Outside This Winter, It's Cool!

By Pete Hanson and Scott Melville

The rustle of wind blown leaves across the school grounds on a cool, crisp late Autumn day; the swirl of the first wet snowflakes accumulating on the playground; the certain slant of light on winter afternoons. Does this mean the end of outside physical education classes until spring? Not necessarily.

Two years ago I was excited to get my first physical education teaching position. The job looked great in many ways but one thing worried me - my new, old school had no gymnasium. Kindergarten through eighth grade physical education classes had to be held either outside or in a small classroom. Because winters are long and cold in this part of the country, I frantically began studying my notes and resources for more indoor activities. Although I did come up with some good, small-space ideas, I could not see them adequately filling three or four consecutive months. As 1 planned my fall and spring outdoor curriculum I found myself thinking more and more that most of my activities might be continued outside in all but the most inclement conditions. This was the case because all of my activities were of an everyone active nature and I had learned to keep my instructional talks short. Maybe we could stay warm through near constant movement. Ultimately I designed and then implemented a physical education curriculum based on a year round outdoor plan. I am pleased to say I have had two terrific winters and so have my students. My overall goals and objectives were unaffected. (1) I believe my goal of leading children toward an active lifestyle of an hour of moderate/vigorous activity was more completely met. (2) My goal of changing other affective and health practices (nutrition, safety, violence, drugs) was still addressed in short health discussions when we were outside in cold weather and in somewhat longer interspersed talks on those days when we were confined to the classroom. (3) We achieved the same goals in the acquisition of fundamental motor skills and sports specific skills. Below I have listed a number of things I learned from my experience. I hope my adventures might help some of you escape the indoor restrictions and discover the joyous possibilities of going outside in the winter.

Communicate a "Can Do" Attitude
First of all, garner the support of the principal, classroom teachers, administrative staff, parents and the children before implementing any winter outdoor activities. Send out flyers and talk it up. Your enthusiasm can be contagious. Provide everyone with upbeat, positive information about the benefits of outside physical education classes: fresh air, freedom of movement and space, invigorating exercise, and a mental break from the confines of the school building. "Yes! Give me a draught of undiluted fresh air!"

I think an important message being conveyed is that exercise is not something we do only when the sun is warmly shining. Exercise needs to be integrated as a daily self-care practice and that means, for most people, accustoming themselves to some outdoor pursuits throughout the year. Many will not have the luxury of relying upon personal indoor workout areas or regular visits to community spas and gyms. I am reminded of a quote made by Thomas Jefferson, "Not less than two hours a day should be devoted to exercise, and the weather should be little regarded. I speak thus from experience, having made this arrangement of my life. If the body is feeble, the mind will not be strong."

In addition to communicating the potential benefits of the outside program, be sure to allay any fears some might have. Explain the precautions you will have in place to ensure the comfort and safety of the children.

Appropriate Clothes
It is imperative that the children are dressed appropriately. They will need three things: a warm hat, a coat, and gloves. They usually bring these to school anyway on cold winter days. Younger students may wish to wear a snowsuit and snow boots. I discovered that I needed a warmer hat, gloves, and coat than students since I stood still longer than them, plus, I was outside for a longer duration. I also began wearing slipover rubber galoshes on my feet. They provided additional insulation and dryness. Keep in mind the Scandinavian adage that there is no such thing a bad weather, only inadequate clothing.

Stay In? Go Outside?
We found that 20 degrees Fahrenheit was about the coldest temperature acceptable for a half-hour physical education class outside. Below that temperature, it was hard to stay warm. Remember that children can become cold more rapidly than adults; they can lose heat faster than adults because of their greater surface area to body mass ratio.

Falling snow was always a welcome sight and added excitement to an outside class. A hard rain kept us inside.

Surfaces That Worked Well
Ask your school's grounds crew or the parks department to cut the grass on your playground short before it stops growing for the winter. I found that short cut grass provided an excellent surface for physical education class in wet or dry conditions. Snow on top of grass was always a good, safe surface, as long as the snow wasn't slushy and wet. Snow on an asphalt playground wasn't safe because often it became compacted and injuries from falls could occur on that hard surface. Sometimes a skiff of snow on the asphalt playground could be cleared quickly with a broom. This was a good way for me to wake up in the morning and get myself warm! Ice on an asphalt surface posed a problem. Oftentimes, spreading some de-icing agent would melt the ice. If it was too icy, and the grass playground was in poor condition, we would stay inside.

Things That Helped

Carpet squares provided insulation from the cold ground when stretching and doing calisthenics. They also helped with traction and class organization. Everyone carried his or her square from the building. I used music to energize student movement just as I was used to doing inside. My boom box withstood the cold and dampness. It did just fine blasting upbeat aerobics music and jingle bell tunes through the tingling air. Extra cones were also an asset in that they could be used to mark off dangerously wet and slippery areas.

