How to avoid becoming a ‘fair-weather family’
Children love to go out in all weathers – if they are let – so why do parents hang back?
Annette and Brian Kelly with their four children: Eloi (6); Alienor (9) Lorcan (11) and Dilon (4) from Greystones, Co Wicklow. Photograph Nick Bradshaw
The first cold, wet days of winter soon sort out the “fair-weather families” from the outdoorsy types who venture out undeterred in waterproofs and wellies.
Usually behind the “we can’t let the children out in that weather” comment lurks an adult reluctant to get out of their comfort zone. As the saying goes, there is no such thing as “bad” weather, just inappropriate clothing – certainly in this country’s benign climate.
Yes it can be cold, but it’s not Baltic, comments Dr Sumi Dunne, a GP in Portarlington, Co Laois, and a lecturer in general practice. There is no reason children can’t be outdoors in winter. Yet the myth persists that they’ll catch a cold out in low temperatures, when it’s keeping them cooped up that is more of a health risk.
“Most of the viruses at this time of year, between November to March, are very much what we call rhinoviral, passed nose to hand, hand back to mouth contact,” she explains. “Kids are picking these up anyway so going outside is going to make no difference to that” – in fact it is going to expose them less than being in a confined environment.
Her advice is to get children outdoors and moving. “We know it builds up their immune system, we know it is providing exercise. They have no option – if you are outside and you’re running, you are warm. Kids quickly figure that out.”
Children need at least 60 minutes of active exercise every day and by keeping them inside, “unless you are going to do a mini-marathon/Olympics-type hurdling stuff, they are just not going to get that”, she points out. Even if it is really cold, 10 to 15 minutes in sunshine will also help them get the requisite Vitamin D.
As a mother of four children aged from 14 to three, she is very aware that on days of less inviting weather, “if I don’t get going, I am not role-modelling”.
Annette Kelly, who also has four children, aged from 11 down to four, is passionate about the benefits of the outdoors. Growing up in France, her childhood holidays were spent in the Alps, hiking with her parents – “that is where I got the bug, I think”.
She and her Irish husband, Brian Kelly, spent some years living in Copenhagen, where their eldest son attended a forest kindergarten just outside the city.
“They went out in a public forest – they didn’t even have a building to take shelter – and he did that for a year. That was just amazing – how much time he spent outdoors, really enjoying it, in any weather.”
Now living in Greystones, Co Wicklow, the Kellys try to get outdoors as a family on one day every weekend. The winter doesn’t stop them, although they are more likely to “stay local, so we don’t get caught by nightfall”, says Annette, who writes a bilingual blog, fouracorns.ie, about their outdoor life.
“We won’t hike for hours on end during the winter but we still try to go out as much as we can.” The children really enjoy it, she says, even if it can be hard sometimes to get them out of the house.
“They will want to watch this or they are busy doing something. But as soon as they get out of the car, that’s it – they are in their element.”
She’s not sure what holds other parents back from enjoying outdoor trips with their children.
“To me it beggars belief that they would not explore. They are going from one house to the next in their car, or to the shops, and not doing much else. I don’t quite understand – each to their own I guess.”
After their experience in Denmark, the Kelly family was delighted to discover a nature kindergarten up the road in Bray which their youngest boy now attends.
Rain never stops play at the Park Academy Nature Kindergarten where children spend all their time outdoors. Staff are positively looking forward to winter and the seasonal changes it brings to their forested surroundings in the grounds of Killruddery House.
“We can’t wait,” says manager Sophie Nicol. “It affords us different opportunities to be creative.”
Embrace the rain
It’s a beautiful autumnal morning as we speak and 18 children are finishing their breakfast of toast and fruit in an air of calm around a smoky fire pit. Soon they amble off contentedly to find something to play with.
Although there are no grey clouds in sight today, “we embrace the rain”, Nicol says. Children love water play and if the wet stuff is not falling naturally, there’s a large tank from which they can fill containers to do what they will with.
The other day staff watched as two boys transformed a tarpaulin laid out in a dip in the ground into a lake on which they sailed their boats and did a spot of fishing, all of their own volition. Child-led play at its best.
The only conditions that dictate transferring the children to a Park Academy indoor centre elsewhere in Bray, is when Met Éireann issues a high wind alert of yellow or higher.
The kindergarten is strict with parents about appropriate clothing, says Nicol. But those who have signed up to have their children here – most attending from 9am to 1pm but some from 7.30am to 6pm – would hardly need much convincing.
There is a “three layers” policy – thermal base layer, a mid-layer of fleece and then a waterproof outer layer. Forget the notion of a cotton vest or, indeed, cotton socks – “cotton is really bad for the outdoors; it holds moisture and gets very cold”, she explains.
When darkness comes early, lights rigged up among the trees illuminate the main play area, while the children wear high-vis jackets and head torches. The children will hear the calls of foxes in the fields, maybe discover hedgehogs and see swooping bats.
