You know what they DON'T teach you when you're earning a graduate degree in education? How to potty train a kid. My highly verbal, almost three-year-old is still in a diaper—and it's mostly my fault. I don't want to deal with the accidents. Cleaning floors, washing clothes, wiping down screaming children—not my favorite things.
That said, being a preschool teacher means dealing with these issues. And being a preschool teacher outdoors, especially in cold weather, adds yet another layer of complexity. Not only do kids have the same hesitations to stop playing and go to the bathroom, but now they have LAYERS of clothing to pull off before they can actually go. Needless to say, there are a lot of potty accidents at outdoor school.
I’m reminded of this because: remember the crying girl from my previous post, the one whose feet were cold? Turns out she’d peed. So not only did she have only a single layer of socks on in 40 degree weather, but they were wet… with pee. SIGH.
The thing is, she’s five year old. We had asked after snack if anyone needed to pee and she didn’t say anything. When J checked her leg to see if it was cold, he didn’t notice any wetness. Did she pee after she started crying, after he checked her leg? We’ll never know.
But it’s a good reminder nonetheless. We assumed a five year old would communicate her bathroom needs. She’s done it before, she had over ten nature school classes under her belt. Maybe it was because I was a substitute teacher and she wasn’t comfortable talking with me (although she talked with me about tons of other topics, including asking for help with mittens and snack)? Maybe she didn’t feel like taking all of her layers off to pee?
The thing is, the consequences of wetting yourself are different in outdoor school than they are at home. Having wet base layers and socks make you COLD!
In retrospect, we should’ve checked SPECIFICALLY for pee, and we’ve definitely learned our lesson. I hope this experience can be a reminder to you as well.
If you’re a teacher and you have a crying child, ask if they need to go to the bathroom and check for pee (even if they’re five!).
If you’re a parent, talk to your kids about using the bathroom at nature school. Talk about how it’s so important not to have wet clothes against your body when it’s cold outside. Practice what phrases they’ll use to tell the teachers they need to use the bathroom.
Good luck to you, and I’ll report back on this topic when we start to do more potty training at our house!
- Teacher Kendall
It's a rainy afternoon in Western Washington, 40 degrees with snow on the ground. I'm subbing for my son’s teacher at nature school and it takes almost 30 minutes to get both of us dressed. We dig through the laundry for a fleece layer and wool socks, find wool layers mixed in with PJs, unwrap newly purchased liner socks, and find a neckwarmer in a bag from a trip to a friend’s house. T wiggles around on “the big bed” while I talk him through my layering routine:
Underwear first, then liner socks. Now my fleece base layer goes over those socks, and I’ll put my wool socks OVER the fleece pants. Then I have to tuck my shirt in and put a long sleeve shirt on top.
These are just my base and insulating layers—now it is T’s turn. I get a clean diaper on him, a wool shirt, the new liner socks (which go up to his thighs), and a wool pants layer, but when I try to put his wool socks on, he decides it’s time to fight. He yells at me and cries a bit: “I don’t want TWO socks!” I manage to get his fleece insulating layer on before he’s too wiggly to be productive, then we move to the living room.
You’ll feel better once we get your fleece layers on. You need two pairs of socks for your boots to fit correctly! Just let me finish your layers so we can put the boots on.
I give up and let him writhe around for a bit while I put more layers on: snow pants, rain pants, rain boots that I tuck under the two layers of pants. I open the door and say:
I left your boots in the car, I’ll be right back. DON’T GO OUTSIDE. I don’t want your socks to get wet.
Well, I leave the door open and OF COURSE he wants to go outside—he wants to make a snowball! When I get back to the porch he’s inching toward the edge.
Wait, I have to put your boots on first! I don’t want your socks to get wet!
He’s finally ready for the rest of his layers. We quickly pull on some rain pants and get the boots on last. It’s such a pain to pull the rain pants over his boots! But I know it’s raining today and it’ll keep him dry. Then we add his neckwarmer, a puffy jacket, a fleece hat, and finally a lightweight rain jacket, and he’s ready to go make snowballs.
T goes outside while I finish my layers: a puffy jacket, a neckwarmer and a rain jacket. I tuck my winter gloves and T’s mittens in the backpack along with our snacks and water bottles. I completely forget his extra mittens and hat! Good thing I already have extras of those in his backup gear at school.
When we get home after 3.5 hours outside, I peel off my damp outer layers quickly while he fusses for help (he’s eager for a snack). I take his muddy rain jacket off, his damp mittens, his neckwarmer and dry puffy jacket, then I sit him on my lap while I pull the muddy boots and rain pants off in one piece. He wiggles thinking he’s done, but I insist we take more layers off—the house is so warm after being outside! I remove his fleece top, then all of his lower layers as if they’re all one piece (he needs a fresh diaper right now).
I comment to my husband about what other kids were wearing at school and tell him to feel T’s legs. They’re warm to the touch—only his hands are cold, and the tips of his toes. I’m not surprised, but I’m still in awe that the wool and fleece and rain gear did so well—I used to think a bulky snow bib was necessary to stay warm. Now I know preserving the body's core warmth with wicking base layers and warm insulating layers is the key to layering for success!
- Teacher Kendall
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
My son's nature school just posted a message about their day in the cold weather:
Starting a fire after snack cheered everybody up. We all had meltdowns after snack because they get so cold while sitting still. Today Keats had four layers under his jacket. While it was 38 degrees my phone said it feels like 33 degrees and it's always a little colder in the forest too. When in doubt put more layers and start to use those buffs and neckwarmers.
Here are some more tips about keeping kids warm in near-freezing weather:
Please comment below if you can think of more ideas that I've forgotten to list here!
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.