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Everything Parents Need to Arm Themselves for Winter

A pair of SnowStoppers winter mittens.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by SnowStoppers.

My most recent meeting at a local state park with my Sunday morning Adventure Club should have been a joyful one, since the fall weather was perfect for hiking. But the adult members of this informal group, which we started a few years ago as a form of mutual encouragement to take our kids into the woods on weekends, sat glumly at picnic tables as the younger generation busied itself throwing rocks into the lake. We listed all the things that we usually do in the winter to stave off cabin fever with our kids, who are ages 2 to 6: the library, the indoor playground at the old mall, visiting friends in their houses, the science museum in the nearby city. Closed, closed, unwise, closed.

We all agreed that this winter, our sanity depends on going outside more often than ever, but we aren’t happy about it. Of course, there are people who insist that outdoor time with kids can be a year-round thing, and as a New England hippie by birth, I always thought I’d be one of them. But last year my then-3-year-old daughter often flatly refused to venture out into the cold. And when I finally did get her outside, it didn’t last long. I was part of the problem, because I didn’t really want to be there either! As Toad said to Frog, after being coaxed out of his house to go sledding and ending up in a snowbank: “Winter may be beautiful, but bed is much better.”

This is the year I get over all that. To help me, I spoke with Linda McGurk, the author of There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather, a book about encouraging Scandinavian outdoorsy habits in your kids. Often, appropriately dressed kids will be fine to play outside in low temperatures or through conditions of rain, wind, and snow, says McGurk, but their parents’ distaste for the situation may color their reaction. “The trick as a parent is really trying not to affect or influence your child in that way,” McGurk says. “Just try to keep it upbeat, stay positive—fake it till you make it.”

Outdoor time in winter, like any other thing you really want to make a priority in family life, also has to be “a routine and an expectation.” “My kids have just come to learn that this is what we do as a family, after they get back from school and on the weekends,” McGurk says. She recommends giving kids a choice of what to do—hike or playground or neighborhood walk?—and inviting friends with kids along, whenever it’s COVID-safe to do so. To motivate parents, and older kids who understand the concept, she suggests joining an online time-tracking project like 1000 Hours Outside and setting family goals.

As the upbeat adage goes, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes”: You do need to make sure everyone is outfitted correctly. Of course, you’ll want each kid to have a snowsuit (and/or, depending on climate, a rain suit—McGurk’s blog has a post with recommendations). Opt for merino wool base layers if your kids will tolerate them, as they’re the best at warming and ventilating—though they can be pricey. Ella’s Wool has fancy sets of wool long underwear, and REI has cheaper options. For feet, we’ve had luck with Bogs boots, which younger kids can easily pull on and off by themselves—their Classic Matte model is warm and waterproof.

And the gloves that a whole lot of “go outside with kids” people—from interviewees for this article, to outdoors bloggers, to my forest-school-teaching sister—have recommended to me are called SnowStoppers. Their extra-long cuffs go all the way up under coat sleeves to a child’s elbows, eliminating the icy wrists that were a hallmark of my own childhood. While a determined thumb-sucker can remove SnowStoppers (ask me how I know), the more casually discontented child may be thwarted.

You, the parent, have to be warm and dry too. “If we’re going to be out there with them, we need to be comfortable as well, or we’re not going to last very long,” McGurk says. “I pretty much live in my snow pants during the winter.” While I’m sure you know the basics of dressing yourself for winter, I want to give you permission to do what I did last year and finally buy yourself adult snow pants, even if you have no intention of ever using them to ski. Snow pants, besides keeping your legs warm, make it possible to rest for a while, take a drink or have a snack, and watch your child play—even if the only sitting surfaces available are wet. Insulated, waterproof gloves are also key. For years, I tried to tell myself that the thin fleece ones I used for running were enough for a couple of hours in the snow with my kid. They were not.

Do you need to arm yourself with plans for outdoor fun, since kids can be resistant to the cold? Thankfully, no. “Really the most important thing is going outside,” McGurk says. “Just the act of going out there, getting the fresh air, moving around, getting into a rhythm.” If you have a backyard, you’re lucky. “Bring beloved toys outside,” McGurk suggests. Kids can also use any set of standard sandcastle-building equipment to make snow castles. In summertime months, my daughter often “helped” with yardwork or gardening with her own little spade. I plan to do the same thing this fall and winter, offering her a kids’ rake or snow shovel that are sized for her.

For people who don’t have yards, and those seeking more involved entertainment, a small activity (more like an intention—let’s not go too crazy with planning) can help fuel an expedition. I think I’ll try to encourage more nature activities, like collecting and identifying, this year. A flower press (here’s one from Bella Luna Toys, but there are also many on Etsy) can preserve pretty autumn leaves, in the fall months we have left. If you buy a small enough press, you can stash it in a bag when you go out and press leaves on the go.

Outdoor activities can even be as simple as finding a spot to rest on a walk and drinking a hot beverage. Kids-in-nature advocate Richard Louv reminds readers in his book Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life: “People perspire in winter as well as summer, so stay hydrated.” McGurk suggests packing a fun drink that you wouldn’t usually have when you’re inside—I might try hot chocolate with peppermint or vanilla extract. Meghan Fitzgerald of the kids-outdoors group Tinkergarten recommends blueberry tea. A dedicated thermos for each kid can be a fun way to get everyone into the spirit.

McGurk also recommends getting together with your friends-with-kids and starting a fire—“cooking a simple meal outside, maybe just something like grilling hot dogs or something small, that doesn’t require a lot of equipment.” The heat from the fire creates a center to the gathering, and the parents can talk while the kids mill about. If you don’t have a backyard that can fit a fire pit, check to see if your local city or state parks will allow you to use their designated grilling or campfire areas in winter.

Winter can be dreadfully dark, but there’s a good argument that this is something to celebrate, not endure. My own daughter doesn’t remember ever seeing stars, a situation I hope to remedy in December or January, when darkness falls well before her bedtime. Hike It Baby has a good list of themes for nighttime hikes: sunset hikes, sunrise hikes, full moon walks, and glow stick strolls. Providing kids with their own headlamps (or light-up beanies!) and/or flashlights (for younger kids and for older kids) for playing flashlight tag may add to the fun, though walking in the total darkness and seeing how much your accustomed eyes can perceive has its own charms.

I can stomach the dark, the cold, even the wind. But the weather I have the hardest time with is gray, 33 degrees, and rainy. I asked Richard Louv about those grim days. “Some days, outdoor play and learning just isn’t going to happen,” he wrote in an email, earning my lifelong allegiance. He suggests the idea of setting up a “world-watching window.” From this window, depending on your vantage point, you can stargaze, cloud-spot, and bird-watch. “Keep handy: A nature notebook, field guides for birds and stars, binoculars, a telescope, a digital camera with a telephoto lens, and maybe even a sound recorder to capture the sounds of the natural world,” Louv says. That way, you can stay connected with what’s going on outside, even if you, and your kids, are just not having it.