by Judy Molland, author of Get Out! 150 Easy Ways for Kids and Grown-Ups to Get Into Nature and Build a Greener Future (Free Spirit Publishing, 2009)
Winter is a great time to be a kid. Nature is awesome, amazing to look at, touch, and listen to, especially in winter. Fresh air and exercise are important, but in winter you need to be especially well prepared if you want to enjoy yourself. Dress in layers. Wear thermal leggings and several layers under a sweater and coat. Wear a hat and gloves (waterproof, if you’re in the rain or planning on playing in the snow). If you’re not cold and uncomfortable, you’re less likely to run back inside after 5 minutes and more likely to have fun!
But what to do once you’re out there?
- Have a snow day. Build igloos, snow caves, forts, or go sledding or snow tubing. Make snow angels, snow people, animals, or super-heroes, or try snowshoeing. Or you may prefer snowboarding or downhill skiing. Backcountry or cross-country skiing offers a chance to admire the beauty of nature. Snow is truly a wondrous natural phenomenon.
- Plan an outside winter picnic. Pack up a waste-free lunch, along with a hot beverage-filled thermos. Pre-choose your picnic site and be sure to bring blankets or thermal pads to sit on. When you first arrive, play a body-warming game like leapfrog, have your lunch, and follow up with more active games. Ideally, you want a clear winter day, but if the weather isn’t cooperating on your planned day, you can always picnic indoors.
- Create your own scavenger hunt. Winter or summer, a scavenger hunt is always fun, especially if you create your own. Make a list of items likely to be found in nature near your neighborhood or play area. Next, make copies of the list for each kid or team in your group, hand out paper bags to collect the loot, and go! Include several weird or gross items on your list. Here are a few list-starter ideas: a dead bug, a bird feather, a leaf bigger than your hand, a stick shaped like a “y,” a smooth rock.
- Have a daily “green hour.” The National Wildlife Federation recommends a daily green hour—time set aside every day to play outside and interact with the natural world. This time should be unstructured (no rules) and fun! If you’re busy, start with 15 minutes a day and do it every day, 365 days a year. Even on a wet day, you can still get out and play together as long as you’re dressed for the weather. As E. E. Cummings wrote, the world is “mud-luscious” and “puddle-wonderful.” See www.greenhour.org for more tips.
- Take up stargazing. The sky at night can be spectacular, awe-inspiring, and humbling. There’s nothing like lying on your back and studying the stars. Winter is a great time to do this because cold, dry air is stiller than warm air, so visibility is improved in the winter, making it easier to distinguish stars. Visit NASA’s website (www.spaceplace.nasa.gov) and print out a constellation guide, then see how many constellations you can identify. You may even spot one of the five planets that are occasionally visible to the naked eye in our solar system: Mars, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mercury. If you live in a big city, light pollution will interfere with your sky viewing, but try observing with a blanket draped over your head to block out streetlights, or head to the outskirts of your city.
- Try cloud watching. If the stars by night are tricky to make out, look for shapes in the clouds instead. On a cloudy day, find a comfortable spot, spread out a thermal blanket, lie down, and see what you can see. Maybe you see a strange monster, a laughing face, a spaceship, a frog, or an angel. Imagine that you are traveling on a cloud. What can you see? Where are you going?
- Become nature detectives. Track animals in your own neighborhood by finding prints of dogs, cats, squirrels, rabbits, and birds. Winter is a perfect time to do this, since it’s easiest to spot them in snow, dirt, mud, and at the edges of puddles, ponds, and lakes. Get on your knees and look closely for animal signs: besides tracks, look for feathers, scat, broken twigs, and bent grass where animals have trod or lain down. If your tracking takes you to an animal’s den, be sure not to reach inside! If you’re keeping a journal, record dates and types of tracks, and include any photos you’ve taken along the way.
- Keep a nature journal. This is something to do year-round. Just make sure you bundle up in warm clothes if it’s a cold day. You can buy a nature journal or make one using recycled paper. Revisit the same place in your backyard, school grounds, or a park, throughout the year—perhaps once a week—and note the changes you observe in the weather, trees, animal activity, and anything else you notice. You can write paragraphs or poems, make lists, or sketch pictures. Review your observations every few months to see how things have changed. Nature writing and sketching can help you slow down, focus, and increase your awareness of the natural world. What a great antidote to the daily hurry-hurry-hurry mode.
Most of all, have fun! Make a snowperson, go sledding, enjoy running in the rain! Your friends are sure to join—enthusiasm is contagious.
Bio: Judy Molland, B.A. Hons., Dip. Ed., is an award-winning teacher and writer. She is Contributing Education Editor for Dominion Parenting Media (formerly United Parenting Publications), the largest syndicate of parenting magazines in the United States, and has numerous articles featured on Parenthood.com. She has been writing about education for more than ten years.