In some ways (my wife would say many), I haven’t grown up. As a child, I loved playing outside in the snow. If it was too powdery to make a snowman or build a fort, I was content just tromping through the drifts into the woods on my own arctic expeditions.
Four college winters in northern New Hampshire failed to dampen my enthusiasm for the cold. In fact, they probably influenced my decision to marry a girl from Maine and spend the last 45 winters in her home state. I enjoy cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, and the stack of books on my nightstand almost always contains one book about someone’s arctic adventure.
Even if there isn’t enough snow to play in, my idea of heaven is an hour-long walk on a crisp, clear day with the temperature in the teens … as long as there will be a warm place by the stove when I get home. But I draw the line at winter camping. I don’t need to suffer.
Two weeks ago on one of my crispy after-lunch refreshers, I walked past our neighborhood grade school. The playground was a mountainous landscape covered in pristine snow unsullied by the salt and sand the town has spread on the roads and sidewalks. Scores of 5- and 6-year-olds clad in a kaleidoscope of color swarmed over the giant mounds of snow, some of which were two and three times their height. Even my wool cap and fleece balaclava couldn’t muffle their shrieks of glee.
As I crunched along, I said to myself, those kids are experiencing an ecstasy that no child should be deprived of. Well, it turns out that in New York City, some thoughtless adults are doing just that ( “A Casualty of a Frigid New York Winter: Outside School Recess,” by Ginia Bellafante, N.Y. Times, March 6, 2015). Although the official Department of Education policy cautions school administrators against using temperature alone as a criterion for canceling outside play, it does discourage sending children outside if wind chills will bring the effective temperature to less than zero degrees Fahrenheit, which sounds reasonable in a community unaccustomed to serious cold. However, it also discourages schools from allowing outside play if it is snowing or there is any ice on the playground.
Sadly, some cold-averse administrators have robbed hundreds of children of the chance to enjoy what has been an unusually snowy winter in the Northeast. In fact, no one can remember when the children in one unfortunate New York City grade school have been outside for recess. A conservative estimate is 40 consecutive days of incarceration.
This school is in the unenviable and unacceptable position of having no playground. Even in warmer weather, it relies on a nearby park that the parks department has chosen not to plow this winter. The tragic snow deprivation these children are suffering is just the tip of the iceberg. Despite ample evidence supporting the health and educational benefits of physical activity and recess, the New York City Department of Education does not mandate recess. Instead, it simply “encourages” schools to offer 20 minutes of outside activity.
I can understand why some school administrators are hesitant to send their young students out in the cold. It can take at least as long to bundle and unbundle a class of 5-year-olds as they will spend outside. But, at least teachers no longer have to contend with the thumb-lacerating metal buckles that made the old rubber galoshes such a painful challenge.
I am sure the list of willing volunteers to take playground duty on a frigid Friday afternoon is a short one. But, let’s remember that we are talking about young minds and bodies that need fresh air, even if it is cold fresh air, to keep them healthy and engaged in the learning process. For goodness sake, put on another layer, or three, and let them go out to enjoy the winter wonderland.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “Coping With a Picky Eater.” E-mail him at email@example.com.