Playing in the Snow

With shorter days and colder temperatures, outdoor play and adventure options look a bit different. As winter sets in in the northern hemisphere, we want to make sure that you and your family have loads of fresh inspiration and information to enjoy this season fully.

We’ve got you covered here with safety information for playing in the snow and cold, winter gear recommendations and tips, and lots of ideas for snow play whether your family loves big projects, outdoor art, nature and science play, or playing outside after dark. For extra inspiration, check out all of our winter posts!

Playing in the snow has so many benefits for both kids and adults, from curbing cabin fever, to soaking up Vitamin D and sunshine, to sparking a unique form of creativity and appreciation for each season.

Read up, bundle up, and head out for a fun winter of playing in the snow.

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A girl playing on a winter day.

Health and Safety Outside in Winter

Safety Precautions

Playing outside in any season means remembering basic precautions to stay safe and healthy. Below are a few tips for sun, ice, and cold safety. And if you are driving to your winter adventures with young children, remember to follow carseat safety tips with snow clothes as well.

Sun Safety in Winter

It can be easy to forget that on a sunny winter day the sun reflecting off of the snow can be strong enough to cause sunburns. Even on a gloomy day, sun can peek through the clouds and cause harm to skin and eyes.

Applying sunscreen to your child’s face should always be a first step in getting ready to go outside and play in winter. As you get them dressed in snow clothes, remember to use sunglasses or ski goggles for eye protection. Consider a snow hat with a brim for extra protection for skin and eyes.

Ice Safety

Types of ice play and exploration vary greatly, so before you play on the ice make sure you have a plan so that you are well-prepared with knowledge and safety gear.

If you are encountering ice on your snow hikes or walks, ice cleats for kids can be a helpful safety measure. For any type of ice play, make sure that you and your children have helmets on. If you are skating, knee and helmet pads can be helpful for protection as well.

Looking to get beyond basic ice play? Wild ice play might be a fun option for your family, with the right safety precautions in place.

Cold Safety

If you are wondering how cold is too cold for kids to be outside, you are not alone. While cold temperatures can feel intimidating, with the right gear, knowledge, and preparations you and your kiddos can enjoy the outdoors safely even when temperatures drop below freezing.

Make sure that you invest in high quality base layers and waterproof outer layers so that your children stay not only warm, but dry. Once you have chosen layers, check out our post on the how and why of layering kids up for cold weather.

As you are preparing for outdoor play in the winter, know all the signs of frostbite, including graying skin or numbness or tingling on the skin. Also read up on signs of hypothermia, which include nonstop shivering and becoming clumsy or lethargic. You can teach your children to pay attention to their own bodies as well for signs of needing to warm up.

Finally, be sure to have a plan in place for warm-up breaks if you plan to be out for long stretches of time, as well as warm drinks, hand warmers (we love these reusable ones), and an emergency blanket if you are going far from a shelter. Before you go, check the forecast, including wind chill.

Benefits of Being Outside in the Winter

Playing outside in the winter comes with all of the same benefits of playing outside in any other season, like connecting with nature, appreciating the seasons, and building healthy bodies by moving and taking in fresh air, to name a few. But there are also a number of winter-specific benefits to playing outside.

Building life skills by being out in all weather

As we have sun, ice, and cold safety at the front of our minds on winter adventures, we can also remember how many life skills can be learned by playing outside in the winter. This is especially helpful for motivation on winter days when we or our children just aren’t in the mood to brave the cold!

Being out in challenging weather builds children’s resiliency, and our own. While taking your kids out whether rain, sun, or snow makes for strong outdoor adventurers, this resiliency can also translate into resiliency in other challenges they will face in life.

The child who sees the fun on cold, dreary days will know how to look for fun and positive aspects in other “less than sunny” life circumstances. Taking kids out in all weather teaches them that joy is not only found on sunny, warm, perfect days.

Children out in the snowy dark.

In addition to resiliency, being outside in the winter can cultivate specific body awareness in relation to nature. Children will learn to dress for specific weather, to pay attention to their own bodies for signals of needing a warm-up break, and to navigate various types of terrain, like deep snow and slick ice, safely.

