Go Outside Before You Go Out of Your Mind

By Melissa Stefanec
MelissaStefanec@yahoo.com

I don’t choose to live in Central New York because of its Februarys. The lack of daylight, unrelenting ice and snow and frigid temperatures often make me want to stay inside.

I’m not alone. After eight minutes of playing in the snow, my kids feel the same.

However, our brains and bodies need to be outside.

In the face of social distancing and quarantining, getting outside is, perhaps, more important than ever. The pandemic has us engaging with screens at an alarmingly high rate, and too much screen time makes monsters (whether those monsters are 38 or 8 years old).

In past winters, my family has found ways to stay active indoors. We’ve sought most of our physical activity through the gym, indoor swim lessons, trampoline parks and play parks.

Sure, we got outside for some sledding, hiking and the occasional family snowshoe, but it wasn’t a weekend priority in the dead of winter. If I wanted to get outside, I often went solo. I tackled shoveling the driveway, went snowshoeing or strapped on my cross-country skis. Getting the whole family out on all of our days off felt like an unnecessary and time-consuming endeavor.

The events of 2020 changed all of that. Our indoor go-tos aren’t an option. If we want to get out of the house, we can’t go to another building or home for fun.

That has been a blessing in disguise. I recently read an article by physician Claire McCarthy, a senior faculty editor at Harvard Health Publishing. Her article, titled, “6 Reasons Children Need To Play Outside,” cited the following benefits of getting kids outdoors:

• Getting sunshine (making vitamin D)

• Getting exercise

• Increasing executive function (skills that help us plan, prioritize, troubleshoot, negotiate and multitask)

• Encouraging safe risk taking (e.g., tree climbing and independent negotiation while interacting with the environment)

• Socializing (having unstructured play time with other people, especially children)

• Increasing appreciation for nature

McCarthy’s article reinforces what I’ve already experienced. My kids are happier when they get outside (and so am I). So, despite the biting temperatures, ice and snow, my family is spending a lot of time outdoors. This change in lifestyle is just one more way the events of the past year have inadvertently made our lives better.

This year, we’ve been sledding, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and hiking. We’ve had fires at our firepit. We’ve gone to playgrounds and visited waterfalls. I’ve watched my kids happily throw rocks into icy waters, climb trees, throw sticks into creeks and build cairns on snowy trails. I’ve watched them play in their backyard fort and run laps around the yard. The snow hasn’t held them back.

However, winter outdoor play involves a lot more preparation than summer play. So, I wanted to share my tips for getting outdoors in the winter and not regretting (or resenting) it. A little proper planning has made our adventures surprisingly enjoyable. (I want to express that a lot of the items on this list may be difficult for families who are struggling financially. I recognize I’m writing this list from a place of privilege.)

Make sure they have the proper clothing

When it comes to dressing for outdoor adventures in the winter, staying warm and dry is paramount. I make sure my kids wear warm everything. Sure, they fight me while we are getting dressed. But, once we get outside, they don’t immediately ask to come inside because they are cold or wet.

Pack backup clothing

Kids will be kids. If there is mud or water, they will find it and find a way to get it into it. Assume your adventure will include some mishaps, and plan on needing a change of everything. Having dry clothes when you get back to the car will feel like the ultimate luxury.

Get extra winter boots

If you can, get them two pairs of boots. That way, when they fill one pair with snow, water or mud, they have a backup. Between water and mud, I’ve seen boots need a two-day recovery time.

Invest in waterproof pants

Waterproof or highly-water-resistant pants are a gamechanger. When my kids wear them, they can truly choose their own adventures and not worry about being wet and cold the whole time.

Pack snacks and water

Before you go outside, make sure your kids aren’t hungry or thirsty. Those two feelings can ruin the fun. Pack snacks for when you get back to the car. My kids usually have an appetite after their adventures.

— Prepare yourself

We parents often see to our kids and neglect ourselves. Make sure to pack yourself backup clothing, water and snacks. Grumpy adults are just as bad as grumpy kids.

Redirect whining

Inevitably, your kids will whine about being outside during the winter. Encourage them to be tough and strong. Redirect their energy to something you know they will enjoy. (My kids usually take me up on an offer to throw rocks or whap things with sticks.)

These tips can help to ensure a successful outdoor winter adventure for you and your family. Next time you feel like the walls are closing in, escape the walls, even if the world outside your window looks like a snow globe.