Is cold weather play okay?

Q. My preschool-age twins love to be outside no matter what the weather may be including the freezing cold temperatures we’ve recently experienced. Is it okay to let them play outdoors in the winter weather? Do you have any suggestions for outdoor, cold-weather activities that we should do? Would it be better if I chose to keep the boys indoors instead?

A. I hear you on this one! It can be so tempting to try and entertain children indoors when the weather outside is less than desirable, especially on really cold days. Many parents fear that their child will get sick when playing in the cold or will not like being outdoors. However, when dressed appropriately for the weather conditions, playing outdoors on a cold day can provide many benefits for a young child who needs and craves daily physical activity.

Some benefits of bundling up and playing outside in the cold weather include:

There are many fun ways that children can learn and explore the world around them, even when it’s chilly outside. Nature looks different during the winter months, and the changes in the plants, trees, and animals offer plenty to discover, inspect, and discuss.

Consider these activities to interest your children in outdoor exploration:

Scavenger hunt: Give your children a list of outdoor items to find in the backyard. Let them loose on the hunt, but time them to ensure they aren’t exposed to the cold too long. For children who aren’t yet able to read, you can print pictures of the items and have them look for something similar outdoors.

Take a hike: Go on a nature walk and have your children point out the different items they see. Take the opportunity to incorporate higher-level language concepts such as asking them to use descriptive words, answer WH questions (who, what, when, where and how) and follow multi-step directions.

Major Movements
Your preschoolers are in an important phase of gross motor skill development, and they need the room to run, jump, kick and swing their arms around—let them do it outside! These physical activities will help with the coordination and core strength they will need as they grown and learn to do more and more for themselves. A bonus is that all of these movements will also help to tire them hopefully making for an easier bedtime routine.

Some ways your can get your children moving outside on a cold day include:

Build a snowman: Challenge your children to a snowman building contest. Rolling the snow into balls and gathering supplies to make its eyes, arms and buttons will get them moving. Once built, ask them to dress the snowman. While they work on this task, get them thinking by asking them to point out the snowman’s body parts and tell you where each article of clothing should go (e.g. the hat on top of the head).

Hidden treasure: Hide small items like plastic cars, balls, or small toys in a designated area of snow. Ask your children to use their hands or a small shovel to dig up the hidden items. If there is no snow on the ground, set up this activity in a flowerbed full of fallen leaves.

Snow drawing: Fill up plastic squirt bottles with food coloring and water. Have your children draw or paint in the snow. You can even have them practice drawing shapes or ask them to identify letters that you paint in the snow. Too warm for snow? Leave out the food coloring and use the water-filled squirt bottles to do the same activity on the driveway or sidewalk.

Old-school games: Bring back some of your favorite old-school games such as Simon Says, Freeze Tag, Mother May I, and Red Light, Green Light. These games are a lot of fun and can be played outside during any weather.

Vitamin D
Research has shown that most people are vitamin D deficient. Exposure to the sun is a natural source of vitamin D that helps to build healthy immune systems, promotes healthy bones, and positively affects mood and mental status, which can help prevent meltdowns during the day. Playing outdoors, even on cold days, is a great way to take in this natural nutrient in moderation.   

Sensory Engagement
There is so much to see, feel, hear, and touch outdoors. Even on cold days, children have the opportunity to feel the cold air, hear leaves or ice crunching, touch snow, and see new colors and shapes. Outdoor play really gives children a chance to engage several of their senses at once.

You are a smart mama to recognize the importance of outdoor play for your young boys. Before you send your little ones outside to take advantage of the many benefits that await them, please do make sure you’re familiar with the American Academy for Pediatrics’ safety tips for outdoor play. These include dressing your children in layers (one more layer than you plan to wear), encouraging them to head inside to warm-up as needed, and watching for signs of frostbite or hypothermia.

Hopefully, the ideas I shared will help you feel confident in letting them play outdoors on cold days to keep them busy and entertained. Happy playing!

Allison Crumpler is a speech-language pathologist and the director of clinical compliance for Raleigh Therapy Services, Inc., a multidisciplinary pediatric therapy practice in North Raleigh. (919-791-3582)

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