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Winter Weather Got You Down?
Embrace the cold, grab the kids and get outside!
23 Jan 2010 by Tim Magner
While the thermometer reads freezing and we can only dream of a prolonged spring thaw, don’t resign to spend the winter cooped up and stuck inside- especially when it comes to the kids.
Playing outside, no matter the weather, is a critical part of healthy childhood development. Watching children react to snow is enough to remind us spending time outdoors is in our genes and part of who we are.
A wide range of research shows time in nature outdoors during formative years leads to gains in cognitive development, self-discipline, creative expression, motor and language skills and social interactions. Children who regularly play in nature generally demonstrate greater self-esteem, are better able to handle stress and are often healthier (re: sick less often). Many believe that outdoor experiences are critical to the development of a sense of wonder that is an important motivator for life-long learning.
That’s all good, but what do you do when we live in the Midwest and we shiver just looking at the icicles outside our window? Resist the urge to pull up the blanket and read on:
There’s no such thing as bad weather, only poorly prepared participants. The surest way to make an outdoor activity with children (or anyone) successful: dress appropriately.
For bundling up during winter, take notes from wildlife—think ducks, beavers and seals. It’s an analogy that children can understand when getting dressed. The outer layer is waterproof to keep them dry and the under layer keeps them warm. Once covere d from head to toe with boots, hats and mittens, children can engage their instincts to slide like a seal and waddle like a duck.
A couple notes: cotton absorbs sweat, so consider underwear material that wicks sweat away from the body. For ample circulation, sometimes less is more. Make sure boots aren’t too snug. For socks, wool is best. Scarves and hoods are good, but pay attention that visibility isn’t impaired.
Remember two advantages we have over wild animals: 1.) Layers can be shed if we get warm, and 2.) If we get too cold, there’s always soup and hot chocolate inside.
Top 10 Ideas for Outdoor Fun.
Hint: If it’s cold, choose activities that keep kids moving. The more active we are, the more our bodies warm as we burn energy.
1. Go on a Hunt—a Winter Scavenger Hunt: Create a list and then head outdoors to search for different parts of wildlife, e.g. a seed, pinecone, feather, an animal nest, something round, a decaying or chewed leaf, something that feels bumpy/smooth.
2. Become a Tracker: Find as many tracks in the snow (non-human & human) as possible. Identify and see where they lead. Can you find tunnels, empty bird nests or drays (squirrel homes)?
3. Fire the Imagination: Play pretend as animals on a journey through the wild in the winter. Midwest animal examples include: squirrel, robin, raccoon, coyote, bear, dog, mouse, hawk.
4. Unleash the Artist: Paint the snow using brushes and liquid tempera paint, or with colored water in squirt bottles. Alternatively, as a post-outside activity, draw or paint a snow scene. Using white chalk on colored paper, sketch a nearby winter scene. For snow, put down watered-down white glue and sprinkle powdered laundry soap.
5. Become Builders: Start with an ice structure and find containers to fill with colored water and freeze. Once frozen, remove and use to build ice structures. Any props are good that encourage play.
Graduate and build an igloo (or a fort or snow tunnels). Using a straight edge of a metal shovel, create an igloo house by cutting blocks of snow and creating “bricks” to build walls. A tarp may be necessary to cover the roof. Alternatively, cave-like openings in a pile of snow will work. Be careful of collapsing snow!
6. Become a Weather Reporter and make a snow gauge: Use any container, preferably something clear, i.e. ½ cut off plastic soda bottle. Mark the snow gauge in inches and centimeters and hold steady by placing rocks against it on the outside. Track and graph results during winter months. A yardstick may also be used for a snow gauge, but is less accurate due to variables like wind drift.
Additional weather reporting: measure snow bank temperature. Many animals, including mice, understand snow insulates. Place a thermometer at the base of the snow bank (place on the ground, in the bottom, and give it a little room so it’s not “packed” in). Check back several times and compare the reading to outside air temperature. Discuss the role of temperature on the properties of water as a solid, liquid and gas.
7. Create Scientific Experiments: As long as we’re talking temperatures, take the time to freeze water. Fill different sized containers and make predictions. Try with similar containers, using cold water in one and warm in the other.
8. Do Detective Work: Observe the effects of winter on your house, your yard and the neighborhood. How are the trees and plants different? Why is the air dryer? What does frost look like on windows? How and why do icicles form? Take a magnifying glass/hands lens and observe.
9. Be a friend to animals that remain during the winter: Create a birdfeeder, garland or food-rich snowman. Hang it from a tree or build it in a place that’s observable from a window inside. The birdfeeder may be as simple as pinecones covered in peanut butter with seeds. Create a garland with cranberries and popcorn. For a snowman that attracts animals, cover the body parts with food, e.g. carrot, cranberries and raisins, although I still like sticks/branches for arms.
10. If you get cold, start moving: Nothing keeps us warm like burning energy. Conduct running races, sprint up hills, sled or roll down them. Create an obstacle course. Play follow the leader.
Pre- and Post-Outdoor activities/questions/discussions/writing prompts:
Discuss with your kids what you might and, might not, find outside. Why? Why not?
How do animals in Illinois stay warm in the winter? What about the animals in the Arctic? Which ones make changes to help them survive? e.g. extra fur, camouflage, slow heart rate (or migrate!)
How do we stay warm in the winter? Inside? Outside?
How do we make ‘clouds’ when it is cold outside?
If you’re ambitious enough to venture further than your yard:
The Chicago area is full of semi-wild areas that can feel a million miles away. Check out the websites for The Chicago Park District and Forest Preserve of Cook County.
If you don’t experience the itch to get outdoors, it won’t take much coaxing once the electronic games are unplugged. So, leave the hibernating to the polar bears and commit to engage the senses outdoors year-round.
See you outside,
Tim “Green Sugar” Magner
P.S. Bonus Activities:
1.) Arctic Dog Sled Team in Chicago and more… See a real arctic dog sled team, watch as amazing ice sculptures are created, listen to winter tales told by storytellers, sip hot cocoa and snowshoe at the 5th annual Polar Adventure Days at Northerly Island. This free event takes place on February 20 from noon to 4 p.m.
2.) Winter camping is also available at Illinois State Parks through the winter months. Enjoy cross-country skiing and camping at Illinois Beach State Park, Chain o' Lakes State Park, Johnson-Sauk Trail State Park, Kankakee River State Park.