Monday, January 31, 2011

Staying Warm in Winter, continued

In my last post, I shared some ideas from outdoor educator Deb Williams about how to dress kids warmly in winter. But appropriate dress is only part of it. Here are a few more suggestions to keep in mind when the north wind blows…

Make sure kids eat. Williams tells her students that going on a diet in winter is a really bad idea. In winter, when the simple act of staying warm quickly consumes calories, food is not only fuel for energy, it’s heating fuel, as well. Especially when you’re being active outdoors in winter, think of food not as meals or snacks, but as intake: like fuel for your furnace. You have to keep it running. On cold-weather outings, pack high-calorie foods such as granola bars. Williams confesses to packing Snickers bars. They’re the perfect winter food, she points out — a tightly packed bundle of sugar, carbohydrates, and fat. “It’s the fat that keeps you warm,” she says, and suggests sticking a candy bar or energy or granola bar in any empty space in a pack.

Drink. One of the fastest ways kids can get cold is not being properly hydrated. “We forget when we’re outside in the winter that it’s like being in a desert,” Williams says. She follows a “quarter every quarter” rule: a quarter cup of water every quarter-hour. She advises not to stop and chug a quart all at once; better to sip all day. Also, she points out that the body absorbs lukewarm water more quickly than it does very cold water.

Be on the look-out for signs of dehydration, including headaches and very dark yellow pee. And speaking of which, Williams deals with the classic winter-camping problem by telling kids, “If you’re sleeping out in a tent or an unheated cabin, do not have a dialogue with your bladder at night. You will lose. Your body will cool down trying to keep that liquid warm. Get up, get it over with, and you’ll sleep better and be warmer.”

Wear sunscreen. Exposed skin is actually more vulnerable in winter to sunburn, windburn, and chapping than it is in the lush, often shaded humidity of summer. Snow can reflect more than 85 percent of the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Keep chapstick handy in outer pockets and apply it frequently; in very cold wind-chill use Vaseline as a protective coating on cheeks and noses.

Pay attention. Williams know that children don’t always know, or say, when they’re cold. On winter family trips, she took frequent breaks to check on her children. “I’d tell them to take their shoes off so I could feel their feet. Or I’d just stick my hands down into their boots.” She adds, as if she needed any more emphasis, “I checked them all the time.”

Learn more
• Read “Dressing Like an Onion and Other Tips for Keeping Kids Warm
• More advice on dressing for warmth from AMC: “Cold Comfort: How to stay toasty in winter’s chill” (Matt Heid, AMC Outdoors)
• Advice from medical professionals on winter safety and avoiding and treating frostnip, frostbite, and hypothermia

Photo credit: Hulbert Outdoor Center

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Dressing Like an Onion and Other Tips for Keeping Kids Warm

How do you dress a kid for 20 below? That’s been the question around here the last couple of days. Even though the temperature is heading back into the teens (“practically a heat wave,” said one dry wit at carpool this morning), it’s a good time to consider how to dress children for warmth and safety in the winter. As it happens, I recently spoke with an expert on the subject.

Deb Williams has led trips to northern Quebec for more than 20 years for the Hulbert Outdoor Center in Fairlee, Vermont, spending several weeks at a time in temperatures than run even lower than our recent cold snap. But, she told me with a laugh, her “first claim to fame” is raising three children in chilly Vermont with husband Andy. She shared her advice about keeping kids warm, safe, and happy outside in the winter.

Dress like an onion.
Williams reminded me that clothing itself doesn’t make us warm. Our bodies do that work. Dressing in layers — like an onion— creates the insulation, trapping body heat in channels of dead air space.

- Start with a wicking layer next to the skin. Tops, bottoms, and feet should be covered with a layer of polypropylene or other synthetic, silk, or wool. These fabrics wick moisture away from a child’s body, retaining very little dampness.

- Next comes an insulation layer of medium-weight wool or pile to retain body heat. For colder temperatures, add another layer of insulation, such as a down or fiberfill jacket.

- The final layer is an outer protective shell or jacket to protect against wind, water, or snow. This layer is extremely important, Williams explained. “If you’re letting the wind in, it’s like having no layers at all.”

