After many conversations with parents and from working outdoors with children one of the biggest recurring themes is how to dress children for the outdoors, especially in the winter. As soon as there is a cold snap this is what fills Forest School Practitioners threads, you are not alone. What's the best kit? How do I get layers right? Isn't it going to cost me a fortune? Its taken me years to feel like I'm getting it right for my own children and I want to share with you what I've found works. Grab a cuppa, its a long one!
If Forest School is something you've not tried before I can understand not wanting to buy new kit straight away. I know budgets are tight and buying lots of new kit in one go can be expensive especially if you dont know how regularly you will use it. If you don't spend much time outdoors in the winter I would love just a few changes in clothing to allow you do it more regularly as a family. Not only that once you are kitted out the likelihood is you will use it for trips to the park and find you can stay outside longer with your children whatever the weather. Please don't feel like you need all the kit or you need to buy expensive brands. Its important for children to be warm and dry but you don't need to buy the most up to date technical outdoor fabrics, this is a few hours in the woods not climbing the North face of the Eiger.
I would like my sessions to be accessible to everyone and feel really strongly that children should experience different weather, coming regularly at all times of the year. If you'd like to book one of my sessions but are holding back because of clothing I always have spares you can borrow. I know that feeling of wanting to do something or go somewhere and clothing holds you back. I know only too well what a gargantuan task it can be getting children out of the house let alone kitted out for several hours in the woods. I've grabbed wellies and found my child has had a growth spurt and they dont fit. Or its raining and we have no waterproof trousers. I've been there and we've either not gone missing some much needed outdoor time or we've had a miserable time. I want your experience of going outdoors to be as stress free as possible, I am here to help in whatever way I can.
I'm sick of hearing about Scandinavian countries and how their children spend all day outside at minus 30! Ok a bit of an exaggeration but firstly they know its going to be blummin cold all winter so it's a necessary investment to even leave the house and secondly they have dry cold. This is a whole different ball game to dressing for our grey wet days where we often have 3 seasons in one day. Its a real juggling act to prepare for everything the good old British weather throws at us.
I've mentioned how I feel strongly that children experience all weathers and for me this is something that runs deep. This is not about being uncomfortable and getting on with it and far more than knowing what cold or wet weather feels like. I hope we are seeing an end to the 'man up' days and are entering an age or understanding and empathy. For me this underpins my ethos and runs through the veins of what I do. Resilience is a real buzz word in education but what does it really mean? To me its that fighting spirit. It's the not being afraid to fail or get something wrong, the determination to jump back on the horse and keeping at it until you succeed. The number of times I see children giving up at the first hurdle is more common than not as is the parent that sweeps in and takes over. This is one of my frustrations in running sessions but of course I do it to my children too. Its often easier, quicker and less frustrating for everyone. Contrary to popular belief Forest School is far more than learning to light fires, playing with sticks and mud its about teaching children transferable life skills, building confidence and self esteem. Here children don't get everything done for them. They are given responsibility, trust and freedom. The support children receive and are encouraged to give to others though personal challenges and risky play builds confidence and resilience. It is incredible how quickly I see children adapting and more able to give things ago. We all have a fear of failure at some point but how would we learn anything if we got things right every time. The weather is something that is challenging but it's a step too far when children aren't dressed appropriately. They cannot engage when their needs are not met.
On a recent Saturday club session there was a child that found a rainy day particularly challenging and didn't enjoy the session as much as usual. But the conversations we had were really important and rang true for other areas in their life. We spoke about how I saw at times it was hard but how I was impressed how they dug deep and carried on. She expressed her emotions and the group helped her though. I know next time something is challenging there will be experiences such as this to draw upon and they will have more grit to get through it. It's been done before, there'll be more self belief and during session we know each other better to recognise it, talk about it and positively move forward.
If you want your children to be happy outdoors they need to be dressed appropriately. If you want to enjoy being outdoors with your children you also need to be dressed appropriately. So how is it done...…..?
