February 17, 2011

Letter to editor: Too cold for recess?

"When is it too cold for schoolchildren to go outside for recess?" USA Today posed this question last month in its article, Too cold for recess? School policies vary as much as temps. Apparently, not everyone is in agreement. While a school in Asheville, N.C. keeps children inside if the temperature dips below 40, a school in International Falls, Minn. sends kids outside "no matter what," though conceding that "at 20 below, it gets iffy."

MaryAnn Schlegel Ruegger, an Indianapolis mother and attorney, has noticed a disturbing disparity when it comes to the wintertime recess policies of urban and suburban schools. She wrote a letter to the Indianapolis Star, which has not yet been published, but which came to our attention when she posted it as a comment to our recent blog post, Join the recess revolution!. MaryAnn makes such an articulate, thought-provoking case for re-examining our schools' recess policies, we couldn't let her letter stay buried in our blog comments. Read on:

A Different Kind of Education Gap

While the January 5 Indy Star article "New Winter Struggle: Coatless Kids in Shorts" elicited a lively online debate of the merits of choice versus control in parenting styles, there is a more pressing story about cold weather play for The Star to report. And that is that Indianapolis-area suburban children, like those in the story, are allowed and encouraged to play outside in the winter while their urban counterparts just miles away are prevented and discouraged from doing the same thing.

Winter recess policies differ greatly among area schools. Some local schools encourage children to enjoy fresh air and exercise throughout the winter months, while reminding parents to send appropriate warm clothing and to let them know if their children have health conditions that limit their exposure to cold weather. Children in these schools play and unwind in the brisk sunshine on most winter school days, ready to return with renewed focus to afternoon classroom learning. At the other extreme, elementary school children in one large urban school district are required to stay inside for recess on any day the temperature drops below 32 degrees. In central Indiana, when wind chill is included, this means most days between Thanksgiving and March.

Children in these schools play in overcrowded gymnasiums or remain in their classrooms for indoor recess. For some children, this works. For other children -- and in particular those who are most stressed by their home life, or who struggle with learning differences or difficulty in focus -- the lack of outdoor play undermines their efforts to listen and learn in the second half of the school day and during the crucial evening homework hours. When the school day ends, many of these children are also the most likely to go home to small apartments or busy city streets with few opportunities for safe outdoor play.

The reasons for this gap are many. Some parents still believe that cold weather play causes colds, even when children are dressed warmly, despite evidence to the contrary. School officials, frightened by the prospect of unfounded lawsuits, struggle to find the appropriate boundary between encouraging healthy exercise and protecting children in winter weather. Teachers worry about some children with inadequate winter clothing and protect them from cold or embarrassment by keeping entire classrooms of children inside.

Schools worry about injuries that may happen when children play in ice and snow, and compound the problem by letting small snowfalls build up until they can only be removed by days of melting temperatures. Schools worry about the time or cost of cleaning hallways when children come in after winter recess. And some adults, having never skied in January or enjoyed a brisk walk on the Monon in December to discover the joys of outdoor weather for themselves, tip the scales towards indoor recess whenever possible in order to escape the “duty” of standing outside in the weather themselves.

Many of these reasons are legitimate, but most can be overcome. Here are a few ways to start: health education for parents; donations of warm clothing and boots to children, schools or teachers that need them; reevaluation of risk management policies by schools to include the benefits of outdoor play; and additional mats for school hallways. A number of local schools encourage and support wintertime outdoor play, even within the center of the city. All schools need our support in this area. Wintertime outdoor play is a health issue, and local schools and parents have an obligation to do what is best for the children.

What can we do? It’s time to do for wintertime outdoor play what many local groups, like KIBI (Keep Indianapolis Beautiful) and Indy Parks, have done for the issue of outdoor learning generally. It’s time to make outdoor play an everyday experience for all area school children. Would you like to join me? Would you donate your gently used winter boots? Would you volunteer to help shovel or snowblow a school playground? What else might we do? Please let me know.

MaryAnn Schlegel Ruegger
Indianapolis, Indiana

Do you have ideas? We want to hear them! And how cold is too cold for recess at your child's school?

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