- Outer layers shouldn't be too snug — you want enough to create pockets of warmed air — but should close off airflow around wrists and waists or hips to keep the warm air in.

- Finally, cold winter weather is an occasion to lose a layer as well: Williams suggests having kids take off any jewelry they might be wearing. “It’s easy to forget, but earrings can generate real cold in ears. They’re metal, after all, which is a great conductor of cold.”

Give an extra hand.
In cold weather, choose mittens over gloves for warmer hands. Mittens work on a “five musketeers” principle (all for one, and one for all), warming each other more effectively in one air pocket than separated. But don’t stop there: After an hour on the sledding hill or half a day on the ski slopes, even the warmest pair of mittens is likely to be soaked from the inside or the outside. Pack an extra pair or stick back-ups in coat pockets.

Start cool, stay dry. Wind is one enemy of warmth, but another enemy comes from within: sweat. Damp clothes next to bare skin will chill a child, even one dressed in multiple layers. Williams recommends starting out cool and dry in winter activities. She teaches children to take the time to stop and remove layers if they get hot. Taking off a hat and stuffing it in a side pocket for a few minutes helps kids avoid overheating.

Another way to stay dry is to avoid wearing cotton next to the skin. “The saying used to be, ‘Cotton kills,’” Williams said. “We can be kinder than that.” Cotton works so well in towels because it soaks up moisture and holds onto it — up to 60 percent of its weight. The fabrics used in wicking layers typically retain only 1 to 5 percent of their weight.

Dry feet are warm feet. Williams has learned to pay special attention to feet. If boots or snowshoe straps are too tight, circulation is restricted and feet become chilled. It’s better to wear an extra pair of socks in roomy boots, in Williams’s experience, than to risk frostbite in tight ones.

Felt boot liners should be pulled out and dried every night after children have worn them. Simply bringing boots inside to dry isn’t enough, because rubber around the bottoms of the boots traps moisture. “Damp liners are the source of many cold feet,” Williams said.

Protect face and eyes. Williams always carries extra ski goggles in her pack. Children being carried in a backpack or sled feel wind on their faces, too, without the extra warmth that comes from doing the work of moving. Williams recommends goggles to protect their eyes and balaclavas or face masks to protect their faces.

"Dressing a child for winter isn’t all that hard," Williams said. However, “You do have to pay attention.” Around here this week, a lot of parents were paying attention.

Learn more

• More advice on dressing for warmth from AMC: “Cold Comfort: How to stay toasty in winter’s chill” (Matt Heid, AMC Outdoors)
• Advice from medical professionals on winter safety and avoiding and treating frostnip, frostbite, and hypothermia

Photo courtesy of Hulbert Outdoor Center.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Snow + Color = Fun

Teachers and parents alike know how hard it can be to motivate kids after a snow day. We had a snow day here last week, and my children definitely would have stayed home to work on their snow fort or gone snowboarding instead of going to school the next day, given the choice. Ken Brummel, a middle school science teacher in Newport, New Hampshire, found a way to work with those desires, rather than against them.

Brummel told his students to come back from their day off prepared to spend their classtime outdoors. First they created snow sculptures. Not snowmen — instead, they represented some of the science that they’d been learning. One group of 7th graders created a sloping ramp. In another setting, it could have been mistaken for a snowboard ramp. But the students applied a coat of yellow “paint” — sprayed-on food coloring — to it, and then in blue, the formula for the area of the triangle formed by the side, A = ½ bh.

All around the schoolyard, cylinders, circles, and rectangles rose out of the snow, embellished in bright colors with formulas for area and volume. Three students carefully carved out a particularly well-known formula, Einstein’s expression of the relationship between energy and mass, E = mc2, coloring it red, yellow, and blue.

Imagine putting such inventiveness to use in math class, solving problems in the snow. Or writing out spelling words or new vocabulary in French, Spanish, Mandarin, or Latin in food coloring. When Ursula and Virgil saw the article in the paper, they immediately hatched a plan to decorate their snow fort with food coloring from our pantry.

