For children living in cold winter climates, the uninviting, biting air and barren tree branches might suggest there’s nothing much to explore outdoors in nature at this time of year. In fact, just the opposite is true: There’s actually much activity outdoors, just waiting for children to investigate.
Families can begin their learning on winter evenings simply by going outdoors and looking up. After bundling up warmly, explore the stars in the night sky and search for constellations. In his book Find the Constellations, author H.A. Rey—creator of the Curious George series—teaches young readers specific winter constellations to look for, as well as those visible during other months of the year.
To explore something a bit more up close and personal, Toni Albert, author of A Kid’s Winter EcoJournal: With Nature Activities for Exploring the Season, suggests that kids and parents search for wildlife in their backyard. “It’s fun to run through a field, scramble up rocks, or crash through underbrush,” she says. “But that’s not the best way to see wildlife. You need to learn to enter the quiet world of animals and plants slowly and gently without disturbing them.”
Albert recommends having your children go outside and use their senses to explore nature. If you practice being still, she says, “then you’ll see where a chipmunk enters its burrow, or spot a fox trotting through a field.”
After your child has quietly observed nature, Albert suggests going for a winter walk.
“[Have your child] look for anything that catches their eye in the black-and-white world of winter,” she says. “Clusters of berries, pine cones and pine needles, nutshells, dried seedpods, dried wildflowers, and fluffy weeds. When you get home, put your entire collection in a big bowl or jar. Add cinnamon sticks or dried orange peels to make winter potpourri.”
On the winter walk, kids can also look for tracks—animal footprints—in the snow.
“Tracks in melting snow may be twice their normal size,” Albert says. “You may see holes in the snow or drag marks where a small animal’s belly brushed the snow or a deer dragged its feet or a bird took flight. You can have fun following the tracks.”
Give Back to Nature, Use Math, and Keep an Ecojournal
To give back to nature, Albert suggests that children make a gift for the birds in their backyard. Using fruit, nuts, seeds, dried corn, peanut butter, and oats, combine the mixture of ingredients, place in individual paper cupcake cups in muffin pans, and freeze until hard. After removing the paper, children can put out the “bird biscuits” for their feathered winter visitors on the ground, in a feeder, or in a hanging mesh bag.
To incorporate math skills in outdoor winter learning, it can be fun for children to see how much—or little—water is produced when snow melts. Have children fill a measuring cup with snow, and use a ruler to measure how many inches of snow are in the cup. After bringing the snow indoors and letting it melt, they can see whether 1 cup of snow produces 1 cup of water.
Back indoors, children can record their outside observations in nature by writing them down. Using Albert’s ecojournal, which includes colorful illustrations by Margaret Brandt, or any other type of journal or notebook, children can record their field observations just as a scientist would.
The journal should include kids’ “experiences and discoveries” from their nature outing, Albert says. She suggests that parents encourage children to include the many ways the season is changing (e.g., is the ground freezing? Where are icicles forming? Do they see any birds migrating?). Children can also include their own drawings of what they’ve seen outside.
Another idea for learning about nature during winter is to plant an indoor garden. And kids can write about the temperature outside—and the way it changes as the winter days fly by—in this printable winter writing prompt.
“Writing about nature will help [them] be more observant,” Albert says, “and enjoy nature more, too.”
Abigail Forget is a student at Fordham University and an intern with SchoolFamily.com.