Encouraging Outdoor Play in Winter: Tips for managing the cold & enjoying winter activities

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Winter brings cold weather and snow, but it can still be fantastic time for outdoor play. Opportunities for exploration are endless: forts can be built, tracks can be identified and followed, birds can observed, snowmen and winter fairy houses can be made…along with the traditional wintertime activities like sledding, snowshoeing, skiing/snowboarding, skating, and ice fishing.

Not only is outdoor activity fun in winter, there are many benefits to it. This is the time of year where illness and germs are more prevalent. Getting out in fresh air during the winter months helps build the immune system by exposing children to bacteria naturally found outdoors, and allowing them to escape the indoor germs. Additionally, wintertime outdoor play provides essential vitamin D, which is supplied to us by the sun. Adequate vitamin D intake helps promote better moods and energy levels, as well as increases calcium absorption which is necessary for strong bones. And finally, time outdoors in winter also offers fun exercise – think about the activity involved with sledding. Walking repeatedly through the snow uphill – that takes a significant amount of work!

Here are some tips for managing the cold and enjoying wintertime outdoor activities:

  1. Stay Warm. Dress in layers. This involves wearing a base (wicking) layer close to the body (such as a good pair of long underwear), an intermediate layer for warmth and insulation (fleeces and wools work well for this), and an outer layer to protect from the elements. Wear appropriate outerwear, including a hat, gloves/mittens, and, if the weather is cold enough, face protection in the form of a cowl or balaclava. A good pair of wool socks, along with sturdy winter boots, will keep feet nice and cozy. A glove liner layer can help keep hands warm, and if your little one’s hands are always cold, slip a hand warmer between the glove liner layer and the outer glove. Also, keep in mind, mittens tend to hold more warmth around the fingers than gloves.
  2. Stay Dry. Moisture is the enemy of outdoor fun. Once wet, it is difficult to keep warm, and the danger of frostbite or hypothermia increases. A breathable waterproof outer layer will keep wet snow from reaching the body, while also allowing internal moisture generated by body heat to escape. Waterproof gloves/mittens and boots will ensure that hands and feet stay dry as well.
  3. Stay Active. Movement generates body heat, which will help keep a person warm in winter weather. Go for a winter walk, build a snowman, take the snowshoes out for a hike, shovel a maze of paths, make a snow fort…there are so many opportunities for outdoor winter play when children use their imaginations. If a child is not active while outside in winter, he or she will get cold. So, it is important for children to move around and have fun.

**While there is enjoyment to be had exploring nature in winter, it is also important to be cautious of extreme cold. During times of extreme low temperatures, consider significantly limiting time spent outdoors or even postponing outdoor winter nature activities until the weather warms up. Times of extreme cold, offer an excellent opportunity for reading and sipping hot cocoa!

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Build a Winter Habitat

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Animals in areas that experience cold climates have several adaptations for survival. Many animals hibernate to survive the winter. Other animals will store food near their habitat to access during the cold winter months. In this activity, students will have the opportunity to build a human-sized winter habitat. This can be done as one large group, or can be completed in smaller groups and the shelters can then be compared. Students will need to consider important qualities for constructing a habitat, such as warmth, protection from weather, access to food and water, safety from predators, etc. After the students have designed their winter survival shelters, they will then have the opportunity to construct them using natural materials from nature. These materials could include sticks, snow, leaves, stumps, and fallen branches. It is important to not damage any living things in the making of these shelters.

Once the dwellings are built have students describe the features of their construction that make for good winter survival. Again, students should consider warmth, protection from weather, access to food and water, safety from predators, etc. Compare the students’ winter habitat designs to those of other animals – where does a bear hibernate? what does a fox den look like in winter? what does a squirrel drey look like? what animals used logs, sticks, branches, dens in snow/ground, leaves, etc.? Make connections between the students’ designs and the designs animals use to survive winter.

For more resources on how animals survive winter, check out the books on this month’s Nature Book List, which is all about animals in wintertime.

(a belated)::Nature Photo Friday::

Each Friday I will post a nature photo (or two…) from our adventures of the week. The photo will represent a moment that I want to remember, to take in the feelings of that outdoor experience. If you are inspired to do the same, share a link to your nature photo in the comments. There is so much beauty in the natural world to share, I hope you will join me!