Warm-ups That Worked

I found that it was imperative to immediately begin class with vigorous aerobic and anaerobic exercises. The children learned the runner's rule that vigorous exercise will make the temperature feel twenty degree warmer. Examples of my warm-up activities were:

  • Joining the Jumping Jack Club of America by doing 100 jumping jacks (jumping jacks, old though they may be, worked better than anything to warm all the extremities and the inner cores).
  • Tripping to Palm Springs was where we held our hands straight out and brought our jogging knees up to them for a few minutes.
  • Our "Rocky" workout was a great way to get our bodies warm. We ran up stairs and embankments, jogged in place, did jumping jacks, arm circles, shadow boxed, etc.
  • Our "Torture Test" consisted of different kinds of exercises being executed as vigorously as possible in a time limit of a minute or two. It was like your basic grass drill: go, go-go, front, back, push-ups
  • Jump rope challenges were another super activity that could be done in non-icy conditions.

Activities that Worked and Didn't Work
I altered my curriculum very little from what I would have normally done in a gym. Except for a few slower paced activities, the same low organization games and relays were used. As mentioned before, I was especially vigilant about keeping my explanations and demonstrations short (under a minute was my rule) and I only used everyone active games (no standing in lines or elimination games). Gymnastics, volleyball and basketball were scheduled around the coldest months but soccer, hockey, football, soft-lacrosse and even softball worked well in the cold. As with the other sports, softball can be uniquely exciting in the snow; the more of it the better. I made some minor adaptations to games and equipment such as brightly spray painting balls and bases, and shortening court and base lengths. To promote more constant activity and involvement, my sports were normally organized as a number of simultaneously played mini-games rather than one mass-on-mass game. I didn't want 10 or 15 students standing out in the field hoping for a remote chance that the ball would come to them. I have never considered that to be educationally sound but in the cold weather they would be literally frozen out of the action.

I discovered that teaching sports and games outside was generally safer than when done inside due to having more boundary separation between the multiple games. Also, it was possible to have a more small-sided games going at once.

On cold sunny days a parachute provided a fun way to exercise and warm up. We would hold the parachute low, raise it quickly, and then pull it down around us creating a dome as we sat on the inside edges. As we waited for the air to warm within the dome a' la the greenhouse effect, we played games such as "Askerk" (Everyone laughed real hard and on signal tried to be completely quiet.); made Jell-o (rocked the parachute back and forth); or played graveyard by laying perfectly quiet and still.

Our favorite activity this past year was sledding. Students whooped and hollered in excitement when they were brought out in early January. I had purchased them for about $10 apiece at a local store. We took turns pushing, pulling, riding, and racing with unbridled enthusiasm on the snow covered play field. We did this until we fell to the field in exhaustion, happy and warm inside.

What the Students Said

I surveyed the students regarding how they had liked going outside in the winter and received no negative comments or complaints. Rather than giving you my interpretation of their feelings I will let some of their written statements serve as testimonials. I must say I think some of them poetical.

  • Zach (second grade) liked sledding because "some people might not have a sled and you get to sled at school. "
  • David (fourth grade) "We have air and you can see the sky. " '`Andrew (fourth grade) "We have more space to do stuff. "
  • Matt (fourth grade) "If a ball goes real high it doesn't hit anything. "
  • Stephanie (sixth grade) liked going outside "to where the sunshine is. "

Activities Planned for Next Year

Next year, even if a giga-bond measure was passed and a new multi-everything gym was built (believe me, it will not happen), you will find my kids and me gleefully moving outside on a fairly regular basis. In addition to our usual curriculum we will be playing more Inuit games. We might have some dog sled relay races. Although you might not have heard, the next winter Olympics have been re-scheduled to the grounds immediately behind my school building. I don't know yet about the ski jumping but events resembling sprint skating, the biathlon, hockey, and the luge will be festively held.

Shipwreck has always been a favorite game for us. 1 have liked to dress up like Captain Blue Beard and order the sailors to run about the ship and to do various things like push-ups to pump the water out of the leaking ship, or to run to the center of the ship and cover up their heads so as to avoid the sharks. This winter who knows, I may become the Captain of the Titanic and be screaming things like iceberg or abandon ship. Or maybe I will be promoted to Admiral Byrd and we will have a winter survival experience on the Arctic waste fending off polar bears and who knows what else.

As you can tell, I am looking forward next year's happy hearts and happy faces, happy play in snowy places. I hope maybe you are too.

Pete Hanson is a physical education teacher at St. Patrick's Elementary School in Spokane, Wash.; Scott Melville (smelville@ewu.edu) is a professor in the Physical Education, Health and Recreation Department at Eastern Washington University, Cheney, Wash.



Title Outside this winter, it's cool! Tips for holding your physical education classes outside, even when the mercury begins to drop
Author Hanson, P.; Melville, S.
Source Strategies (Reston, Va.)
Publisher American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance
Vol/Issue 13 (3)
Date Feb/Jan 2000
SIRC Article # S-159966


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