Because of course Brummel knew that his students were getting more than science lessons. They were learning how to be creative outdoors — a lesson, Brummel noted, that they can use the rest of their lives. And you don’t need to be in school to use that lesson.

Learn more

• Read the Valley News article (“Playtime, Class Time” by Katie Beth Ryan). To see bigger photos of the snow formulas, however, you'll need to go to the paper's photo gallery and click on the photos for January 18.

Photo of a "snow globe" in Somerville, Mass. Credit Andy Metzger.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

If the snowshoe fits: one reluctant kid, one grumpy mom, and a dad with hot dogs

Ursula made me promise that I would start the story of last weekend’s “snowshoe misadventure” by telling you I made a ton of mistakes.

Boy, did I. As I’ve written here, I’ve spoken recently with a whole cadre of “kids and snowshoes” experts — including AMC’s Adventure Programs Manager Sara DeLucia, NH Chapter trip leader Rick Silverberg, and teacher Donna McCusker. That’s gotten me excited about snowshoeing with our children. There’s a difference, though, between hearing great advice (even writing it down), and actually putting it into action, as Ursula can tell you.

Here’s what happened:

The first day of the holiday weekend brought us nearly two feet of fresh, light snow; reasonable temperatures; and a little brother away for the afternoon. Ursula was game to join me and Jim for a snowshoeing adventure.

My first mistake came in not listening more carefully to what she agreed to. She heard “adventure” and started talking about roasting hot dogs over a fire. I shook that off: My idea was to hike up a steep ridge on the other side of the pond. “Adventure” to me meant getting farther along that ridgeline than I’d gotten before, exploring new territory.

I looked at my watch and saw that we had almost three hours before we needed to pick up Virgil. Plenty of time, I thought. Second mistake.

The mistakes kept coming. We’ve acquired a ragtag collection of (mostly) hand-me-down snowshoes for the kids. Out in the barn, papa, mama, and two sizes of baby bear snowshoes hung on wooden dowels. “Get snowshoes that fit,” Rick Silverberg had told me, explaining that older kids, like Ursula, often do better with lightweight adult snowshoes than with kids’ sizes. Instead, we wrestled a too-small pair over her snow boots. Bending down and pulling at the straps, I could feel her mood darken. “I don’t like these,” she complained.

Her mood lightened, though, as we headed for the woods. She ran up behind me and caught my snowshoe tails, toppling me into the powder. I should have laughed. Instead I snapped at her. I immediately regretted it. Her playfulness receded. Before long she’d flopped down in the snow and wanted to know if we were almost there. We hadn’t even made it to the base of the hill.

Luckily, Jim had heard Ursula’s excitement about a fire in the snow and had packed a small axe, matches, hot dogs, and hot chocolate. His promise to build a fire got her partway up the steep ridge. Her mood rebounded again with the hot chocolate, a peeled clementine, and a couple of hot dogs charred over the small flame. By the time we put out the fire and packed up again, it was time to head back down to collect Virgil from the party.

The advice I should have heeded:
Have the right gear, and make sure it fits. We should check the fit of all the kids’ winter gear — pants and jackets, skis, and snowshoes — before winter gets underway. Ursula is overdue for snowshoes that fit. A decent pair of lightweight adult snowshoes should last her for a long time, and she’ll appreciate the category upgrade.
Bring food. I was ready to go out on a three-hour snowshoe with minimal snack food. Seeing Ursula’s mood improve was a good reminder of the power of food, especially hot food, especially food you can cook right there.
Go with the flow. Once I invited Ursula to snowshoe with us, I needed to readjust my idea of what we’d do to fit her experience level and her interest.

Our misadventure wasn’t all bad. Until this weekend, Ursula had done little more on snowshoes than paddle about the yard. When one of the straps loosened and she momentarily lost her snowshoe, she experienced for herself why they’re a good idea in deep snow. While she picked up some new skills, I suspect that I’m the one who learned the most needed lessons. I think she’ll give me, and snowshoeing, another chance.