For budding adventurers, winter is an important time to teach season-specific survival and outdoor skills. For any type of winter adventure, children can learn to navigate a trail that may not be well-traveled, practice map and compass skills, start basic avalanche education, and continue to practice packing a pack with their ten essentials as well as ice cleats, hand warmers, and an emergency blanket for winter adventures.

Taking in fresh air

While we see this benefit from being outside in all seasons, fresh air has some extra benefits in the wintertime. At a time of year when illness ramps ups and spreads more easily, time outside in the winter gives young bodies a break from the illnesses that spread through recycled air and frequently touched surfaces.

Even if your child has a bug, breathing fresh air outside in the winter can be beneficial. Make sure to bundle up, bring warm beverages, and keep your play simple. Even if it’s just 15 minutes in the backyard, a stroll around the neighborhood, or sitting out on the front porch, your child is still getting a break from indoor germs and bacteria, and a change of scenery from the couch. And, since taking care of sick kiddos is wearing on parents, a bit of outside time definitely helps us recharge too.

Curbing cabin fever and boosting mental health

Creating the family habit of getting out in the winter can do wonders for curbing cabin fever and keeping the whole family happy and healthy all season. Getting out of the house and connecting with nature, even the nature in your backyard, can bring mental clarity and focus.

Planning winter adventures with friends intentionally is a great way to stay connected to your community and support system at a time of year when your family may not see as many people out at parks or on trails. And, if you get winter sun where your live, the Vitamin D that you and your kids take in can further boost moods.

While being out in the winter can be helpful for mental health, it’s also important to know the signs and symptoms of seasonal affective disorder and know where to get the support needed if this crops up for yourself or your child.

Keeping kids moving

While there are lots of ways to satisfy a child’s need for movement indoors, the outdoors gives different options for moving that may click with your child in a new way. A child that may not love basketball but still needs to move all winter might love skiing. The child who is fearful of water and won’t go to the pool might find great joy in a snowy winter walk.

Walking or playing in deep snow will also build different muscles and help your child with proprioception and balance, as well as give them fresh air instead of recycled air while they exercise.

A young toddler learns to walk in deep snow.

Tips for Getting Started Playing in the Snow

Two Parts Hot Chocolate, One Part Play

My husband likes to think of winter adventures with our two young kids as two parts hot chocolate, one part play. As adults, we know that if we are all out in the winter our kids are getting all sorts of great benefits. While sometimes it’s my kids pulling me outside in all weather, when it’s me (or us) pulling them outside when they aren’t in the mood, snacks and warm drinks can go a long way.

A child with a hot chocolate mustache during snow play.

Some days kids will get into their winter play schemes, games, and projects and play outside with no reserve. Some days are more hot chocolate than play or adventure. Either way, fresh air, sunshine, and time together do great things for all.

If your family is new to outside play in the winter, start small and close to home, and get some friends and neighbors on board so you can all be in it together.

Above all else, make being outside in winter fun, however that looks for your family!

Teaching Independence with Putting Snow Clothes On

Teaching independence with putting snow clothes on starts with having age-appropriate expectations and knowing your child’s capabilities. Telling parents what a child of each age ‘should’ be able to do is such a slippery slope to low confidence for both parents and kids.

If putting snow clothes on independently is new to your child, or even new this year since they may have forgotten, start with just one step at a time and choose the step you are most confident your child can complete independently so they get a confidence boost as they learn and practice.

Try these steps for added efficiency:

  • Make sure that all of the snow clothes for each child are accessible to them. Consider a hook for each child where their snow clothes can live all winter.
  • For young children, create a simple visual checklist so they know which pieces of gear go on in which order. You can also take your pick of children’s songs about putting snow clothes on to play as they dress.
  • Have young children practice by dressing dolls, stuffed animals, or snowmen.
  • Practice putting on one piece of gear at a time and moving around inside wearing it. This will help your child get used to moving in bulkier clothing.
  • Teach older siblings to help younger siblings with tricky pieces of gear.

Planning and Preparing for Snow Adventures

Just as we do in any season, start your winter adventure prep by making a plan. Make sure you know where you are going, what the weather and wind chill is, how long you intend to be out, and where you can take breaks to warm up if needed. After this is all in order, communicate your plan to a partner or friend.

