In America, you can grow up a brave, blustering bear of a kid ready for anything nature unleashes, or a sallow, soft sad-sack of a sniffler afraid of the first flake, and it may all depend on one thing: Your school's outdoor recess policy.
Consider the fact that one mom from Fairbanks, Alaska, told me that outdoor time gets canceled there only when it hits 20 below zero, while in Corpus Christi, Texas, another mom said her son's kindergarten class had to stay inside when it dipped below 60. Brrrr.
"I live in Washington state and moved to a new school district," April Doiron wrote to my Facebook page when I asked about local weather policies. (Hundreds of parents responded to the query.) "I was showing up to volunteer just as they were announcing indoor recess. The weather was sunny, dry and cold. I asked the front desk why it was indoor recess and they said it was because it was below freezing. I was a little shocked and a whole lot mad. It was literally in the upper 20s."
The freezing point does seem to be a line in the mercury for many schools, a fact that drives Erin Stone McLaughlin in Columbus, Ohio, crazy. One day early this year, her 8-year-old son told her, "I just can't stand sitting in a chair all day! I was made to be outside and work!"
I called Erin, who is a teacher as well as a mom of two, and she said that the school where she works sometimes cancels recess if it's cold because some of the kids can't afford warm winter clothes. But her school also cancels recess if it's too hot and sunny—something that has already happened once this school year. "Because the [ultraviolet] index was high, they thought the kids would get sunburned. And of course you can't have sunscreen or anything like that because it's considered a medication." So the kids stayed in.
Dawn, the mom who called me from Corpus Christi, could not believe how often her son's kindergarten canceled recess. She told the principal that he should know better than anyone that her ADHD son needed to get out and run around—"He's in your office every day!" No dice. Dawn has since found a school that's a better fit for her boy. (She asked that I not use her last name, as she's a teacher, too.)
In Syracuse, New York, Karen MacLachlan Miller is fed up with all the weather advice the school gives, reminding parents to send their kids in with hats and mittens and coats. "It's just overkill," she says. "There's a hard copy and then the digital reminder, and, you know, I live in the snowiest city in the entire 50 states, so we know how to dress for the cold. It's kind of our thing."
Miller's school district has also started building in more snow days—eight of them now, she says, "which was simply unheard of even 10 years ago."
In Alaska, with the minus 20 cutoff, the schools recognize that kids desperately need outdoor time, "because when they go to school it's dark, and when they come home from school it's dark," says mom Whitney Rivera, who lived in Fairbanks for five years before recently moving to Georgia. And if an Alaska kid isn't dressed warmly enough, she added, "the lost and found is always crazy-stocked because kids forget so much."
Ah, but that, says Virginia mom Stephanie Lips, is what upsets her the most: One day when her daughter went to school without a hat and the principal felt it was too cold for recess without one, the girl was told she had to wear one from the lost and found. "The school had lice and they were making my daughter wear a hat from the lost and found? Really?"
That principal got an angry call, too. Cold weather recess is a very hot topic.