Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Can We Go Outside and Play? Is it TOO cold?

I've seen the news this week of black ice roads in Texas, with major interstates closed, government and schools shut down, and children at home enjoying time off from school. Outdoor maratha "...Bad weather days" occur throughout the year, and not specific to any geographical limits. As a small child, Mom bundled me up in the winter. Mittens, extra heavy socks, long pants, long sleeve shirt, sweater or jacket, winter coat, ski hat and ear muffs. Walking, jumping, or even simply turning my head required a major modification to normal movement. I felt like Violet Beauregard from "Willy Wonka" and needed to be sent to the blueberry juicing room. 
We have published articles before on the temperatures on the playground being too hot for play. When the temperature becomes hot enough for children to receive burns from the equipment, it is too hot. When is it too cold? When does the school close down the playground? Is there ice? Is there snow? Temperature alone isn't the only indicator, wind chill plays a part also. We know water freezes at 32 degrees (F) so that is probably too cold. Wind chill factors take an outdoor temperature of 40 degrees and with only a breeze can drop the "feels like" temperature to freezing. Use the scientific numbers and apply some common sense and judgment. If it becomes too cold in the brain, common sense may be lacking. Here are some tips to help us understand when it is too cold:

 Weather forecast: If the weather outlook uses the words Watch, Warning or Advisory, someone at the source thinks that conditions are possible, exist or likely. Extreme cold and wind child presents a serious risk of frostbite. Yield to their knowledge and credibility.
Age of the participant: Infants and toddlers can't tell you if they are hot or cold. Older children may short-circuit their opinion of being too cold in lieu of getting extra time on the playground. Older children may also be more likely to shed their extra layers of clothing for better freedom of movement on the playground. 

Snow on the ground: This can be a lot of fun, but also a playground danger. If the children want to make snowballs, find a safe area. Visual obstructions that prevent your ability to inspect the playground suggest that the children should NOT be on the equipment. Being able to see the hand grips, knowing where the steps are located, judging distances and anticipating changes in elevation are among the important concerns. If you can't properly inspect and observe the playground, this isn't a good time to be on the playground. 

Ice Conditions: If the roadways are icy, the playground may be also. Having a slip or spill from a 6' high deck is dangerous. Iced over steps, climbers or slides change the dynamics of safety. Like black ice, lets call it "brown ice". You may not find it until you skid right off of the deck. Yup, too cold.
Supervisor is too cold: Since adequate supervision is important for child safety, consider the comfort factor of the parent, teacher or supervisor. "It's too cold, I'm not going out there with them." Then it is too cold for the children to be out. When I am too cold and layer up like I did when I was a child, my ability to supervise the children will be impaired. If I crouch into a wind protected corner by the doorway, my visual sightline to the play equipment may be limited. Again, too cold.

Policy: A child care provider or school system probably has a policy. While 5 degrees below may be a limit of too cold in Minnesota, this rule may not apply in the warmer south. Coats, hats and mittens are designed differently for different climates and regions. Consult the officials in your organization for rule based guidance. 

Children's Apparel: While adults may know to dress in layers, children may not have been sent to school or play in layers. Changes in temperature may see an increase or decrease in the level of appropriate clothing available. If the temperature drops and children wore a sweater for the day, colder temperatures would suggest that they will not have adequate warmth. The other direction, or warmer temperatures could be a problem also. Out the door temperatures when the children get on the school bus may have caused them to wear only their heavy coat. If the temperature rises during the day, they may be forced to wear their coat and sweat it out at play. They shed their warm or hot coat and now face the elements with a short sleeve shirt, sweat and shivers. A hat might be encouraged regardless of the temperature to offer some UV protection, not only warmth. Infants and small children have a lot of their body surface around their heads. Mittens may keep the hands warm, but impair the child's ability to grasp playground components such as rungs and handrails. Soggy, wet mittens and hats may need to be swapped for dry ones, as the body temperature may drop faster when wet. How well the children or supervising adults are prepared surely must be reviewed.

Consider the venue: Some wellness, play programs or policies may encourage or require a certain amount of outdoor play. Consider the available avenues for activity. A warmer, sun lit side of the building may have melted ice and snow away, while the shaded playground is sheathed in ice. The basketball court may be swept clean of snow and debris, while the playground surfacing is covered with snow. Is there an indoor play area available? Maybe the gymnasium would offer more value toward safe play?

 Consider the condition of the children: Shivering, slow breathing, confusion, stumbling, impaired speech, blue lips. Hypothermia may set in. While these are signs that perhaps it was too cold, you may need to seek medical attention.

 This is not a comprehensive checklist! Good judgment and common sense will usually offer a start. When in doubt, yield to the wind of caution. 

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