Once your plan is made, follow these steps as you prepare:

  • Lay out everyone’s base layers and mid-layers.
  • Gather gear for everyone, including boots, snow pants, jackets, gloves, hat and/or helmet, and goggles or sunglasses. Keep the gear inside if driving to avoid putting on cold gear when you arrive at your destination, if driving. Keep the gear for each person in their own reusable grocery bag for easiest access, and keep a stadium chair in the car to lay flat so kids have a dry spot to stand while dressing.
  • Pack snacks or lunchboxes.
  • Pack water bottles and have a thermos ready for hot chocolate or tea.
  • Pack backpacks with the ten essentials, plus hand warmers and an emergency blanket. Don’t forget sunscreen!

Snow Play Ideas

Now that gear is chosen, a plan is made, kids are bundled, and food and drinks are packed it’s time to get out the door and play in the snow!

Classic Snow Play

Classic snow games and projects can be a great way to enjoy winter just as many generations have.

Hide treasures in the shoveling pile

If you shovel snow into one big area all winter, throw some treasures down on top of the pile before you shovel new snow on. Your kids can dig in the pile to find the treasures, or discover them as your snow pile starts to melt in the Spring. You can use jewels, action figures, or any little trinkets.

Build a snow friend

Building a snowman can be done in so many ways, it is the endless winter creativity project. You can use a snowman decorating kit, or household items to dress up your family’s snow friend. Kids can build snowmen in all sizes and enjoy watching them change as they melt.

Make a snow angel

Making snow angels is another age-old and easy classic snow play idea that. Kiddos can flop down in the yard and make a whole group of snow angels, or use it as a way to take a break on winter hikes. They can also decorate their snow angels using household items, or paint them using blow pens.

A child playing in the snow makes a snow angel.

Big Projects for Playing in the Snow

If your family enjoys working on ongoing projects, here are some ideas to work on and enjoy for weeks of winter.

Build a snow fort or igloo

A snow fort, tunnel or igloo is a magical addition to a backyard snow-scape. Not only will your family pass hours together working on your structure, you and your kids can then use it to escape from winter winds, hold tea parties, or cozy up on blankets and read some great winter books.

No matter which design you choose, make sure you go about it safely. Snow forts and igloos last best when temperatures are going to be consistently low, around 20 degrees, and when snow is wet so that it can be compacted more easily. To help your creation last longer, choose a shady spot to build.

To start, use a shovel or stick to draw out the perimeter of your fort or igloo. When choosing the size of your fort, keep in mind how much snow you have. Check the type of snow you have; the stickier and denser the snow, the better for building.

A snow structure with igloo design or castle walls is the safest way to go. Use a snow brick maker so your pieces fit together well and last longer. As you make your bricks, complete one row at a time around your perimeter outline, adding height as you go. Use a small saw to cut angles off the bricks if needed for a circular design. Pack snow or slush between the bricks on the inside and outside to create more solid walls. Before making the roof, stash the bricks you will need inside to avoid going in and out for each brick.

A child enjoying a completed backyard igloo.

If you’re building a fort, your group can then start making well-packed snowballs and stacking them to create the walls of your fort. Just as you would with an igloo, go row by row, adding height as you go.

If you have a snow pile accumulated, you and your kids can start tunneling into it to create a fort. Use extra caution with this method as the snow above your construction crew could shift and collapse. Have one person stationed outside as a safety, and keep a shovel nearby and accessible in case any portion collapses on one of your builders.

A child exploring a large snow tunnel.

Build a cross-country ski track or go cross-country skiing

Whether your family already enjoys cross country skiing together, or your kids are just getting into the sport, then building a track in the yard will pass some time in the winter, keep your kids practicing, and help them get great exercise.

When it comes to a DIY cross-country ski track, you can go as simple or as technical as works for your family. The simplest way is for you and/or your kids to ski over the same route in your yard over and over to pack it down. You can then mark it with flags periodically along the edges so you know where to repack after each new snow. You can also pull a younger child in a sled or ski trailer over your trail to further pack it down. If you want to get more technical with your trail, you can build your own track setter.

