Do you remember when a snow day would feel like such an inconvenience? HowEVER will I work with these children underfoot all DAY, you moaned to yourself. Imagine if someone had told us way back in 2019 that it could be worse—you could have what amounted to a year’s worth of snow days, made all the worse by a little thing we like to call “remote learning.” Yes, even your kindergartener, in front of a computer screen for six hours a day!
When the pandemic hit, we told ourselves, well, at least it’s the beginning of spring. In most places across the United States, that meant being able to go outside—eating outside, socializing outside and playing outside. Not just an option, actually, but quite possibly the thing that enabled us to power through.
And now, as I write this, the first snowfall is happening outside my front door, and it will be dark by 4:45 p.m. We are entering what I’ve been lovingly referring to as “the longest, coldest, darkest winter of our lives,” because I am joyful like that, and yet one fact remains true: These kids can’t be in the house all the time. They have got to go out and play.
Sure, they’ve always played outside at some point during the winter. We make it a point to get out and build at least one or two snowmen and get some solid sledding in each winter. But this year, they’re going to have to get well-acquainted with some cold outdoor play, and we can prepare by reviewing some cold weather dressing best practices.
You want enough layers to help trap their body heat without overdoing it—too many outer layers can cause them to sweat, which ends up making them colder. Here’s what the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends regarding layers:
Dress children in thin layers with a wicking layer beneath to help children keep dry. Start with the snugger layers on the bottom, like long-sleeved bodysuits or long underwear. Then add pants and a warmer top, like a sweater or thermal-knit shirt. A thin fleece jacket over the top is a good option. As a general rule of thumb, younger children should wear one more layer than adults.
KinderCare helps identify which specific materials are best to use as the base, middle and outer layers—but the biggest takeaway is to steer clear of cotton, which is very good at absorbing snow, rain and sweat, and therefore is a terrible cold-weather wardrobe choice.
You’re going to want your kids to be as fully covered as possible, but some body parts are more sensitive to the cold than others. Here’s how the New York Times breaks down the priorities:
“Make sure the hands, head, heart and feet are covered; out of those, the feet are probably the most important thing,” said Pete Ripmaster, who won the 2018 Iditarod Trail Invitational 1000 on foot (a 1,000-mile winter ultramarathon that traces the route of the eponymous sled dog race across Alaska). Based in Asheville, N.C., he started winter backpacking in the Great Smoky Mountains with his daughters, now 9 and 11, when the youngest was 5.
Dry feet are warm feet, so think waterproof insulated boots or rubber boots paired with fleece or wool liners, plus cozy wool or synthetic socks (not cotton, which doesn’t wick moisture away from the skin and takes ages to dry).
If you’re leaving the home to go sledding or play elsewhere, Ripmaster also suggests bringing an extra pair of socks for each kid—you don’t want to find yourself stuck out in the snow somewhere with a kid who has cold, wet feet and no way to dry or warm them up.
You should also look for ways to seal any gaps, such as by choosing outerwear that can cinch over their boots or the cuffs of their coats.
There are two reasons you might be tempted to stuff the kids into their too-small winter gear from last year: First, the stuff can be pretty pricey for how much they actually wore it, especially if you purchased it brand new. And second, hey, maybe tighter equates to keeping them warmer?
Resist this urge. Although you certainly don’t want the outerwear to be too big, allowing more access for the cold air to get at their bodies, they need to have a good range of movement. They need to be able to wiggle their toes in those boots and move their limbs easily so their circulation isn’t hindered, which could make them more susceptible to frostnip or frostbite.
A Randy situation is not a good situation:
In the summer, you might be able to send the kids outside to play after lunch and tell them to check back in when the streetlights come on. In the winter, though, you’ll need to break up outdoor play time into smaller chunks to prevent hypothermia and frostbite.
If their skin starts to turn red or it tingles or feels numb, that means they’ve started to experience frostnip, the precursor to frostbite, according to Standford Children’s Health. Chattering teeth are another clear indication that it’s time to head in and warm up.