Key ideas to keep in mind while dressing for the outdoors:
Thinner layers (vs. bulky pieces) and pieces that allow freedom of movement.
High Tor Gear Exchange (local consignment shop) would be a great place to start your gear search.
The Biddle and Bop and Babyshop websites is an exceptionally great resource if you need to buy new.
Hoping for a visual? Here is a video demonstrating the types of layers that can be used to keep little ones warm and dry during a forest school day.
Hiking backpack: Children feel a sense of independence and pride when in charge of their items. We encourage all children to wear their own small backpack as we hike through the forest that will carry their lunch, water bottle, spare change of clothes, diapers and wipes if needed, and wet bags/Ziploc bags. It would be helpful if the backpack had at chest clip (and even a waist belt) like adult hiking packs that will help distribute weight and keep the backpack in place while bending and moving about. We will set our bags down during play times around the forest, so they won’t be carrying them most of our forest day. Please do a test run with your child’s backpack to ensure they don’t slip off their shoulders.
Example kids’ hiking backpacks with chest clips: Kids’ REI Co-op Tarn 12 Pack, Osprey Youth Jet 12, Deuter Children’s Kikki, Pico or Schmusebar, Mountaintop Kids, Vaude Ayla 6, Marmot Root Daypack, Fjällräven Raven Mini Backpack, Camelbak Kids’ Mini MULE.
1. Base Layers
Regular clothing: Flexible pants or shorts with elasticized waists are required for mobility purposes, and also for ease of toileting (e.g. sweatpants, pajama pants, leggings, fleece pants, etc.). Avoid pants and shorts that prevent full bending and stretching (no stiff jeans, kakis, etc. please), or long dresses that may get in the way during crawling and climbing activities (shorter play dresses tucked into rainpants work just fine). For transitional weather, layer short sleeve tops under a long sleeve shirt/zip-up sweatshirt, etc. so that we may strip off the long sleeves as the sun’s warmth increases.
Long underwear/thermal clothing in the winter: On extra cold winter days, long underwear is very useful. These items fit close to the skin in order to trap in body heat. Synthetic materials like stretchy fleece pants and tops, and synthetic silk work (e.g. "Cuddle Duds" and other thermal clothing). If you're able to invest a bit more, wool and wool/silk-blends work exceptionally well at trapping in body heat. Polyester PJ's work too (cotton does not trap in heat well). Little Spruce Organics typically has a lot of great wool and silk-blend long underwear on sale.
Socks: Wool socks are great at keeping toes warm, are antimicrobial, and repel water (for when a little stream water creeps in over the top of the boot). (Farm to Feet children's wool socks can be found locally at Great Outdoor Provisions Co.). Biddle and Bop sells fleece boot liners, which are intriguing! Biddle and Bops' fleece socks could also be another layering option over standard cotton socks. Tip: Tuck base-layer pants into socks for extra tick bite protection.
A thick fleece or wool zip-up jacket is a versatile layer to have. It can be used on its own, or under insulated winter coats and rain jackets. Columbia makes a thick, affordable version that you can buy locally at Great Outdoor Provisions Co. They are often for sale at children's consignment sales too! It's better to NOT size up with this layer--if it's too bulky, it won't fit under the rain coat easily. Go for the thickest fleece option. Hood optional.
Fleece pants or insulated pants (e.g. CeLaVi). It's important to have at at least two layers of pants (not including rain pants) in the winter. The best combination is tight fitting wool long underwear with looser fitting fleece pants (or two) over top. The looser fit allows the warm air to get trapped in between the layers (vs. tight fitting long underwear with tight fitting fleece pants overtop).
