Is it Too Cold for Outside Play?

By Michelle Salcedo, M.Ed., Sunshine House Chief Academic Officer

What are your memories of playing outside when you were a child? Did you live in a rural area and have all sorts of pretend adventures amongst the trees? Or, were you a city dweller who romped and rollicked in the exciting urban jungle? Either way, you probably have good memories of your time outside of the house.

cold outside playIt may seem strange to see an article on outside play in the middle of January, but the benefits of being in nature go beyond just being fun. Playing outdoors benefits children in all domains of development throughout the whole year. Before looking at the benefits, let’s tackle the common myth that being outside in cold weather causes illness.

The Center for Disease Control lays out the following facts:

  1. Illnesses are caused by germs, not weather conditions.
  2. Flu and cold season occur during colder weather, not because of the temperature, but because more people are closer together inside and we are all spreading germs around.
  3. There is some evidence that germs spread better in drier air. The dry air that comes from heaters can also contribute to an increase of incidences of illnesses.

As a British explorer said, “there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing for the conditions.” For typically developing children, time outside, even in cold weather, can actually help keep them healthy.

Study after study shows that children reap benefits from unstructured play in natural settings. Unstructured play means that children are able to direct their own play experiences, playing a sport or being involved in other organized activities do not count (although they can produce other benefits). Children need to be able to run, jump, yell, fall, roll, and generally experience everything nature has to offer. And, when they do, there are benefits for all domains of development:

LANGUAGE – Children who have more robust vocabularies tend to do better in Kindergarten and beyond. Young children learn new words when they experience them in their natural context (not through flashcards and quizzes). There are many opportunities to experience new words while in nature. Where else can one hear the wind rustling the leaves?  Or experience a squirrel chattering to warn away a predator from its pups (did you know that a baby squirrel can be a pup or a kit)?

Time outside has been shown to enhance a child’s vocabulary as well as provide them with a wider base of experiences on which to build new understandings of the world and how it works.

COGNITIVE – Research has shown that children have sharper thinking skills after spending time in nature. They are able to focus more on academic tasks after self-directed play experiences outside. Children who play outside show more creativity as they invent their own games and discover new, imaginative uses for found materials. More and more, experts are calling for children to develop these critical thinking skills if they are to compete in today’s complex academic and job markets.

Children also learn much more about and gain an appreciation for the earth, its patterns, and science while playing in nature than can ever be conveyed in a text book.

PHYSICAL – When one watches a child at play outside, you can easily see they are developing muscles that just don’t get challenged in other ways. But did you know that mastering the muscles needed for jumping, reaching, galloping, skipping, and climbing all lead to the ability to master the little muscles like those that are needed for writing and reading? Studies have shown that if a child has not gained the ability to control his/her movements by the age of 6, they are more likely to struggle with reading and writing. If, however, they have good bodily-control, they can focus more on the thinking related to a task than on the body movements needed to complete it.

SOCIAL / EMOTIONAL – Numerous studies show that children have more self-control, are better able to focus, and are able to pay more attention if they have frequent breaks for physical activity and time outside. This is just one of the many reasons that strategies such as removing recess to make more times for academics, and/or punishing “antsy” children by making them stay inside during recess often backfire. Children are emotionally ready to focus on learning when they have had time for outside play.

Experts also point to social gains that occur as children bring others into their games, negotiate turns on play equipment, and engage in imaginative play with other children in the great outdoors. Well-developed social skills are also essential as children navigate school and enter into the workforce.

In the grand scheme of childhood, there is not one other activity that has as many benefits across domains as unstructured play outside. Many of these benefits also apply to adults. So, turn off the screen, put on some play clothes, warm up your running feet, and try out your outside voice alongside your child – and, don’t come home until the streetlights come on.

To inspire you, take a look at these pictures of children of all different countries cutting loose in the world of nature: