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Outdoor Play in Winter

February 8, 2019

I work at a small nature preschool in the greater Milwaukee area.  Our curriculum revolves around the natural world. Nature is our teaching partner, helping to strengthen everything from our sense of community and emotional well-being, to gross motor skills and environmental awareness. We use nature to help teach mathematical skills, as well as emerging literacy. We use nature to help promote empathy.

We strive to connect young children to nature while also supporting their developmental needs. When we dip nets into ponds, we are not only learning about the pond ecosystem, we are practicing balance, and self-regulation. When we chase the waves on the shores of Lake Michigan, we are strengthening coordination and large motor skills. We are also providing opportunities for free and joyful play while encouraging a deeper connection to nature.

This means that going outdoors, rain or shine, is part of the core of our program. It also means that at least once a month I am asked, “but what about the winter?”

Adults are sometimes surprised to learn that we still go outside when the temperature plummets. In fact, we go outside every day except in the case of hazardous weather. And the fact is, there is seldom anyone better bundled than a preschool child in winter. With a good pair of waterproof mittens, snow pants, a coat, warm boots, a neck warmer, and hat, preschool children are more prepared than just about anyone to play outdoors all winter long.

And there are so many amazing ways to play outside on cold days! Here are some of our favorites, tried and tested over the past fifteen years with hundreds of preschool children. It is our hope that parents and other educators might be inspired to try a few (in fact, we know several who already do). For while Wisconsin winters may be long, childhood is all too short. Playing outside should be part of it.

  • Look for animal tracks in the snow
  • If you find one, make a cast of that track (we use Plaster-of-Paris powder, premeasured into baggies and easily mixed with a cup of water).
  • Follow the tracks and see where they lead. Can you find winter dens and nests?
  • Collect snowflakes on sheets of black felt and study them with magnifying lenses (tip: put the felt in the freezer beforehand)
  • Break up partially frozen ice with sticks
  • Sled down hills—with or without sleds
  • Boot skate on frozen ponds (Make sure an adult is present and has tested the ice in advance. We hammer in a pre-measured railroad tie to check the thickness, and like the ice to be at least four inches deep before we take children on it; two inches or less means stay off!)
  • Take, draw, or paint pictures of your neighborhood in spring, summer, and fall, and then take a winter walk. Compare the changes in the landscape.
  • Paint outside in the winter. A heavy piece of cardboard makes a good easel.
  • Take a winter listening hike. How does the sound of winter compare with spring, summer, and fall? How does winter sound just before and just after a snowstorm?
  • Play music outside in winter. We like to use shakers, rain sticks, drums, bells, etc.
  • Collect snow in a bowl or bucket. Make predictions (and mark with a piece of tape) where the waterline will be after it melts. Test your prediction
  • Use colored water in spray bottles, eye-droppers, etc. to create paintings in the snow
  • Fill Bundt pans with water, add cranberries, orange slices, bird seed, etc. and set them out to freeze. Use warm water to release the ice, then hang your art/bird feeders from trees
  • Fill balloons with colored water. Place them outside, allow them to freeze, then cut the balloons apart. Race your ice balls down a hill or set up an outdoor bowling area
  • Create colored ice sculptures by filling different molds, pans, etc. with colored water. Invite neighbors and friends to add to your design.
  • Visit Lake Michigan in winter
  • Build fairy houses and gnome homes

Run, climb, jump, slide, sculpt, touch, taste, create, experiment, explore, and play!

Catherine Koons Hubbard is the preschool director for the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center, in Bayside. As director, she strives to see more children spending time outdoors, playing in nature, or in the neighborhood, throughout all seasons.

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