During this time of year, especially when it is cold and grey, wet and snowy, we may be thinking a lot of the warmer seasons and all the fun that we and our children can have outdoors. It’s so easy: just apply sunscreen and off we go.
Fun in winter appears to be a bigger undertaking, needs to be planned and prepared, is time consuming, seems less doable on a whim. Thinking of the wind, the weather, the layers, all that bundling up—there seem to be many reasons to not step outside.
What if a trip to the wintry outside is not elaborate, not complicated? What if we can make it just as doable as any outdoor activity throughout the rest of the year?
Winter shouldn’t keep children from adventures. Nature play and nature’s learning spaces are the perfect forum to encourage children to play physically, creatively, and socially while getting the exercise they need in order to stay healthy and happy.
Here are some logistics first:
Whatever you plan, think about timing and equipment. No explorer, young or old, can stay interested when they are hungry, thirsty, cold, hot, soggy, or suffering in uncomfortable clothing—winter or summer.
Take your time! Whatever you are choosing to do, don’t rush. Going outside in a hurry defeats the purpose. View nature as an antidote to stress! We all feel better after spending time in the natural world.
Make the “Green Hour” a new family tradition. The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) recommends that parents give their children a daily “green hour”—a time for unstructured play and interaction with the natural world. Even fifteen minutes is a good start!
No need to travel far—nature starts just outside your door in your own backyard.
Here are 10 ideas how you and your child can enjoy the outdoors, even in winter:
1. Discovery Walk
Walk a short distance around the block, in your backyard, to the next park, just to see what’s there. Look, listen, touch, smell—learn with your senses. Build vocabulary by naming what you see.
2. Nature Walk
Be it a park, school yard, or private property (your backyard!), it can be considered a natural setting or sanctuary. You may see wild animals, but it is more likely you will find animal signs and clues. Have a field guide on hand! Observe!
When walking in a natural setting, please remember: Do not disturb the resident animal or its habitat.
3. “Unnature” Trail
Find objects that don’t belong in a natural setting. You can place objects that don’t belong in this natural setting (for example, shells in the forest) and have a partner find them. Introduce the concept of camouflage. Be a good citizen; bring a bag and a grabber/reacher tool to pick up trash!
4. Observation Games
Kim’s game: Place a number of natural objects under a piece of cloth. Lift the cloth and have your partner view the objects for 10 to 15 seconds, then replace the cloth cover. Have your partner describe or name the objects.
One-in-three: Choose 3 different natural objects, and place them in front of you. Your partner should select one of the objects, but not tell you which one. Your partner will use descriptive words to give you hints.
5. Scavenger Hunt/A Walk in Search of Certain Items
Once you are familiar with a place, make a list or chart with your child what you usually see there. Check off from your list what you find this time. These lists can change depending on the weather (windy day scavenger hunt, snow scavenger hunt).
6. The Special Tree
Find a special tree you will return to frequently. Some dramatic changes can be observed over the course of time. Have you ever done a bark rubbing? Place a blank piece of paper against the bark. While holding the paper in place, rub with the side of a dark crayon. The pattern of the bark will show on the paper. Can you find out who lives in the tree?
7. Track Search
Search for animal tracks. They are easiest to see in the snow. Follow the tracks if you can, but do not scare the animal if you find it. Try to figure out what activity took place. Did you know that many animals burrow tunnels under the snow cover?
8. Catching Snowflakes
Catch falling snowflakes on a dark piece of fabric, such as a jacket sleeve, or a dark piece of paper. Try to identify which type of crystals are falling. Did you know that there are 7 common types of snowflake crystals?
9. Go Birding
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology offers, in English and Spanish, the Celebrate Urban Birds program for youngsters, focusing on sixteen species of birds often found in urban neighborhoods. Do you feed the birds in your backyard? Find a recipe on bird seed cakes and hang them up in your trees and bushes.
10. Wonder Bowl
Whatever you found on your walks and outdoor excursions, empty your pockets and put your natural wonders (acorns, rocks) into a bowl. Enjoy your treasures and find out what these things are.
Now bundle up and go outside!
Resources for Parents:
Let Nature Be the Teacher, Lucille N. Gertz
Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv
Field Guide to New England, National Audubon Society
Scats and Tracks of the Northeast, James C. Halfpenny & Jim Bruchac