Learn more

• Other Great Kids, Great Outdoors posts about snowshoeing: "'Snowshoe School' at AMC's Highland Center" and "Snowshoeing Fun and Games for Kids."
AMC Outdoors articles on selecting snowshoes from Matt Heid (“Powder Power”) and Michael Lanza (“Making Tracks: How to Choose the Right Snowshoes for You”). Lanza gives specific advice about finding snowshoes for children.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Mother Nature’s Child

It’s the rare movie premiere that occurs in Hanover, New Hampshire. So I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that the Loew Theater at Dartmouth’s Hood Museum was full to capacity last Wednesday night for the first screening of “Mother Nature’s Child: Growing up in the Media Age,” a documentary by filmmakers Camilla Rockwell and Wendy Conquest. People drawn to the film’s subject — the importance of nature in children’s development — would hardly be daunted by two feet of new snow and a travel warning that lifted at 7 p.m., just as the film got rolling.

If you’ve read Last Child in the Woods, the best-selling book by Richard Louv, “Mother Nature’s Child” will feel familiar. Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe what he sees as an epidemic loss of connection between children and the natural world. “Mother Nature’s Child” fits alongside Louv’s book as a video elaboration of its main themes.

Like the book, the movie toggles between negative and positive, between what we stand to lose if kids don’t spend enough time outside and what we gain if they do. We see two boys staring fixedly at a computer screen while they play a video game; the movie camera slowly changes focus so that outside their window we see the fresh green of a bright spring day. In the next frame, we see them slumped in chairs wearing headphones, pecking at other devices in their hands, the day gone to shadow. The movie also introduces us to a group of toddlers in the Washington, D.C., area whose teachers regularly take them to green spaces around Rock Creek. We watch the preschoolers climb logs, squelch in mud, and scramble up a rocky riverbank; and we hear them, too: One child says to another as the camera zooms in on the mud they’re playing with, “This looks like chocolate.” Her friend corrects her, “Nature isn’t made of chocolate!”

The two scenes drew strong, and different, responses from the audience — a low rumble of dismay when the boys and their electronic devices were on screen, and laughter and applause for the preschoolers — which is surely what the filmmakers want.

“Mother Nature’s Child” has a loose structure, following the role of nature in children’s lives from the toddler years through adolescence. Academic experts such as Stephen Kellert, professor emeritus of social ecology at the Yale School of Forestry; and David Sobel, director of place-based education at Antioch University New England, share the screen with on-the-ground educators like Brother Yusuf Burgess, shown teaching kids from urban Albany the fundamentals of fly-fishing; Rob Hanson, sixth-grade teacher from Pomfret, Vermont, who encourages his students to explore the river that runs past their school; and those wise, unruffled pre-school teachers, who are captured on film telling one of their charges, “You’re pretty muddy. Let’s change your pants.”

That five-second scene alone makes a point every parent and every teacher needs to hear.

Learn more

- Additional screenings of "Mother Nature’s Child," in full or in excerpted form, are scheduled in January in Baltimore, Maryland; Frederickton, New Brunswick, Canada; and Montpelier and Woodstock, Vermont. The film will also be shown at the Green Mountain Film Festival and 2011 Environmental Film Festival in Washington, D.C. More details on the film website.
- View the trailer.
- "Mother Nature’s Child" is available for purchase from the filmmakers as a DVD with study guide insert.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Free to Play: More on Unstructured Play for Children

“Effort to Restore Children’s Play Gains Momentum,” trumpeted the headline on an article in The New York Times last week. I started reading the article, I’ll admit, with some professional skepticism — and some parental smugness, too.

Here were statistics that I’d found shocking when I'd first heard them: Children ages 8 to 18 spend more than 7-½ hours in front of a screen a day on average; nationally, only one child in five lives within walking distance (a half-mile) of a park or playground. But those numbers hadn’t changed in the past year, as far as I could tell. So where was the momentum?

The article described “a growing movement of parents to restore the sometimes-untidy business of play to the lives of children.” “My house is a little messy,” admitted one mother interviewed in the article. (My thought: Hey, Times reporter, come to my house if you want to see kids’ toys and costumes and art supplies underfoot.)

