In many parts of the world, summer is synonymous with holidays and hours of uninterrupted outdoor play. We read about summer time in books and watch movies where children spend all day riding bikes and swimming in clear lakes. But in Australia summer is different. Australia is a country of extremes. And it’s rarely more extreme than in the summer months when temperatures in parts of the country push 45 degrees celsius.
So if you’re a parent with young children and you want your child to have an active, outdoor life, what can you do? How can you survive the heat with kids?
Before we answer the question, we need to change our mindset. While summer might be the best time for outdoor play in places like North America and Scandinavia, in Australia it is our most tricky season. We’re not likely to be kept inside by snow days or blizzards, but there will be times when hot weather, dangerous conditions and high UV levels force our kids inside, and that’s ok.
Actually winter, when the sun is shining, and the UV is low is the perfect time for all-day outdoor adventures. Even overcast Australian days tend to be mild, so committing to getting outside through out the rest of the year, whatever the weather, and not relying on summer as a golden time for outdoor play, is the important first step.
But what do you actually do in summer when temperatures start rising?
First, you need to establish a new summer rhythm. In our family, we get up early to play but stay inside between 10 am and 2 pm, to avoid the worst of the heat. If you do that, there are then two modes of summer, the indoor summer and the outdoor summer, and within those modes, we can make some choices that will help us make the most of those hot days.
Here are my tips.
1. Get out early and stay out late.
If you can organise rest time and naps around the middle of the day then you can make the most of the cool mornings and evenings.
2. Stay safe.
Australia has one of the highest skin cancer rates in the world. So being sun safe is extremely important. Invest in good sun protection—hats, long sleeve shirts, a sunscreen you love, sunglasses and a beach umbrella or shelter. Store these items by the front door or in the car, so they’re always ready when you're heading out.
And don’t leave them at home on overcast days. UV levels can be high even when it doesn’t feel hot and sunny. The Cancer Council’s SunSmart app provides an hour by hour forecast of UV and gives advice as to when sun protection is needed.
3. Find some shade.
When choosing a place to play outside, prioritise shade. Parks and playgrounds differ greatly when it comes to how many trees and shady areas they have. This is the time of year to travel a little further so you can find one with the right amount.
Keep in mind that natural shade, provided by trees and vegetation, is far better than shade cloths, because plants transpire, and this can cool the air by as much as ten degrees. The playground surfaces also have an effect on the overall temperature of a space, manmade surfaces like soft fall and concrete are much hotter than mulch and grass.
4. Play with water.
There’s a reason most preschools have water trays or tables. All that running, jumping, lifting, tipping and splashing children do when playing with water is developing their gross and fine motor skills.
A beach or river is the best place for water play. But if you don’t have access to those natural spaces (and your council doesn’t have water restrictions), then water play can easily be replicated in a backyard or on a balcony. A tub of water, a couple of buckets or cups and a small watering can provides hours of fun.
Simple activities like running under the sprinkler or watering the garden are great ways to keep kids cool. And you can switch up the evening bath routine by using a tub in the backyard.
5. Pack a picnic.
Snacks that have a high water content--like watermelon, cucumber and berries--are great for kids in summer. Flasks can hold ice and will keep drinking water cold even on the hottest days. And here’s a tip, if you add some ice bricks to your picnic then wrap the whole thing in an old woollen jumper or blanket (100% wool works best) it will keep things ice cold. Wool is much more effective than plastic cooler bags. With this trick, I’ve even been able to take homemade ice cream to the beach and keep it frozen.
We often think of picnics being a lunchtime activity, but in summer, breakfast and dinner picnics are better. And remember you don’t always have to cook—sandwiches and smoothies are a perfect summer midweek meal.
Even with all those useful tips, in Australia, a significant chunk of our kid’s summer will still be spent indoors. But don’t lose heart, indoor time can still be active and fun.
6. Limit screen time.
While there’s nothing wrong with a bit of screen time every now and then, if we’re turning the TV on every afternoon when the weather forces our kids indoors, they are missing out on other experiences that are better for them.
Colouring, painting, playing with blocks, building things out of boxes, play dough and dress ups all provide better opportunities for learning and development. Inviting friends over to play is the simplest way to make indoor play more fun and exciting.
When it’s really hot, after children have been outside to play, they will need a rest. Nothing beats curling up under a fan and reading, but children’s podcasts and audiobooks are also a great substitute for television, and many are available for free through the ABC Kid’s Listen App or your local library.
8. Use someone else's air-conditioning.
We’ve all done it, a really hot day has sent us running to the local air-conditioned cinema or shopping centre. But remember libraries, art galleries and museums are also air-conditioned and many provide classes and activities for children throughout the year.
9. More water play.
Indoor swimming pools are a great option on a hot day because kids can stay active and cool at the same time. For older kids, indoor ice-rinks and rock climbing centres are a healthier choice than the movies, and can be a great option when the budget allows it.
Finally, in all this, it helps to remember that summer is a season. And it will pass. Go easy on yourself and don’t let the hot weather dampen your attempts to give your kids an active, outdoor childhood.
If you're looking for more inspiration check out this post about how one family plays outside throughout the year in Darwin, NT, where average monthly temperatures sit at around 30 degrees celsius.
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