Is is safe to play outside in the winter?

​Is it safe to play outside in the winter?

Fresh air is healthy
Studies have shown that contrary to the common
belief that “exposure to cold air causes a cold,” fresh
air is good and healthy. When children and adults
spend a long time together in indoor spaces that are
small, overheated and poorly ventilated, germs and
illnesses pass easily from one person to another. In
fresh, outdoor air, children do not have to re-breathe
the germs of the group, and the chance for spreading
infection is reduced.
Outdoor play is healthy even in winter
Children of all ages enjoy and benefit from playing
outdoors in all except the most extreme weather.
Daily outdoor play is healthy and burns energy. It
gives children an opportunity for a change of environment,
a balance in play and routine, and large
muscle activities (gross-motor development). Even
children who are mildly ill but active should go outside
if the weather is not severe. Staff and children
alike will feel refreshed when fresh air is part of the
daily routine. Taking children outdoors daily, even
in winter, can be a healthy part of their schedule, and
is safe when clothing is appropriate. Active outdoor
play at all times of the year is also an important part
of obesity prevention and helps to establish life-long
patterns of healthy physical exercise.
Avoid cold-related injuries
The way we feel about cold, wet or snowy weather
and indoor temperatures may be affected by where
we live and what we are used to. Practices that help
to ensure safe outdoor play in cold weather include:

• Make sure that children are dressed appropriately
for the weather; use layers of clothing that can
be put on and taken off easily. The air between
the layers helps to keep the child warm.

• Assess outdoor play spaces for safety in cold
weather. Outdoor play spaces and equipment
that are safe for young children during warmer
weather may be totally inappropriate when the
ground is frozen and equipment is slippery from
ice and/or snow. For example, sand and composition
rubber surfacing materials, often used
under climbing equipment and swings, freeze in
the winter months and become very hard, losing
their shock-absorbing quality and their ability to
lessen the impact if a child falls. These surfaces
not only lose their effectiveness when frozen,
they can be dangerous. Certain equipment may
have to be off limits when the ground is frozen.

• Instead of using unsafe play equipment, plan
activities that take advantage of cold weather

■ Use snow to build snow people.
■ Use colored water in spray bottles to paint
■ Pile snow for climbing and sliding activities.

• Watch for signs of frost bite, especially in the face,
ears, fingers or toes:

■ Look for skin that is whiter than the surrounding
■ Ask the child about feelings of pain or stinging,
followed by numbness.
• If you suspect a child has frostbite
■ rub frostbitten areas.
■ warm the area in your hands or an armpit.
■ for more severe frostbite, place the area in
warm (not hot) water until color returns.
■ serve a warm snack like soup.

• Watch for signs of hypothermia (when your body
loses heat faster than you can produce it and your
body temperature gets very low):

■ Cold feet and hands
■ Puffy or swollen face
■ Pale skin
■ Shivering (in some cases the person with
hypothermia does not shiver)
• Keep children moving in cold weather to prevent
frostbite and hypothermia.
When you prepare for active play in outdoor winter
weather, everyone can enjoy the health and mental
health benefits of being outside and active in winter.
Monitor outdoor air quality index (AQI) and follow
health advisories from local health authorities.
Limit prolonged active play outdoors for children
with asthma as advised.
Improving indoor air quality is also
Germs causing disease multiply in warm, dark,
damp environments, so it is important to keep the
environment clean and dry. Adequate ventilation,
humidity and temperature control help us resist
illness and increase our ability to get well after

Caring for Our Children: National Health and Safety
Performance Standards, Second Edition, 2002
CCHP Health and Safety Note: Indoor Air Quality,
online at
By A. Rahman Zamani, MD, MPH (revised 09/10)
California Childcare Health Program, University of California, San Francisco School of Nursing
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