By Sarene Marshall, The Nature Conservancy
As if parenting weren’t difficult enough, our warming planet presents additional challenges for keeping kids safe and healthy – and parents sane. Why? Quite simply, it makes it harder to reliably get kids outside. As my fellow parents know well, keeping kids cooped up in the house is a recipe for disaster.
Toddlers only have two speeds – “running fast” or “fast asleep.” Maybe it’s just me, but I’d rather see them running in a park than around the kitchen table. School-aged kids also need plenty of fresh air and exercise to burn off energy. And studies have shown that contact with nature may improve kids’ ability to focus and concentrate, providing a good antidote for excessive screen time. When our daughters – 6 and 8 – get testy with each other after too much time around the house, I employ the tried-and-true technique of sending them outside.
But increasingly, getting kids away from electronics and out into nature can be stymied by weather disruptions. Summers are getting hotter, storms are getting wetter, and seasons are being thrown out of whack, with extreme events projected to occur more frequently in the future.
That’s because carbon pollution is not only warming the Earth, but also increasing erratic and weird weather. And we parents will feel the effects all year long.
While average temperature increases may seem small (the Earth has warmed 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit since the early 20th Century), the big fluctuations are difficult to manage around. Our lives – from school schedules to sports to crop cycles – are built around expected “normals,” and large shifts from those normals are incredibly disruptive, especially for kids who thrive on routines.
How might these changes impact us and our kids?
[Image: A casualty of summer heat. Credit: Flickr user Neil Fitzgerald, via a Creative Commons license.]
1. We’ll see more heat. As school students enjoy their first weeks of summer freedom, triple-digit temperatures are poised over the nation’s mid-section. For the fifth day in a row, Colorado sweltered with temperatures in the 100s, as wildfires raged northwest of Fort Collins and in Colorado Springs, and in Las Animas, the state tied an all-time high of 114. In 2011, too, there was oppressive summer heat (Texas, for example, saw over 40 days of 100-degree temps in a row). High temperatures, combined with high humidity, caused downright dangerous heat indexes. But, the heat itself is not the only danger. On the hottest days, air quality suffers as well. Young kids are much more sensitive on Code Red air days, when health advisories are issued for poor air quality. As if kids needed another excuse to be glued to the television!
Extreme heat is not confined to vacation days. Many schools and sports practices resume in August, when soaring temps can put kids at risk of overheating. And we’ve even seen unusually hot days creep deeper into autumn, making fall sports challenging as well. I recall vividly a late September day when my youngest had to endure 98 degrees on the soccer field. Little kids can’t regulate body temperature very well, and don’t necessarily think to drink water, so she and her teammates were wilting!
2. Expect more wet weather (not just in summer). Warm air holds more moisture and moisture feeds stronger storms. In the Northeast US, the heaviest rainstorms have gotten 67 percent wetter in 50 years.
In winter, too, severe storms that cause school closures, late starts, and miserable driving conditions are projected to increase. And, although storm-fed power outages may result in lots of TV-free family time, the 2010 snowmageddon in Washington, DC caused extreme 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 the cabin fever.
3. Bottom line: it’s not always easy anymore to let your kids explore nature in their school-free summer days, or send them outside when they start bouncing off the walls.
So what can a parent do?
[Image: Dangerously high temperatures. Credit: Flickr user Mr. T in DC, via a Creative Commons license.]
1. Be prepared. Get educated about weather and heat risks, and tips for keeping kids cool and hydrated, such as the pointers offered by the National Athletic Trainers Association.
2. Shift your schedule. When temps soared this March, many farmers opted for warm-weather crops rather than see their cool-weather greens wither away. Last summer, we adjusted our schedule so that our girls got to the pool early and were back inside during the hottest part of the day – playing puzzles and games, or putting on impromptu plays. Creative activities, but unfortunately less physical than what they’d be doing outdoors (like riding bikes, playing hopscotch and chasing butterflies).
4. Reduce your own contributions to the cause. Visit the Conservancy’s Carbon Calculator to learn about steps you can take that help reduce carbon your carbon footprint and keep air pollution down on the hottest days.
6. Expect the unexpected. This year, we saw almost no winter weather in the mid-Atlantic and schools ended 3 days early. Time to pull out some “rainy day” projects!
Sarene Marshall is the managing director for The Nature Conservancy’s Global Climate Change Team. She holds an MBA from the Wharton School of Business and an MA in International Studies from University of Pennsylvania, and is fluent in Spanish. Sarene, a mother of two, enjoys gardening and gourmet cooking.