So, how is it possible that children don’t freeze? They need to be adequately dressed and supervised at all times, says Ikäheimo. “If there’s numbness, pain or pale spots on the skin, these are signs that a child is at increased risk of cold injury. They need to be taken indoors at that point,” she says.
Ikäheimo says children are often so immersed in play that they don’t notice that they’re getting seriously cold. “Children don’t monitor their feet. It’s the carers’ job.”
Protecting the extremities such as hands and feet are especially important for children, Ikäheimo adds. “Wet clothes and boots must be changed immediately. Sufficient nutrition and drinking hot fluids is also important: they all help protect from the cold.”
Children have one advantage over adults when it comes to coping with the cold: they are generally more active.
“Exercising is a great way to produce body heat that prevents children from cooling down even in lower temperatures than Helsinki’s,” Ikäheimo says.
“The beauty of a winter forest, with its reduced noise, is that it also has significant mental health benefits: it lifts spirits and makes it easier to develop strategies to cope with the cold, such as games and exercises in the snow. The key is to keep moving: exercise produces body heat,” she says.
Understanding risks in a cold environment is essential, says Mike Tipton, professor of human and applied physiology at the University of Portsmouth in the UK.
“There are more cold injuries in places like Italy where people are not used to winter weather than in Finland. Children in Scandinavian countries learn how to behave in the cold at a very young age and if they wear the right clothes, they have no problem maintaining the temperatures to remain safe and well.”
There hasn’t been any scientific research into how children react to cold weather but we know that adults’ bodies adapt well after repeated exposure. “If you go cold-water swimming or ice-swimming on a regular basis, your body will acclimatize,” says Ikäheimo. “It becomes less stressed and you won’t feel that cold.”
Pushing our bodies to get used to the cold also helps us maintain our ability to regulate body temperature.
“As a species we’ve become what I call thermostatic: we control our temperature everywhere: in the car, at home, at work. Just like with any other system in our bodies, if you don’t use it, you lose it,” says Tipton.
Children’s behaviour is another key to understanding how they can thrive in the cold.
Being part of a group like the Samoojat makes a big difference, says Tipton.
“These children don’t just go into a cold environment: they’re with friends, having fun on an adventure in a beautiful place. In other words they’re being entertained and that makes them remarkably resilient to cold,” he says.