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Outdoor play in winter is not the carefree puddle-stomping of summer, to be sure, but the extra supervision needed can also be an opportunity for extra family time. Start by dressing children for success. Choose coats and hats with closures children can manage on their own and show them how to put on any unfamiliar outerwear garments in advance. When an expedition is imminent, lay garments out in putting-on order to help make sure the new thermals go on first.

Cold-Weather Puddle-Stomping: Pond, Puddle & Stream Activities

Pond & Stream Dipping refers to gently scooping creatures out of running water, observing (and perhaps identifying) them, then returning them to the water. In & Under The Ice is a frozen-water variation that brings this activity indoors for winter. More activity ideas for puddles, fountains, streams, household rain gutters, and small ponds in winter: help children collect and float (or sink!) a range of found materials; build and float boats made from walnut shells (with a paper-and-toothpick sail stuck into a lump of clay in half a shell); play "Poohsticks" on a bridge (drop sticks on one side, predict which will emerge first on the other; bring lots of sticks); mold mud collected from a puddle or stream edge into balls, then dry and decorate like clay.

SAFETY: Winter streams and creeks move fast and carry more water than in summer. For the duration of your visit, the safest place for children is right next to you, holding hands. Bring an adult hand for every child. If you plan to approach any waterway or pond closely, choose a gently sloping bank. An adult should check the footing first, to make sure it's not slippery.

Pond & Stream Dipping
© 2005 Frances Lincoln Limited; all rights reserved. Reprinted from Nature's Playground.

  • Fill a large container and a couple of smaller containers with water from the pond or stream. Place these on level ground near the water's edge, ready to receive your catch.
  • Ask the children to look carefully to see if they have caught something already. The water may be alive with miniature creatures such as water fleas.
  • Now is the time to use the net or sieve. Move it slowly and gently through the water, close to marginal plants where animals may be sheltering. Try not to collect too much mud.
  • Empty the net or sieve by gently turning it inside-out directly into the water of the largest container. Leave for a couple of minutes to allow any mud or silt to settle, then take a close look to see whether you have caught anything.
  • Remind children to treat their catch very carefully and handle it as little as possible. Many of the creatures cannot survive for very long out of water.
  • Using a paintbrush or spoon, transfer some of your catch to the cleaner water in the smaller container.
  • When you have finished, return all the water, plants, and creatures to where they were found, rinsing out the nets and containers carefully.

In & Under the Ice
© 2001 Jane Drake and Ann Love; all rights reserved. Reprinted from The Kids Winter Handbook.

When a pond is covered in ice, it's hard to believe that anything is alive and moving underneath. But there is. Here's how you can find out for yourself. Take an adult with you and don't walk out on the ice.

  1. Stand on solid ground at the edge of the pond.
  2. Ask an adult to chop a hole through the ice down to the water below.
  3. Fill the plastic container with the chips of ice and ice-cold water.
  4. Carry the container inside and observe it over several weeks.

The ice water may look clear and cold, but it's full of tiny eggs and creatures that will develop in the spring-like warmth of your house. Over the weeks, they will live through several generations -- some will grow and be eaten by (or eat) others that emerge. Check every day and watch the drama unfold...

As Cold as Ice? Great Ideas for Icy Outdoor Art & Science

What would winter be without ice? Backyards today may not accommodate the kind of hand-built skating rinks our grandparents remember, but a narrow ice slide made the same way is fun even without the skates: send down vehicles, balls, or cardboard boxes with varying weights inside. More outdoor ice activities: build ice castles that look like sand castles (freeze water in plastic tubs of various shapes and sizes, turn them out, and stack them); make a "stained glass" collage from thin ice sheets cracked from atop a shallow puddle; make an icicle sculpture (melt the broad ends by breathing on them, then hold the melt against a bigger chunk of ice until the icicles refreeze in position). Even in the sunbelt, nights can be cold enough to enjoy some of these ice-based activities -- or try a few the next time family travel takes you to the mountains.

SAFETY: Frozen ponds and streams can be as dangerous for an inexperienced adult as they are for children. Before you venture out, review the North Dakota Fish & Game Department's Ice Safety brochure for general safety tips and excellent advice for judging ice by its appearance and thickness.

Make A Rink
© 2001 Jane Drake and Ann Love; all rights reserved. Reprinted from The Kids Winter Handbook.

