are calibrated to sunlight. It's the natural rhythms of the body that govern our heart rate, our body temperature, our sleep cycles, our hunger cycles, and everything else.”
So when kids are indoors and exposed to more artificial light—like they are in winter— it can cause those rhythms to get out of sync. “[Artificial light] doesn’t give that same natural boost as sunlight,” Kusma says.
Plus, being active outside in winter can be a physical and mental pick-me-up, Kusma says. Cold-weather fun often means increased exertion when you have to do things like lift your knees to walk in snow, especially if you’re wearing heavy clothes; shivering also increases energy expenditure, which burns more calories. (That said, Kusma cautions that parents need to monitor kids for things like chattering teeth or blueish lips to make sure kids aren’t too cold and be ready with extra layers or a quick warm-up inside.)
And exposure to sunlight is thought to increase the release of the feel-good hormone serotonin, which can help with those short, dark days. “Besides being good for your body’s health, being outside also dissipates stress, increases mental wellness, and can help reduce anxiety,” Schafer says.
Ready to encourage more outdoor time with your kids this winter? These tips will help make sure your kid’s outdoor fun doesn’t stop when cold weather starts.
Keep them warm. Nothing ends winter fun faster than a cold, wet kid. And children are more susceptible to the effects of chilly temps. “Because kids’ bodies are smaller, they actually do lose heat more quickly,” Kusma says. “That can leave them vulnerable.”
To prevent frostbite or hypothermia, Kusma recommends lots of layers—her rule of thumb is one more layer than an adult would wear. She also suggests giving kids ownership by helping them shop for their own gear: Sporting a favorite cartoon character on their hat or donning a hot pink scarf and matching gloves will get them excited about being outside.
And of course, Kusma suggests keeping spare, dry clothes in the car or in a backpack.
Break it up. That 60 minutes of recommended activity might sound daunting when it’s 37 degrees out, but Kusma reminds parents that 20 minutes at a time is OK, too. “Set reasonable limits based on how cold it is and offer kids time to get warm in between,” she says.
Keep it lesson-free. Kids are naturally drawn to play, but overstructuring their activities can interfere with the fun—and that can make kids resistant to cold-weather outdoor time dig in their snow boots even more.
“There are all these social skills—like developing rules and negotiating—that are involved with free play, which happens when we just put kids outside in nature,” Schafer says. “Organized activities are very different experiences than sending your kids out to the backyard to make a snow fort with their friends.” There, she says, kids must navigate things like where to build it, how tall the walls should be, and what tasks everyone in the group should be assigned. (Check out more about the benefits of free play in this article.)
Get friends and family involved. Kids need social connections all year, but that’s hard to accomplish if they’re shut inside during cold weather. Schafer suggests rallying the neighborhood kids for a game of tag or getting entire families involved in a snowball fight.
But parents need to get out there, too. “Kids want to be with their parents,” Schafer says. “Parents have to model it as part of our regular life and not to be so phobic about the cold.”
Have a snack attack. Winter-friendly snacks like apple cider and s’mores can help warm up little bodies during an indoor break. But for extra fun, Schafer suggests taking the treats outside and joining the kids.
“It elevates the time together into something special,” she says. “But it also means that every day you’re going outside and getting into that sunshine, because that's where snack time is.” (Here are some kid-friendly recipes for children to try out.)
Debrief after a good time. Even a child who enjoyed yesterday’s snowy fun may be hesitant to repeat it tomorrow. That’s normal child development, Schafer says.
“Sometimes for kids, transitions—moving them from, say, playing their favorite video game to playing outside—are hard because kids are so ‘in-the-moment’ in their attention span,” she says. So if a hesitant child winds up having a good time outside in the cold, he might not have the developmental foresight to understand that a couple of days later, he’ll probably have fun again.
Schafer suggests that parents make a habit of asking kids how they feel after they come back from a dreaded outdoor activity. “Say ‘So how are you feeling? Are you glad you did that?’” she suggests. “Often in hindsight, they'll say, ‘Yeah, I do. I do actually feel better. I feel happier than when we left. I'm glad we went.’”
More winter fun ideas
Amp up your usual. Instead of an indoor rink, look for an outdoor skating trail. Instead of an afternoon snow hike, try one at sunset.
Bring the indoors outside. Move the fun things kids like to do inside out into the fresh air. Fill spray bottles with water and food coloring for some outdoor snow art. Blow bubbles to see if they’ll freeze. Toy dump trucks can now become snow trucks.
Write it down. Planned fun gives kids something to look forward to and get excited about.
So fill a calendar that kids can see with fun winter plans, whether it’s making a snowman that looks like Grandpa or taking a hike in which everyone proposes a different song to sing.
Keep some secrets. Then again, an element of surprise can also get children excited. Design an Advent-style calendar for a week or a month with a new outing or game planned for each day. Every morning kids will have a wintry surprise to look forward to.
Create a winter obstacle course. Using the items already in your backyard or local park, create challenges to get active. Hop over the bench, roll to the garden, or zoom down an icy slide.