Exploring nature during winter

Ideas for outdoor winter play and discovery.

It is important to take kids outside to play, regardless of the weather.
It is important to take kids outside to play, regardless of the weather.

With winter upon us, it can be more difficult to seize the chance to go outside to play. It’s easier to fall back on movies and hot chocolate, but research from the National Wildlife Federation, “The Forecast Calls for Play,” tells us it is important to take kids outside to play, regardless of the weather. Numerous studies, like University of Minnesota’s “How Does Nature Impact Our Wellbeing?,” have shown that nature play and time spent outside helps reduce stress and anxiety, promotes feelings of calm and control, increases self-confidence and independence, and helps develop the ability to focus. Additionally, vitamin D levels are increased by exposure to the sun, even in the winter!

So what is there for kids to do when the soccer fields are covered in snow and the playground equipment is too slippery to climb? There are many opportunities for children to notice, investigate, wonder, feel, examine and discover. Michigan State University Extension recommends the following ways to explore nature in the winter:

  • Winter hikes. A winter hike can be as simple as roaming your own backyard! Look for signs of winter. This can be a great adventure after fresh snowfall. Hikes in the early evening are magical, especially on a clear night when the moon and stars are visible. Moon shadows are fascinating and children love holding a flashlight to search for tracks. Consider reading "Owl Moon" by Jane Yolen as a bedtime story after your hike.
  • Winter scavenger hunts. Head out on a winter-themed scavenger hunt. Ideas include searching for seeds, tracks, leaves, twigs, birds, pinecones or berries. Think about taking a sled with you when you head out to provide a place to take a break from climbing snow banks and rolling in the snow. It can also hold snowballs and other nature discoveries. Try taking your discoveries into the house and freezing them in a container filled with water. Include a looped string or ribbon partially submersed and you will have created an ice ornament to hang out in the garden. “The Snowy Day” by Ezra Jack Keats is always a favorite story to be enjoyed as you warm up upon returning inside.
  • Winter picnics. Winter picnics are an exciting way to enjoy the outdoors and break up the routine. Pack a thermos of hot herbal tea or cocoa along with favorite snacks. Bear Snores On” by Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman is a fun book to read on your picnic!
  • Build a fort. Try building your own house or fort out of snow in which to host the picnic. There is great potential for ingenuity!
  • Animals in winter and tracking. Hunt for tracks in the morning after a fresh snowfall to witness who has visited your yard during the night. Invent stories about the tracks you discover. Take photos of the tracks you find and print them off to create your own local tracking guide. There is a wealth of great books to read about animals in the snow! “Stranger in the Woods” by Carl R. Sams and Jean Stoick features pictures taken at a Michigan metropark. “Big Tracks, Little Tracks: Following Animal Prints” by Millicent E. Selsam is a great introduction to animal tracking. “Over and Under the Snow” by Kate Messner and “Animals in Winter” by Henrietta Bancroft can help children understand how animals survive the winter.
  • Winter birding. Feed the birds and observe the activity. You may consider building your own birdwatching blind out of snow or placing your feeder near a window for indoor viewing as well. Make your own bird feeder, which can be as simple as finding a pinecone, filling it with peanut butter and rolling it in bird seed. Once you begin feeding birds, continue through winter as the birds will depend on your feeder as a source of food. Make sure you keep your feeder clean and free of wet seed, which can become moldy and cause illness. Venture out on a birding hike with binoculars. Be sure to look upward for nests and downward for tracks. Books to extend winter birding include: “No Two Alike” by Keith Baker, “Birds” by Kevin Henkes, “Mama Built a Little Nest” by Jennifer Ward and “Take Along Guide: Birds, Nests and Eggs” by Mel Boring.

As the winter wind blows, remember there is no such thing as bad weather, just poor choice in clothing. Layers and waterproof clothing are recommended for children to play outdoors in winter. Take the time to allow your children to lead the exploration of the outdoors. Follow their interests, provide suggestions and allow for boredom! Oftentimes this is when their creativity flows best.

For more information about early childhood education and exploring the outdoors, visit the MSU Extension and Tollgate Farm and Education Center websites.

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