I can't stress enough how important layers are. Think of it as 3 layers: a base Layer, mid layer and outer layer. Layers won't work if they are tight and too may layers will cause restricted movement and be frustrating. Your body warms up the air which gets trapped between your clothes keeping you warm. If the layers are too tight then there is no room for warm air to be trapped and you won't get the advantage of layering. This is particularly noticeable with boots. More socks are not always better if you then cram boots on. You also need to be aware of your child's temperature. If they are really active remove layers, you will find as they get older they will chuck them off. You want to try and avoid sweating as this can cause them to get cold when they stop.
Layer 1: Thermal base layer
The gold standard is a merino base layer but you will pay
more for them. Mountain warehouse have been a good middle of the road brand that I've always been happy with the quality of. I've not tried any of the Scandinavian brands for baselayers. Polarn O Pyret are widely available, good quality but you are paying designer prices. We are currently wearing Decathlon base layers which I'm pretty happy with. There is a range of prices with childrens tops starting at £2.50 and adults from £3.99 and more for merino. TKMax often have skiing gear that is also worth a look but is more hit and miss what they have in stock. Alternatively what have you already got? Leggings or thick tights and a
long sleeved t-shirt will make a more than adequate base layer.
Layer 2: Mid layer
You don't need to buy anything special for the mid layer. This doesn't need to be any more complicated than trousers, a long sleeved t-shirt, warm socks and a warm jumper or fleece that you don't mind getting grubby. If it is really cold I always put my boys in a wool jumper and lined trousers. I've found H&M's lined trousers to be good value and warm.
Layer 3: Outer layer
This is something I no longer skimp on after having cheap ones fail or not last. Please buy with how much your going to use them and your budget in mind. We use a waterproof coat and dungarees all year round. They not only form the outer wind and waterproof layer but I think of them as overalls. My boys can roll down any hill and I don't have to worry about washing muddy clothes which I believe shouldn't be something that concerns children or inhibits play. I recommend either all in one suits or waterproof dungarees instead of trousers. You will find mud finds its way inside trousers when slipping down slopes or sitting in puddles! Look for fleece lined waterproofs for the winter or buy an all in one fleece for underneath. We'll get on to going to toilet trips later!
There are lots of brands out there but here are some of my favourites. My boys both have Didrickson Slaskeman jacket and dungaree sets. The galon fabric feels rubberised but moves really well, is 100% waterproof and really hard wearing. This set is unlined so if its really cold I layer with a Mountain Warehouse padded jacket. I find this gives versatility so we can remove or put layers back on as needed but it also sees us through all seasons and weather. For my youngest we have a second hand Spotty Otter Patrol II fleece lined suit for the colder months. This is an expensive brand but in my opinion one of the best, designed brilliantly and is incredibly hard wearing. Muddy Puddles also have some great kit which is worth a look. I particularly like their puddleflex fabic. Surprisingly Lidl do really good quality waterproofs at really good prices. The downside is they tend to only have them in a couple of times a year and they sell out in days. They have fleece lined waterproof dungarees for £5.99 and coats for £7.99! As luck would have it they are in store this week starting on 17th January. Otherwise a really good option is to buy second hand. I have bought lots of brilliant outdoor gear from ebay.
Caring for your gear
Life is too short to wash waterproofs regularly and it doesn't do them any good. If like me you have mud monsters who like to sit in puddles my best advice is to hang waterproofs on the washing line and spray off with a hose. If you have a rubberised type fabric there is no reproofing involved. For a general wash when more than spraying with the hose is needed for all fabrics use something gentle like soap nuts or an eco friendly washing detergent. For fabrics such as those used by Spotty Otter they may need reproofing. A tumble dry might be all that is needed to help revitalise the waterproof surface. If you do put waterproofs in the washing machine never use fabric softener. It gets into the pores of the fabric and the water shedding ability will be lost. For a very occasional reproof wash with Nikwax Tech Wash and to reproof use TX.direct. Always check the advice from the manufacturer before you wash.
