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Winter Play: How to Enjoy the Outdoors All Year Long

Something new we’re trying at the Museum this year is keeping the outside play areas open during the cold winter months. What is Minnesota without snow-building, mitten-wearing, and rosy cheeks? The weather isn’t going anywhere, so it is important we teach our children to enjoy it. If we find joy in the snow and cold, we will have more joy; if we do not, we will have less joy, but the same amount of cold and snow. 

Normalizing winter play during the developmental years (ages 0-10–our targeted age group at the Museum!) will benefit children for years to come. Only 20 days per year are below zero on average in Southern Minnesota, which tends to be the cut-off for most schools when determining indoor or outdoor recess. It’s the temperature we use at the Museum. Because we live in a place that is “cold” four to five months out of the year, we must not equate it with “bad.” Outdoor play–at all times of the year–is imperative in child development. 

WHY PLAY OUTSIDE

The benefits of outdoor play are endless, and generally fall into three categories: physical, emotional, and social. 

  • Physical: Scientists have long ago debunked that playing in the cold will make you sick. To the contrary, actually! People who spend too much time inside breathing poorly ventilated air are more likely to encounter the germs that make you sick. Outdoor play also encourages the development of gross motor skills and muscle development, as the body tries new things (as simple as learning not to slip on the ice!). Getting vitamin D from the sun is also important in the colder months, since we naturally get less. 
  • Emotional: Time outdoors is proven to decrease stress and increase focus, and it’s also very educational. Challenges in the cold weather can increase confidence and risk-taking. There are also opportunities to learn new things about seasons and weather. 
  • Social: A lot of outdoor opportunities require teamwork, which offers growth in sharing, problem-solving, and negotiating. Weather can change rapidly in the winter as well, giving children the opportunities to be flexible and adaptable. 

HOW TO PLAY OUTSIDE IN THE COLD

Like all play, outdoor play is most beneficial when it is led by children. Exploration and experimentation are critical to the enjoyment of outdoor play. If children are hesitant or reluctant, you can start with an activity and see where they take it. 

My vision for winter play is to provide fun and engaging opportunities for kids to get outside whether that is for five minutes or fifty,” says Kathleen Burns, Program Facilitator at the Museum. 

Using the weather and the natural environment available to you (the Museum space, the local park, your own backyard, etc.) as your guides, set your children up for adventure which will provide opportunities for creativity and problem-solving, as well as promote movement and exercise. 

To experience cold weather play in the best circumstances, here are some tips: 

  1. Dress for the weather. There is an old Norwegian saying, “There’s no bad weather, just bad clothing.” Make sure the protective gear you have is waterproof and layered. Have an extra set of mittens and a hat at the ready, so if you’re out for a long time and they get wet, you can switch them for fresh ones. 
  2. Don’t force anything. Let children try things at their own pace. Model the behavior you’d like a young one to try (touching the snow, sliding down a small hill, etc.) and wait for them to give it a try. You can accidentally create negative experiences for children by making them do things they aren’t ready for. 
  3. Remember the basics of water and sunscreen, even when it’s cold. Maybe only those little cheeks are exposed, but the combination of sun and wind on a cold day sledding can take a real toll on their sensitive skin. And people still need hydration during physical activities. Carry water on winter hikes, just as you would in the summer months. 
  4. Keep an eye on the weather forecast before you venture out anywhere. Make sure someone knows where you’re headed, in case you do get caught in a winter storm. 

ACTIVITIES TO TRY

Winter Play outdoor explorers at the Childrens Museum in Mankato Minnesota-2

One thing you can do is come to the Museum on Wednesdays, when we have Outdoor Explorers programming in the afternoons outside the cafe area. If the temperature (we consider ambient and windchill) is above zero, we’ll be out there! Parents are encouraged to join in the fun, but are welcome to stay in the cafe and watch if their children are old enough. Burns makes sure activities are both safe and fun, and also encourages families to replicate activities at home on another day. Vice President of Play and Learning, Kim Kleven, also emphasizes the importance of families enjoying cold weather play together: 

“When children get to school, outside recess is such an essential part of the school day experience. They need that movement, and they need that outdoor time–even when it’s cold.  Parents need to understand and prepare children for that by modeling and making sure they have proper winter gear. We need parents to be supportive of schools sending out students for recess in all kinds of weather, so children get that needed outside movement break.” 

Other easy things to facilitate with children outdoors include: 

  • Hiking in nearby woods or just walking around the neighborhood; this can be made more focused by incorporating a scavenger hunt or a nature-identity game.
  • Snow building; from snow people to snow forts, the ideas are limitless!
  • Snow paint
  • Freezing bubble blowing
  • Create your own “animal” tracks; see how creative kids can get by encouraging them to use natural materials to make fake tracks in the snow
  • Snow mazes
  • Shovel someone’s sidewalk or driveway without being asked
  • Feed the birds
  • Study snowflake shapes and textures
  • Create an ice bowling game
  • And when you have the equipment for it: sledding, skiing, ice-skating, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, and any other specialized sport for snow and ice! 

WHAT IF IT *IS* TOO COLD TO GO OUT? 

When the weather is unsafe–and it does happen; watch the advisories–then there are a surprising number of ways to bring the outdoor adventures inside! Try these ideas next time it dips below zero: 

  • Bring fresh snow inside for experiments and art
  • Make ice globes using balloons and water
  • Make snow ice cream or maple ice candy (many good recipes and directions online)
  • Make bird feeders to take outside when it’s warm again
  • Create wildflower seed bundles to share in the spring
  • Ice archaeology (you’ll need to have this one prepared beforehand)
  • Window-painting
  • Play “I spy” out the windows, searching for things outside only
  • Much more! 

When stuck inside, remember to watch the weather and look forward to the next opportunity to go out and play. Attitude is everything! Even a ten-minute walk with the dog will offer outdoor benefits to all ages.

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