It's a rainy afternoon in Western Washington, the day after we got a few inches of snow, but it's still 40 degrees outside—not THAT cold, right? After 30 minutes of dressing and packing food, we head to my son's nature school where I'm subbing for his sick teacher. After our 10 minute walk to school, we venture through the trees to find that a few friends have already arrived. We join them around the fire and chat a bit while the other teacher waits for the rest of the kids. There are only seven today—the eighth is sick at home.
We start to play in the snow, hang on tree branches, and tell stories. I change my jacket a few times, switching from a winter down jacket to a lightweight down jacket (under my rain jacket). My body temperature is so different when I’m playing than when I’m sitting down!
All of the kids are finally here and we’re all active. Some are playing in the sandbox, some are being pulled in a wagon by the other teacher (J). Everything seems fine until…
They all melt down at once.
While J quickly searches through the backup clothes for warmer clothes, I decide it’s time for an early snack. Food solves all problems, right?
Snack goes pretty well. The tears stop as kids eat their food around the fire. But instead of improving after snack time, some of the kids get WORSE. They cry for their parents and it’s so hard to tell what they need. J goes back and forth, trying more layers on the kids, but we don’t really have base layers available in the backup gear—just outerwear. We add jackets here and mittens there, but two of the kids just continue to cry.
J rocks one girl to sleep and we set her in a warm bed by the fire. I manage to distract the other with singing and stories for a while, but about 30 minutes before the end of class, she just starts to cry and cry for her mom. J puts another jacket on her, he holds her by the fire, he asks her so many questions about if something hurts or if she’s cold, but all to no avail. For the rest of class, we sing songs about how much we love our moms and can’t wait to see them, and she continues to cry on and off.
It’s okay to cry. It shows that you really love your mom and want to see her. She’s driving here right now and you’ll see her so soon.
In the meantime, T and two friends are in the forest, inspecting bugs and looking at leaves, and watching a squirrel try to steal the rest of someone’s snack. They are warm and happy and at ease in the forest.
Another girl is a little sad, asking for her mom a bit. But I discover that she has an extra, dry pair of mittens in her bag, plus an extra hat. We put this fresh, dry gear on and she cheers up. She joins me in helping the other two girls who are still sad and asking for their moms. She is not cold, and even though she misses her mom (who has just started working full time again), she is able to gain her composure with the help of this fresh, dry gear.
At pick-up time, we tell the crying girl’s mom:
She’s been asking for you, it’s out of character for her. Maybe she’s not feeling well?
She takes her to the car, and comes back with the extra jacket:
Her feet were cold. She was too embarrassed to tell you.
My heart sinks. We asked her SO MANY QUESTIONS, but didn’t ask that specific one. J had checked her legs for warmth and they were fine. We didn’t think to specifically check her feet.
After pick up is over, J tells me that the girl I was rocking had only a pair of “lined” jeans on under her rain pants. No base layer. She was COLD. No wonder she was crying. No wonder she was happier to sleep, under a blanket, by the warm fire instead of playing in the forest with her friends.
I am amazed. School was only 3 hours long, and yet the experiences for these groups of kids were SO DIFFERENT. Two were not dressed properly and they struggled as a result, taking up the time and attention of the teachers (adding layers and trying to figure out what was wrong). The other five kids were FINE. They were happy, they enjoyed their time in the forest, playing and learning about the plants and animals.
And I am SAD. As preschool teachers, we made a judgement call to keep the kids there and not call their parents. Normally those kids are fine, so their emotions were hard to decipher, and they just weren’t able to communicate what they needed. MORE warmth. MORE base layers. DRY mittens.
I tell you this anecdote because it proves everything I already knew about dressing for the weather. IT MATTERS. TAKE IT SERIOUSLY. The way you dress children for school outside MAKES A DIFFERENCE, for them, for the teachers, and for their peers.
Today, some kids had a GREAT experience at nature school and some did not. The only difference was the gear. Pay attention, put on base layers, and always look for ways you can improve.
- Teacher Kendall
Dr. Kendall Becherer
Kendall is an author, photographer, teacher, and learning scientist who loves helping parents & teachers find new ways of connecting with their children.