Construct your own ice rink for skating, sliding and game playing -- until the spring thaw.

  1. With an adult's help, decide where to locate the rink. Remove all hazards such as rocks. Pile snow, straw or used tires around trees and other immovable objects.
  2. Shovel snow onto the rink area and stamp it down with your boots. When the weather forecast predicts temperatures will stay below freezing for several days, soak the prepared rink area using a garden hose or sprinkler. Repeat for several days in a row until the ice is at least 2 cm (3/4") thick. Do not walk on the rink while it's under construction.
  3. Once the rink is ready, keep it shoveled and use a hose to flood any cracks that appear now or later when the ice chips.

Note: Hoses and outdoor taps can freeze and burst in cold weather. After flooding the rink, turn off the tap and drain the hose completely. Ask an adult if there is an indoor turn-off valve that should be opened and closed with each use.

Ice Mobiles
© 2005 Frances Lincoln Limited; all rights reserved. Reprinted from Nature's Playground.

This winter activity needs a stretch of very cold weather. Make the mobiles on a night when a cold frost is forecast.

  • Ask each of the children to choose a few favorite things from their collection of natural materials.
  • Put the chosen items inside pastry cutters placed in saucers or plastic bowls, or arrange them in upturned jam-jar lids.
  • Carefully place the containers in a row on a tray.
  • Lay a piece of string along the row of containers, linking them together. The string must go right into each pastry cutter or jam-jar lid to ensure it will be frozen into the mobile.
  • Pour water into each container, making sure all the materials and pieces of string are submerged.
  • When the mobiles have frozen, carefully remove the icy discs from their containers. You may need to use a little warm water to loosen the ice and release the pastry-cutter shapes.
  • Hang your mobiles just outside a window or on a tree in the garden, and enjoy them for as long as the cold weather lasts.
Beyond Snow Angels: Snow Activities with More Fun & Less Ho-Hum

Snow angels, snowballs, sledding, snow houses... when these familiar activities have been thoroughly explored, consider the lesser-known but unique opportunities presented by fresh snow. Among them: there's no better time to find and follow animal tracks (bring along a book to help identify the creature); the hush that follows snowfall is perfect for a Montessori-style listening game; in town, snow-covered parks and ball fields are blank canvasses for large-scale writing or pattern-making activities (stomp the lines together); in rural areas, families may be able to "catch" winter-camouflaged wildlife hiding in plain sight; children can use food coloring mixed with water (in trigger-spray bottles) to color snow sculptures or make icy paintings on top of the snow.

SAFETY: Be vigilant about hypothermia and frostbite. Stay outside with younger children, even in your own yard. Once older children can function in the yard with less supervision, frequent visual inspections are still required; they may be reluctant to come in, though their teeth are chattering and their lips are blue! Toss some towels in the dryer as children go out, for an instant toasty wrap when they come back in.

Giant Snowballs
© 2005 Frances Lincoln Limited; all rights reserved. Reprinted from Nature's Playground.

There is something immensely satisfying about rolling a little snowball over and over across the snow-covered ground, watching it get bigger and bigger until it is so huge it can barely be pushed along. Giant snowballs can be used in several different ways:

  • Try carving and molding with hands or a beach spade and spoon to create a snow person or animal.
  • Several giant snowballs rolled together in a circle might be used to make a den.
  • The children can decorate snowballs, covering them in materials such as mud, leaves, or twigs to create natural sculptures.
  • As a snowball is rolled, it leaves behind a grassy trail through the snow. If the children plan their rolling route they can make a pattern in which exposed grass contrasts with the snow.
About the Books

Nature's Playground, by Fiona Danks and Jo Schofield, is written for the adult looking for help creating year-round, outdoor art and science activities for children. Found materials from nature and treading carefully in the environment are emphasized; thoughtful tips and good presentation suggestions that connect activities with bigger ideas accompany instructions. (Item: SC915)

The Kids Winter Handbook, by Jane Drake and Ann Love, is written for the older child who can tackle projects with less direct supervision, however an adult can easily modify and set up many of the activities for younger children. Many outdoor activities and simple indoor crafts, all specifically suited for wintertime or directly related to the science of ice and snow. Excellent safety tips children can understand. (Item: C313)

—Originally Published 2011