An insulated, form-fitting jacket that can fit under a rain jacket is useful. Thin down jackets or vests are especially great (e.g. REI, Patagonia, LL Bean, Lands End, Eddie Bauer, Hanna Anderson, etc.), and synthetic insulated jackets work too. It does not have to be waterproof because we can use them under rain coats. Go for the option without a hood if possible, as this makes it easier to layer. (Jacket vs coat? Jackets are typically hip length and easier to layer, while coats are longer and thicker)
3. Waterproof Shell
Waterproof bottoms: There are numerous options, including full rain suits, rain pants, and rain bibs. For ages 2+, we prefer rain bibs with boot straps, as they offer the most year-round versatility combined with protection from the elements (for 1-year-olds, simple rain pants work just fine). CeLaVi (via Biddle and Bop) and Polarn O. Pyret make high quality options that we've had great experiences with, and H&M makes an affordable copy-cat version for the littlest explorers. Oakiwear's children's breathable waders (boots and rain bibs combined) are another option. We can wear long underwear bottoms and mid-layers in the winter underneath rain pants to create the ultimate "snow pants." If you'd like to use separate pants for our coldest days in order to skip using multiple base and mid-layers, waterproof snow bibs also work great. Lands End has a great version that is often on sale. We do wear rain pants every forest day year-round. In the summer, the forest is much cooler than out in the hot sun, and we can always cool our bodies down with a splash from the stream or by sprinkling water from our water bottles on our heads and necks.
Summer pants: Alternatively, trail/hiking pants (water-resistant pants) could work in the summer because children won't get cold if they happen to get wet. BUT we still need the protection over our legs year round for quality forest play.
Rain jacket: A rainPROOF outer shell is a necessity (not just water-resistant). It's best to have the thin waterproof shell on its own, versus a thick, insulated rain coat. We can use this all year, adding layers underneath as the temperature dictates (so size up if in doubt). There are lots of good options, including CeLaVi (Biddle and Bop) and Polarn O. Pyret. LL Bean, Patagonia, North Face, etc. make so-called waterproof jackets that really don’t tend to stay totally rainproof on the heaviest rainy days. If the material is somewhat shiney, stiffer, and not “breathable,” it’s more likely to be truly “rainproof” we find. Here’s a great article describing the difference. You could have both options if you want a more breathable option plus a truly rainproof option for the heavy-rain days, or you could just stick with the fully rainproof version.
Outfitting the Extremities
Boots: Footwear is SO important to get right with developing feet. Ideally, children would be barefoot as much as possible to ensure proper physical development and preserve their ability to climb, so we do our best to recreate this freedom of movement while also protecting ourselves with boots. For young children, it is important that the boots be tall enough to allow for shallow stream play, have flexible soles withOUT a heel, be light weight, and stay on while running and climbing. It's a tall order. We've had experiences with many brands, including rubbery wellies from European brands like Aigle (nice and flexible but they tend to crack and leak after heavy use), neoprene versions from Oakiwear (flexible but heavy and take a long time to dry), and Bogs Kids' Rain Boots (durable but somewhat heavy/clunky). Mymayu makes ultra flexible rain boots that aren't 100% waterproof for stream wading, but are fantastic for the littlest feet.
They all have their pros and cons, but our overall favorite is Hunter toddler/children's boots (without the heel) because they are ultra flexible, lightweight, and have been very durable in our experience. Crocs Handle It children's boots (for around ages 3+) are another great option if you're on a tighter budget. They are a little clunkier than the Hunter boots, but they are still flexible, lightweight, tall enough, and very durable.
Mittens: Thin cotton, wool, polyester, or fleece mittens are okay for mildly cold weather, but eventually your child will need insulated, water-resistant mittens (or thin mittens with rain mitten shells on top). We really love Head Jr. Ski mittens with the zip side (found locally at Costco). They are easy to get on and they are water resistant. It's best to avoid gloves unless your child can get them on independently. Tip: Put mittens on before the insulated coat and rain jacket to prevent gaps at the wrist. Another option you could experiment with is thinner gloves with fleece or wool sleeves overtop with a thumb whole to hold them in place (combining dexterity and warmth).
