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It is a cold late winter day. A delicate layer of frost edges the corner of each window and snow covers the landscape. Birds are huddled under eaves and in bushes, fluffing their feathers, reminding you that winter is here for a while yet. Meanwhile, the kids are busy playing on screens, and you are thinking, “I’ve got to figure out some way to get them outside!”

Winter can be a magical time to explore the natural world. After the winter solstice, the sun climbs higher and the days are longer. Your opportunity for fun is just out your front door. So, grab your hat, mitts, warm boots and winter jacket, and don’t forget the kids!

Engage your senses

Winter can be a wonderful time to “plug in” to nature through our senses. This is our green conduit – a powerful way to connect children to nature. Here are some ways to engage all of your senses – sight, smell, touch, sound and taste – with the winter landscape.

  • Rainbow Colours: Cut up a variety of paint colour samples – especially greys, browns, yellows, oranges and greens – into smaller pieces. Hand out 5-10 pieces to each child. Ask them to try to find natural objects (e.g., grasses, rocks, buds, lichens, bark) that exactly match the colour of each paint sample. Once you start looking closely, you will be amazed at how many colours there are in winter.
  • Smell Cocktail: You will need some Dixie cups and small twigs. As you hike, encourage everyone to selectively harvest tiny “bits” of the forest and place them in the cup: a bud, some conifer needles, a flake of bark, some pine gum, etc. When you have four or five items, stir them with a twig. This is your smell cocktail! Give each creation a name – perhaps “wintertopia” and let everyone smell each other’s concoction. Can you identify the smells?
  • Focused Hearing: Squeeze your fingers together, take your two hands and cup them behind your ears. At the same time, gently, push your ears forward. This simple procedure can increase your hearing by up to 10 times. In a way, your ears have become “deer ears” – large parabolic dishes that capture sound waves.
  • Touch Bag: Give each child a small paper bag. Ask them to find five or so familiar objects (e.g., different conifer needles, bark, moss, etc.) and to place them in the bag. Taking turns and using only their sense of touch, challenge the kids to identify the objects in each other’s bags.
  • Forest Tea: As you walk, harvest a handful of pine, spruce or fir needles. The younger needles at the end of the twigs are best. Over a campfire or when you get home, toss the needles into boiling water and let steep for about 10 minutes. Serve. The resulting tea will be bitter but refreshing, and your tongue will dance with the evocative taste of the winter forest!