Should You Let Your Kids Play Outside in Winter?

Healthy Living

February 11, 2020

With at least a month left of winter weather in many parts of the country, you might be wondering if it’s okay to send your kids out into the snow or if you should keep them inside until the ground thaws again.

Some parents don’t think twice about letting their kids play when it’s cold out while others worry about everything from frozen fingers to deadly viruses. As with many things in life, the answer is somewhere between these two extremes. Here’s what you need to know about letting your kids play outside during winter.

Common Myths About the Cold

Plenty of so-called old wives’ tales exist on the subject of healthcare, especially within the realm of nature. You might have heard and believe, for example, that:

  • Cold air makes you sick: This is a myth that’s probably been around since the dawn of time, but it’s just not true. Cold air alone doesn’t make you sick. It might seem that way given that winter is the prime season for bugs of all varieties. But running around outside is no more likely to make you sick than bundling up on the couch for a movie marathon. In fact, being outside could help your kid avoid getting sick. The longer you stay inside at, say, an indoor playground, the better chance you have of picking up the germs left on warm, moist surfaces. (Ick.) Cold air by itself does not create illnesses.
  • If you’re already sick, cold will make it worse: Contrary to what you might assume, cold air isn’t going to make a kid sicker — for the most part. Some kids with weakened immune systems or special medical conditions might suffer from prolonged exposure to lower temps. But an otherwise healthy kid with a mild cold isn’t going to have a problem being outside. In fact, sick kids should go outside if they’re feeling up to it. Being outside can help your and your kids’ immune systems.

We’ll say it again because it’s worth repeating: Cold air by itself won’t make you sick, and your sick kids will likely be fine outside as long as they’re up for the exertion. Of course, if your kiddo has the flu and is feeling miserable, let him rest with plenty of fluids. The idea here is to encourage outdoor play in children, not force it when they’re really sick.

Kids Need Fresh Air (Even the Cold Variety)

Winter seems to make us sleepier, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s a natural inclination to hibernate, but we tend to snuggle up in comfy clothes and chill when it’s chilly outside. And while getting good rest is also an essential component of our overall health, physical activity is crucial — even when it’s 40 degrees outside. Kids need to play. Unfortunately, kids aren’t playing as much these days. Playing outside offers a bunch of benefits, including:

  • Exposure to sunlight and vitamin D
  • Positive boosts in blood pressure, cholesterol levels and bone density
  • Improved cognition, brain function and mental health

Being outside allows your kids to breathe in fresher, cleaner air than the recycled air inside. Over time, indoor air filters just cycle the same air over and over, which can keep kids (and adults) sicker for longer during the colder months. Get outside when you can — you might get sick less often if you do.

Kids who play outside also engage in creative play, especially when it’s cold out and there are new opportunities for different activities: building a snowman or igloos, snowball fights, sledding and other winter-only games.

Even if you don’t live in a place with lots of snow, cold air may encourage your kids to run and move more to keep warm. And all that movement is good for growing bodies and minds. Gross motor skill development is especially important in older babies and toddlers. The more opportunities they have to use their limbs, the better off they’ll be.

Special Precautions in Winter

We don’t need to tell you to put a coat on your kid when she heads to the playground. But we did want to highlight some safety precautions to keep in mind when it’s cold out:

  • Kids need at least one more layer than adults when you’re bundling up to go out. Even if your child “runs hot,” dress him in layers anyway.
  • Cold air is safe — up to a point. In some parts of the country, it may actually be too cold to play outside. Check the windchill before you head out. Per A Healthier Michigan from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, anything 32 degrees and above is safe for kids as long as they’re properly dressed. From 13 to 31 degrees, kids should take indoor breaks every 20-30 minutes. And if the windchill is 13 degrees or below, stay inside. Frostbite happens quickly when it gets this cold.
  • Once your kids come back in from the cold, make sure your kids remove wet clothing right away and change into dry, warm clothes. (And while hot chocolate isn’t necessary, it’s always a nice treat after an afternoon of building snow forts.)

Bottom line? You can let your kids play outside when it’s cold. In fact, you should, as long as you’ve taken appropriate precautions. It’s hard to shake the myths we’re handed down as children ourselves. Cold air by itself won’t make you or your child sick, and there are health benefits to playing outside provided kids have the right clothing on. But if you’re worried about your child and how the weather affects her, just check in with your pediatrician.