There is much to see in winter that can be difficult to detect during the other seasons. The contour of the landscape is easier to observe when trees are bare. Winter woods seem to stretch far beyond what had been there just a few short weeks before. In cold climates, the experience of being in snow is magical. Winter is also a perfect time to look for animal clues such as tracks, fur, or bones.
Depending on where you live, winter may bring cold and snowy weather, or it could simply bring cooler-than-average temperatures. Spending time outside will offer opportunities to breathe fresh air, help your family build a healthy immune system,
and provide much-needed activity and movement The proper gear makes all the difference for braving cold temperatures.
by Monica Wiedel-Lubinski
Bare trees slumber,
As winter sets in.
Cold winds whirl,
Shadows grow tall,
In the fading light of day
But when snowflakes fall,
We head outside to play!
From white and fluffy cumulus clouds to wispy streaks of cirrus, there are many clouds that appear in different seasons and temperatures. Clouds are made of water droplets, ice crystals, or both, that are suspended in the air. Some clouds hover high above the horizon, while others form at lower places in the sky. Clouds are good predictors of the weather. In winter, cirrostratus clouds are the most common. They are thin and will sometimes form a halo around the Sun.
On a day when cumulus clouds are high in the sky, grab a tarp or quilt and do some cloud watching. Are the clouds moving swiftly in the breeze? Are they changing and beginning to look like familiar shapes? What shapes do you see? Do the big puffy clouds look like pillows?
You can use this darling little pillow to cuddle with or slip it in a drawer to keep clothes smelling sweet.
〉 Recycled denim or other fabric
〉 Sharp embroidery needle
〉 Embroidery floss
〉 Dried pine or balsam needles
〉 Dried lavender
1. Draw a cloud shape on the fabric.
2. Double the fabric and cut along the line.
3. Thread the needle and sew the pieces together along the edge, leaving a 1- to 2-inch (2.5 to 5 cm) opening.
4. Stuff the opening with pine needles and lavender.
5. Sew the pillow closed.
Grow lavender in your garden in the summer. Harvest the blossoms, dry them, and enjoy the sweet, earthy smell. Lavender has calming properties and can contribute to better sleep, so keep it close during a peaceful winter nap.
Use your new cloud pillow to lie back and watch the sky, then dip pine branches into homemade paint (see the recipe shown here) and create cloudscapes in your nature journal.
In winter it can be difficult to identify bare trees. With the exception of evergreen conifers, most deciduous trees are missing their biggest clues, their leaves! Armed with field guides, head outdoors with your family to a stand of unfamiliar trees. Each family member can choose a tree to explore. Are there any leaves still on the tree? Is the bark smooth or rough? Are twigs on the tree branches growing opposite or alternate? What clues, such as seeds, are on the ground nearby? Work together to identify your trees.
Observe and draw silhouettes of winter trees in your nature journal. If you’ve made any campfires, you can draw with a piece of cooled charcoal left behind.
〉 Large tarp or quilt
〉 Nature journal
〉 Pencils, pastels, or charcoal
1. Spread out the tarp or quilt on the ground underneath some trees.
2. Lie on your back and look up at the trees for at least 10 minutes. Breathe deeply and observe the canopy without distraction.
3. Draw your observations in your nature journal.
4. If leaves or seedpods are nearby, you may want to sketch them. The shape and edges of the leaves can help reveal the identity of your trees.
Many field guides can help you hone plant and animal identification skills (see Resources shown here). Although not useful for learning the process of identification, many apps can provide quick suggestions to help you identify a tree (iNaturalist is one example).
You can place a page of your journal on top of tree bark and use pastels to make rubbings. Don’t forget to hug your trees!
Cold temperatures usually mean drier weather and more visibility for stargazing. Bundle up with your family on a clear winter night and head outside, preferably to an open area away from buildings and artificial light. It’s best not to bring a flashlight with you, but you might want a thermos of hot cocoa! Some constellations are easy to spot with the naked eye, such as Orion’s Belt. To help you focus, create the Star-Viewing Wand here. Snuggle up next to your loved ones and gaze at the stars!
This sweet wand will inspire you to stargaze on a clear winter’s night. Afterwards, you can use it for dramatic play.
