Maybe you’re feeling it already, fellow moms and dads: the dread of not knowing how you’re going to keep your kids occupied and active through the long Northeast winter and early spring. These feelings are expected and normal in a typical winter, let alone one where our social calendars are clear and mobility limited. Thankfully, we’re a hearty people, and when bundled up appropriately, nature is our kids’ playground during all seasons. Use this guide to winter outdoor activities for kids—with recommendations gleaned from past articles and AMC’s interpretive programs manager Nancy Ritger—as a manual, a checklist even, for thriving through the coming months.
Track wildlife: Learn to identify animal tracks and figure out clues on a nature trail or in your backyard. Look for these clues frequently left behind by animals:
- Prints: Look for size, claw marks, and depth. Look for the number of toes or toe pads. Then use a field guide to identify them.
- Feather Marks: One of the most dazzling clues you can find—feather prints in a snowy field. This might be the track of some turkeys, or the full wing imprint of an owl or hawk that swooped down to grab a mouse or mole it heard through the snow.
- Gait patterns: Often the easiest way to identify an animal, the track will show parallel, diagonal, bounding, or galloping foot patterns. Field guides are also helpful here.
- Scat: Kids will get a kick out of breaking scat open to find what the creature has been eating. Just grab a stick and start breaking it apart.
- Browsing marks: Deer, moose, rabbits and others are forest browsers, constantly nibbling on twigs and branches as they walk. Deer only bite from the bottom and their dull teeth leave the ends of the twigs torn and rough. Rabbits make clean 45 degree cuts with their sharper teeth. In the springtime, look for rabbit chew 3 to 5 feet high. No, the rabbits don’t get that big in New England—but it will show you where the snow came up to in the wintertime.
Look and listen for birds: Not all of our feathered friends fly south for the winter, and many gorgeous bird species can be found throughout the Northeast and mid-Atlantic. Visit a local park or simply step into your back yard. If you don’t see many birds around your home, build a bird feeder and identify the birds that come visit for a snack. Notice their markings and flight patterns but pay particular attention to their calls and songs. Downloadable smart phone applications can make recording and uploading bird songs fun and easy for the whole family.
Play winter BINGO: Make a list of common (and uncommon) items you might find on a winter walk and put them onto a BINGO card. Then, go in the backyard or to a local trail and start searching! Another way to play this is to find nature items corresponding to all the letters of the alphabet.
Build a snowperson: Sure, build your traditional Frosty. But have you built an entire family or snow animals? Clothes and accessories—as well as food coloring—can enhance the fun of building snowpeople.
Build a fort, maze, or shelter: To build a simple maze and fort, you can make snow “bricks” by packing snow into plastic bins or wastebaskets, then letting it air-harden before building. Decorate your creations with food coloring, pinecones, or other flourishes. Construct a shelter for the kids’ fairies with downed twigs or use branches to make it big enough to fit the snowperson—or a real person.
Catch a snowflake: Use black pepper or dark color mittens to show the flake’s contrast. Try to photograph the snow crystal before it melts.
Go sledding: Sledding is a winter favorite for kids and adults alike, so don’t forget to do it just because it’s so common. If the snow is on the icier side, even cardboard can slide pretty well for those who don’t have a sled.
Make ice art: Freeze water colored with food coloring into blocks and other shapes, using ice cube trays, muffin tins, Jell-O molds, and old yogurt containers. (This step is more easily done in your freezer, but you can also try it outdoors.) Then bring your colorful ice blocks outside, along with any natural ice and snow you can collect, to create your own ice sculptures. In sub-freezing temperatures, you can stick the pieces together by dribbling water on them—it should quickly freeze them in place.
Look to the sky: Bundle up and take the kids outside to check out the winter night sky, which, if cloudless, is usually crisp and clear with bright stars. Track changes in the moon’s shape and position in the sky over several weeks and record them in a family nature journal.
Go for a hike: Just go ahead and schedule a weekly family hike through the winter. Be sure to check the weather and outfit yourself and the kids with proper footwear, while packing extra layers, food, water, and a map. Looking for a group? Search AMC’s Activities Database for a family-friendly Chapter meetup near you. If you’re new to winter hiking, read our guide to get you started.
Try snowshoeing: Don’t skip your weekly family hike just because it snowed the night before. Snowshoeing is an easy way to “float” on top of a deeper snowpack, allowing kids and adults alike to hike through the winter. Consult our guides to snowshoeing for beginners and snowshoeing with kids before you head out.
Go winter camping: Up for a bigger challenge? Try winter camping. Keep in mind that when spending the night outdoors in the winter, you’ll need to put in a bit more planning than you would on a day outing. That said, you’ll have your pick of locations throughout the region that allow winter camping. Note: For AMC’s campgrounds and facilities, check opening status as you make your plans.
These ideas are just the beginning, of course. Winter offers infinite ways for kids to stay active and curious; sometimes the limitations are only in our minds. Bundle up and enjoy this glorious season!