By Emily Friedel
It’s widely accepted that active outdoor play is essential for healthy childhood development. Being outside, especially in natural settings, offers kids endless opportunities to develop their physical, mental, and social capabilities. Unfortunately, the lure of climate-controlled, screen-filled indoor environments can make it difficult to get youngsters outdoors, especially when the cold weather starts to roll in. But there are distinct benefits to outside winter play that make getting the little ones rugged up and out the door worth the effort.
The first benefit may be surprising to those who were warned by their own parents that going outside in the cold would give you a cold. According to a Pennsylvania State University newsletter, being outdoors actually reduces the risk of catching a cold or flu. More recently, researchers have added COVID-19 to the list of things you’re less likely to pick up outside. The viruses that cause these illnesses can accumulate in indoor spaces and be recirculated through air vents, and physical distancing is more difficult indoors. So even though cold and flu viruses tend to be more abundant in winter, venturing out in the cold gives kids a better chance of avoiding them.
Kids who play in nature during winter may also have a better chance of fighting off any viruses they’re exposed to. Spending time in natural environments has been shown to boost the immune system. There may be several reasons for this, including the established stress-reduction effects of being in nature. Interestingly, chemicals plants release to protect themselves from microbes may also directly enhance immunity. Research has demonstrated that these compounds, called phytoncides, improve human immune function. Therefore, more time outside in winter could well help protect the little tackers from the germs they encounter indoors.
Winter conditions also provide children with a unique chance to investigate the natural world and nurture their inner scientist. First-hand observation of the outdoors at this time of year helps to develop a better understanding of local seasonal changes – what happens to the landscape and how does it differ from other seasons? There are also plenty of interesting cause-and-effect relationships that can be seen during winter, such as the sun’s warmth melting morning frost. Children may also observe phenomena they want to research more – for example, what makes fog (and for those in certain parts of the shire, why it sometimes hangs around all day)? Outdoor play is known to help children’s cognitive development, and there’s no reason this benefit shouldn’t extend through the colder months.
As with cognitive development, children’s need for physical development doesn’t stop just because the weather gets a bit chilly. Outdoor play is one of the easiest (and best) ways to get kids moving. In fact, many studies use outdoor play as a proxy for measuring physical activity because the two are so strongly correlated. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reported that in 2011–12, less than a quarter of children aged between five and 14 met the recommended hour of physical activity per day. So resisting the urge to stay inside during winter may be especially important for supporting kids’ health.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, playing outside in winter can be a lot of fun. Jumping in puddles, making mud pies, building snow sculptures, or running around in the rain are all sources of joy for many kids. We are particularly lucky in the Murrindindi Shire to have ready access to a huge variety of outdoor spaces with everything from snowfields to well-maintained playgrounds within easy reach. There should be something to engage any child regardless of their preferences, interests, or abilities so that they can reap the benefits of braving the cold.