Time Outside All Year Long: A Nature-Based Health Equity Strategy

Blog Post
Early Childhood Health Outdoors
Dec. 14, 2020

Daily access to the outdoors is a human right that has compounding benefits. Especially for young children, the long-term physical, social-emotional, and cognitive benefits of daily interactions with nature are clear. As health officials recommend more time outdoors both in child care settings and in our daily lives to slow the spread of COVID-19, time outside with young children is a critical, but under-utilized, health strategy.

“COVID-19 has negatively impacted our program in numerous ways, but there has been one positive—the students are spending more time outside. Teachers are eager to be outside with students as much as possible, and that provides opportunities for active play in the fresh air,” shares Noel Magee, business and human resources director for First Steps at Monarch Montessori of Denver.

Getting fresh air is critical but let’s be honest, outdoor play with young children in winter can be hard. As a parent, I know the challenges of getting kids dressed, drying wet clothes, and keeping kids warm. It takes effort and planning to venture out in winter. But given the importance of the outdoors during the pandemic and beyond, Early Childhood Health Outdoors is promoting strategies that can equip providers, caregivers, and families with the tools they need to tackle outdoor and winter play every day.

Addressing Barriers

Years of research suggest that improving access to quality outdoor spaces may help combat health inequities in our society as a whole, especially for young children. The simple act of spending a few minutes in the sun, feeling the wind, or making a snowball is not only healthy and stimulating, it is a fundamental right that should be within reach for every child. However, as temperatures drop we need to ask the question: What does winter play mean for child care providers and families who may not have access to adequate winter clothing? Do families have different understandings of what qualifies as adequate winter clothing? There are a few things child care providers, or even the general public, can do to reduce these primary barriers to healthy time outside in winter:

  • Develop and share a check list of low-cost stores or free clothing sources such as Operation Warm that provides coats for children at no cost.
  • Provide a picture to demonstrate adequate outdoor clothing with consideration to families’ first languages. Share these with all families.
  • Hold a clothing drive and call for donations from local businesses and other community members to build up a stockpile of available jackets, hats, gloves, boots, and scarves.
  • For current or alumni families wanting to get involved, request donations of clothing that no longer fit growing kids or family members.

By addressing the greatest barrier to comfort in the outdoors, caregivers can set the stage for comfortable, healthy, and engaging time outside year-round.

Daily Planning and Strategies

The safety of the children is always first, so extremely windy, cold, or wet weather may sometimes prohibit time outside for young children. However, aside from these extremes, whether it’s for an hour or for 15 minutes, time outside is critical for child development. And the changing weather actually provides an opportunity to create new experiences, teach new lessons, explore the natural world, and continue to reap the rewards of increased time outside.

However, many child care sites are not designed to support long periods of time outside, especially during colder months. Fortunately, activating and enhancing nearby outdoor spaces is achievable with the right planning and know-how. Just as child care providers and parents plan for indoor activities, the same thoughtfulness can be used to optimize time outside. Below, I highlight a few ideas and strategies adapted from Early Childhood Health Outdoors’ recent COVID-19 strategic recommendations created in partnership with the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University.

  • Understand and address barriers: Consider the need for adequate clothing, let parents know you are going outside and address their greatest concerns.
  • Plan daily: Build outdoor time into daily activity planning, including adequate time for getting into and out of winter clothing.
  • Create cohorts: Follow social distancing guidelines, form small group sizes, encourage space among groups, and rotate cohorts through activity settings to keep warm.
  • Have a variety of choices: Multiple activity settings ensure you can keep cohorts at a safe distance while exploring new activities and things to do. From music stations to gross motor skills and opportunities to explore, there are a variety of ways you can enhance nature play.
  • Hunt for animal tracks: Look for animal tracks, feathers, fur, or droppings in the snow using an empty picture frame that can help guide children’s attention.
  • Utilize natural elements: Materials like sticks or twigs, leaves, and pine cones are low-maintenance and don’t require stringent sanitation. They can be used to build structures, fairy gardens, create nests, or draw in the snow.
  • Bring the inside, out: Don’t be afraid to bring toys from inside the classroom out to the play area with you. Trucks and Tupperware containers tap into the imagination and can be used to create snow castles, figures, or shapes.
  • Consider outdoor shelters: Temporary outdoor shelters or existing structures can serve as wind- or snow-breaks in the play area.
  • Don’t forget nature: Even in the winter, seek out plants that can provide food and shelter for birds and watch how they change in the spring.

By thinking about barriers to winter outdoor time and incorporating some of the above strategies into daily planning, everyone can maximize the winter use of outdoors spaces in child care settings. The winter doesn’t need to be viewed as a time to hunker down inside and wait out the cold. As we move into the next phase of the coronavirus pandemic and prepare for the winter, time outside can be an equitable and beneficial experience that helps every young child stay healthy and thrive.

Want more ideas? Early Childhood Health Outdoors provides online professional development support such as how-to guides, webinars, trainings and networks of practitioners. For more resources and to learn more about ECHO, visit nwf.org/ECHO.

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