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by Patricia I. Manzi and Dana E. Friedman, Ed.D.

Related: ideas for outdoor winter activities for kids, playing outdoors in the winter with kids, staying active in the winter with kids,

The average child in the U.S. spends less than 15 minutes a day outside, and even less than that during the cold winter months. But, getting outside in the snow is fun and healthy. The Early Years Institute offers advice on how to enjoy the outdoors this winter.

“There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes” is an important adage for parents to remember in winter. With the cold weather upon us, many of us dread going outside, and we have passed that feeling along to our children. Yet children truly revel in fresh snowfall, making snow angels and snowmen. With a well-chosen winter wardrobe of layered clothing and breaks to warm up, you can make your child’s outdoor playtime in winter a comfortable and enjoyable experience.

Snow AngelMany parents had the opportunity for outdoor playtime when they were children, but it has evaporated from the lives of many children today. Whether pulled by TV, video games, or scheduled activities, children no longer have free-range childhoods where they learn social skills and critical thinking by discovering the world outside, without adult intervention.

The average North American child spends less than 15 minutes a day outside, but up to five hours a day indoors playing video games or watching TV. We tend to be even more sedentary in winter and are less likely to go out into the cold and inclement weather. That leaves many of us to pack on the pounds. With childhood obesity on the rise, doctors are urging parents to get their children outside, stressing the importance of doing so in the winter months.

Besides, we are more likely to catch germs when we stay in small spaces indoors. While common belief is that exposure to chilly, wintry air can cause colds or the flu, fresh air is actually one of nature’s best medicines.

An added benefit is the learning that takes place outside, especially in winter. Children use gross motor and art skills as they build snowmen and make igloos. Observation skills are refined as they look closely at snowflakes or footprints in the snow. Their sense of hearing and touch are heightened as they experience the silence of snow or how it feels as it melts into water on their skin. Social skills improve as children work collaboratively when building a snow fort or having a friendly snowball fight. Children develop self-confidence as they make their own rules and enforce them when others don’t play by those rules. All this can happen without parental intervention.

Other ideas for having fun outside in winter are to:

Take a hike.
Bring the binoculars and look at the birds or hanging icicles. Take a magnifying glass and prove that there are no two snow crystals exactly alike. See how many different evergreens you can find. Start a species library at home throughout the winter. Get a good stroller workout with the baby. Take a walk with the dog. Look for different animal tracks in the snow.

Go to the playground. There are probably few others there and the equipment may be used in new ways. Besides, the landing is so much softer in the snow.

Build snow sculptures.
Go beyond snowmen to building, cars, animals, or team logos. Add food coloring to water, put it in a spray bottle and paint the sculptures. Instead of snowballs, put water in ice cube trays, muffin tins or old yogurt cups. Add food coloring and freeze them in the freezer or outside. Then take them outside and build something wacky and wonderful.

Blow ice bubbles.
While the water is not yet frozen, blow bubbles and watch as they freeze.

Play new games.
Have a game of bowling with snow balls. Play horseshoes by burying a water bottle in the snow so the neck sticks out and throw some horseshoes around it. Have a “dog sled race” where children load up their sleds with toys, sticks or rocks and see who can pull them the fastest. Try a polar bear “swim” where each child gets a bag of swim goggles, a towel, an adult swimsuit and maybe flippers; see how fast they can pull on all the swim gear over their outer clothes, throw the towel around their necks, and pretend to “swim” around a tree. Put the items back in the bag and let two more children have a swim race. Give each swimmer a medal, like a pinecone on a string.

Some safety tips to keep in mind: Wear the right clothes, especially over hands, feet and head; put Vaseline on cheeks to prevent them from turning too red; and always stay hydrated. Bring water (yes, even in the cold) or hot chocolate or cider to warm up. Most importantly, bring a smile outside, where it is healthier and more fun than staying cooped up inside during the winter months.

Patricia Manz is director of Long Island Nature Collaborative for Kids, a project of The Early Years Institute. Dana E. Friedman, Ed.D., is EYI president.

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