As my fellow parents of little kids know all too well, keeping them cooped up in the house is a recipe for disaster. I was once told that toddlers, in particular, only operate on two speeds – “running fast or fast asleep.” Personally, I found it preferable (and more effective) to have them doing that running in a park than around the kitchen.
School-aged kids, too, need fresh air and exercise to burn off their excessive energy or blow off steam. And studies have shown that contact with nature may improve kids’ ability to focus and concentrate. When our daughters – ages 5 and 7 – get testy with each other after too much together-time around the house, I employ the tried-and-true technique of sending them outside.
But lately, it seems our efforts to get kids away from electronics and out into nature, can often be stymied by various weather disruptions. With our warming planet comes an increased likelihood of weird and extreme weather. And we parents are feeling the acute effects all year long, making climate change not only a major societal issue, but also a parent’s worst nightmare.
In the winter, we can expect more severe snow storms, cold snaps and other winter weather that cause school closures, late starts, and generally miserable conditions for getting around. Despite lots of TV-free bonding as the result of power outages, the snowmageddon that hit Washington, DC in 2010 (the type of severe snow storm that we can expect more of) caused an extreme case of stir craziness in our house. Even a long hike to the nearest sledding hill – necessitated by impassable roads and a dead car battery – did not completely erase my family’s cabin fever.
This summer, we’ve had to deal with the challenges of absolutely stifling heat in most parts of the United States. Temperatures, combined with humidity levels, have caused heat indexes that are downright dangerous. In fact, in July, each state broke at least one all-time temperature record for at least one day of the month.
On Planet Change, we had a July 22 open thread asking our readers to share how hot it was where they were. In Washington D.C. that day, temperatures reached 105 degrees (one degree off the all-time record high), and the Potomac River was recorded at 96 degrees (a record high)!
But, no state has suffered more this summer than Texas. Yes, we expect it to be hot in Texas, but Austin broke its record for most 100-degree days in a row (22) and Dallas-Forth Worth came within two days of tying their record (42).
Heat waves have happened before, but these extended events are projected to occur more frequently in the future as the planet continues to warm. While average temperature increases may seem small and gradual (the Earth has warmed about 1.3 degrees F this century), the fluctuations around those averages may prove to be increasingly erratic and extreme.
Our lives – whether it’s school schedules, recreation activities, or crop cycles – are built around expected “normals.” Deviations from those normals are incredibly disruptive, especially for kids who thrive on routines.
For example, here in Washington, many students participating in year-end field trips were hospitalized when heat spiked above 100 degrees in early June, even ahead of the official start of summer.
But, the heat itself is not the only dangerous issue for little ones. On these extremely hot days, air quality usually suffers, as well. Young kids, like the elderly, are much more sensitive on Code Red air days when health advisories are issued for poor air quality.
So, it’s no longer as simple as letting your kids explore nature in their school-free summer days, or sending them outside when they start bouncing off the walls like pinballs in the dog days of summer. Our family has had to change our summer schedule so that my two girls can get to the pool when it opens at 9am and be back inside during peak hot hours. Rather than lots of bike-riding, we’ve had to play more puzzles and games, and the girls have put on more indoor performances this summer.
Now, with kids heading back to school, the impacts of more extreme heat will continue. For the past couple of weeks, for example, high school football players have been going through their “two-a-days” on practice fields across the country. Programs will want to embrace the motto of Stan Laing, athletic director in the San Antonio Northside School District, who says, “When in doubt, set ‘em out.” In other words, taking water breaks in the shade, or letting kids cool down if they are feeling overheated, isn’t a case of being soft on athletes, but of being safe.
As the potential for 90+ temperatures creep deeper and deeper into the autumn months, other fall and spring sports are being challenged as well. Last fall, my youngest (who was four) had to endure unseasonable weather when it reached 98 degrees on the soccer field in late September. Not surprisingly, she and her teammates were wilting! Little kids can’t regulate body temperature as well as older kids and adults, and they don’t necessarily think to drink water. There’s a reason soccer is not a summer sport in Virginia – it’s too hot.
So, what can be done to combat this heat and ensure your kids are safe?
• Make sure your kids have plenty of water during outdoor activities and consult the National Athletic Trainers’ Association recently released tips for protecting against intense heat during exercise.
• Keep your kids indoors during peak hours of hot days.
• Keep window shades drawn during the day and consider installing UV coating for your windows.
• Avoid contributing to poor air quality by not idling your car during school pick-ups and by not mowing your lawn on the hottest days.
• Limit cooking on the hottest days by opting for salads and other cold meals featuring in-season produce.
• Plant trees! Trees provide shade and also help reduce the heat island effect in cities.
• Reduce your personal contribution to global warming by lowering your carbon footprint. Get started by visiting the Conservancy’s Carbon Calculator and learning about steps you can take.
Sarene Marshall is director of The Nature Conservancy’s global climate change program.
Photo by flickr user moyerphotos (“Pouring water on head”). Used under a Creative Commons license.
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