Winter hat and balaclava: Winter hats should come over the ears and secure under the chin. Balaclava's are really wonderful in the coldest weather conditions, as they also cover the entire neck. Look for wool, wool-blend, or fleece fabrics (cotton doesn't hold in heat as well). In place of a balaclava, you can use a Buff, neck warmer, scarf, or ensure under layers include a turtle neck feature and a form-fitting hood (attached to a zip-up sweatshirt of fleece) that can go over or under a winter hat.
Sun hat: We likely won't need sun hats for our school days because most of our time is spent in the shade of the forest canopy. However, it may be helpful to have it packed on summer days just in case we hike in more open terrain. Sun hats protect scalps from the sun and shield little eyes on sunny days. Twinklebelle makes a fantastic adjustable sun hat with a break-away safety chin strap.
The Final Layer: Skin & Gear Protectant
Face salve: This is an important component to winter outdoor protection that is often missed. Apply face salve to the entire face, but especially lips, cheeks, nose, and chin to prevent wind burn and chapped skin. Natural ingredients, such as beeswax and shea butter, act as a barrier--keeping moisture in and the dry, cold air out. You can make your own by melting beeswax or shea butter and natural oils together, or you can buy natural salves (sometimes in the form of baby or nipple balms) at local health foods stores (e.g. Rebecca's, Integral Yoga, Whole Foods, etc.). Brands that work well: Badger Baby Balm, Shea Moisture Baby Butter, Dr. Bronner's Baby Magic Balm, Waxelene, Alba Un-Petroleum Jelly, etc. Some natural, unscented lip balms (e.g. Weleda) work great on the go, just check the ingredients.
Sunscreen is generally not needed in the shady forest, but if you do want to use it for the "hot spots," mineral-based sunscreen sticks are excellent for quick cheek, chin, nose, and shoulder applications. They stay put well and don't run into children's eyes.
Insect Repellent: Buzz Away is our favorite, time-tested all-over insect repellent—it works really well and has a pleasant natural scent (don’t forget to spray the hair too!). We also highly recommend spraying rain bibs and jackets with permethrin insect repellent every few weeks to prevent tick and mosquito bites. Permethrin is synthetic form of natural pyrethrin — a compound in chrysanthemum flowers that’s toxic to insects. It bonds to fabric when dried and resists degradation. It's extremely effective and safer than DEET, as it is said to not permeate the skin of mammals. That being said, it is not good for our fish and amphibian friends, so we only apply it to the knees on up so as not to saturate clothing that would be underwater during shallow stream wading.
You can also spray lemon-eucalyptus oil repellent (30% concentration) repellent over clothing and skin daily, including the bottoms of rain pants and boots. A 30% concentration of lemon-eucalyptus repellent has shown to be as and more effective than DEET, and it can even last longer in clinical tests. It can really irritate eyes and airways, so do be careful when applying, especially to children (it is recommended for ages 3+). We like to use Buzz Away or Herbal Armor on sensitive faces, hairlines, and ears (spray on hands first, then rub onto faces). Boots + rainpants do a really good job on their own in preventing tick bites in our 4 years of experience using this gear combination, especially when combined with permethrin. Personal note from Jessica: I have never found a tick on me or my children if we were using this gear combination in the woods, but we have found many ticks over the years after spending time casually in grass with regular shoes and clothing at parks, playgrounds, etc. It just goes to show that gearing-up really works well. Below you will find an excellent informational video about tick bite prevention from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
Note: DEET is outdated and the most toxic option. It can also really damage clothing and gear. There are better options now so best to skip it completely and choose 20% picaridin, a synthetic compound made to resemble piperine (black pepper), if you are looking for something similar. Our personal favorite combination in permethrin-treated gear + an all-over spritz of Buzz Away or lemon-eucalyptus oil spray.
Tick Bite Prevention
#1: We tuck pants into socks and we always wear boots and rain pants in the forest.
#2. We highly recommend treating outdoor clothing with permethrin every few weeks.
