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Ideas for Outside Fun Minus the Sun
After Summer packs her flip-flops and waves good-bye for her trip south, Drizzle and BFF Cold arrive. Meanwhile, my toddler Gabi is climbing everything in the house, dumping bins everywhere and generally behaving like a monkey in a zoo. I have schlepped her to indoor play spaces and elbowed through the crowds of parents supervising their own rowdy toddlers, while wondering if that child’s cough is residual or contagious. Gabi takes a bite of the play food and I know I’ll find out in a couple days. Our indoor play spaces in the Portland metro area are wonderful and stimulating, but not always practical for daily exercise.
The answer? Take them outside, in the rain, in the drizzle, in the cold. In his book “The Happiest Toddler on the Block,” Dr. Harvey Karp writes, “Toddlers thrive on outdoor play. Little cave-kids who don’t get to roam the jungle (your backyard or park) two or three times a day often get unbearably grumpy.” It’s beneficial for older kids, too. They may not tear your house up, but that excess energy can turn your sweet tweens into grouches.
First, I have to turn off the voice in my head that says, “What? You’re going out there!? In that? They’ll catch their death out there.” I’ve also had to ignore the same incredulity from my husband (at first) and even strangers. We all know that colds come from viruses (not weather), but old ways of thinking are pervasive. It may actually be safer to visit outdoor play spaces, where people are more spread out and residual viruses are subjected to the elements. All it takes to be comfortable in the wet weather is the right gear and the right attitude.
Water-resistant coat. A flexible, lightweight jacket. Traditional plastic raincoats keep kids dry, but they’re not as conducive to climbing, swinging or running. After about fifteen minutes of playing, my kids usually refuse to wear them. Go for a nylon, sport/outdoor jacket instead.
Rain pants. A lightweight nylon works great. Look for a pair with elastic or Velcro bands at the bottom. A tight fit around the ankle will keep upward moving water out (think of sliding down a wet slide or puddle stomping). One point of caution — we call rain pants “rocket pants” because a wet slide mixed with wet rain pants can send your kids shooting down the slide at a surprising velocity. Make sure to offer braking assistance at the bottom of slides.
Footwear. Some kids are comfortable running, climbing and playing in rain boots, but my kids have never warmed up to them. For puddle-stomping excursions, my girls do insist on rain boots, because they make the best splashes. But for all other play, regular sneakers or aquatic shoes that drain easily are their top choice. Yep, I let their feet get wet, provided the temperature is well above freezing. With dry legs and trunks, they usually stay warm enough to have a long, fun play session. Also, lightweight, flexible shoes generally provide better grip on playground equipment, and are easier for running and climbing.
There are wonderful waterproof shoes for kids, but be prepared for a hefty sticker price, and due to splashing intensity they may still end up wet inside. Instead, consider stocking up on second-hand sneakers for muddy, wet fun.
Some kids abhor wet feet, so be open and flexible for whatever footwear is right for yours.
Dry socks. Bring an extra pair of socks and a pair of slip-on shoes for post play. My kids barely notice their wet feet during playtime, but complain the moment it’s over.
Old towels. Stash old towels in your car and by your front door. You’ll need them.
Shoe dryer. Our moist climate makes the wait for shoes to air-dry intolerably long for daily excursions in the wet.
Layers. Another benefit of thin shell-style raincoats and rain pants is the layer-up flexibility. Layering tee-shirts, long-sleeved shirts and sweatpants under their rain gear keeps kids warm without the lumpy bulk of insulated coats. They can also shed interior layers as they warm up from exertion. And you can benefit from maximum flexibility—warm and wet: fewer layers; cold and wet: add layers; snowy: more layers still.
Rainy Day Fun
City parks. Portland’s ample city parks are usually sparsely populated on rainy days, especially on weekdays, and can offer a whole new play experience. Steer kids toward puddles rather than away, and watch them light up with wonder.
Bubbles. Dig out the oversized bubble wand and make bubbles in the rain. Your kids can pretend to be dragon slayers, spaceship fighter pilots, or fairy catchers as they chase and pop the bubbles. Bubbles often land safely on wet concrete, making an alien city to explore or crush under Godzilla feet. Empty park fountains and basketball and tennis courts are excellent places to play bubbles when the grass is too soggy for running.
Sidewalk chalk. Drawing on sidewalks is a whole new experience in the rain.
Puddle hunt. Explore your yard or neighborhood park looking for the biggest puddles, then see who can make the biggest splash. If you can’t find any puddles, engineer your own by damming up a trickle with sticks, rocks and leaves — then stomp away. Just be sure to clean up the dam before leaving.
Operation worm rescue. Rescue wayward worms from sidewalks and parking lots by picking them up and escorting them to the nearest grassy spot or home to your garden. A plastic fork is a great worm-lifting tool. Teach your kids to be gentle and to wish the worms well as they’re sent on their way.
Kite flying. Kites are fantastic energy drains as they usually require running to keep them aloft. For kite flying, we frequent empty paved spaces such as park fountains, artificial turf soccer fields, basketball courts and parking lots.
Nature Walk. Your favorite summer hikes are fun in the rain too, complete with a whole new ecosystem to explore. The gastropods are out in force, cruising under the safety of the cloud layer and ambient moisture. Furry four-legged and winged friends are often drawn out by the lack of people on the trail. Find a hike with a bridge over water, and invite your toddler to collect leaves, sticks and rocks in a toy bucket to drop in the water; a simple game that has kept my kids engaged for an inordinate amount of time. Orchard Park, Noble Woods Park, Jackson Bottom Wetlands (Hillsboro), Balch Creek Trail and Tryon State Park (Portland) are good places to play this game. And a bonus: there’s usually parking available on wet days.
Cookie Walk. After being cooped up all day at home or school, we love gearing up for a cookie walk to the neighborhood market. The wind, cold and sideways rain make a routine walk an adventure. Help kids make a treasure map and seal it in a gallon freezer bag before setting out.
Sports. A day outside with your family (and perhaps a few friends) in the rain and mud, playing football, soccer or even just tag is sure to star among your children’s favorite childhood memories — and might become a favorite of yours, too.
Without a doubt, outdoor play every day is good for kids, but it’s good for us grown-ups, too. We benefit from the fresh air and exercise, and natural light is a mood lifter. Portland features roughly nine months of wet and gloom. Embrace it, explore it, love it the way you love all the other aspects of our home. Try it and I promise your happiness will increase at least as much as your laundry pile.