Don’t have the space or desire for a backyard ski track? You and your family can go out for an adventure further from home to cross-country ski. Research groomed cross-country trail systems or Nordic centers in your area, or check out your favorite mellow hiking trail or dirt roads that aren’t maintained in the winter. United States Forest Service roads can be a great way to cross-country ski in an ungroomed space wider than a hiking trail.

Children cross-country skiing in the forest.

Build jumps and ramps for ski and snowboard practice

Building a mini terrain park in the backyard will keep your avid young skier or snowboarder busy for hours and help them keep skills dialed between trips to a ski area. Start small by choosing their favorite terrain park element and add from there.

Snow Games and Play for Groups

While all forms of winter play are fun for groups, these activities especially lend themselves to groups. Planning adventures or snow play with buddies will help your family stay social through the winter when you may not see as many friends out and about or on trails.

Go sledding

Call up a group of buddies for this winter classic. Kids can start sledding on small hills once they can sit up and you, as their parent, feel they are ready. Make sure to ride with your little ones as they get started. This is the perfect activity for families or friend groups with kids of many ages.

And while it’s super common to see kids wearing helmets while skiing and snowboarding, it’s less common for kiddos sledding. As kids can be zooming just as quickly down an icy slope while sledding, make sure your kids wear helmets for this activity.

Check out our recommendations for kid’s helmets if you need purchase before sledding, skiing, or snowboarding.

Plan a snowball fight

Plan your snowball fight for a day when snow is wet and dense, as this is when snow sticks together best for any kind of building. For the perfect snowball, you can use a snowball maker. Make sure that your group is careful to avoid rocks, sticks, and ice chunks getting into their snowballs.

Organize a winter Olympics

A winter Olympics is an awesome way to get a group of friends together for a morale boost in mid-winter.

Kids might love a snowy obstacle course, throwing snowballs at a target, a game of Frisbee curling, a snow clothes running race or balance beam challenge, or a snowy version of their favorite team sport. If you’ve built a mini-terrain park in the backyard, include this in your Olympics.

Kids playing a snowy game of baseball.

When kids are ready to go in and warm up, play a game of Olympic trivia or pin the carrot on the snowman, and let them create hot chocolate concoctions with special toppings from a hot chocolate bar.

Nature and Science While Playing in the Snow

Go for a winter hike

Hiking in the winter is so magical, with everything fresh and clean and snow-covered, and much less crowding on trails. As in any season, going for a hike helps us connect with nature and appreciate the unique offerings of each time of year.

You and your kids can look for signs of winter forest animals, identify coniferous trees with the help of a field guide, search for lichen and winter berries, or complete a winter nature scavenger hunt.

Kids can continue learning to pack their ten essentials, adding ice cleats, hand warmers, and an emergency blanket for winter hikes. Bring a camp blanket with you for to enjoy snacks and warm drinks during hiking breaks.

A child on a winter hike.

Exploring Ice

There are so many ways to explore ice. Observing, touching, and tasting clean icicles and chunks of ice is an easy starting point. A simple prep activity for parents, kids will love rescuing a frozen toy from an ice orb; put a small toy into a full water balloon, freeze it, peel off the balloon when frozen, and let kiddos figure out how to rescue their toy.

A young child exploring a chunk of ice.

Pouring water at various temperatures over ice chunks outside is a fun way to learn about the process of melting and re-freezing, and can be expanded to learn about what air temperatures and rain do for runoff, glaciers, and water levels in each season.

Feeling a bit more adventurous? Check out our guide to wild ice play with kids.

Make maple syrup candy

Your first step in making maple syrup candy is to level off a small, clean patch of snow. Next, boil your real maple syrup. The hotter your syrup gets, the softer your candy will be. If it is just barely boiled, you’ll end up with a harder candy. The amount you use depends on how many pieces you would like to make. This can be as little as 1/4 cup for just a few pieces of candy. Next, you or your children will pour the syrup out in narrow strips on the clean patch of snow, pouring one strip for each piece of candy. Finally, before it cools completely, kiddos can roll the syrup onto a popsicle stick and enjoy.

Snow and Ice Art

Paint the snow

Add a pop of color to a white landscape by painting the snow. Try painting snow angels and snowmen, writing kind messages next to sidewalks for people, or creating designs across the yard. Children can use blow pens for more detail or spray bottles for less.

