Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Outdoor Space in Winter
A parody of Goodnight Moon
After last week's detour, back to the promised topic of conversation, outdoor spaces. Pediatric researchers assert children today spend too much time indoors[1] with potential negative consequences of foregone outdoor play ranging from obesity to ADHD to myopia.[2] A potentially detrimental amount of time for children (and likely parents) instead is dedicated to watching TV, playing video and virtual games, and even just working non-stop via a computer, smartphone or tablet. The research and  literature strongly support children spending time outdoors every day and limiting screen time.[3] Given how important outdoor time is to a healthy lifestyle and the perception that urban dwellers lack outdoor access, I will post about this topic throughout the year, at each season, starting today with winter.

The Weather Outside is Frightful


January is ending but I know it is the middle of winter because I feel stir crazy. My default advice to anyone new to the northeast this time of year is to embrace an outdoor sport or prepare for a long season indoors. Having fun outdoors has been tough for me this year given my pregnant and now postpartum states; no skiing or ice skating yet. It has been so cold though, most people I know have been hibernating even without these mitigating factors. In this respect, life in the suburbs and city are not particularly different when it comes to outdoor space in the winter. Outdoor classes, events and public spaces exist in both settings, if you can handle the cold.[4] Before addressing the outdoor opportunities in Boston, I must mention the one huge difference from the suburbs and the elephant in the room: city dwellers have little or no private outdoor space.

Private Outdoor Spaces

Private outdoor space (i.e., a deck or yard) is an amenity not particularly missed by this Boston urban dweller in the winter. In fact, come winter, I feel that the city wins over the suburbs as we do not need to pack up and store our lawn and deck furniture and grill. We do not have large driveways and sidewalks to shovel or pay someone to plow. None of us own an expensive snow blower, let alone worry about storing it in our garage. For our family, living in a building, we do not shovel at all, ever, and we certainly realize economies of scale in that many units' condo fees fund the minimal shoveling that is contracted by our building. But does no yard or a small yard mean no snowmen, snow ball fights, snow angels or running around trying to catch snowflakes on your tongue? This question leads me to the next topic.

Public Outdoor Spaces

After our first date in December 2007, as my now husband and I were walking home, I spontaneously flopped down in the snow in Boston Common to make a snow angel. A snowball fight ensued, and six years later I am writing about our family life. Parks downtown are plentiful, accessible and offer many winter amenities. It is as easy to build a snowman or snow angel in the park as in a backyard. Sure I would not send my children out alone to the park, but I would not send my toddler out by herself anyway. Even if she were older, I do not want to always send my children out alone to play – I want to be there playing too or simply watching them play. Spending time with my children is a blessing, not a burden, and one that I might not enjoy if I had that yard and could send them out to play alone while I washed dishes or paid bills. This is another win for the city in my estimation. Luckily for my little ones we spend enough time out of town visiting friends and families with yards that they do and will continue to have the opportunity to play on their own as well. There is enjoying time with your kids and then there is helicopter parenting.

Children's Museum waterfront sledding
One of my favorite things to do together though is sledding. When I was growing up, I never had a hill in my backyard. Thus to go sledding we had to walk or drive somewhere else. This is not any different than in the city where you need to walk or take the T to a park with a hill for sledding. I walk with my daughter to a little slope on the Fort Point channel next to the Children’s Museum. I also keep thinking we should try the hills at Castle Island. For bigger kids in need of larger hills other locations include:
  • Flagstaff Hill on Boston Common,
  • The Bowl in Boston next to Jamaica Pond,
  • Weld Hill at Arnold Arboretum, at the corner of Walter and South streets in Roslindale with parking on South street and various side streets, or
  • Dorchester Park off Adams Street in Dorchester.
See 40 Great Places to Sled Around Boston for other suburban sledding locations. Additionally, if I lived in the suburbs and had a backyard, I doubt it would have an ice skating rink or a carousel. Downtown Boston this year we have not only Frog Pond but also the new Winter on the Wharf rink under the rotunda of the Boston Harbor Hotel. Horse and carriage rides from Faneuil Hall are another outdoor year-round favorite of our equestrian-inclined daughter. In fact we all celebrated New Years Eve 2013 in part with a carriage ride with friends. Until New Years, the Greenway Carousel is open on the weekends and select special days. Outdoor ice skating is also available at the Kelly Skating Rink run by the DCR in Jamaica Plain. 

Outdoor Classes

Bostonians love the Bruins but going to an arena is not the same a being outdoors. Outdoor classes including ice skating lessons are just as accessible for Bostonians as suburbanites. The Skating Academy holds outdoor classes at Frog Pond and indoors at many other rinks. Cross country and alpine skiing opportunities, though not on par with Colorado’s, are as nearby as Blue Hills. Want to thrill your kids with both a train ride and skiing? Take the Fitchburg commmuter rail to Wachusett Mountain on Saturdays and Sundays during ski season; here is how. I see people snow shoeing in the common and group snow shoeing and cross country skiing events advertised at nearby reservations (e.g., Ipswich). 

Outdoor Events

Watching the building of a First Night ice sculpture
Another perk for urban families during the winter is the myriad of special events occurring outdoors in the city every holiday and winter season. See the Boston Park and Recreation Department on Twitter @BostonParksDept or Facebook for mostly free city-sponsored events like free ice skating lessons and outdoor winter photography classes for all ages. Over the holiday season, Christmas tree and general Christmas lighting ceremonies occur from Macy’s to Copley to Boston Common to Faneuil Hall and Columbus Park. There seems to be an outdoor celebration almost every night in December, and January kicks off with the indoor and outdoor First Night celebration. This year’s Frozen Fenway provided another unique outdoor setting for watching outdoor winter sports and sledding in the park. The annual Chinese New Year’s Parade coming up early February is still another opportunity to take the family outside for some fun in the winter. BU holds Public Open Nights at their Observatory year round for stargazing every Wednesday weather-permitting.

What are your favorite outdoor events during winter in the city? Please comment below to share your ideas. Also, as I come across new information, I am continuing to update prior posts to maintain them as up-to-date resources. Please comment or let me know if you have anything to add at any point.  As I am quite sleep deprived the days, feedback on grammatical issues is welcome and appreciated too.

Coming Soon

Next week I will address crime in the city. The first burglary in our building occurred earlier this week and yesterday's headlines featured lead stories about the spike in fatal shootings in Boston. I will explore the facts and why the city is not necessarily as unsafe as it may appear. Since it is winter and we are spending more time indoors, the following weeks will include tips for living with children in a small space as well as outdoor winter gear for moms, dads and little ones in the city.

[1] Researchers Warn Kids Don't Get Enough Outdoor Playtime.
[2] See More Time Outdoors May Reduce Kids' Risk for Nearsightedness, American Academy of Ophthalmology.
[3] See literature review at Health Benefits, National Wildlife Federation.
[4]As a public health nerd, I would like to note that with wind chill little ones often need to stay inside or be appropriately dressed for short outdoor play sessions with breaks to warm up.


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