The litany of reasons children don’t play outside — or play on their own, inside or out — present and accounted for: heavier homework demands earlier in school, more lessons and organized sports, more technology competing for children’s attention, and parents’ attention, too. Check, check, check, and check, and not news.

Then I read this sentence: “The average 3-year-old can pick up an iPhone and expertly scroll through the menu of apps, but how many 7-year-olds can organize a kickball game with the neighborhood kids?” All of a sudden, I didn’t feel so smug. Instead, I thought of Virgil, who at age 8 can discuss the relative merits of various video-gaming systems with his third-grade friends, but who has never even played kickball outside of school recess, much less organized such a game.

Free-form play and childhood games, the article reminded me, develop valuable social and intellectual skills. If Virgil organized that game of kickball — or kick-the-can, the game that I remember most from my childhood — he’d need to negotiate with his friends, set up and follow rules, solve problems, and work with the others as a team.

We have no neighborhood near our house, but Virgil recently invited a friend from school to spend the night. At first, the two boys only wanted to hunch over the gaming device that Virgil’s friend had brought with him. We took it away, and then we told the boys that they needed to go outside. They put on their snow clothes with little enthusiasm. I watched them wander about listlessly, heard Ursula shout at them to leave her snow fort alone. After that I lost track of them.

Then through the window I saw all three children jumping off our stone wall into snow drifts blown there by the most recent storm. The wall wasn’t high, and the snow wasn’t deep, but it was clear that their split seconds of being airborne and their snowy landings thrilled them. They were playing some kind of game, with rules that they shouted back and forth. It was clear to me, too, that they needed more of exactly this kind of play.

The rest of the article in the Times convinced me that the “free-play” movement is, indeed, growing. I’ve included links to organizations working on this issue that were mentioned in the article.

Learn more

• Read “Effort to Restore Children’s Play Gains Momentum” (New York Times, January 5, 2011)
• Read other Great Kids, Great Outdoors posts on unstructured play and the free-play movement: “Nurturing constructive boredom,” “After-school special,” “How much TV is too much?” “Rethinking playgrounds.”
• The Alliance for Childhood works to restore play to children’s lives through public education and research.
• The U.S. Play Coalition, identified in the Times as “a group of doctors, educators, and parks and recreation officials,” is holding a conference February 6-9 at Clemson University on the value of outdoor play.
• The playground nonprofit KaBoom! organized 1,600 “play days” around the country in 2010.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Snowshoeing Fun and Games for Kids

Rick Silverberg has led winter excursion workshops for AMC's New Hampshire Chapter for more than 30 years, but he may have spent even more time traveling winter trails with his daughters' Girl Scout troops. Silverberg and his wife, Judy, co-led troops for each of their two daughters over 10 New Hampshire winters, starting when the younger girl was 9 and the older was 11. When he talks about keeping children excited about being out in the snow, he knows what he's talking about.

"Kids are always growing and changing," he says. Those changes challenged him and Judy to come up with outings that felt new and different every time — especially on snowshoes. "Snowshoeing is easy," he says. "For kids, it's only fun by itself the first time," when they're learning the basic movements. But easy doesn't have to mean boring. Because snowshoeing is simple to learn and do, it can quickly become the foundation for other winter fun.

When their daughters were young, the Silverbergs used games and storytelling to add interest to snowshoe outings. As the girls gained experience and years, their parents planned longer and more challenging excursions.

Play games: Rabbits and coyotes." Have you ever watched a rabbit run through the snow?" Silverberg asks. Their big back feet hit the ground farther forward than their smaller front feet. The Silverbergs helped kids place their mittened hands together slightly in front of their bodies, mimicking a rabbit's front paws, and their snowshoe-clad feet on the outside of their "paws." The adults encouraged the children to jump forward onto their hands and to see if they could push off with their "hind" legs so they landed with their snowshoes slightly forward of their mittens. It might take a few tries to get the rhythm, Silverberg says, but several good bunny hops will look just like giant rabbit tracks.

Coyotes, on the other paw, are straight-line walkers, putting front and back feet on each side into the same track. The Silverbergs had kids hunch over and simulate how coyotes walk through the snow by having them cover the print that a mittened hand makes with the snowshoe on the same side. "If they do it well," Silverberg says, "the snowshoes will completely cover the hand prints."