Make snow lanterns

Snow lanterns add an element of magic to snowy night walks, or to the yard for a party or snow play after dark.

Make Swedish snow lanterns by building a small structure out of snowballs that is hollow in the middle. Add a tea light or battery powered tea light to light after dark.

You can also make portable snow lanterns out of mason jars to bring along on night walks. For a more decorative jar, paint the outside with acrylic paint and Mod Podge. Then, add a pipe cleaner handle to your jar. Finally, place a tea light or battery powered tea light inside.

A child looks into his mason jar lantern at a Solstice celebration.

Make nature mandalas

Nature mandalas will help children notice the little details of each season. Spring and summer mandalas are usually made of lots of green leaves and flowers, and Fall mandalas will likely include changing leaves and acorns. Winter mandalas can be made with pine needles, pine cones, dried leaves and plants, rocks, sticks, and winter berries.

Children with their winter nature mandala.

Bring Snow Play Inside

Whether it is just too cold and windy to be out for any length of time, or you want to give your child a chance to explore snow without mittens on, try one of these ideas for bringing the snow inside.

Prep this mini ice rink by filling a cookie sheet with water, adding foam snowflakes or glitter if you have them on hand, and freezing it for a few hours. Once frozen, kids can have their toys skate on the ice, drive trucks on the ice, or experiment with breaking the ice up using a toy hammer.

Create snow sensory bins

There are so many ways to create a snow sensory bin for little ones. Use a shallow tub and fill it with snow. Add small toys or treasures that kids can dig and find, help children build an arctic scene with a set of arctic animal figurines, explore color mixing by painting in the snow or using food coloring and mixing, or play snow plowing with toy trucks.

Children use toy trucks to plow snow in a sensory bin.

Make snow ice cream

If you have fresh snow in the yard or on the deck, use it for a special winter snack. You or your children can fill a bowl with snow and top it with fresh fruit, fruit puree, sprinkles, chocolate chips, or any of their favorite ice cream toppings.

Snow Play After Dark

With parents at work and children at school, embracing the early dark of winter is crucial in continuing to get outside and fully enjoy the season. You can bundle up for a night walk or a quick game of flashlight tag, try night skiing, gather around a fire pit, or start a winter solstice celebration tradition. For more ideas and motivation, check out our post on outside winter play after dark.

A family enjoying time around a fire pit in the winter.

Best Gear for Playing in the Snow

Spending time in the snow, and having it be fun really starts with great gear so everyone is warm and dry for as long as you’d like to be out. Before you head out for winter play, check out our collection of posts about winter, and our winter gear recommendations and 2023 gift guides.

Snow Play Toys

Now that you’ve got gear organized, check out these snow play toys and tools, tested and recommended by TMM team members and their families.

With shorter days and colder temperatures, outdoor play and adventure options look a bit different. As winter sets in in the northern hemisphere, we want to make sure that you and your family have loads of fresh inspiration and information to enjoy this season fully.

We’ve got you covered here with safety information for playing in the snow and cold, winter gear recommendations and tips, and lots of ideas for snow play whether your family loves big projects, outdoor art, nature and science play, or playing outside after dark. For extra inspiration, check out all of our winter posts!

Playing in the snow has so many benefits for both kids and adults, from curbing cabin fever, to soaking up Vitamin D and sunshine, to sparking a unique form of creativity and appreciation for each season.

We hope you’ll enjoy bundling up and playing in the snow this winter with your family!

Playing in the Snow

© 2023, Tales of a Mountain Mama. All rights reserved. Republication, in part or entirety, requires a link back to this original post and permission from the author. 

Author

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  • Cece Romanyshyn is a Colorado native currently living in Baker City, Oregon with her husband and two sons. She grew up camping and skiing with her family, and kept adventuring through adulthood. She has enjoyed camping, hiking, skiing, and boating in the western United States, hiking in Ecuador, DIY safaris in East Africa, boating on the rivers of Southeast Asia, and exploring nature and culture during Peace Corps service in Mozambique. She loves connecting with her little family on all sorts of adventures from daily walks and river play to ski days to camping road trips, boating, and hut trips. With the confidence, joy, and well-being brought about in these spaces, time outside together has become a parenting power tool for her.

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