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“What are we possibly going to do with our kids now that it’s dark at 5pm? They’ll be bouncing off the walls!”
This was the hot topic on the playground after that dreaded November day when our clocks turned back one hour. You could almost hear a collective sigh among parents of young kids as the sun began to set over the swing set. It was beautiful. But literally - still the afternoon.
As Americans prepare to hunker down for winter, how can we make the most of our waning daylight hours? It’s something Swedish-born Linda McGurk insists is essential for childhood development.
McGurk didn’t set out to be an author, nature play advocate and outdoor parenting expert. But she was thrust into that role when she moved to her husband’s Indiana hometown, and was gawked at for strolling with her children in the snow. When fellow moms assumed she was destitute with no other options for transportation, the culture shock set in.
“I realized it was such a different culture, and I was getting all these reactions. It made me feel like an outcast,” the Swedish mom recalls.
Rather than hopping into her heated car in the hopes of fitting in, she started blogging. She figured there had to be other Americans, somewhere, who also wanted their kids to spend more time outdoors, but who might not have the tools to do so.
She explains, “My idea was to share what I did with my kids outside and answer people’s questions. Because when you don’t grow up in a culture that’s outdoorsy, then it makes you more apprehensive, because you don’t want to be judged as a bad parent.”
How did we get to the point where kids being outdoors can be considered bad parenting? McGurk says our climate-controlled lifestyle is a great place to start:
“I think we’ve just become very comfortable, and then all of a sudden, you start thinking, well, maybe it’s not a good thing to be outside because it’s uncomfortable.”
So the mother of two set out to change that. In her book “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather,” her goal is to help American families become more comfortable heading outdoors at all times of year – even on those imminent dark winter days.
“Head outside for a little bit every day, regardless of the weather,” she says, “I think it’s good for kids to learn to be comfortable with the discomfort. That it’s not dangerous to experience cold weather…and that’s how my friends back home in Sweden were raising their kids.”
For example, while frigid weather in America often means indoor recess, in Sweden, it’s an opportunity. Last winter, McGurk says PTA moms at her Swedish school got together and poured water over the soccer field, transforming it into an ice skating rink for the kids to enjoy.
Scandinavian tips for (actually enjoying) cold weather outdoors:
For a successful outdoor experience, McGurk says the goal is to identify any risks and mitigate them.
Start by making sure kids’ physical needs are met before heading outside; i.e. they’re fed, hydrated, have gone to the bathroom, and aren’t too tired.
Dress for the weather with lots of removable layers – and head outdoors wearing all of them.
Have activities in mind. When you’re outside, McGurk recommends having a couple of games or ideas up your sleeve, just in case. This can be as simple as tag, hide and seek, or playing with a ball.
Assess the weather. How cold is too cold? She says, “I think it’s pretty rare to get to those [extreme] temperatures where you can’t even leave the house.” If you’re not sure, she recommends staying close to home, so you can quickly get inside if anyone gets too cold.
And remember: independence helps kids thrive. McGurk insists that letting children play on their own isn’t as perilous as Americans often think.
But can’t we just stay inside??
When the winter wind is howling and the sky is gray, it’s tempting to skip outdoor play. But McGurk says, “We tend to forget that it’s not completely risk-free to keep a child constantly cooped up inside, either.” She adds, “Being inside all the time, their health is going to suffer in the long-term. It’s a different kind of danger, but I think it’s more real than a lot of the dangers that we think are present outside.”
Too much time indoors is correlated with numerous health problems, including vitamin-D deficiencies, obesity, and even needing glasses. Meanwhile, research shows that more time spent outside outdoors can diminish symptoms of ADHD and improve mental health.
Back to the million-dollar question. What can we do with energetic kids when the sun sets before 5pm?
McGurk’s advice is to embrace the dark and make the most of the season. Observe how nature looks and behaves differently in the dark. Invest in a headlamp and high-visibility vest to extend the time you’re able to be outside. Enjoy a game of flashlight tag or play hide and seek after the sun goes down. And as the holiday season approaches, you can plan outdoor activities revolving around Christmas lights and other festive displays. And let’s be honest: warming up around a cozy fire is that much better when you’ve come inside from the cold.