There was an outdoor equipment designer for a well-known Maine-based outfitter who was fond of saying that there was no such thing as bad weather, just bad or inappropriate clothing. The origin of this pearl is claimed by the Norwegians, the Germans, and the English – all nations that have some experience with inclement weather.
The folks who continue to go about their business regardless of the weather usually place a high value on the benefits of being outdoors. They often claim that they simply feel healthier when they are breathing fresh air. It is likely they have grown up in a place, in a family, and in a culture in which waiting for good weather to get something done means it’s not going to get done.
For example, my daughter-in-law’s visual impairment prevents her from driving a car. As a result, she and my two grandchildren get to almost all of their in-town destinations here in Brunswick, Maine, by bicycle or on foot … 12 months a year … rain or shine. They can afford appropriate clothing, but they still get wet and cold from time to time. I have never heard them complain. They accept bad weather as a given just as much as they accept a sunny day as something to enjoy.
While my grandchildren’s attitude toward the weather may not be typical of most 9- and 11-year-olds, they may not be alone in a few decades. Preschools are popping up around the country that not only accept the vagaries in the weather, but embrace the outdoors as an educational tool (“ Preschool Without Walls ,” by Lillian Mongeau, the New York Times, Dec. 29, 2015). The Natural Start Alliance, founded in 2013, has a membership of 92 preschools whose students spend a significant portion of their school day playing and exploring outdoors rain or shine. While most of these schools emphasize the value of learning from the natural environment, one of my granddaughters attended an outdoors-rain-or-shine preschool in urban San Francisco.
At the other end of the spectrum are the schools that feel obligated to shield their students from the realities of meteorological variability. While excessive sun exposure and tissue-freezing wind chills are to be avoided, a crisp calm sunny day with temperatures in the middle teens can be fun, particularly if there is some dry snow to tromp around in. However, during the months from November 2014 to March 2015, the children who attended Public School 126 in New York City were not given the opportunity to play outside on more than 40 school days. The situation is complicated because their school, which lacks its own playground, must rely on nearby parks (“ A Casualty of a Frigid New York Winter: Outdoor School Recess ,” by Ginia Bellafante, the New York Times, March 6, 2015). But we aren’t talking Siberia. It was a colder-than-usual winter, but I suspect there must have been more than a few missed opportunities to go outside and enjoy the snow. I wonder how often the decision to stay inside was influenced by teachers and administrators who hadn’t come prepared to spend any more time outside than it took them to walk from the parking lot or bus stop.
The data are accumulating that adding physical activity to the school day improves student behavior and even promotes learning. The evidence that being outside is beneficial is a bit more difficult to find. Early in the last century, when indoor air was saturated with smoke from cooking and open combustion heating sources, many physicians recommended that even for infants, raising a healthy child meant having the child spend a large part of the day outdoors.
It’s time for pediatricians to spread the word to parents that their little darlings won’t catch pneumonia from playing outdoors on a cool damp day. Nor will they shrink if they get a little wet on a rainy day … but they will run … and the running will be good for them.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.”