Tell outdoor stories. On troop outings, the leaders looked for ways to engage the girls through stories. "I was always asking, 'What happened here?'" Silverberg says. Even the snow-laden branches of a fir tree could turn into an exploratory story, with the troop crawling under the boughs and noticing how the tree became a cozy emergency shelter. The Silverbergs pointed out feathers and fur on the snow and other animal tracks, winter plants, ice and snow patterns. "You don't have to know what it is," Silverberg counsels adults. "You just have to notice."

Map winter. With leaves gone, winter is a great season for views. The Silverbergs brought maps on every trip as a matter of course. The group often stopped where they had a view to match the landscape and the map. Even highway maps can be used for this purpose.

Stay close to home. In the Silverbergs' experience, it's best with younger children to plan snowshoe outings close to home. "Even if they're dressed perfectly for the weather," Silverberg says, "you just don't want to be too very far from hot chocolate."

Visit old friends. After just a couple years, the Silverberg girls and their friends were experienced snow-walkers. At that point, the troops' co-leaders added to the adventure by taking the girls back to trails they'd hiked in the summer. "I'd hear them talking about how different the trail looked in winter," Silverberg says. "They'd just be amazed the entire time." Snowshoeing, he notes, is one of the easiest and least expensive ways to enjoy winter in the Northeast. Children's snowshoes work well for all but the most serious winter backpacking trips. Rentals are widely available, or consider buying used.

Learn more
All of the AMC winter family adventures listed below include snowshoeing, ranging from beginning instruction to guided backcountry trips, and all are geared to families with children.
- Winter Family Weekend at Joe Dodge Lodge, January 15-17
- Winter Family Week at Highland Center, February 19-27
- Winter Family Adventure Camp at Cardigan Lodge, February 21-25
- Guided Family Snowshoe Adventure to Carter Notch Hut, February 20-22
- Winter Family Adventure Getaway at Joe Dodge Lodge, February 22-24
Learn more about "snowshoe school" programs for local schools at AMC's Highland Lodge.

Photo credit: Jerry Shereda, Courtesy of AMC

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

“Too Cool” for Winter

School has started up again this week. That’s meant a return to our regular, and slightly chaotic, morning routine: children who want “just one more minute” in warm beds; who linger too long at breakfast; and who then rush about looking for the homework / book / thermos / hat / mittens that we, their parents, urged them to take care of the night before.

One morning this week after the usual get-out-the-door flurry, a headline in our local paper caught my eye. “Teens ‘too cool’ to dress for the chill?” it asked. An Associated Press article described kids around the country, all of them far outside the Sunbelt, who refused to put on coats, hats, mittens, or even long pants during the winter months. The article quoted Carleton Kendrick, a family therapist in Millis, Mass.: “Wearing bulky winter coats, gloves, boots – unless teen girls consider them high fashion – and hats screams nerd, geek, baby, dork ... uncool!”

It hit me: We have a teenager in the house. Ursula won’t be 13 for another six months, but reading the article I realize that she’s already trying to dress like a teenager. That morning, in fact, we’d battled over her insistence that she was fine, just fine, stepping out into single-digit temperatures wearing a short-sleeved polo shirt and a lightweight fleece hoodie. “I don’t need a coat, Mom,” she’d said in a tone that mixed nonchalance and disdain in perfect teen proportions.

“It’s winter,” I shot back, “and when it’s 7 above zero, you need to wear a coat.” My words mixed parental righteousness and pleading — another sign that we’ve entered the teenage years. She kept moving, and I resorted to throwing her coat into her arms as she walked out the door. It’s quite possible that some inarticulate loud sound — Ursula would call it a yell — also issued from my mouth.

I do know that she brought the coat to school, and I’m guessing that she eventually even put it on. That’s because her school offers two recesses and an outdoor lunch break every day, even for middle school students, and coats, hats, mittens, and boots are required. (Kids don’t go outside if midday temperatures fall below 10 degrees Fahrenheit.) Only homework keeps Ursula from taking full advantage of that outdoor time.

