Children in the wintertime can present a challenge. You want to keep them active, but perhaps you’re not all that enthused yourself at being in the great outdoors when the wind chill is registering -10 degrees. You want to keep them safe, but you know the thrill of sledding down a hill, too. And you want to keep them healthy, but every other person has a sniffly nose or that annoying cough.
What is a parent to do?
Depending on the age of your child, there are lots of options for outdoor winter activities. Akiko Kawamura, MD, of St. Luke’s Allentown Pediatrics recommends, “You’ll use your judgment, based on the age, maturity, and size of your child, as to the degree of supervision they need.” As a rough guideline, children younger than seven should always have a watchful parent nearby; from eight to middle-school age, a parent should be around and available; for middle schoolers, parents need to exercise enough caution for safety and allow enough latitude for independence.
For kids of any age, snow is a great play surface. It comes with a few safety precautions, of course. Dr. Kawamura counsels, “While anyone can build a snowman or make a snow angel in a nearby backyard or park, watch little kids for overexposure — they won’t really register when they get too cold — and make sure everyone’s outermost layer is waterproof or water resistant.”
Sledding involves a few more safety tips. Make sure the area is not dangerously steep or crowded and is free from motor vehicles — and that no fences, trees or other barriers interfere with a smooth run. Younger kids should be well-supervised — and kept separate from older kids where possible, so that they don’t get in the way of faster sleds (or risky ideas); children under the age of five should not sled alone. Check the sled itself for smooth edges, lubricated steering and straight runners for an easier ride. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children sled feet first or sitting up, as this may prevent head injuries; the AAP also suggests that you consider having your child wear a helmet — hockey, not bicycle — while sledding.
That indoor skating rink is a great feature to take advantage of in the winter as well. Remember that your kids need to pay attention to regulations: skate with the flow and don’t eat or chew candy while skating. Public sessions are not a good time for grandstanding: tell the kids to save the darting-in-and-out moves they perfected in hockey or the back crossovers they learned in figure skating for regular practice ice.
Snowboarding and downhill skiing are best taught by qualified instructors. You can rent equipment at most reputable venues before purchase, a good way for your kids to test out the sport before investing too much money. Cross-country skiing is a great activity for the whole family, and once learned, can be used even in a local park after a heavy snow.
When the temperatures are too chilly, however, it’s time to turn to indoor activities. Bowling, the movies, and indoor playgrounds are good to keep in reserve for long stretches of bad weather. For that one-day blustery affair, only use “screens” like computers and television as a last resort, because you want your kids to be able to release some physical energy.
Haul out the building toys (even older kids can get into building cities and science fiction scenarios), art supplies, and board games. Baking and cooking are fun ways to let off steam, too; the level of supervision needed is based on your kids’ age and experience. (Make soup! Standbys like chicken soup and bone broth are easy to make and will warm up your kids while giving them protein, vitamins, and minerals.) And you can pull out that deck of cards; many a child has been tricked into learning multiplication by “beating” his parents at improvised card games that teach math skills.
Health and Safety
More important than bundling up — for which layers are best — is staying dry. Make sure extremities like noses, toes, and fingers are protected to ensure against frostbite. And Dr. Kawamura advises that you keep hypothermia away in frigid conditions by dressing your kids warmly and preventing them from getting wet. Since kids succumb faster than adults, limit time outdoors when it is very cold and watch for shivering or lethargy, signs of this dangerous condition. (The AAP advises you to call 911 if you notice these symptoms, and get your child dry and warm immediately.)
When it’s cold outside, the air inside can be over-dry, a frequent cause of nosebleeds. Keep a humidifier in your child’s room (sometimes they are noisy; a compromise is to keep them on until your child goes to sleep, which may humidify the air just enough to make a difference) to prevent nasal tissue from drying out; saline mists can also help.
Don’t forget — the sun reflecting off snow and ice can cause sunburn. If your children are going to be outside for extended periods of time, dig into your beach bag for that sunscreen; sunglasses can also help them against winter glare.
Dr. Kawamura goes on to say, “Important all year around, hand-washing — that old standby — is even more vital during the winter, when germs and viruses have lots of accessible, enclosed targets.” Make sure your children wash their hands often at home and at school. (A small bottle of liquid hand sanitizer fits easily into a backpack.)
With the right preparation, you and your children can enjoy a fun, injury-and-illness-free season.