〉 5 sticks, each about 6 inches (15 cm) long
〉 Raffia or yarn
〉 Sturdy stick, about 12–16 inches (30–40 cm) long
〉 Hot glue and glue gun (optional)
1. Crisscross the sticks to form a star shape.
2. Use raffia or yarn to lash the star points together (hot glue is optional here).
3. Join the star to the larger stick by tying it on with raffia or yarn (hot glue optional).
4. Use your wand to peek at the night sky through the center of the star.
Try using a telescope to observe the night sky or create your own planetarium experience with a phone app like Star Rover, GoSkyWatch Planetarium, or Brittanica Kids: Solar System.
Embellish your Star-Viewing Wand with shimmery paint and ribbon! Keep track of the winter moon phases in your Moon journal (see here).
Bundle up for a winter walk and head out to a snowy forest. Use a basket or canvas bag to collect nature treasures such as sticks, evergreen branches, berries, nuts, and seeds. Spend some time sorting the objects and creating patterns.
No snow? No problem! You can create a nature mandala wherever you are.
Making a nature mandala is a quiet and peaceful activity that allows your body and mind to slow down and be in the moment. This process of mindfulness lets you connect with each object as you place it in your design. There is no right or wrong way to create a mandala. It is a personal process and can be as simple or as elaborate as you choose.
〉 Collected natural objects
1. Place objects in a large circle. Sit in the center of the circle and close your eyes. Think about when you were collecting each object and where you found it. How did the object come to be where it was? Did it fall from a tree? Did an animal leave it there? Was it blown by the wind? Open your eyes and look around the circle at your items. Start by picking up the largest items. Look at each one closely. Is there anything you didn’t notice before? How does it feel in your hands? Say the name of the item out loud. Begin to place the items in a pleasing design. Repeat with the remaining items until you decide that your mandala is complete. Spend some time looking at your work.
Note: This would be a great time to introduce meditation and sit spots as part of your nature awareness routines.
For some people, a daily practice of making mandalas is a relaxing form of meditation. Try it for a week to engage your senses and develop deeper appreciation for the abundance and beauty found in nature.
Make a snowy track mandala using your footsteps to create the design. No materials necessary, just yourself! Walk in a circle and then create various tracks and patterns. Drag your feet to make lines and jump or hop over the areas you wish to leave blank.
Spend some searching for, following, and identifying animal tracks. Try to determine what the animals were up to and where they were going. Are there any other clues around, such as nut shells or scat? Do the tracks lead to a tucked-away den, or perhaps to a tree? Is there more than one type of tracks?
Fox walking is a way to move slowly, as if stalking prey silently like a fox would. To do it, hunch your head and shoulders forward, with your hands at your sides. Move slowly with fluid movements. Place one foot directly in front of the other in a straight line. With each step, place your heel down first, beginning with the outer edge of the foot. Roll slowly to the inner ball of the foot as you gently drop your toes. Fox walking helps heighten the awareness of our own bodies, improves our ability to control movements, and helps us go undetected like a stealthy predator. Fox walking is a skill often used in tracking animals. If there is no snow, you can draw a circular path on a sidewalk or blacktop with chalk.
1. Walk in a circle to create a large path with your footprints.
2. Bisect the circle by shuffling across it from one side to the other until the tracks make an X in the center of the circle.
3. Add more paths across the circle, if desired.
1. Choose one person to be the fox and assign the others to be geese.
2. Players may only move along the paths.
3. The fox chases the geese along the paths.
4. If the fox catches a goose, that person also becomes a fox.
5. Keep playing until everyone becomes a fox.
Fox and Geese is a game that originated during Colonial times. It’s a type of tag game that is played by making tracks to create paths in snow. Try fox walking as slowly and silently as you can. How close can you get to a squirrel or bird?
Want to see more animal tracks? Make a hidden feeding station on the ground. Fill a shallow tray with birdseed, nuts, and berries.
Take a walk through the winter landscape. What do you notice? Are trees glistening with ice? Is there frost on the leaves and on fern fronds? Do you see animal tracks in frozen ground or on snow? Are icicles beginning to form? Imagine you are in a sparkling, magical land!
Gather some natural objects to use to create your own sparkling ice village.
〉 Various recycled containers
〉 Natural objects (berries, nuts, seeds, pine needles, leaves, plants)
〉 Food coloring or liquid watercolors
〉 Salt shakers
1. Freeze water and natural objects in various molds and recycled containers. This can be done in your freezer if space allows, or overnight outdoors if the temperature is below freezing.