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{We had some bitter cold temperatures last week, with lows reaching well below zero, which led to reduced time outside. But, we still managed to enjoy the view from our little hill. And, we even brightened it up a bit, with a giant Waldorf star to add a little color to the neutrals that blanket the landscape this time of year. Hoping for more outdoor adventuring this week as temperatures are on the rise again.}

Animal Tracking in Winter

Architetto -- tante orma sulla neve by francesco_rollandin

While some animals hibernate or migrate to warmer climates for the winter, many animals continue to be active. With snow on the ground, a great wintertime activity can be tracking these animals that remain out and about. Tracking involves interpreting, following, and identifying animal tracks. Children can be nature detectives as they study the different animal tracks and signs left in the snow. The more time they take searching for clues and making careful observations, the more they will learn about the wild animals of winter. Here are some helpful tips for animal tracking with children:

  • Examine the tracks carefully –
    • Use a ruler to measure the size of the track and the distance between tracks
    • Notice the shape of the track; count the number of toes
    • Based on the pattern of the tracks can you tell how the animal was moving? Was it walking? Was it running? Was it hopping?
  • Notice what is around the animal tracks –
    • Where are they located?
    • Where do the animal tracks go? Follow them for a little bit.
    • Are there other animal signs near the tracks, such as scat or fur or feathers or scratches/claw marks?
  • Bring along kid-friendly animal tracking guides or cards. This is a great resource for children. Here is a handy pocket guide to bring along on your adventure.
  • Take pictures of the different animal tracks you find so you can take another look at what you found back at home or in the classroom.
  • Bring nature journals or clipboards so students can draw their observations and findings.

::Nature Photo Friday::

Each Friday I will post a nature photo (or two…) from our adventures of the week. The photo will represent a moment that I want to remember, to take in the feelings of that outdoor experience. If you are inspired to do the same, share a link to your nature photo in the comments. There is so much beauty in the natural world to share, I hope you will join me!

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{This has been an odd winter for us here in northern New England. It has been quite warm and the snowfall has been minimal. But, when we have gotten snow we have been sure to make the most of it. Because this particular snowfall only brought a few inches (which was still enough for sledding, and we were sure to get plenty of that in, too) the kids were really interested in building miniature snow sculptures, rather than the larger snowmen and forts we are normally accustomed to building. So here you see two photographs of our miniature snow art: the first showing two mini-snow people and below that a fairy house in the kids’ garden bed. With so little snow, we were also able to incorporate dried flowers, grass, and leaves, and sticks into our sculptures.}

Nature Book List: February (Animals in Wintertime)


Happy February! At the beginning of each month I put together a book list related to learning about nature that will be influenced by the season and natural wonders that occur during that month. This month’s book list will feature books related to animals in wintertime. The books make great reads both in the classroom and at home. If you’re teaching a theme related to the various ways animals survive winter, I suggest you check these out.

Animals have all sorts of adaptations for surviving the snow and cold of wintertime. The following books will share facts and information and tell beautiful stories about how different animals prepare for winter – from hibernation to migration to color changes and special food stores. I hope you find the resources useful. Check them out from your local library, or click on the picture below the title to find out more information about the book and to follow a link for purchase.

Animals in Winter by Henrietta Bancroft – A classic story to learn about what several animals do in winter to survive.

Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messer – This story shares how in winter the world over the snow is quiet and white while under the snow is a secret world where many animals live to survive the winter.

Footprints in the Snow – A beautiful story that will inspire young naturalists to take a look at the different tracks animals leave in the snow.

Grandmother Winter by Phyllis Root – Grandmother Winter brings snowfall and when she does, a story about how the different woodland animals survive is told.

The Animals’ Winter Sleep by Lynda Graham Barber – This story describes how thirteen animals survive harsh winters. Through the story children will learn about special adaptations, the different food sources, and the special places the animals live.

What Do Animals Do in Winter?: How Animals Survive the Cold by Melvin Berger, Gilda Berger, and Susan Harrison – Take a look at the many ways animals survive the cold winters. Learn about hibernation, migration, and changing color.

All About Animals in Winter by Martha E. Rustad – The beautiful photos in this book help tell the story of how animals survive winter.

When It Starts to Snow by Phillis Gershator – What do you do when it starts to snow? In this book, discover the story of what each animal – from a mouse to a bear – does when it starts to snow.

Tracks in the Snow by Wong Herbert Yee – A girl follows the tracks outside her home after a snowfall.

A Warm Winter Tail by Carrie Pearson – In this book, the wild animals wonder how humans stay warm in the winter. In an interesting twist of perspective, learn through their eyes how they survive the cold.

Crinkleroot’s Guide to Animal Tracking by Jim Arnosky – Winter, with its snowfall, is a great time for animal tracking. Follow Crinkleroot on a tracking adventure to learn about animal tracking. Perfect for getting outside in winter!

A Collection of Activities for Learning All About Snowflakes

NOAA Photo Library Image - wea02087

A few of Wilson Bentley’s snowflake photographs.

