Originally posted October 2018, updated October 2019
Warmth is one of the pillars of a Waldorf approach to early childhood, and one of the adjectives I hear used over and over to describe classrooms. We design the environment to envelop the children in warm colors, scents, and sounds; to help them feel safe and loved.
Maintaining physical warmth is just as important, especially given all the time we spend outdoors!
Wool is magic. I grew up with this being drilled into me by my fiber artist, wool loving mother, but never fully understood it until one rainy day in high school when I unearthed and read cover to cover this old National Geographic from the 80’s entirely dedicated to wool. Wool has incredible properties. The exterior layer of each fiber repels water (like from rain) but the inner part is able to absorb up to 30% of it’s weight in moisture before it feels wet. This means it can wick away sweat and keep out rain, and will still keep you warm when it’s wet (unlike cotton, as anyone caught out in the rain with cotton socks on knows) It’s inherently fire retardant, biodegradable, and will keep you warmer than anything else out there. Polyester or cotton might be cheaper, but I will always recommend wool.
“are you warm enough?”
Children have a hard time telling if they’re too hot or cold, it’s as plain as that. Expecting them to know if they need a sweater is developmentally inappropriate. That’s why you’ll see a little one playing in the lake, refusing to come out, until their lips are purple. That’s also why we’re here, to make those decisions for them. After judging the weather, I’ll announce before we get dressed “today is a rain pants day!” or “today is a snow pants and mittens day!” which I find much more effective than making the decision while we’re also trying to get dressed.
Here is my (very) loose dressing guide, for kiddos mostly. If it’s raining or snowing, obviously add a waterproof layer. Another good rule of thumb is that children need to be wearing one more layer than you to be warm—when I’m wearing a jacket and scarf and hat, I’ll make sure the children have the same with sweaters underneath.
60s - long pants, warm socks, wool sweater
50s - add a scarf and a hat and maybe a jacket or at least make sure that sweater is thick
40s - definitely add a jacket and warm pants and maybe rain pants too
30s - warm coat, serious warm pants or snow pants, mittens, super warm socks and insulated shoes
20s - whimper a little, double up your sweaters and socks
teens and below - long johns, wool pants, snow pants, wool socks, wool knee socks, long wool undershirt, sweater, another sweater, giant coat, two scarves, big wool hat, two pair of mittens, fur boots, plane ticket to southern California.
Children as young as a year can really participate in dressing themselves. All children are different, but I find that given enough time and encouragement even those as young as 2 can do a lot by themselves. Zippers and buttons come later, tying shoelaces even more so, but a toddler’s inability to entirely dress themselves to go outside within 5 minutes is no reason to do it for them. Give them time, make it simple, and make it consistent. A few things that help: a neat, child-height zone with a peg for the day’s gear, a spot for boots, and a stool or bench, and doing things in the same order every time (ie. rainpants, then coat, then boots, then hat, then mittens.)
My rule (in life, actually) is: you can always try. True, you can’t always do it, but you can always try to do it. Therefore, I will help them with their coat or whatever only after they’ve tried to do it themselves. “Show me how you can try!” is a common refrain. It’s amazing because often, when they try, they can do it! Starting this young helps, because they won’t be in the habit of expecting adults to do it for them.
update: I wrote a whole other article about helping children learn to dress independently, read it here!
Jackets and Coats
For cold but not freezing weather, a nice wool coat is great because it can allow for a bit more mobility than a full on puffer coat or parka. This boiled wool one from Germany is beautiful, sturdy, and has nice big buttons for the children to practice on. (Bonus: I’ve seen them last multiple years on the same growing child, and then again on a sibling.) Patagonia makes a nice puffer coat for the really freezing weather. As far as waterproof parkas go, these two are nice, especially for older children, but for toddlers I recommend going the full snowsuit route (easier to put on, less snow-up-the-coat.)
Wool or silk long johns are great, and I personally wear them most days when it’s cold. They can be hard for some children who don’t like the scratchy or bunchy feeling against their skin, or if you’re going to be inside somewhere very warm. In those cases, I often recommend something like these merino leggings that go over regular pants (or tights, for children who really love their skirts) for when you go outside. You can even then put rain pants over if it’s wet and cold. Extra warmth without resorting to snowpants, which are excessive for much of the season here.
In my mind, it is essential that socks be wool. Feet can get so cold and having the extra warmth there is really important. Wool also has the amazing ability to stay warm even when it gets wet, either through snow-in-boots or sweaty feet. My new favorite socks are by Darn Tough—my cousin who runs an oyster farm and is out in the boat all winter swears by them, and that’s the best endorsement I can imagine. They’re also a really ethical company and offer an unconditional lifetime guarantee, which is insane. They make kids socks too, but don’t have much for toddlers or babies yet. I’ve loved and worn Smartwool socks for years, and continue to recommend their toddler socks.
Hats are essential, as we tend to lose most of our body heat through our heads. The best hat is one knit by someone who loves you. If you’re handy like that, this pattern is a classic. My friends at Lynn and Lawrence also have gorgeous alpaca beanies in a similar style knit by women’s knitting cooperatives in England and Peru. I also love a thin merino balaclava, both as a stand alone hat in transitional weather and as a layer under something more substantive when it gets really cold. They keep ears warm (so important!) and don’t tend it itch. For when you have to go all-out, try a thick cap like this boiled wool one with ear flaps and a tie to keep the wind out (that one also has soft cotton lining for littles who don’t like the feel of wool against their faces). Finally: hoods don’t count. They’re great for keeping the rain or snow off your face, but fail as insulators as they let the wind in and tend to fall off.
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: mittens. on. strings. Children’s hands are smooshy and their metatarsal bones aren’t fully formed until about 7 anyways, which means mittens will often fall off. Lots of people will try to sell you mittens with long cuffs to go under the coat to prevent “gap-o-sis” as my mother says, but I’ll tell you a secret: they’ll still fall off, and then they’re a pain to put back on because they have to go under everything. Plus, they have to go on first, which means the children won’t be able to dress themselves. Just put a string on your mittens and save yourself some hassle. These beautiful hand-knit ones are the best I’ve found in recent years, with a quality gusset at the wrist and a sturdy built-in string.
I usually just wear a silk around my neck, and it works great for kids too. A balaclava-style hat that tucks into a coat eliminates the need for a scarf altogether, which is another real bonus—fewer steps means you get out to play faster!
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