2. Invite friends to an icy playdate. Ask them to bring their own special ice blocks. This is especially fun to do in snow—don’t forget a thermos of hot cocoa!
3. At the playdate, work together outdoors to build a village with the ice blocks.
4. Splash colors onto the ice with paintbrushes dipped into food coloring or watercolors.
5. Experiment with salt by sprinkling it onto the ice. What do you notice as you build with the ice? Is the salt useful in any way?
6. Warm up with some cocoa.
Any water can freeze into ice if the temperature is 32°F (0°C) or below, from small, shallow puddles to ponds and lakes. Observe ice on a winter walk. Where do you notice the most ice? Least? Don’t walk on ice that is fewer than 4 inches (10 cm) thick—ask an adult about walking or skating on ice before you try it.
Try freezing natural objects such as berries, seeds, and leaves in small food molds or muffin tins filled with water to create winter suncatchers. Before freezing, add a vine clipping, ribbon, or piece of twine so you will be able to hang your suncatchers outside.
As winter winds down and the days become warmer, tree sap begins to flow. Many types of trees can be tapped because they produce sap that contains enough sugar to be made into syrup. The best time to collect the sap is when the days become warmer (above 32°F [0°C]) but the nights are still cold (dipping below freezing temperatures). This repeated freezing and thawing builds pressure in the tree so when the tree is tapped, the sap flows out. Ideal trees to tap include sugar maple, red maple, silver maple, Norway maple, sycamore, and black walnut.
If you have access to maple, sycamore, or walnut trees, you can tap them and make your own syrup! You can even use a combination of sap from various trees to make your own unique flavor. Here is what you will need for tapping: a drill, 7/16-inch (11 mm) drill bit, spile (tap with spout), metal bucket with lid, and hook for hanging.
Note: Follow a local maple sugaring forum to find the best times for tapping trees.
It takes a lot of tree sap to make syrup—40 gallons (150 L) in fact, just to make 1 gallon (4 L) of syrup! After tapping the trees and harvesting the sap, try your hand at making your own syrup.
〉 10 gallons (38 L) sap
〉 Stainless-steel cooking pots/pans
〉 Fire pit with a cooking setup or propane stove
〉 Syrup thermometer
1. Pour the sap through a strainer into the cooking pot.
2. Outdoors, boil the pot over fire or on propane stove until the sap begins to thicken and becomes a light amber color, skimming foam every 30 minutes or so.
3. Pour the sap into smaller pot and finish it over the stove indoors, boiling until the sap becomes syrup (between 215°F and 219°F [102°C to 104°C]).
4. Pour the syrup into a glass jar or bottle.
5. Store the syrup in the refrigerator.
Note: The sap can be divided into more than one cooking pot to reduce the boiling time. Ten gallons (38 L) divided into thirds will take about 31/2 hours.
Trees should be at least 18 inches (45 cm) in diameter for one tap. Trees up to 24 inches (60 cm) can hold two taps. Remember to ask permission to tap trees that are not your own.
Make fluffy buttermilk or banana pancakes to eat with your tasty syrup!
Just as people seek solace from the cold, other animals seek cozy places to stay warm and dry. Not all animals migrate to a warmer place or hibernate to rest in winter. Some animals are dormant during cold snaps but awaken on mild winter days to forage before returning to slumber again. Survey the surroundings during a winter hike. If you were a mouse, where would you go to find shelter?
This quick shelter will give small animals shelter from the cold.
〉 Fallen branches
〉 Leaves and dried grasses
1. Gather branches that have freshly fallen from trees.
2. Make a pile of branches by loosely stacking them.
3. Add leaves and dried grasses to the pile.
Hang a bird feeder close to the brush pile—little creatures will use the shelter as they go back and forth to feed.
Make a milk carton feeder for your feathered friends! Cut panels out of all four sides of a clean half-gallon (1.9 L) milk carton, leaving a 2- to 3-inch (5 to 8 cm)-deep bowl at the bottom for birdseed. You can lightly sand and paint the carton with acrylic paints if you’d like. Cut small slits on opposite sides of the feeder, then poke a stick through to make a perch. Fill with seed and watch for birds to visit.