Following up on January’s theme of snow and snowflakes, I wanted to share a few resources I stumbled across about the science and math and art of snowflakes. Snowflakes are pretty amazing in that they are each unique, and their crystal formation is quite beautiful. It might seem hard to believe, but just as Snowflake Bentley captured and photographed snowflakes, you can too. Check out the links below to learn more about snowflake formation, structure, and techniques for preserving as a way to enjoy their natural beauty.

  • The Snow Crystals site has everything you could ever want to know about snowflakes – from photographs of snowflakes to activities for learning about snowflake structure. Check out this link for capturing and preserving snowflakes for observation.
  • The Smithsonian offers a nice lesson plan for observing snowflakes.
  • This short video clip from Discovery Channel discusses how no two snowflakes are alike and follows a scientist as he goes snowflake watching.
  • This one minute clip from the BBC explains how snowflakes are made, and provides amazing imagery of snowflake crystals captured by an electron microscope.
  • How to Grow Your Own Snowflakes

For reading suggestions and activity ideas for learning about snow and snowflakes from Backyard Learning, check out the links below.

Keeping a Snow Journal

Fun with Measuring Snow

January Nature Book List: SNOW

Winter Nature Walk: The 5 Senses (Free Printable)

Winter by laobc

I recently had the opportunity to lead a preschool nature walk. For this, I planned a winter-themed 5 senses walk. Because this nature walk was for preschoolers, I thought a visual would be useful for helping identify the items we were set out to find. Of course, the pictures on the chart were meant to get the children thinking about each of the categories. And once we discovered the items represented by the pictures, they were off and running, making their own discoveries and observations about the winter scene using their five senses.



Click HERE for the free printable chart I created for this winter nature walk using the five senses. Print this off, laminate it, and it is good to use in any weather condition.

Keeping a Snow Journal


Keeping a Snow Journal (1)

The objective of this activity is for children to learn about a snowy location by keeping a journal about winter weather conditions. If you live in a snowy area, the location could be your own place. Or, you could have the students choose from a list of other places known for their winter weather conditions. For my home state, Mount Washington comes to mind as a place that experiences some extreme winter weather. The Farmers’ Almanac has a list of the worst winter weather cities.  Students could also choose one of these locations (or another wintery region) as a place to compare the snow conditions of their own backyard. Weather Underground is also a good source of weather-related information.

Snowflakes by spacefem

For each location that is being observed, students should keep a daily snow journal that records:

  • Date
  • Location (can include elevation and latitude)
  • General weather conditions (sunny, cloudy, etc.)
  • Temperature
  • Humidity
  • Barometric Pressure
  • Amount of snowfall
  • Amount of snowpack

Snowflakes by spacefem

After recording the data in their journal on a daily basis for a set amount of time (a week or two, although more is better), have students examine their results. They could make graphs for temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, and snowfall. Use the following discussion questions to gain a better understanding of what factors affect snowfall:

  • How do temperature, humidity, and pressure affect snowfall? What patterns were observed for your location(s)?
  • Examine the general weather conditions (cloudy, sunny, etc.) and compare this to the amount of snowfall each day. What is the relationship between the general weather conditions and the snowfall?
  • How do latitude and elevation affect snowfall?
  • If you tracked your own place against another location, how did the amount of snowfall for each location compare?  What factors influenced similarities and differences?

Fun with Measuring Snow

Photo courtesy of publicdomainpictures.net

In my area, we have been a little lacking in the snow department this winter. But, even with just a few inches of snowfall, this math-related snow measurement activity is possible. In this activity, children get to explore the various ways snow can be measured, practice different types of measurement skills, and examine the relationship between snow and liquid water and ice.

Snowflakes by Arvin61r58           beaker by stefg1971             Snowflakes by Arvin61r58

There are several ways to have fun with measuring snow. Here are a few ideas to investigate:

  • Collect 100 mL (or any given volume) of snow. Measure the mass of this volume of snow. Let snow melt. Time how long it takes to melt. Measure the mass of the liquid water. Record the volume of the liquid water. Compare. How did mass change? How did the volume change? How long did it take for the snow to melt?
  • How long does it take 100 mL of fluffy (non-compacted) snow to melt compared to 100 mL of compacted snow?
  • What is the temperature of the snow? Let the snow melt. What is the temperature of the water? Compare results.
  • Explore the above questions, but this time use ice instead of snow. Then compare the results of the ice to the previous measurements.
  • What else? Have students come up with their own ideas for measuring and investigating the snow in different ways.

For further reading about snow, check out my snow-themed nature book list!