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Lifestyles

Even in chilly weather, take a break to play outside, especially this year

Posted November 21, 2020 11:23 a.m. EST
Updated November 21, 2020 1:44 p.m. EST

Every morning, between 9 and 10 a.m., my 3-year-old hits his “go outside” point. It’s the moment when his energy overflows into pull-the-dog’s-tail-and-get-a-timeout territory.

If my husband and I can get his shoes on and shove him out the door in time, he transforms into an angel, running sprints through the park and digging in the dirt without a trace of that little miscreant. He’s happy, we’re happy. Our dog breathes a sigh a relief.

In the age of COVID-19, getting outside has become even more essential as an antidote to lockdowns and as one of the safest ways to have play dates. And it’ll remain my No. 1 activity as this fall turns into winter.

So if you’re staring down the barrel of the impending winter with dread, visions of cabin-fever-induced meltdowns dancing in your head, fear not. Yes, your kids can play outside in foul weather. And what’s more, they’ll love it.

Don’t take my word for it. I tapped parents who endure the world’s harshest weather for a living to get their secrets around keeping kids comfortable and happy outdoors year-round.

Only suitable clothing

Start by embracing British guidebook writer Alfred Wainwright’s point of view: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.” You know layering is the key to trapping body heat and keeping the elements out, but there’s more to it than just slipping a child into a puffy jacket and heading out the door.

“Make sure the hands, head, heart and feet are covered; out of those, the feet are probably the most important thing,” said Pete Ripmaster, who won the 2018 Iditarod Trail Invitational 1000 on foot (a 1,000-mile winter ultramarathon that traces the route of the eponymous sled dog race across Alaska). Based in Asheville, North Carolina, he started winter backpacking in the Great Smoky Mountains with his daughters, now 9 and 11, when the youngest was 5.

Dry feet are warm feet, so think waterproof insulated boots or rubber boots paired with fleece or wool liners, plus cozy wool or synthetic socks (not cotton, which doesn’t wick moisture away from the skin and takes ages to dry). Speaking of socks: Pack an extra pair for each kid.

Little hands are also prone to feeling cold quickly, said Jackson, Wyoming, resident Kit DesLauriers, the first person to ski down the tallest mountain on every continent (the Seven Summits) and a mom who took her daughters rafting in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge when they were 5 and 7 (they’re now 11 and 12).

“I’ve learned from big winter expeditions that if my hands or feet are cold, I can ask for help — I’ve put my feet on my partner’s stomach,” she said. So when one of her daughters feels the chill, “you get to put your hands on mommy’s belly. You laugh about it, have a connection, and make it fun.” Mittens beat gloves for warmth; go for a pair with a waterproof outer layer, not fleece or acrylic that can soak through to the fingers and bring an end to any outing quickly.

And mind the gaps, said Sune Tamm. The Reykjavik, Iceland-based father of a 2-year-old daughter has spent four years leading winter camping and mountaineering trips for scientists in Antarctica. “The main thing is, I make sure to seal the edges,” he said. Dress kids in gauntlet-style gloves or mittens that cinch over their jacket’s cuffs, and keep cold winds from sneaking down their necks with a gaiter. A jacket overlapping with bib snow pants will be warmer than shorter layers that can gape open when kids are off and moving.

What if your child isn’t walking yet? Tamm strolled through blizzards when his daughter was an infant by popping her in a chest carrier, wrapping a blanket around her legs and zipping her inside his extra-large winter coat.

The art of distraction

A free-roaming kid is generally a happy kid, but whining will still happen. The key to keeping the happy vibes rolling in winter is distraction, said Bekah Quirin, head of the outdoor education program Valley Forest School in Roanoke, Virginia, and a mom who hiked the entire Appalachian Trail with her daughter starting when she was 12 months old.

“Things that keep them moving are the best distractions,” she said. “The more they move, the more they’ll stay warm.” Go out prepped with a few games in mind, like Red Light Green Light, tag or a scavenger hunt. And keep it simple: Kids aren’t likely to listen to complicated instructions while standing around in the cold. Ripmaster sets up a community treasure hunt for his kids, tipping off neighbors ahead of time that his daughters will be knocking on the door in search of, say, a pink paper clip. (This year, arrange for a distanced handoff.) “They’re on a mission,” he said. “By the end of the hunt, they might have hiked 2 1/2 miles, but they’re not thinking, ‘Oh, I have to go on a hike with Mom and Dad.’ All they care about is the next box they need to check.” He also takes his family on orienteering trips to a nearby park, where the kids practice using a map and compass to navigate from checkpoint to checkpoint.

Good old snowman-building, sledding and snowball fights are classics for a reason, too. Even when the ground is bare, DesLauriers has set up a mini-igloo-building project for her kids by freezing ice blocks in old milk cartons. And Ripmaster swears by the novelty of cooking and eating outdoors, whether by campfire or camping stove.

“Making a warm meal is always really rewarding in the cold,” he said. “We do a lot of burritos, potatoes and beans — things that are easy to make.” A just-add-hot-water dehydrated camping meal is even easier. And don’t forget the s’mores.

Feed the beasts

Keeping snacks on hand is doubly important in winter, as the effort of slogging through snow and simply being in the cold requires extra energy, said Eric Larsen, “and kids are getting dehydrated faster than you are.”

Larsen — who lives in Crested Butte, Colorado, has skied to both the North and South Poles, and takes his 5-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son winter camping and mountain biking — chooses snacks based on how likely they are to freeze. No granola bars, heavy energy bars or fruit pouches, all of which tend to turn into bricks after a couple of hours. Instead, he goes for fig bars, freeze-dried fruit, trail mix, fruit snacks, “and I’m not opposed to throwing in treats, like potato chips.”

As for hydration, sources agree that a thermos full of something hot is the way to go. Besides encouraging kids to drink up (hello, hot cocoa) and helping little ones feel warmer, several pros note the cozy power of a drink-based ritual. “It adds an element of feeling comfortable in the outdoors,” said DesLauriers, who packs tea for three on skiing outings. “Why not turn it into a little tea party?”

Tamm embraces an outdoor version of the Swedish tradition of fika, a mindful break to share coffee or tea with others. “I always bring a blanket that’s water-resistant on the bottom and lay that out,” he said. For his daughter, he makes “tea — 5% honey-ginger tea and 95% milk — and we make a moment out of it.” Getting out the door

Even the children of people who have skied from the summit of Mount Everest occasionally balk at leaving the couch in winter. DesLauriers convinced her young daughters to go to ski school by zipping each one’s favorite stuffed animal into her coat with its head sticking out at the neck. Now that they’re older, inviting a friend along provides plenty of incentive to get out. Or tell the kids to try playing outdoors for just 10 minutes: “What we see is 10 turns into 20, which turns into 30,” said Larsen.

And it’s always worthwhile to make the effort. “My daughter is so much happier when she’s outside,” said Tamm. “She comes in windblown and tired, and she sleeps better.” There’s also the character-building benefits of braving a potentially uncomfortable situation, said DesLauriers. Getting out “teaches us a lesson in what we’re able to handle. Don’t shy away — if it feels like a stretch, challenge your perception.”

So start small and build up to longer and longer outings. Besides, if you find yourself with a true meltdown on your hands, you can — and should — head back inside and try again tomorrow. “You don’t want to create such a negative experience that the kids don’t want to go out again,” said Quirin. “It’s OK for kids to be uncomfortable, but you don’t want them to be miserable.”

This might be a winter unlike any other. But as long as we can get out and play, I know we’ll make it through. Better than that — I hope my son remembers this winter as one filled with rosy cheeks, hot cocoa breaks, snow forts and so much fun.

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