Toddlers and cabin fever are a combination worthy of a Stephen King novel. Little ones bursting with energy really need to get outside at some point during the long days of winter, but with decreasing temperatures ahead, when is it too cold for toddlers to play outside? I'm all for bundling up my kids with a snow suit and plenty of layers so they look like Randy from A Christmas Story, but I also realize this question can be a hot button topic for parents of young children.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) notes that toddlers are more at risk from the cold than adults, simply because their bodies are smaller and they lose heat more quickly. But the guidelines for temperature are probably lower than you think "In general, playing outside in temperatures or wind chills below -15° Fahrenheit should be avoided. At these temperatures, exposed skin begins to freeze within minutes."
Dr. Dyan Hes, medical director of Gramercy Pediatrics in New York City, tells Romper, "Layering up is a key defense to protecting children. Cotton makes an ideal base layer because it absorbs moisture. Make sure extremities — fingers, toes, ears, and face — are properly covered as these tend to freeze first and are the most prone to frostbite." The AAP recommends following that up with a warm coat, hat, gloves or mittens, waterproof snow pants, and insulated boots. I personally love 32 Degrees long underwear for my kids.
The length of time outside is also very important. Hes warns, "Try setting a 20-minute time limit on your child’s outdoor play in below freezing weather, especially if it is windy. If extended exposure is unavoidable, schedule regular check-ins to evaluate your child’s condition. Children lose body heat rapidly and may ignore warning signs if they are having too much fun. Once indoors, children should change out of any wet clothes right away."
While I am definitely more laid back now that my children are older, I have definitely had my moments of anxiety on this topic. I will never forget being alarmed when the teacher at my then 3-year-old's Waldorf preschool said that an important part of the curriculum was that children would go out each day to experience nature, as per EcoParent, regardless of the weather.
A large part of the Waldorf philosophy, which is based on the insights of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian scientist and philosopher, is humankind's connection to nature and being in the natural realm as much as possible. I quickly embraced the concept when I saw how much my children enjoyed being outdoors, discovering the simple joys of nature despite the cold after long hours of being cooped up inside. The philosophy seems to be catching on, too. Washington has become the first state in the country to license outdoor preschools, like The Tiny Treehouse in Seattle, which is located completely outdoors. Regarding dressing for the weather, executive director of Tiny Trees, Kellie Morrill, told Today.com, "We like to say that there's no such thing as bad weather, there's only bad clothing."
Angela Hanscom, pediatric occupational therapist and founder of Timbernook, agrees. "Children need frequent opportunities for movement and sensory rich play experiences that challenge and foster healthy growth, even in colder months. How do we do this? We make sure our children are dressed in layers to make sure they are comfortable and able to last in the cooler weather."
While I'll be curious to see if outdoor preschools catch on across the country, nervous parents alarmed by this notion might not want to visit Scandinavia anytime soon. In Norway and most Scandinavian countries, children as young as 2 weeks old nap outdoors, according to Fatherly. Marjo Tourula, a professor at the University of Oulu, found that "frigid napping" not only enhances better daytime sleeping, but increases its duration. Combined with the general consensus that Scandinavian parents believe fresh air promotes health in infants, you have a society built for winter enthusiasts.
While you may not have the same amount of love for the winter months as our friends the Norwegians, that's OK. Just know that when you and your toddler are outside playing in the frigid cold (above -15° Fahrenheit), appropriately dressed and in short spurts, you're creating all sorts of incredible winter season memories. Snow ball fights, angel-making, snowman building — I say, "Bring it on, winter."
Dr. Dyan Hes, Medical Director of Gramercy Pediatrics
Angela Hanscom, pediatric occupational therapist and founder of Timbernook