Let's Teach Kids to Love Winter, Not Fear It

CC BY 2.0. elycefeliz

Elementary school policies on winter recess in Ontario, Canada, are cautious and restrictive, to the point where this parent fears it's instilling an unnecessary fear of the cold.

My house is located directly across the street from my son’s elementary school. Last week I called to ask why the kindergarten class wasn’t outside. It was a beautiful, sun-filled afternoon and the schoolyard was full of energetic kids, running around and reveling in the recent snowfall.

“We keep the little kids inside for last recess,” a teacher explained. “By the end of the day they don’t want to go out, their stuff is wet, and it’s more hassle than it’s worth for 15 minutes of play.” I couldn’t help but disagree, and requested that my 5-year-old son be sent out to join the bigger kids for last recess every day.

I’ve been disappointed by the school board’s policy on outdoor recess. If the temperature drops to -20 degrees Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit), with or without wind chill, the recess is shortened. If it drops to -25 C (-13 F), then recess is cancelled. Usually, however, the kids just stay inside as soon as it gets anywhere near -20 C.

These temperatures are extremely cold for people in many parts of the world, but my family lives in southwestern Ontario, Canada, where such temperatures are completely normal in January and February. To create such a policy means that kids in Ontario’s elementary schools are often stuck inside, sometimes for days on end, without ever leaving their classrooms. Last week it was three days in a row.

Why do the schools do this? I don’t exactly know. My son was told at school that “cold weather is unhealthy,” and I quickly corrected that fallacy. There’s nothing inherently unhealthy about the cold; one must simply know how to live with it. Do we not, as parents and teachers in Ontario, have a responsibility to teach our children how to survive in the cold climate in which they live, instead of teaching them to fear it?

If it’s a question of inadequate clothing, I’m sure many parents would happily donate extra outdoor wear to those kids who don’t have enough. Or the school board could allocate some of the fortune it’s currently spending on putting iPads and Smartboards in every classroom to buy warm clothes for students. As I tell my own kids, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”

I grew up several hours north of Toronto, where winter temperatures plummet below -30 Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit) on a regular basis. The only indoor recesses I ever got were due to torrential rain, snowstorms, or when there were black bears in the playground. Indoor recesses were a treat because it meant watching a movie. My son’s kindergarten class, by contrast, watches movies almost every day when it’s cold outside.

We do our children no favors by trying to protect them from the seasons, especially when they live in a frigid climate. In fact, we harm our already-endangered planet further by raising a generation of kids who fear more than they appreciate the natural rhythms of the earth and who instinctively flee from the outdoors, rather than embrace it and see the beauty in it.

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, argues eloquently for the importance of getting kids into nature, for acknowledging that nature can be as valuable a classroom as an indoor one. Without fostering in children a love of the outdoors, there is little hope for the future, but Louv points out the very problem I've encountered:

"Public education is enamored of, even mesmerized by, what might be called silicon faith: a myopic focus on high technology as salvation."

I will do my best to teach my children to love being outside, but it would be wonderful to have some assistance from the school board, instead of feeling like we’re playing tug-of-war with my child’s perception of winter weather. Unhealthy cold? Give me a break.