Icicles cling to the garage roof. I don’t have to check the thermometer to know winter is upon us. With the slow crawl of the cold season, the kids beg to stay curled up in front of the TV and devote their days to dolls and trucks sprawled across the dining room floor.
Most of motherhood agrees with me. The greatest death to my old way of living came when I realized my kids wouldn’t always want to pursue my passion for nature with me, especially in the dead of winter.
They’re happy to hike to the creek behind the house, just as long as the promise for catching frogs and bluegills presents itself. But when winter sends the woods into a quiet slumber, they’re content to stay in their pajamas until noon, build towers with blocks, and fill the pages of the stack of coloring books with life.
They’re two and six, and wrangling them out the door begins with motivating them to face the cold. While the promise of building a snowman or throwing snowballs in the yard is generally sufficient to motivate them, sometimes this mama just needs to breathe in some wild air beneath the hemlocks by the creek.
Here are five ways I convince my kids to join me:
Create a scavenger hunt
I’m in the business of saving empty peanut butter jars for our nature expeditions. In the summer months, they hold specimens of all sorts, creating temporary vacation homes for everything from toads to minnows. In winter, we use the same jars to collect items for scavenger hunts.
I use a permanent marker to write the names of five to ten objects we might find in the woods on the side of the jars, put the child’s name at the top of the list, and we’re set to go. Each hunt has a different theme. Sometimes we look for objects based on color. Other times we focus on finding different species of leaves. But most of the time, I write down the first eight objects that come to mind (for example, pinecone, acorn, blade of grass, lichen, piece of bark, red berry, heart-shaped rock, maple leaf). Nail polish remover wipes the words off the jars, so they can be used again.
The kids love this. On days when they’re feeling reluctant, I’ve been known to offer a “prize” of a dime for anyone who finds each item.
Create a creature list
A creature list is similar to a scavenger hunt; it simply omits the need to carry a container. There are plenty of animals to discover in the winter woods. The kids get excited to go outside when I create a simple list of five creatures we hope to see. If we see all five, there might be a reward at the end of the adventure.
Common winter creatures include songbirds, birds of prey, woodpeckers, ducks, deer, rabbits, squirrels, and turkeys. Finding tracks or scat from any of the creatures on the list warrants a check mark. This is a great way to teach kids the skill of track and scat identification as well.
Build a fire
While not every piece of woods permits fire building, many do. State parks, state game lands, state forest land, and many conservancies permit fire building. And most kids love fires.
To make it easy, I bring two cotton balls, completely saturated with petroleum jelly. They act as the fire starter and stay lit for up to two minutes. We’re not looking to be survival experts or show our fire building expertise here, so leave the flint and steel at home and bring matches and maybe a little used paper to crumple over the cotton balls.
The kids love helping gather sticks of various sizes, and they especially love throwing them on the fire.
To top it off, we generally bring the ingredients for a few s’mores. Nothing beats cooking a marshmallow over an open fire in the woods on a cold winter day. This activity breathes life into our souls.
Create an outdoor challenge
An outdoor challenge encourages kids to use their bodies to explore nature. It’s a simple list of tasks to perform in the woods. A prize at the end of the challenge is optional.
Outdoor challenge tasks might include jumping over a log, climbing under a log, running up a hill, balancing on a fallen tree, climbing a (small) tree, running for 100 meters, throwing five stones across a creek, or any other age-appropriate physical task. The outdoor challenge incorporates exercise into the exploration of nature.
Most kids love the idea of a space to call their own. If you live close to a piece of wilderness where moving a few sticks and leaves around won’t disrupt the natural habitat or conflict with any ordinances, take the kids to the woods and allow them to build their own “cabins.”
Cabins can be as simple as propping 10 sticks against the side of a tree and calling it home, clearing a small area of leaves and debris, or pulling a few logs together to create furniture. The kids’ imaginations will take care of the rest.
We live in a culture in which outdoor enthusiasm is quickly diminishing. Let’s do all we can to help our kids love the woods. These ideas are just a starting place. The key is to make nature fun, and if you’re enjoying your experience, most likely your kids will enjoy it, too.