With winter can come more colds and flus. But this uptick in illnesses is not likely due to cold air. Instead, it could be due to the fact that we all spend a lot of time cooped up indoors with all those germs.
Going outside into the cold doesn’t make us sick—germs make us sick. While there are strategies for keeping winter colds and flus at bay, like regular hand-washing, you might be surprised to discover that outdoor play can help keep our children healthy during the winter months. Let’s dive and learn how.
In this article, I’ll highlight five ways that playing outside in the winter can help keep our children healthy throughout the colder months of the year.
1. Winter outdoor play keeps germs at bay
Achoo! Sniffle, sniffle. Cough, cough. Ah yes, the warning sounds of winter colds and flus trying to find their next victim. They lurk on doorknobs and light switches waiting patiently for little hands to pick them up. The fact is, germs love indoor spaces just as much as we do and can survive on indoor surfaces for a long time, from days to weeks. Germs also enjoy it when children gather together indoors because it makes it easier for them to jump from one child to the next.
While it’s impossible to avoid winter germs completely, I’ve discovered one strategy that keeps winter germs at bay: send my kids outside to play!
There are two reasons this works so well. The first is that when kids play outside in the winter they’re more spaced apart, making it more difficult for germs to spread. The second is that when kids play outside in the winter they’re less likely to touch common surfaces that are covered in cold and flu germs, especially with gloves on. These days when the winter season arrives, I set up as many of my children’s play dates outside. Not only does this help slow the spread of colds and flus, but snowy play dates are fun and memorable for kids.
2. Winter outdoor play gets kids active
Squeak, squeak, shuffle, shuffle goes the sound of little winter boots plowing through freshly fallen snow. Playing outside in the winter is a fun and exciting challenge for children. In fact, even just walking around in the snow with all that snow gear on is aerobic exercise for kids, and if I’m honest, walking through snow gets my heart pumping too.
According to the Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines children should be getting “an accumulation of at least 60 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous physical activity involving a variety of aerobic activities.” Aerobic activities are anything that raise the heart rate and make breathing somewhat harder. This regular amount of daily activity helps children with their overall fitness, learning, behaviour, health, and well-being. In other words, active play helps children stay healthy so that they’re better able to resist winter colds and flus.
While kids can be active indoors, winter outdoor play, with its snow, slush, rain, and ice, provides children with countless opportunities for creative open-ended play, which is a type of play that tends to keep kids engaged and moving for longer periods of time. However, if your child isn’t sure how to play outside in the winter, here are some helpful idea:
- Visit a new (to your child) play park.
- Download this free printable and go on a winter activities scavenger hunt.
- Try out a winter activity like sledding, skating, snowshoeing, or cross-country skiing.
- Go on a nature walk and make a winter nature mandala.
- Build a winter-themed obstacle course in your yard or park.
- Shovel your driveway or your neighbour’s driveway together.
- Blow ice bubbles outside on a frosty day.
- Go on a nighttime winter walk together and spot some stars.
For more outdoor winter activities, check out some of these helpful articles:
3. Winter outdoor play offers a breath of fresh air
Woosh, rustle, and sigh. The crisp winter air blowing through bare trees is invigorating, refreshing and clean. According to the Canadian Lung Association, air pollution levels are sometimes higher indoors than they are outdoors due to our indoor activities, like vacuuming, burning candles, and using a wood stove. This means that generally speaking, outdoor air is cleaner than indoor. Of course, this isn’t always the case, so be sure to check the Air Quality Health Index levels for your area before heading outdoors.
The reason air quality is so important for kids is that their lungs are still growing and developing, making them more at risk for breathing problems. Breathing in clean, fresh winter air helps keep lungs healthy and can even help reduce symptoms of allergies caused by indoor pollutants like animal hair and dust mites.
4. Winter outdoor play boosts the immune system
Munch, munch, mmmmm. Winter sunshine helps boost children’s immune system by providing the body with some much-needed vitamin D. While taking vitamin D supplements can help boost this vitamin during the winter, it shouldn’t be a substitute for soaking in the sun. Just be sure to put on some sunscreen if your child is outside for a longer period of time on a sunshine-y winter day. Yes, it’s still possible to get a sunburn in the winter!
Another hidden benefit of playing outside in the winter is that it exposes children to beneficial microbes that hang out in snow and soil. These good bacteria and microbes have been shown to help boost the immune system and prevent chronic illnesses in kids, so yes, let your kids eat (clean) snow!
5. Winter outdoor play improves night time sleep
Hoot, holler, and giggle. Winter outdoor play is a lot of fun and all that physical activity is wonderful for setting children up for a good night’s sleep. Playing outside in the winter also exposes children to natural daylight, which helps to regulate children’s circadian cycle, also known as the sleep-wake cycle. This is especially important in the winter months when daylight is limited and the nights are longer.
I often find that my kids struggle more with sleep in the winter, especially on days when they stay indoors. Fresh air, natural light, cold air, and exercise seem to be an effective formula for getting a good night’s sleep, which is why many Scandinavians let their babies naps outdoors in the winter.
Winter outdoor play the safe way
Winter outdoor play is loads of fun and is great keeping our kids healthy through the winter. It’s important, however, to make winter outdoor play safe for kids. The Canadian Paediatric Society reminds parents to keep some basic winter safety precautions in mind while their children enjoy winter activities like playing in the snow, sledding, and skating. Here are a few points from their website:
- It’s important that children dress properly for winter play. That means wearing winter gear like snow clothes, gloves, toques, and boots. When the temperature gets very cold, it doesn’t take long for skin to start to freeze leading to frostbite so proper layers are very important.
- Be sure that children play in safe areas and away from snow plows, snowblowers, and roads. Cars might have a more difficult time stopping suddenly on icy roads.
- Always insist that children wear ski or skate helmets when sledding and skating. Practice safe sledding on hills (walking up along the sides of the hill, not going down backwards, not crashing into others).
Winter outdoor play motivators (for parents)
Keeping our kids healthy during the winter months is a great motivator to encourage outdoor play during this time of the year. However, as a parent of five, I know first-hand that getting outside when it’s cold and snowy isn’t always easy. If you struggle with getting your kids outside in the winter, know that you aren’t alone. Here’s a great article to help motivate you to bring your children outside this winter: How to overcome 5 common roadblocks that get in the way of winter play
Daily winter outdoor play is a great way to keep the doctor away! It keeps germs at bay, increases physical activity, offers fresh air, boosts the immune system, and improves sleep. What do you and your kids love most about playing outside in the winter?