#3: Spray skin and clothing with Buzz Away, lemon eucalyptus oil (30% concentration) or picaridin (20% concentration). For sensitive facial areas, we like Buzz Away or Herbal Armor lotion spray.
#4: Promptly put hiking clothes in a hot dryer when you get home, or store clothes outside or in a sealed bag until it's laundry time.
#5: Shower promptly if you can.
#6: Do tick checks before bed all year long unless there is a thick blanket of snow on the ground. Check nooks and crannies, hair lines, scalps, groin, belly buttons, arm pits, behind the knees, neck, etc. Some ticks are as small as a poppy seed.
#7: If you find an imbedded tick, don't panic. Use tweezers to grasp them as close to your skin as possible, pull slowly and straight back to remove.
#8: You can store the tick under tape and/or in a ziploc bag in the freezer with the date and bite location in case you develop symptoms of a tick-borne illness and want to get the tick tested. UMass has a grant-funded tick-testing program.
#9: The faster you remove the tick, the less likely it will transmit disease. Watch for illness including fever, sore joints, aches, fatigue, and a bullseye rash around the tick bite. It is reported that most ticks do not carry diseases, and tick-borne illnesses are curable with the proper treatment.
#10. With your child, calmly talk about how the tick was looking for food, like all creatures do. Curiously study it together under the tape/in the bag. It is important that we show respect for all creatures while not projecting our fears onto our children. Model a sense of wonder and curiosity and #OptOutside.
Frequently Asked Questions
"My child often runs away and I worry about him/her in this format (without walls and fences)."
In the forest, children's independent exploratory needs are already being met, so they are generally motivated to stick together. We have an low student-teacher ratio so it's easy to keep tabs on everyone, and if a child wanders too far, we have a sweet forest tune we sing to remind them to stay closer. This little tune works great, rather than abruptly yelling their name across the serene terrain. If children are still hesitant to stick with the group after a couple reminders, we may have them stay extra close to the teachers for part of the morning. This natural, non-punitive consequence tends to only be needed once or twice, and then it's usually not an issue going forward. We will always let you know if the format proves to be a difficult fit for your child. We include a month-long trial period for these reasons.
"But what do you do if it rains?!"
We wear our rain gear and enjoy all the new sights, smells, and sounds under our forest umbrella! This is a 100% outdoor program. We will cancel* forest school in the event of storms, high winds, or very low temperatures/wind chill, but otherwise, we are outside, rain or shine! As long as we are properly dressed, we can remain safe and warm in our gear, and be all the better for it. Rainy days are some of our favorite forest days! We occasionally bring out umbrellas and tarps for meal times and to keep backpacks dry.
"What about extra cold winter days?"
Note: We have an extended winter break that runs through January and February.
On extra cold winter mornings we may delay drop-off by an hour, and have pick-up be an hour later (10:00-1:30). Morning temperatures rise fast during the winter, and it's helpful to have families with somewhat flexible schedules in order to take advantage of the warmer hours of our winter days, rather than have an entire school day cancelation due to a frigid period in the early morning. Forest schools are most popular in northern Europe and Canada--Virginia's climate is mild in comparison. Winter gear just takes some getting used to, and then we are ready to enjoy all the seasons! We will even make friends with Jack Frost and Old Brother Wind during our circle songs!
If the windchill on a particular day will not rise above 28°F by 10:00a, school will likely be canceled* that day. Note that in Charlottesville, the average high/low temperature range in January is 45°F/ 27°F, so a school cancellation would likely not be the norm. However, with this 100% outdoor program format, school will likely be canceled more than traditional schools due to weather-related conditions. Families' flexibility is appreciated.
*After a specific number of weather-related cancellations are accrued, make-up days will be offered over winter break or at the end of the school year in June. On the flip side, children are often healthier and spread germs much less in a forest school compared to an indoor program, so it may prove helpful to consider the missed days due to the weather being balanced out with less missed days due to illness. ;-)