The AP article has been picked up all over, from Delaware to Ohio, and even L.A. (although one has to wonder whether the article there falls into the category of Things We’re Glad We Don’t Have to Deal With). Headline writers clearly had fun: “Fashionable teens give winter gear the cold shoulder,” “Cold better than uncool,” “Why do kids dress for June when it’s January?” But it struck me that by focusing on whether winter garb is hip or fashionable, and secondarily on the permissiveness of parents who let kids out of the house in shorts and T-shirts in freezing weather, the article missed something important.

Teenagers push boundaries, as any former teenager knows. The biggest reason teens today don’t dress for winter, it seems to me, is that they don’t have to. If kids step from warm house to warm car to warm schoolroom and back again, without ever spending more than a few minutes actually outside, then why wouldn’t they choose “cool” over cold? There’s no consequence to leaving their coats behind. But if our children spend more time outside, the “coolness” problem is likely to take care of itself.

I’m grateful that Ursula’s school has my parental back, and also grateful that those three segments of her day keep her acquainted with the weather, and with the importance of being prepared for it. My reaction to that article has also affected what I say to her. Yesterday, Ursula again said that she didn’t need to wear her coat. In a matter-of-fact voice, I said, “In this family, we pay attention to the seasons. It’s winter. Wear a coat.” She put it on.

Learn more
- Read the AP article by Beth Harpaz
- Read winter dressing advice from AMC: "Winter's Children" (February 2010), "Cold Comfort" (December 2005), "Warm Thoughts" (Jan/Feb 2011)

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Monday, January 3, 2011

“Snowshoe School” at AMC’s Highland Center

For the fourth year, AMC is holding a free snowshoe program at Crawford Notch for area schoolchildren. Children in four local schools come to the Highland Center once a week for up to six weeks during the winter months, strap on snowshoes, and take to the trails.

Donna McCusker teaches fifth grade at participating Whitefield School. She had partnered with AMC when she started an outdoor club at the school, and so signed up to be one of the first schools in the snowshoe program when it started in 2008. She appreciates that the program is free for students, because it offers an alternative to afternoon ski programs, which charge fees. “The kids get really excited about it,” she says. Many of the students have never been out on snowshoes before, she notes, or even walked on a trail. “It’s amazing,” McCusker says, “because they live right here.”

The program also includes short outdoor seminars on such topics as the geology of the White Mountains and tracking animals in the snow. (That last, fondly called “scat and tracks” at Whitefield, is a perennial favorite among McCusker’s students.)

The students spend their first day on snowshoes walking around Ammonoosuc Lake. The terrain is mostly flat, but the snowshoers also get a little practice crossing streams, says Sara DeLucia, adventure programs manager at the Highland Center. Whitefield teacher McCusker sees the wisdom in that choice: “The kids aren’t overworked,” she says. “They’re excited and ready to come back the next week.”

Their next challenge is likely to be Gibbs Falls, a steeper trail to a waterfall that typically takes about 90 minutes round trip. Longer half-day hikes to Ripley Fall and Arethusa Falls lead to a culminating 3.2-mile trek to the summit of Mt. Willard. Last year, the Whitefield School group attempted the summit of Mt. Avalon. They didn’t make it to the top, but worked hard going uphill and especially enjoyed sliding back downhill.

The snowshoe program has grown each year at Whitefield. This year, McCusker expects 20 to 30 fifth- and sixth-graders to enroll. They’ll strap on their snowshoes later this month.

McCusker sees the value of programs like AMC’s “snowshoe school” for students and teachers alike. “Such fun and adventurous programs,” she says, “can begin a lifelong love for outdoor fun, whole body wellness, and care of the environment right here” in her students’ backyard. As for its impact on teachers, she tells this story: “I came up behind one of our students who was snowshoeing for the first time. She was looking up into the winter sky, singing like an angel and looking just as beautiful. Sometimes it takes getting outside the four walls of a classroom to see our students in such a wonderful light.”

Learn more
Whitefield School
… Programs for students at AMC’s Highland Center

Photos courtesy Donna McCusker; "singing angel" Ivory Blanchette.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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