When is it too cold for kids? Most schools say –25

·3 min read

Earlier this winter, a class of 10-year-olds was supposed to see a production of The Nutcracker during school hours, but the field trip got cancelled. It had nothing to do with the ongoing job action by teachers. It was because of the cold.

Granted, it would have required the class to walk 1.4 kilometres from their school to the venue, which Google says would have taken 18 minutes.

With windchill, it felt like –25 that day.

Turns out, that's the tipping point for many schools to cancel recess and outdoor activities.

'This is Canada'

John MacNab questions the decision to cancel outdoor play for his 10-year-old.

"They're out for 15 to 20 minutes. It's not unreasonable to bundle up a little bit and go out and get some fresh air. When it's cold, dress the part. This is Canada."

In fact, MacNab believes keeping kids inside is counterproductive.

"A lot of kids really need that physical activity to reset their brain and to help them learn," he said. "If [my son] doesn't get a little bit of physical activity between classes, he can't concentrate."

Hallie Cotnam/CBC
Hallie Cotnam/CBC

Risk of frostbite

But Melissa Hunt thinks cancelling outdoor play when it's very cold just makes sense.

"If it's too cold, they'll get frostbite. I walk to work and I get really bad frostbite if I don't put my snow pants on. If you get frostbite then that [means] hospitalization."

Hunt's eight-year-old daughter Clara was dressed warmly, but chose to stay inside for recess because "it was really cold out."

Hallie Cotnam/CBC
Hallie Cotnam/CBC

On a bitterly cold morning, Phone Phimm drives his well-bundled nine-year-old daughter Lita to school. He thinks kids are happier outside, even when it's cold.

"The kids? They like to play outside. They enjoy the weather. They're busy running around. For me, I'll stay inside, " said Phimm, who immigrated from Laos 30 years ago. Phimm wears a sheepskin hat and makes sure his snow pants are stashed in the car. "I know I can survive it for a few months."

Siamala Balakrishnan is originally from tropical Malaysia, but said she and her husband love the cold. But their young son Vishwanadh is "not a winter person," so she was happy he didn't have to go outside at recess to play.

Hallie Cotnam/CBC
Hallie Cotnam/CBC

OPH's cold protocol

Martha Robinson is the "extreme weather lead" with Ottawa Public Health, which helps school boards establish cold weather policies. Robinson says schools consider several factors, including the students' age, and whether there's protection from the wind. OPH even has a cold weather resource kit, which it offers to all boards.

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, for example, uses the OPH's threshold of –25 or colder to trigger its extreme cold protocol, which encourages principals to keep students indoors. So do the two French-language boards, and the Ottawa Catholic School Board. But ultimately, it's left to the principal's discretion.

"There's really no magic number," Robinson said. "If you're dressed properly, you can enjoy the outside. So long as children are old enough to communicate that, 'My socks are wet and it's freezing cold, I need to go in.'"

Some very young kids, "can't move around fast enough to keep warm at those temperatures. An older age group, for sure they would probably be fine."

Bonnie Allen/CBC
Bonnie Allen/CBC

Batoul Lamnawar's daughter Lara is in Grade 3. During a cold snap earlier this winter, Lara's field trip went ahead as planned, despite the cold. They walked to nearby seniors' residence.

"I was shocked when she told me that, and she walked. No bus, no nothing," Lamnawar said. "But look, she's alive. She's still in one piece, she's OK."

Lamnawar immigrated from sunny Morocco, "but I think Canadians, too, don't like the cold, because … I work with Canadians and nobody likes the cold. Nobody. We can accept –7 but not –20 and –30. That's too much."