The polar bear can be a symbol of the cold white north but also a symbol of strength and ability to survive a challenging environment.
Over the years, some school weather policies have become increasingly wary of more challenging weather conditions in spite of centuries of our ability, as humans, to withstand what our climate can serve up.
If we compare the weather we ventured out in as kids with what our children are permitted to experience, the conclusion for most will be that the approach to weather was far more lackadaisical when we were children.
Kids kept inside on days deemed “too rainy” on the west (aka “wet”) coast were non-existent throughout my elementary school years, now it’s a thing. Northerners and Prairie kids kept inside because of wind chill? Windchill is a relatively new concept that has evolved frequently over the last century, with the most recent index being adopted by Environment Canada in 2001.
There used to be an expectation that all school children dress appropriately for the weather. While the expectation may be stated it is no longer enforced. Perhaps it is the fact that outdoor gear can be costly. Or that too many children are being privately shuttled from the warmth of their house straight into school.
We know that fewer children are walking or biking to school these days, modes that force them to dress for the weather. There are also parents that phone schools and lambaste administration for permitting or even “forcing” their children outside in “such conditions.”
There is a way around this cultural shift, though. Read on.
What is a Polar Bear Club?
What springs to mind when you hear of a Polar Bear Club? Naturalists who get together to conserve one of Canada’s iconic megafauna? Water splashing everywhere as brave souls run into frigid waters in order to raise money for a good cause?
While both are plausible, for Canadian children the Polar Bear Club has taken on a whole new meaning: A club to embrace our nation’s coldest days, to get fresh air with outside recess every day, superseding most aspects of school weather policies, such as temperature and wind chill, but not high winds, for example.
Examples of school guidelines for cold weather
Calgary Board of Education, Alberta
• -20 C, including windchill factor, students are kept inside for lunch and recess
Saskatoon Public School District, Saskatchewan
• -27 C, including windchill factor, students are kept inside
Whitehorse Elementary School, Yukon
• -30 and below, recess will be indoors for the morning recess
• Between -30 and -35, children will go out for 10 minutes at lunch recess
• Between -36 and -39, children will walk around the school twice and go inside at lunch recess
• -40 and below, children will stay inside both recesses, but teachers can take their classes out for a quick walk around the school
Toronto District School Board, Ontario
• -28 C or colder, including windchill, kids will be kept inside at recess
• -20 to -28 C, morning recess may be shortened to 10 minutes and lunch recess to 20 minutes, depending on local conditions
There are kids who want to go outside when it is cold? It’s true! Some students are so motivated to get outside – in what most would consider to be frigid temperatures – in order to escape the feeling of being stuck inside a hamster cage or fish bowl when school district rules impose inside recess. These students have gone so far as to petition to get a Polar Bear Club started at their school.
Polar Bear Clubs in Canada
Need some inspiration for starting a Polar Bear Club at your school? Schools across Canada are embracing the typically wintery climate found even in the coldest locales, here are some examples:
St Angela School in Regina, Saskatchewan proudly offers their Polar Bear Club as evidenced in their permission form. Paid staff supervise the club.
Upon hearing of St Angela School’s club via the CBC via their Parent Advisory Council, St Andrew’s School, found north/northeast of Winnipeg, started a club of their own and permit students to go outside if properly dressed up to -40 C windchill.
Students participating in these programs have submitted signed waivers from their parent(s) or guardian(s).
Challenges for starting a Polar Bear Club
The greatest barrier to starting a Polar Bear Club seems to be supervision. Many schools already have bare bones lunchtime supervision staff, let alone enough staff to send one outside with a handful of children who are members of such a club. Here are two different approaches to this issue:
Altadore School in Calgary deals with this issue by having a parent-led Polar Bear Club.
Nearby William Reid School, also in Calgary, circumvents this issue by having an informal parent-led “Outdoor Lunch Club.” This club is not school sanctioned because there was no school support at the time of forming, so a handful of parents banded together to share supervision over the entire lunch period year round. Instead of having their children walk home for lunch, one parent comes to the schoolyard each lunch and supervises this small group, year round, in all conditions. The club is currently Outdoor Lunch Club 2.0 as the first generation has graduated from this K-4 school!
Why support a Polar Bear Club?
Why dedicate so many hours of staff time or volunteer hours to supervision of an outlier group of kids? Because children need to move their bodies, especially through play. Active play has been shown to improve physical and mental health, as well as to facilitate learning by increasing the duration of students’ ability to concentrate.
Best of luck getting a Polar Bear Club started in your school! Go help support the physical literacy, mental health, ability to learn, and optimistic attitude towards our climate.