Play like polar bears: schools build on lessons of outdoor recess

By Maggie Macintosh
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Winnipeg Free Press

ÉCOLE St-Germain is the latest to join a growing pack of elementary schools that are running “polar bear clubs” to encourage outdoor, year-round play and build resilience among young students during cold snaps.

Winnipeg school divisions typically require recess be held indoors when temperatures plunge below -27 C, with the wind chill, owing to the risk of frostbite and other safety concerns.

While blustery conditions have met that threshold in recent days, hundreds of students across the city were given the option — via special approval from senior administrators — to bundle up and venture out to their snow-covered playgrounds.

“As adults, sometimes we forget how much fun it can be in the cold,” said Cam Johnson, principal of the kindergarten-to-Grade 5 school in River Park South that launched its French immersion version (le club d’ours polaire) this week.

“(Children) enjoy being outside and it’s good to be able to give them the chance to do that, especially when we live in Winnipeg. We have to find ways to carry on, to get outside and to keep being active and enjoy the outdoors.”

In order to participate, students must have submitted a signed permission slip and arrive at school with proper winter gear, including a toque, snow pants, insulated jacket, mittens and sturdy boots.

Teachers borrow lost-and-found items and pull from classroom closets on a case-by-case basis to ensure children are dressed appropriately to spend up to 15 minutes of recess in temperatures as cold as -40 C.

There is a stark difference in energetic students’ behaviour and ability to focus when they are forced to be inside all day, said Meagan Gydé, a Grade 1 teacher who goes by “Mme. Meg” at St. Germain.

Students and staff alike benefit from knowing there’s an upcoming outdoor break, as well as the opportunity to get fresh air in and of itself, said Gydé, who proposed the start of the up-and-coming club, drawing on her previous school’s success with a similar initiative in Sage Creek.

“It sounds really grand to think, but this is the beginning of environmental stewardship,” she said. “If you love being outside and you are comfortable and familiar with being outside, then you are going to pay attention to what is happening outside.”

St. Andrews School was among the first in the province to launch a trial club. Now, more than half of the Lord Selkirk School Division’s elementary buildings have similar programs.

In Winnipeg, there are clubs located everywhere from Garden City’s Victory School to École LaVérendrye in Fort Rouge.

Many of them can be traced back to the Green Action Centre’s advocacy.

Sustainable transportation co-ordinator Ariel Desrochers said these initiatives are an entry point to get students acquainted with the preparation required to spend time outside in frigid temperatures.

“A polar bear is outside all the time, but able to keep really warm and that’s the idea for kids — to bundle up, get really cozy, get outside and enjoy being outside,” said the spokeswoman for the non-profit organization dedicated to promoting green living.

Desrochers added her hope is young participants will be more likely to consider walking to school or waiting in the cold for the bus in the future as a result of the knowledge and confidence they gain throughout the program.

What motivates Amanda Lake to take her Grade 2 students outside in blustery weather is — alongside the benefits of sunlight exposure on short winter days — the lessons she can teach them about resilience, independence and bodily autonomy.

Lake shows her young students at Sage Creek School how-to tuck their mittens into their jackets and put their hoods up, in addition to other adjustments they can make to protect themselves from frostbite and windburn.

Students often take outdoor recess opportunities to play with shovels, compete in soccer matches and go sledding, the teacher said, noting the ability to make a personal choice to stay inside or go outside based on how they’re feeling gives them a sense of power.

The popularity of École Varennes’s long-standing club has prompted students to knock on principal Amy Warriner’s door in past years when the forecast is frigid and permission slips have yet to be distributed for the year.

After a decade of overseeing the initiative in Glenlawn, Warriner said she is a huge proponent for it and would encourage interested administrators to seek out input from local parents and staff to launch their own version.

“We need to embrace the fact we live in a nordic climate and make the best of it.”