Embracing the Wonders of Winter

By Sonja Lukassen

A fun truth about being a Forest and Nature School Educator is that people are curious about what that means. After explaining the basics to someone, there are a few questions that reliably emerge. 

  • What about the curriculum?
  • Do you really “just” play?
  • What do you do when it’s cold?

All of these questions have simple answers, though these answers feel anything but simple when being faced and contemplated by someone who is not used to this approach. With temperatures starting to dip and a bit of snow in the local forecast, I’ll focus on the third question now.

Defining what cold is, and at what temperature someone will get cold is very individual and based on a number of factors. While in theory we are indeed able to go outside for great lengths of time through any weather, there are many factors that affect the rhythm of a winter day of playing on the land.

Building a castle for the Snow Cats

What is the actual temperature? and Is it windy?

While we know that -20 feels much colder than -10 and we need to plan accordingly, how the cold affects us varies depending upon where on the land we are. An open field is inviting in a sparkling, snowy -5, and it is very unwelcoming at -15 and windy. We always consider prevalent wind direction and possible shelter when deciding where on the land to go play. If we can be in amongst the trees or beside a rock face that is sheltering the wind and reflecting the sun, the weather feels much warmer than otherwise. This is also true on the schoolyard, possibly gathering in a sheltered, fenced corner on a windy day rather than out in the middle of the field.

We can follow squirrel tracks on the frozen creek, and also stay sheltered from the wind.

How are we dressed?

The adage “there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing” assumes that all participants are aware of what clothing is needed and are able to acquire it. There are many quality options for warm winter clothes, many cheaper-and-just-as-good options, and few free ones. It makes sense and is very helpful to inform families of our hopes to be out on the land in all weather and to make strong recommendations of how children should be dressed. It also makes sense to, if possible, have extra gear to share for children who forget it, who have gear that isn’t warm enough, or who have gotten soaked so need a replacement. There are various ways of acquiring a gear lending library: asking for donations from families or businesses, gathering from the lost-and-found at school, shopping at thrift stores and the dollar store. I find it is especially helpful to have extra wool socks around (cotton is very common and does not provide insulation).

The gear we are most likely to lend out is wool socks, mitts, and boots. Footwear can be a challenge because children grow so quickly so their boots might be too big or too small, both encumbering insulation, or they might be hand-me-downs that are quite worn out. Having a few pairs of boots to lend out can make the difference for how long the whole group can stay outside together.

Testing the warmth of a pair of insulated rubber boots.

How are everyone’s fingers, toes and cheeks doing?

There are areas of our bodies which tend to get colder faster, especially on small children and people with mobility differences, regardless of how warm our clothing is. 
We regularly do checks on fingers and toes. We might gather the group together for a warmth check, asking everyone to wiggle their fingers and toes. We might require that we do a quick check on everyone, or perhaps whoever says they are fine is welcome to go play, while anyone who says they are cold gets a deeper check. We take off mitts and touch fingers. Maybe we blow on them or get the child to blow on them. Maybe we replace favoured cotton mitts with warmer, insulated ones, perhaps suggesting a child blow into them first with their “dragon breath” to warm them up.

For toes, we take off boots, possibly socks, to feel them. Maybe we hold them for a while to get warmer. Maybe boots have gotten wet so we change socks for dry wool ones and put a plastic bag layer over each foot before sliding wet boots back on.
We often do these checks at school or near our shelters, before heading out onto the land, so that we know children are starting off warm and dry before heading away from the shelters.

Wind on ears and faces can be a concern. Playing in a sheltered place away from the wind helps. So does making sure as much skin is covered as possible. Some parents will spread a barrier cream, like Vaseline or a natural alternative, over cheeks to protect skin that might be exposed.

All of these steps can help stretch the amount of time that a group can stay outside, though it is essential to support the children who are saying they feel cold even after taking these measures.

How much experience do these children have with the cold?

Some families spend more time outside than others, for a variety of reasons. Some children’s families come from countries where they have not experienced snow before, while others have experienced many cold winters and they are certain they’re not into it so avoid it. 

