Backyard Connections: Exploring Nature in Winter

by Melissa Harding

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“In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.” -William Blake.

The cold of winter can be biting and forbidding, keeping us all huddled under blankets with cups of tea in our hands. This is especially true in January, when it seems like it has been cold for ages and spring is a lifetime away. However, the cold doesn’t have to keep you in the house; winter is a great time to explore nature and have fun outside! Bare trees provide a perfect view of birds and other critters and few green plants makes them easier to identify. Whether you are going to the park, to the forest or just staying in your backyard, there are lots of great things to explore and do in the winter.

Bundle up and be prepared
Before you go out, make sure to bundle up. Little bodies can get cold quickly, so making them as comfortable as possible will keep everyone outside longer. Gloves, hats, boots and warm coats are a must on winter days. Dress yourself and your child like an onion; layers are key to staying comfortable. Avoid cotton materials if possible, as it is less able to stay as warm and dry as wool or synthetic fabrics. This is especially important for items which will most likely get wet, like socks and gloves. Finally, take some snacks along. Little bellies are likely to get hungry as they expend energy playing in the cold and a bite to eat could turn a grumpy child into a happy one.

Take a hike!
The most obvious thing to do outside is to go for a walk. Whether it is down the sidewalk or through the woods, a walk outside is always fun. There is so much to see and do while walking. Encourage your child to observe their surroundings and look for things of interest. Remember to slow down and walk at your child’s pace; he or she may find so many interesting things that you don’t get very far, but it’s about the quality of your time outside, not how far you roam. In winter, bare trees make it easier to spot birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and other animals in their branches. Colorful birds like cardinals and blue jays are easy to spot amidst the brown branches, but there are many smaller, darker birds hopping around as well. While you are scanning the trees, look for nests, weirdly shaped branches and other interesting sights. Binoculars are a great tool to bring along to help you spot them.

Turning your eyes down, there are lots of things to observe on the ground. Winter is the best time of year for tracking, as the ground is either snowy or muddy; animals of all kinds leave tracks to identify and follow. There are many tracking guides, even some for children, available to help you understand who made the tracks you see. However, it can be even more fun to guess and make up stories about the track instead. As long as you are having fun, it doesn’t matter!

An additional way to enjoy a winter hike is to go on a scavenger hunt. Depending on the age of your child, it could be easy (find something red) or hard (find a cardinal). Either make a list at home of likely sights or improvise as you go along. A game of Eye-Spy is an equally fun way to encourage observation. Take a magnifying glass with you to look at snowflakes, pine needles or anything else you find.

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Collect Treasures
Sometimes, just looking isn’t enough – Children love to collect treasures! It may just be a rock to you, but it is an amazing find to your child. Children will collect anything; one way to encourage this is to bring a container for collecting outside with you. You can let your child pick up whatever catches his eye or direct him to a certain items such as sticks, pine cones, acorns or rocks. Make sure to monitor what sorts of items he collects; avoid delicate, rotting or otherwise undesirable items. Children should also understand that while they may want to take all of something, nature needs to keep some things for itself. At home, many of these treasures can be displayed in your child’s room or a shared space; filling recycled jars with treasures or putting them in bowls or on shelves helps to validate this sensory method of nature exploration.

Nature Art

One way to collect treasures is with a future art project in mind. Icicles on plant stems, red rose hips, and bits of evergreen have a short shelf life, but can be used to make beautiful art projects. They can be arranged in shapes outside in the snow to create winter land art or used to stamp designs on paper; the only limit is your imagination.

Here are some fun nature art ideas from around the web:
Winter land art and snow painting: The Chocolate Muffin Tree
Ice Art and Other Ice Crafts: Willow Day and Craftberry Bush
Pine Cone Birds:The Blueberry Junkie
Winter Bird Feeders: The Crafty Crow
Winter Love Jars: Marghanita Hughes

Or, try giving your child a camera or nature journal during your time outside and see what they create!

Play and Explore
Sometimes, activities and crafts are not necessary; what a child really needs is the time to play and explore. Sled riding, building snow forts, stamping in icy puddles and generally running around connect children with nature just as well as anything you may use to guide their energies. Sometimes all you need to do is send them outside and they’ll do the rest themselves.

If you are interested in more nature activity ideas, check out Nature Rock’s Winter Activity Guide.

The above pictures were taken by Christie Lawry.

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