Gloves, hat, snood
Gloves also need to be waterproof. There are few things more miserable than cold wet gloves and knitted ones just dont cut it. Buy a fully waterproof ski glove or we are currently wearing Didrickson fleece lined mittens. Mitts are so much easier to get on little hands especially if they are cold. Be warned these go up to the elbows. We put them on before the jacket and are impossible for your child to get off!
You lose a lot of heat out of your head and a good hat is essential. You can fork out for a waterproof lined hat or you can go with what you've got and put your hood up. Snoods are also a great addition for kids. Scarves are bulky and dangle in whatever your child bends down to look at but a snood just stays where it is and can be pulled over the face on really cold windy days.
This is the trickiest item of your outdoor gear. Wellies are cold in winter but necessary if puddles are your child's thing. Its miserable having cold feet and really hard to get little ones moving when they get cold. Wellies have no insulation and just cause feet to be cold and clammy which is a vicious cycle. I am yet to find the perfect solution. We are seeing more lined wellies coming on the market but in my experience they don't cut it when warmth is really needed. If you go down this route look for ones with a thermal lining. Wellies a size too big with a thick pair (or two thin pairs) of socks and thermal liners are a good option that will see you through all seasons. It is also worth considering thermal insoles if there is enough room in the boot. My children wear snow boots when its really cold but we often end up with wet feet and my youngest hasn't quite got the puddle depth concept and always goes in too far!
My next port of call is neoprene wellies, they have been the warmest wellies I've ever had and I used to live in mine all winter when I managed wetland nature reserves. There are a few options for children now. I hear muck boots are good but with feet that grow so fast we cannot justify the cost. I've just discovered neoprene wellies from The Warm Wellie Company but can't recommend them as we've not put them through their paces yet. Outdoor preschool Little Forest Folk recommend them and that's good enough for me to give them a whirl! If you use code TWFS10 you will get 10% off. There are lots of sizes currently out of stock but they assured me they will be ready to order by the start of February.
When is cold cold?
Well I guess you know how cold it is when you go outside and its cold! I'm not going to put an air temperature on what cold is as its different for all of us. What I will say is wind and rain is a big factor. A damp day always feels colder than a dry day and somehow gets into your bones. Its also really important to know your child. I have one boy who runs hot like me and another who is often cold. I dress them differently. Or should I say they usually go out with similar layers on but my eldest starts taking hat, snood and coat off pretty quickly! Layers are really important and it depends if you are moving around lots or more sedentary. I definitely try and have more physical sessions in the winter with more games to keep children moving. I always take a flask of hot chocolate. There is nothing more warming than wrapping your hands around a warm drink on a cold day, a hug in a mug. And nothing like a fire to lift the spirits.
I couldn't write an article about clothing without talking about how you manage toilet trips! My best advice is make sure they go to the loo before you go out. There is the obvious difference between boys and girls and my eldest has mastered the stand up wee in waterproofs. He can undo the straps and pull his waterproof dungarees down. It took a while and we had many occasions where we had to wipe wee off his waterproofs! Our youngest boy has started potty training this week. I'll let you know how it goes! My eldest potty trained in the summer so this is pastures new for us but at the moment we are pulling down waterproofs and trousers then picking him up in a sitting position to wee between his legs. This also works brilliantly for girls or you can give them some help squatting to start with but will also soon get the hang of it. Just make sure they get in the habit of holding any straps out of the way! As with everything practice makes perfect.
That's the kids sorted, but these rules also apply to you too. Its wonderful to see parents lose their inhibitions and get right in the thick of it. We all need to play and what better way to teach our kids than to model appropriate behaviour. Don't go home early because you are cold and not enjoying it. Or huddle together trying to shelter from the rain. Your child will probably follow suit. Children don't notice the rain when we all get on with it but they do if we behave negatively towards it. If you also have waterproof coat and trousers you will be more up for sliding down that hill on your bum with them!
Not being one for inspirational quotes I can't quite help but to end on a famous quote from a man of the Lakeland Fells who knew a thing or two about the British weather.
So here's to more muddy winter adventures for all the family whatever the weather!