Making Sure Everyone Has Warm Clothes for Outdoor Education

A selection of warm winter clothing items

I find that my students love outdoor education and I love providing opportunities for them to get outside and learn. However, one major challenge that I often encounter is making sure that everyone has warm clothes for outdoor education. There are various reasons why students may not come prepared for outdoor ed or outdoor learning. For example, maybe they forgot their ski pants at home or maybe they lost their mitts. Perhaps a family is new to your area and doesn’t yet have the clothing that they may need for the colder seasons.

However, one of the most difficult situations to navigate is children whose families simply can not afford proper winter clothing. New winter jackets, especially high-quality ones (with zippers that actually work) and snow pants are expensive. Kids grow out of winter boots fast. During the winter time, these items can also be difficult to find at local thrift or second-hand stores. Not having proper clothing can be a real barrier to getting outside with your students during the winter.

While navigating this challenge it is important to maintain the dignity of the children involved. You don’t want to point out the fact that this particular child is lacking and need of charity. Treating the situation this way will only make the student feel shame, which they may in turn associate with outdoor learning. Instead, normalizing the process of borrowing or sharing makes it the process shame-free as everyone is doing it. Here are a few ideas that we use to ensure that everyone has warm clothes for outdoor learning. 

The Warm Clothes Borrowing Bucket​

Everyone forgets things from time to time. Maybe you left your mittens on the bus. Or you didn’t think it was going to be that cold today so you left your toque behind. Students that are in split families will sometimes leave winter clothing behind at one parent’s house and not have it for that week at school. There are so many reasons why kids might need to borrow some clothing for a day or a week. This is why I created the warm clothes borrowing bucket. 

In this bucket, I placed extra mittens, scarves, toques, ski pants, and a few sweaters that students could borrow if they forgot or just don’t have a clothing item. Sometimes even teachers have borrowed from the bucket when they forgot that they had supervision that day. Most of these items I found at goodwill or even took from the lost and found (after they sat there for a year and no one claimed them.) I ensure that the items are kept clean and washed regularly. There is no time limit on how long a student could borrow and item for. Also since most of the items were free it didn’t matter if they never returned. Once a student was finished with the item we just put it in the washing machine so that it could be used again. 

Two kids dressed in warm winter clothing

The Outdoor Gear Closet​

The gear closet is similar to the borrowing bucket, except that it is a more long-term borrowing scenario. In the gear closet families from the school or community donate their children’s old winter clothing. The items in the gear closet are things such as jackets, ski pants, and winter boots that a student may need for the entire season. With the gear closet, students borrow the needed items for the season, with there being no expectation that they return it once they are done. Students don’t need to demonstrate a “need” for an item, they just need to have a willingness to want to borrow it. Most families return the gear at the end of the season so that it can continue to allow more students to get outdoors. As everyone borrows from the gear closet there is no shame associated with borrowing items from it. 

Getting Gear Grants for Warm Clothes for Outdoor Education​

This one is a bit more tricky and requires some research and perhaps even connections with local organizations. There are many not-for-profit organizations, outdoor companies and independent retailers that have granting programs specific for getting kids outside. Depending on the specifics of the grants that they offer, you may be able to apply for grants to provide clothing for your class. For example, if you require “play suits” (full-body rain suits for little kids) for your class and know that the cost of them will be prohibitive for some families, you might apply for a grant specifically for a class set of this item. My experience with grant writing is that you will be more successful if you are specific about what you would like, have an itemized list of costs, and can share with the grantor how this item will impact your students. 

warm winter jackets

Donating Warm Clothes and Outdoor Clothing Items​

There may be situations where donating specific items to a family may be appropriate. However, if you must do this please contact the family first and ensure that they are ok with the school or a teacher donating items to them. There may be more appropriate outlets for the student to receive these items than the school. You may have the best intentions and mean well, but receiving charity may be perceived differently by different families. Maintaining the dignity of the students and allowing them to not feel shame about their family situation should be the first priority. 

Make It So That Everyone Can Get Outside…

Your students can experience the benefits of outdoor learning, even during the winter. It takes a bit of organization and curating to have a well-stocked supply of outdoor clothes for your students. With some planning and some time spent collecting warm clothing, you can ensure that all of your students have warm clothes for outdoor education. This can allow your students to feel safe and warm during the colder months and enjoy getting outside all year. If your students are dressed for the weather they can enjoy their outdoor learning time that much more!

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