Most mornings I check my Twitter feed before I even take that first sip of coffee. On a chilly -20C morning, this tweet caught my attention.
It's cold out, so kids may not be allowed outside to play at recess again today. Bad idea says pediatrician @drflanders. He's here at 6:50. — Metro Morning (@metromorning) January 29, 2014I agreed that it was a bad idea so I tweeted just that. Next thing I knew others were weighing in and the very hot button topic of “being too cold for kids to play outside" was being discussed. I decided to follow up with Dr. Flanders from Kindercare Pediatrics in Toronto, and share what the pediatrician has to say about sending kids outside to play in the cold. This week you were on CBC radio in Toronto saying that keeping kids indoors on cold days may be doing more harm than good. Why do you think that's the case? Health Canada recommends the following: Children aged 5-18 should accumulate at least one hour of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity daily. But more is even better! Children these days spend extreme amounts of time being sedentary. Being sedentary is a known serious health risk. Only one in eight Canadian children meet the above recommendation. Since children spend the vast majority of their waking weekday hours at school, I feel that schools are largely responsible for ensuring that children are active enough each day. Recess is an important part of supporting kids to meet the one-hour-per-day recommendation. When schools cancel recess for weather-related reasons (it's raining, it's too cold, it's too windy, etc,) they are further lessening the already inadequate amount of exercise and outdoor play that children get and need. This is undermining the health and well being of our children. Many (not all) schools also send children home with unreasonably large amounts of homework. This further exacerbates the problem because now children are forced to prioritize homework over playing outside after school. Often it's bedtime by the time the kids are finished their homework and the opportunity to get out and play/move is gone. Are we raising wimpier kids than we were a generation ago? I don't think this has anything to do with machismo. It's much more an issue of the prevailing culture in our communities. For some reason we are reticent about sending our kids out to play in the cold. We have a (false) belief that it is dangerous or uncomfortable. But, again, dressed appropriately, the risk is trivial and the benefits are enormous. What essentials should kids have to be prepared for the very cold weather? Each kid is different and has different tolerance levels for the cold. So parents need to pay attention to the feedback they get from the kids/teachers and adjust the "bundle-up" factor accordingly. Having said that, from head to toe, the following items are essential for dressing appropriately to play on very cold days: Hat: Choose a heavy wool hat that drops low enough to comfortably cover your child's earlobes. Earlobes are often the culprits of frost bite and often it is because the hat did not come down far enough. Scarf, neck warmer, balaclava: These all cover the lower face and neck. On the coldest of days, consider using more than one of these. Balaclava's are especially helpful for covering the skin of the face, especially the mid-face (eyes and nose and surrounding skin) - the one part of the body that can be difficult to fully cover. Jacket: Choose a jacket that is heavy and warm. It doesn't need to be expensive to be warm. Often jackets have warmth ratings to help you make in informed choice. It is helpful for the jacket to have a hood which can provide added wind and cold protection to the head. Snow pants: These too, should be heavy and warm. Often kids' snow pants are sold along with jackets as a package. Mitts: Keep in mind that mitts are warmer than gloves. When the fingers are together, they assist in warming each other. It is important that mitts be waterproof; as soon as water gets in, hands freeze no matter what the warmth rating. Buy those clips that attach the mitts to the jacket's sleeves. This will avoid many lost pairs of mittens. Boots: Choose heavy, appropriately sized, water-proof boots that go at least half-way up the lower leg (i.e. half way between the ankles and the knees). Layers: Dressing in layers is important. Layers help trap in the heat generated by the body and help prevent heat loss when a wind blows by. Layers are also helpful for making adjustments if you overheat or are still too cold. Getting too hot? Remove a layer. Still to cold? add a layer of long johns and throw on another long-sleeve shirt. How do you address concerns people are raising about families who have financial constraints and may not have money for warm clothing? I appreciate that poverty affects almost every aspect of life for children. I also believe that we cannot be sensitive enough to these issues. On the other hand, I sincerely do not believe that the solution to this problem is to keep all children cooped up in school buildings whenever the temperature drops. We need solution-focused social support strategies to ensure that children in less fortunate families have access to warm clothes for the winter time. My 9 year old loves playing competitive hockey and I remind him that as a part of his commitment to his training and his team is staying healthy and part of staying healthy is wearing his snow pants, boots, hat and scarf on the coldest days. Not every parent has the same hook that I do, so any other advice for parents to get this message through to their kids? The best way for parents to get their kids outside in the cold is for them to strap on their own boots, put on their own "snowsuits", bundle up and go out and play with their kids. Role modelling is the best way to motivate children. If children grow up experiencing their life outside with their family, they won't question it as a part of their daily life. What can teachers and school administrators do to support safe, active play outside on cold days during recess and lunch breaks? First, they need to make it a priority. So this means setting a policy that says something along the lines of "there is no such thing as bad weather ... only bad clothing choices". Secondly, the schools need to make it a high priority to follow through on this policy. This would include school yard maintenance (shoveling, salt, etc). We do a great job of maintaining our roads and highways to a high safety standard. We can do the same with our schoolyards as an alternative to saying "there's too much surface ice outside in the yard so recess is cancelled". Also, parents will need to be educated and informed about sending their children to school appropriately dressed for the weather. Too often these days, parents don't bother sending their kids to school in warm clothing because they know that outdoor recess will be cancelled. It's a vicious circle. The more outdoor recess is cancelled, the less committed parents become to dressing their children appropriately for the weather. Finally, teachers need to encourage active and fun play outside during recess. Instead of standing around "supervising," they should be supervising while playing and moving with the kids. If the teachers are hunched over with their hands in their pockets eagerly waiting for the bell to ring so that they can warm up inside, then guess what, children will exhibit these same behaviours that their role models are displaying. How cold is too cold? There are no absolutes here. There are communities in the north of Canada whose children routinely play in -35 to -40 degree weather on a daily basis. In Nunavut, the average daytime temperature at this time of year is lower than minus thirty, minus thirty-seven at night. Communities go about their daily life in these conditions. So our perceptions of "how cold is too cold?" will vary tremendously depending on the community. Certainly I can say that there hasn't been a day that I can remember in Toronto for the past 10 years when the temperature went down so low that there was true danger posed to a child or adult being outside and dressed appropriately for the weather (with the exception, of course, of the recent ice storm when falling branches and downed power lines were truly compelling reasons for children not playing outside). (Photography by Bridget McKensie via Flickr Creative Commons)