The Benefits of Outdoor Winter Activities for Children

5 min
Jan 2, 2020

As a childcare Educator, I have always thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to be outside with the children.  It was a time to not only get fresh air, but to experience that our entire learning environment grew larger.  There was more to explore.  Children felt free and relaxed and I know I enjoyed this time as much as the children did. 

The summers were easy.  Sunscreen, hats and we are ready to go!  Spring and autumn brought wetness and mild temperatures, but it was always manageable.  Splash pants and rubber boots were a clothing staple and extra hoodies in case the weather changed from morning to afternoon.

Then it was time for winter.  There are the cold temperatures and the many layers of clothing to get on and then get off again.  After helping children practice their important self-help skills, we were outside.  Picking up snow, exploring a changed outdoor winter environment and feeling the crispness of cold weather on our cheeks.  The children were busy pushing shovels or pulling sleds and their muscles grew big and strong.

Fast forward to when I became a parent to my son and then I could understand the concerns of families regarding cold weather.  I had the same concerns about him being too cold.  Was he warm enough?  Did I pack enough clothes for him or the right clothes?  Where did those mittens go that I had bought last week?  Why was everything so wet when I picked him up?  While I was worrying as families do, I was missing something vitally important about my child getting outside each day.

As a Registered Early Childhood Educator (ECE), I know the immense, life-changing benefits of outdoor winter play.  In all areas of children’s development, outdoor play ticks the boxes for providing children with experiences that foster skills in every area of their learning, regardless of the weather.  Children’s opportunity to participate in outdoor activities supports their physical and emotional well-being.

In Canada, children are not getting the physical activity that they need daily.  Canadian 24-hour movement guidelines (CSEP, 2019) indicate that children 1-4 years of age should be participating 180 minutes of physical activity per day.  Infants also need to have a variety of physical activity throughout the day.  Provincial regulations also set out outdoor winter requirements that each licensed centre must meet in order to support children in meeting these physical activity guidelines.

Based on the Health Canada’s cold weather recommendations, our infants (Alberta & BC 0-19 months, Ontario 0-18 months) will not be taken outside for outdoor winter play when the temperature combined with the wind chill is lower than -10° C. Children over the age of 18-19 months will not engage in outdoor winter play with the combined wind chill temperature is lower than -18° C. Children remain outside as long as they are happy and active. On cold weather days, outdoor activities can be limited to 30 minutes.

So here we are, finding the balance between cold weather, snowy conditions and what we know about the importance of outdoor winter play and physical activity for our children.  What is the answer?

First and foremost, childcare educators are well-trained and well-versed in extreme weather guidelines set out by regional and local health departments.  These guidelines are also shared in BrightPath’s childcare handbook for easy access for families.  When the weather is in our favour, childcare educators are supporting children with getting dressed appropriately for outdoors in winter and ensuring that the outdoor learning environments offer a variety of developmentally appropriate activities for children to participate in.  WeeMove, BrightPath’s physical literacy program is designed for this purpose.  Childcare educators are also outside with the children in the cold and they feel first-hand the effects of the temperature and keep a watchful eye on the children staying warm and safe.

Families can support outdoor play by ensuring that children have all the clothing and accessories needed for the weather.  As many families purchase children’s items at similar retailers, labelling children’s clothing is important.

All children need to have the following items at their childcare centre every day during late fall, winter and early spring months to ensure they are ready for outdoor winter play:

  • Snow pants
  • Winter coat
  • Winter boots
  • Neck warmer (no scarves please)
  • Winter hat
  • Waterproof mittens
  • Extra pairs of mittens
  • Extra pairs of socks
  • Extra pairs of pants

When purchasing mittens for your child, check to see if your child can hold a toy or object in their hand while wearing their mittens.  If they cannot hold an object, they are more likely to take off their mittens when outside due to frustration.  It may take a while to find the right pair, but it is worth the time and effort.   When children are dressed warmly and can move around well, they are more likely to participate in physical activities.

Families can also support transitions to outdoor by encouraging children to become independent in their dressing and undressing.  Educators use a few “tricks” to foster these self-help skills in children.

Boots can be hard to put on when children are learning to balance.  By putting the “toes” of the boots against a wall, children can stabilize themselves and put their boots on independently.

Putting coats on can also be challenging when you are two or three years old.  We encourage the children to put their coats on the floor with the hood on their toes, arms in the sleeves and then lifting their coat up and over their heads…Flip, Flop, over the Top! 

These two easy dressing tips help children feel independent in their dressing and make transitions smoother for everyone.  Once we are dressed, we are ready to go and explore outside.

Dressing warmly keeps our children safe, gets them outside to participate in valuable physical activity along with building social-emotional play with other children.  The effects of nature on our well-being adds a multitude of additional benefits, allowing children and adults to self-regulate their emotions and minimize stress.

Experiencing winter should be a positive experience for children as they build stronger bodies and minds along with fostering their appreciation for the great, cold outdoors.  Feel free to put on your toque, mittens and boots and join us anytime and experience the benefits of outdoor winter play!

Author: Susie Martin – Education Coach