The vitamin D dilemna
A November 2009 study published in Pediatrics indicates that millions of kids between the ages 1 and 11 aren't getting enough vitamin D, a vitamin aptly called the "sunshine vitamin"
because the body actually produces its own vitamin D upon exposure to the sun. Rebecca P Cohen, founder of Rebecca Plants LLC and spokesperson for the newly launched National Wildlife Federation
Be Out There campaign, has the answer to the vitamin D deficiency: Get your kids out of the house. Though winter does have fewer hours of sunlight, getting outside when the sun is shining
can help increase vitamin D production -- for the whole family.
Supplements are still recommended: New vitamin D requirements for kids
Get over the dread of being cold
Cohen, a mom who spends time with her kids outside every day, says the thought of the first step outside in winter seems to be the biggest barrier for families -- parents, in particular --
to enjoy the playground of activities the chilly season has to offer. The key is to get over the dread and dress warm. "I do not like to be cold, but once bundled up and out there, my family
starts playing all of the other games we enjoy when the weather is warm: tag, soccer, football, baseball," she explains. "When we take a daily walk, within 15 minutes we're warmed
Embrace the outdoors -- even when its chilly
Heading into the wintry weather is a boon for keeping the family fit during the cold season as well as for giving your kids a chance to burn off their seemingly boundless energy. On days when the
weather isn't dangerously inclement, simply do the activities you enjoy doing at other times of the year (though swimming outdoors is not recommended!). For example, if you are an
avid biker -- or your family bikes together -- during the summer and fall, don't let winter deter you. "As long as it's not snowing or icy, go for a bike ride – just adjust
your bike helmets to fit a hat underneath and head out," advises Cohen.
In regards to your kids, chances are they are chomping at the bit to get outside. The outdoor lifestyle expert encourages letting them have fun outside (dressed warmly, of course).
"My older son used to love running around with his big dump truck in the snow before pre-school," Cohen fondly recalls. "Sometimes the promise of 15 minutes outside before school
gets your kids to get ready faster and help with the morning routine."
Outdoor winter activities benefit the whole family
Playing board games while a blizzard is roaring outside is certainly beneficial in keeping your family safe and giving you quality time together, but many families opt to tune in to the computer or
television and forgo the family bonding. Cohen is quick to stress that family time outside is healthy for the family as a whole on many levels.
"Research has shown that time outside improves a child's ability to concentrate in school, reduces aggression, and improves levels of vitamin D, without which could lead to problems
like heart disease and diabetes," she explains. "I also like to get outside in winter with my family because it keeps us active and brings us closer together."
Cohen suggests walks in the early evening as a way nurture family bonding. "Although it gets darker earlier in winter, the kids don't have to stay up late to see the stars; it's
fun to take walks with flashlights and battery-operated glow sticks at night," the outdoor advocate says. "At a very practical level, taking a walk with my family in winter is my
default answer when we need something to do and keeps my kids from picking on one another. They are instantly best friends, and we tend to explore longer and find new paths because there
aren't spider webs and heavy brush in the way."
Winter lends itself to wonderful discoveries of nature
Summer sunrises and sunsets tend to get all the glory, but winter's dawns and dusks are equally as captivating. "I love to watch sunrises and sunsets in winter – you can usually
get a better view with the leaves off the trees," says Cohen. "When I started noticing winter sunrises, my kids started noticing them too, and they would run to find me and share that
moment together; what a great way to start the day!"
Here are some of Cohen's suggestions to discover the natural wonders of winter:
- Take advantage of the trees that lose their leaves in the winter; countess nests and holes where animals may live are finally visible.
- On your walk, look for animal tracks or scat in the mud or snow.
- When driving in your car, have the kids look out the window for hawks perched high in trees or on wires, looking below for prey.
- Place a bird feeder in front of where you eat meals; it will provide for a lot of family-time conversation.
- Make a point to get outside in the early evening to view the starry skies and beautiful moons; look for your moon shadows and take notice of the lunar changes that occur.
Winter safety tips for outdoor activities
Every season requires specific safety precautions to prevent weather-related injury and illness. With winter, families need to be aware of the dangers of hyperthermia, icy walkways, and getting
lost in the dark. Cohen suggests:
Dress warm. Cohen strongly recommends dressing in layers to keep warm. "If you can, invest in performance fabrics or non-cotton long underwear that wicks away sweat and
waterproof outerwear, such as boots, hooded jacket, pants, and gloves.
Be consistent with family rules. "Be clear with your kids before an activity about your rules," advises Cohen. "I'm very specific with my kids
about where they can play or run ahead on a trail so I can see them. The more consistent I am about telling them my rules up front, the more they have a chance to follow them and for me to feel
Don't leave home without being prepared. Cohen says, "Keep with you what helps you feel prepared, whether it be a cell phone in case of an emergency or a first aid kit
in the car or in your backpack." The outdoor lifestyle expert also suggests packing snacks and drinks, especially for longer outings.
Next page: Tips for bringing nature indoors