Nicol, an ecologist who is passionate about the benefit we all get from being outdoors, understands there’s an instinctive feeling in winter of “it’s cold and wet and therefore I should be inside”. But, “with the right gear and the right attitude”, we grown-ups can take the lead from our children – and learn to love it.
Irene Teeling runs the outdoor Natural Start preschool, situated between Donabate and Swords in Co Dublin. Currently she has 11 children, with the same number again on the waiting list, and she hopes to expand in the future.
Having grown up on a farm in Co Meath, Teeling has always loved nature. She operated another, indoor preschool for four years but closed it after studying for her degree in early childhood education made her realise just how important the outdoors is at this stage of development.
There’s more understanding now among parents too. They are more likely on seeing a mucky face to say “Brilliant – she’s had a good day”, she remarks.
“We have no problems in the winter, nobody coming to us and saying ‘I want to go inside’ – it’s the opposite, they don’t want to go home.” There is a recently completed building where the children go to use toilets, wash hands and eat their snacks.
Just how little winter weather disrupts their activities has surprised even Teeling. Last year there was just one day that they had to stay in because the weather was too bad – being windy and rainy at the same time.
Sometimes parents think children are bored outside, but it can be a matter of giving them time to follow their own initiative, she advises.
“It is all about what they are interested in – if you follow that, they will discover all sort of things.”
Suzanne Kingston, who runs PuddleDucks, a Cork-based, online company specialising in children’s outdoor clothing, has seen a marked shift in attitudes since she set it up in 2005.
“Things are changing in Ireland and definitely the Government is encouraging schools to get the kids outdoors.” In the early days, she recalls attending events to promote the clothing and meeting preschool staff.
“Some were saying, ‘why would I ever need that?’ and I thought, ‘if you don’t know that, then I cannot possibly explain’. It was just incredible.”
The idea for the business arose after the birth of her son Jake 16 years ago. Having grown up as a “horsey girl”, she was used to being out regardless of the weather and Jake wanted to be outside all the time too.
Although she wasn’t particularly concerned that he often got wet and muddy, it was a friend who came to stay who suggested she try dressing him in some “brilliant” dungarees from Sweden. She ordered a pair and they proved most effective in keeping Jake dry on the inside as he played for hours with his trucks in a mud pit in their garden at home in Carrigaline.
There was nothing like it on the market here – “not even good rainwear, only thick PVC stuff”.
She and her husband, Aedan Ryan, who now works full-time on the business too, never had the “terrible twos” with Jake, which she attributes to him running around outdoors every day.
Children are really content after that, compared with those who have been sitting in front of the TV or, worse, with a device in front of their face, she says.
If children are driven to and from school, break times may be their only chance to get some fresh air and exercise, so it’s bad news if they have to stay in. The chief executive of the Irish Primary Principals’ Network, Páiric Clerkin, believes schools generally make appropriate decisions when it comes to judging weather conditions.
“It comes down to common sense – trying to keep them out but sometimes you have to make the decision to bring them in.”
Safety has to be a priority, he points out. But, “it is certainly a better learning environment when children have had some fresh air”, he adds.
Winter is a test of resolve and it is so easy to stay indoors, says Kingston. However, “once you get the gear on and get outside, it’s not as bad as it looks.
“We would always say put on your own wellies and jump in the puddles as well. If you need to de-stress,” she adds, “there is nothing better – and it is a really nice way to connect with your child.”
Seven ways to get the family outdoors
Visit playgrounds near and far: Never have there been so many good playgrounds to choose from, be it a local favourite or one further afield. For inspiration, check out The Irish Times guide to 50 of the best playgrounds in Ireland
Explore forests: The semi-State forestry company Coillte runs 260 recreation sites around the country, with facilities that include walking and cycling trails, adventure playgrounds and orienteering courses. coillte.ie
Off-road cycling: There are more and more venues now where family groups can take to bikes without worrying about traffic, from the big Greenways in Co Mayo and Co Waterford to more modest local circuits and mountain-bike tracks. See irishtrails.ie
Try orienteering: “Come try it” days and family events are run by Orienteering Ireland at various venues around the country. See orienteering.ie
Go geo-caching: a global treasure hunt via a mobile phone app. Learn all about it at geocaching.com
Aim high: From the Skypark in Carlingford, Co Louth, to Zipit in Dublin’s Tibradden Wood, Cork’s Farran Wood and Lough Key in Roscommon and the Killary Adventure Centre in Leenane, Co Galway, to name just a few zipline centres, things are looking up for fans of aerial excursions.
Watch wildlife: we might give out about the weather but lots of birds migrate here for our mild winter. Birdwatch Ireland’s website (birdwatchireland.ie) has a month-by-month guide to what to see where, while Bat Conservation Ireland (batconservationireland.org) will help you discover the wonders of the flying mammal.