Kids can -- and should -- play outside in almost any kind of weather, as long as they're dressed properly.
Right now my Canadian town is in the midst of a cold snap. The Weather Network says the temperature is -13 Celsius (8F), but feels like -23C (-9F) with the wind chill. I believe it. When I stepped out of the house to walk to the library, it felt like I was breathing tiny needles into my lungs.
Despite this, I bundled up my young kids in multiple layers of snowpants, sweaters, parkas, mitts, wool hats, and scarves, and sent them out to play. They headed out around 9 a.m. and didn't come back for an hour. They were rosy-cheeked, snow-caked, and joyous, recounting their adventures spent riding their GT snow racer down a gigantic snow mountain in a nearby empty school parking lot.
Was I a crazy parent to send them out in such weather -- and to let them engage in such "dangerous" play? Some school boards (and parents, no doubt) would say so. There's a growing trend toward keeping kids indoors for recess as soon as temperatures drop to -20C (-4F) or below, or if there's any sign of less-than-perfect weather, such as ice on the ground, icy rain, or heavily falling snow.
While I understand that schools need to ensure safety, I'd argue that the target is misplaced. Keeping kids indoors and preventing them from engaging in vigorous outdoor activity is more of a health hazard than fretting about the potential for falls on slippery ground or the unlikely chance of frostbite developing in mere minutes. In reality, kids are fairly resilient and aware of their own physical limitations, particularly if they're allowed to develop those skills from an early age.
Toronto-based paediatrician Dan Flanders agrees. He told CBC in 2014 that the health benefits of staying physically active outweigh the risks of cold exposure:
"With very few exceptions, if you dress your kids properly, if you look at the weather and dress them according to the weather, there really isn't much risk."
School boards fear litigation, I get that. But if schools started talking to parents about why it's important for kids to get outside, regardless of the weather, and if parents starting telling schools that they want their kids to play outside every day, we could come to a better, mutually-beneficial understanding. I suspect many parents wouldn't object to signing a waiver, either. Look at the growing popularity of forest schools, where kids spend the entire day outdoors; clearly the idea is catching on among parents.
As for the argument that "some kids don't have suitable clothing," that is easily remedied. Winter clothing can be donated by local families to help clothe those kids who don't have it. Used snow gear can be purchased cheaply at thrift stores. An outdoor dress code could be enforced in the exact same way that an indoor one is.
Sending kids out to play regardless of the weather teaches them not to fear winter. They learn to face the seasons comfortably and confidently, which is a skill they'll carry into adulthood. And they'll have such fun! There's a reason why winter is my kids' favorite season. They have an endless supply of natural building materials, icy puddles to slide on, hills on which to reach great speeds, and icicles to lick.
Here are some tips from an experienced northern mother on how to enjoy family playtime in the frigid cold:
Dress warmly, but not to the point of sweating. Be sure to keep faces covered as much as possible. Read my guide to dressing babies and kids for the cold.
Keep active outside. Standing around in the cold is awful. Give them a job shovelling snow. Take a pet for a walk. Pull each other in a sled. Build a snowman.
Stay close to home. Don't go too far away if the weather is extremely cold or snowy. That way, you can head back inside to warm up as soon as the kids can't handle it anymore.
Take warm drinks. Having some hot chocolate or tea in a thermos is a wonderful way to warm up, even while still outside. It can also be a mid-playtime treat to enjoy in a fort you've built or at the turnaround point in a hike.
(Editor's note: Read the CDC's advice about staying healthy in extreme cold weather here.)