Little kids need outdoor play — but not when it’s 110 degrees

This opinion column about outdoor play temperature guidelines was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

Dora Ramos is a family child care provider in Stamford, Connecticut, where the temperature climbed above 90 degrees for a few days in July. She takes care of children in her home, which has a large backyard, and was able to adapt, still getting the children outside, even on the hottest days.

“Our parents bring the children at 7:10 a.m., so we bring them outside very early — first thing,” she said. “We have sprinklers; they use the hose to fill up pots with water and ‘cook.’”

But in Dallas, where the high hit 110 degrees on August 18, it wasn’t safe or possible to play outside for weeks-long stretches this summer, said Cori Berg, the director of Hope Day School, a preschool there. “It was cranky weather for sure,” she said. “What most people don’t really think about is what it’s like for a child in a center. They’re cooped up in one room for hours and hours and hours.”

Much research supports young children’s need for movement, outdoor play and time in nature. Regulations in many places require kids in child care facilities to have access to outdoor play space, weather permitting.

But increasingly, the weather does not permit. And leaders in the world of early childhood development are starting to call attention to the imperative to design and upgrade child care centers — and the cities where they are located — for our climate-altered world, with the needs of the youngest in mind.

“They have the least responsibility for causing the climate crisis but will bear the brunt of it,” said Angie Garling, vice president for early care and education for the Low Income Investment Fund, and a member of the Early Years Climate Action Task Force, which has just issued its first set of recommendations. (Full disclosure, I’m an advisor to This Is Planet Ed, which convened the task force in collaboration with the think tank Capita.)

“One of the things we have to do is take the climate resources coming through the Inflation Reduction Act, and make sure that we prioritize young children, both in multifamily housing and early care/education,” said Garling. But while children under 5 have a developmental need to spend time outside, extreme weather — whether heat, wildfire smoke or other air pollution — is particularly dangerous for this age group. Young children breathe twice as much air per pound of body weight, Garling pointed out.

Ankita Chachra is a designer, architect and new mother working on the issue of climate-resilient cities for children at the think tank Capita. She recently blogged about choices made in cities around the world, from Copenhagen to her native Delhi, that can help preserve outdoor play. These can sometimes be simple adaptations. When it’s very hot, Ramos, for example, takes her children outside first thing in the morning.

“Copenhagen has parks that do flood with extreme rain,” Chachra said, but permeable surfaces, like grass, allow the water to drain away quickly. “Asphalt, rubber, and metal get extremely heated when you don’t have shade to protect those surfaces. Grass, mulch and wood absorb heat differently. A shaded street or area is 4 degrees Celsius cooler than those that don’t have shade,” she added. And when cities make room for parks over cars, there is more equitable access to safe, cooler outdoor space.

Cori Berg, in Dallas, is grateful for her yard’s “two giant pecan trees — those giant shade structures are really expensive.”

When children just can’t go outside, early child care educators said they have to improvise. Jessica Sager, whose network All Our Kin supports in-home family child care providers in 25 states, did an informal survey at The Hechinger Report’s request to ask providers how they are coping with extreme weather.

“I heard a lot of stories about the wildfires in particular,” she said — the smoke from Canadian fires affected at least 120 million Americans this summer. “Our educators had air purifiers — we had gotten them during Covid. Our coaches had already worked with educators about doing indoor gross motor play — obstacle courses, scavenger hunts. Balls, scarves, parachutes. Putting a mattress on the floor and letting kids jump up and down. A lot of song and dance activities. Or putting colored tape on the floor and pretending it’s a balance beam. ”

On a city-wide level, Chachra, of Capita, advocates bringing back free or cheap indoor playspaces, such as the McDonald’s ball pit, perhaps repurposing disused shopping malls.

But despite all this creativity, it’s emotionally difficult for both providers and children when children can’t play outside because of severe weather and other hazards — Berg’s “cranky weather.”

“During the smoke some kids felt very sad that they couldn’t go outside,” said All Our Kin’s Sager. “And the caregivers had to explain to them what was wrong.” There’s a “real parallel to what caregivers had to do during Covid,” to make a scary reality understandable for little kids, she said.

Garling and other policymakers are conscious that they are bringing up climate threats at a time when the early childhood sector already feels besieged.

The United States government spends much less than the average of its peer countries on early child development in a good year, and supplemental funds provided during the pandemic have just fallen off a cliff, leaving the sector even more cash starved. Group child care in private homes is often parents’ most affordable solution: The National Center for Education Statistics says 1 in 5 children under 5 spend time in these settings.

But these home-based programs pose a major infrastructure challenge. Garling’s organization recently released a new interactive map showing that in New York City, these centers often — 37.2% of the time — include basement space. And 1,638 centers, serving 22,000 children, are at risk of flooding in storms such as the one that hit the city with more than 8 inches of rain on September 29.

“At times it feels overwhelming. There’s so many things early care and education professionals have to worry about,” Garling said. But on the other hand, she argued, there are federal funds the sector can and should claim for retrofitting and upgrades now.

“I feel like there are current opportunities through [the Inflation Reduction Act] that are creating more urgency — in a good way,” she said. “This is not something I was talking about two years ago and now it is 80% of what I talk about all the time. “

In the meantime, early childhood educators are working hard to instill a love of nature in the children they care for, in all kinds of weather. Berg has been taking her teachers on nature walks, and introduced a curriculum about Texas’s many state parks.

The Connecticut child care owner, Ramos, who grew up visiting a farm in her native Peru, sees empathy blooming in her toddlers as they encounter the natural world. “One day a one year old was walking and saw a little slug on the ground,” she recounted. “He points — ‘Oh no, oh no!’ He was so sad. The father immediately went down, picked it up and put it on the grass. It made my day.”

This opinion column about outdoor play temperature guidelines was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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