Some children have practice running around to keep warm, seeking shelter from the wind, wiggling their toes when they get cold, and others don’t. I welcome the opportunity to help children learn to love winter and playing on the land in cold weather. I remind myself that we all experience challenge in our own ways, and the best way to be certain a child will want to return to the play outside in winter is by gradual release, building their resilience and comfort on the land week by week. Some children seem to stay warm no matter what, and others just don’t. I’ve learned we need to make room for both of these children outside in the winter, not just one or the other. Children who say they are cold might not know yet that they can be a bit cold and still be active and engaged, learning and playing outside. The best way for them to learn this is by talking about it with them, and giving them a chance to practice. (I’ve found this works for adults who are out of practice or inexperienced in the winter, too.)

Hunting for dragons always warms us up!

How can we be more active?

Sitting still in the wind and snow can lead to feeling cold because our bodies are not moving. Once we get to that point, it can be difficult to warm up. On cold days we might be proactive about this, so head out on a longer-than-usual hike to keep us moving and therefore warmer. 

We might ask everyone to take a break from their play so we can gather together for some big, silly movement- tree tag, where everyone has to run to a tree, then another, then another. Or a hopping game where everyone needs to count down from 50, hopping on each number. Any kind of silly game that gets us engaged and moving works. After a few minutes of running and hopping, children are often warmed up and ready to sink into the play some more.

Has everyone had enough to eat?

Not everyone’s morning eating routine is the same, and being hungry can lead to not only feeling cranky and being less resilient, but also feeling cold. Bringing snacks outside can be a kind way to support children’s varied energy needs in warmer weather, but does not make sense in the cold since sitting down and taking off mittens to eat can lead to cold fingers, or feeling cold overall.

It often makes sense to have a group snack indoors before heading out- we can talk as a group about our hopes for the play while we snack, and it’s a way of making sure that no one has an empty belly when they get outside. (This is a natural time for children to cycle through the washroom too, which is important to take care of before heading outside.)

What can we do inside to prepare for and support the play and learning outside?

On a mild day (even a snowy mild day) we might strive to spend most of the day outside. The warmth of the sun combined with our winter clothes means we only need to go in for the washroom. It’s marvellous. (Unless we have a Luggable Loo- then we might not need to go in at all!)

When it’s cold, sitting still for Story outside sets us up to feel cold right away, so instead we do Story inside. After having snacks, children might get dressed in snow pants and boots, then gather on the carpet or at tables for Story. Afterwards we quickly put on the rest of our layers, then head out the door, ready to hike to our Play Spot. We are active as soon as we get outside, so probably warmer for longer.

Likewise, breaking the day up into two play sessions means we can go inside to warm up, eat, and use the washroom partway through the day. During this time we can check boots, socks, and mitts for warmth, replacing items as necessary. Some schools and childcare centres have dryers so they can make sure all mitts and socks are dry before heading out! This also means we can be certain that all children, after lunch, are starting off warm and dry again, so are more likely to be able to stay out for longer.

During this time, even if some children are inspired to stay out because they say they are warm and they are busy building a shelter or following squirrel tracks, we require that everyone comes inside for a certain amount of time, perhaps 20-30 minutes. This allows us to be certain that these children have the gear they need to stay warm, and that their exposed skin is getting warmed up partway through the day. 

Checking mechanisms and prepping for experiments at “the Lab”

Supporting learning through play on the land during the winter does not need to happen in the same way as it does in warmer weather. There is no need for Forest School-inspired sessions to last a certain amount of time. A truth of this work is that we all have to dig deeper and try harder to keep the play and learning fun and engaging for some children (and adults) when there are environmental challenges, like swarms of black flies, pouring rain, or windy cold.

Offering a consistent rhythm through all of the weather, through the seasons, makes so much sense to help support the physical, mental, and emotional health of children, and their connection to the land. Making plans, being thoughtful, preparing the group, and modifying our expectations while still being hopeful can help shift many people’s attitudes and beliefs about spending time outside in the winter. I hope that these ideas can help support you in your efforts to continue getting outside to play through all of the weather that winter has to offer.

Good luck! 

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