I’ll be the first to admit: I thoroughly despise being cold. Even in the middle of summer, you can find me in sweats and cozy slippers huddled under a throw blanket while on the couch. I just don’t do cold.
This, of course, tends to become a real issue as we live outside of Chicago (where there is at least nine months of winter—it’s true), and I have two extremely active little boys who, thanks to my own doing, love being outdoors. Even when it’s cold. And though I was able to get away with little winter outdoor time when they were tiny tots, their needs are different now as older children. And, especially nowadays, we’ll all go crazy if we stay inside all the time.
After reading a few stories on how Scandanavian parents approach outdoor time with their kids (seriously, what can’t they do?), I realized just how much American culture differs when it comes to nature-based free play. Though it’s easy for me to create an outdoor classroom for my boys in the warmer months, I was really dropping the ball when it came to winter play. Determined to change that, I took a few tips from my parenting counterparts of the North and channeled my inner Elsa to get my kids back outside.
1. Don’t go big (all the time)
One of the biggest things holding me back from spending time outdoors with my kids in the winter was that, in my head, I was equating outdoor time with the time we spend outdoors in the summer—which is almost all day. Obviously, that’s just not going to work when the temperature is 20 degrees. But even small amounts of time can be super beneficial to ease stir-craziness. I’ve found that even 20 minutes a day before and after school puts us all in a better mood. The boys love running around and observing nature, and I feel much better with some fresh air and sun on my face (if it’s out, that is).
2. Swap structured activities for free play
Though I’m not huge on structured activities at my kids’ young age anyway, in the winter, this makes a bigger difference since (in a normal year) all sports and activities are usually held indoors. Spending more time indoors after school would leave us with basically no opportunity to spend time outside during the week. And since my guys are still young, I know there will be plenty of time for fall and winter sports and classes once the world opens up and they grow up a bit.
Right now, play takes precedence for us as a family, and those precious non-school hours are left as free and unstructured. This gives us a chance to get outside at least once per day.
3. There’s no bad weather, only bad clothes
If you’ve ever been to Scandinavia (I haven’t) or browsed their online shops (I have), you’ll pick up on something quick: they do cold weather clothes right. And there’s a good reason–if you’re comfortable when outdoors in the cold, it’s less of a chore and more enjoyable.
This year, instead of trying to scrimp and save on winter clothes, I made our cold-weather gear the financial priority of the season. That meant warm, well-made boots for everyone, thick, weatherproof coats and pants, plenty of hats that are maybe less cute but more functional, a ton of gloves (is it only my kids that lose all of them by the end of the season?), and lots of layers to go underneath.
And let me tell you from personal experience, when the snow isn’t soaking through the bottom of your boots onto your socks and feet, you’re a lot less grumpy.
4. Model joy and appreciation for nature
My kids are not the ones who have to be convinced to go outdoors in the cold–it’s all me. But as with anything parenting, it starts with us. If I’m moaning and groaning about the cold, they’ll begin to pick up on the idea that one kind of weather is better than another, and that’s not really fair to them.
The truth is that there is beauty in all of the seasons, and just because I don’t prefer cold weather, doesn’t make that less true. Learning to shut my mouth and take my kids’ lead on exploring winter has been an awesome experience. Through their innocent excitement, I get to enjoy something I never really did. And if I show appreciation for the parts of life that are maybe a little less trendy (and a lot colder), then they will too.
5. Worry less about the mess
When it comes to summer play, I’m all for the messier, the better. After all, it’s easy to hose them off before they head back inside. But in the winter, when everything is in a perpetual state of soggy, it’s much harder to clean and wash unending amounts of clothing and gear. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve told my kids on more than one occasion to stay out of the mud.
Messy outdoor play is seen as a perfectly natural, even cherished, part of childhood in Scandinavian society. In fact, parents there encourage muddy boots and clothes and scraped elbows and knees as evidence of their kids’ explorations and impending learning. Recent studies suggest that they’re on to something, as microbes in the soil may help kids—and their immune systems—become more resilient to allergies and asthma.
So, I’m learning to step back and let my kids dig in.
This article was originally published on December 19, 2019 and has been updated for timeliness.