By Molly Breen
Depending on where your preschool program is located, winter may not equal wintery weather. But in Minnesota, where I run a preschool, we get to experience pretty profound seasonal change—both in the landscape and in the temperature. Over the years I have discovered two things that are absolutely true about winter weather and outdoor play and learning: Children learn to tolerate some discomfort from cold weather if outdoor play and learning are a routine part of your time together, and winter gear matters—for children and teachers. Without proper insulation, cover, and water protection, our bodies (and our spirits) focus more on survival and keeping warm than on the joy of being outside in all kinds of weather.
During this pandemic, our program has shifted so we spend a significant portion of our days outdoors. We have always emphasized outdoor play, but this was an intentional plan to be outside for 75 percent of the day. Even in the winter! We are fortunate that the residential area where we are located has several good parks with interesting and varied terrain, and there’s even a wooded area about a mile from school that we have walked to on many occasions. For us, the key to successful outdoor adventuring in the winter (in addition to the two items I mentioned previously) is the teacher’s positive disposition to get outside to play and learn alongside children. Part of this positive disposition includes preparation: a grab bag of possible activities and materials that can make outdoor time more like an outdoor classroom.
Wagons, Sleds, and Framepacks, Oh My!
We use several different modes of transport for our play stuff when we go outside in the winter. If the sidewalks are mostly clear, we can bring our utility wagons packed with everything we need. But when the snow is falling or there is some ground cover, we bring sleds and backpacks instead. Occasionally the wagons or sleds turn into emergency sag wagons for children who lose stamina, but in general they are for STUFF!
Here’s a starter kit for taking children out and away from the building for outdoor winter play:
- First-aid kit. It’s an obvious one, but always important—in any weather.
- Handwashing kit. We bring this along in warmer weather months when we snack and eat lunch outside too.
- Electronic hand warmer. These are rechargeable and offer some warmth, but also are soothing for children who are worried about the cold.
- Book basket. I know it may seem like books are for indoor time, but we LOVE to pile up outdoors to read a story. We usually pack a variety of fiction and nonfiction, including books that have wildlife and plant or tree information.
- Clipboards and markers or pencils. Children can use these materials to draw or write observations. We always have clipboards with paper on hand when we go outside.
- Nonplastic shovels, pails, or other containers. Some plastic will survive in cold temperatures, but we have discovered that metal measuring cups, ice scoops, ice cream scoops, and other metal containers are much more durable for winter play. Don’t forget to label everything and count how many implements you bring along. It’s easy to leave things behind if you don’t know how many you started with!
- I like to bring a Bluetooth speaker with us so we can listen to music or dance when we are outside. For some children, having music along on our walk transforms their mood and lifts their spirits!
- For those who want to take one more step, consider bringing a portable toilet with supplies for composting waste and biodegradable bags. This has absolutely transformed how we do outdoor time at preschool! We found pop-up tents that work well for privacy so we can set up our port-a-potty virtually anywhere. Our whole portable toilet setup was about $50, and the bags and ecosolution for the waste are not too costly. It may sound crazy, but it gives us WAY more options for getting outside and staying outside!
- Last, but not least, make sure you bring along backup gear: mittens, hats, neck gators or balaclavas, and even extra wool socks.
Once you are geared up and have what you need for sustained outdoor play, there are limitless possibilities for what you can do. Here are a few of our favorite winter activities.
We have a handful of molded plastic sleds with rope handles. The children pull these to the park nearby (and back again!) and pull one another. It’s great heavy work and a meaningful job! We’ve also experimented with cardboard box sleds and snowshoes. We used duct tape to waterproof the bottom of the sleds and snowshoes we fashioned out of cardboard boxes. They worked really well and provided us with an indoor activity when we prepared them!
Snow is a wonderful open-ended material, and our preschoolers use it in every way imaginable! We dig, we throw, we stomp, we tunnel, we make snow people and snow animals and snow food in snow restaurants . . . you get the idea!
Snow Obstacle Course
This was born from the imagination of our preschoolers on a winter celebration day last year! We brought plastic cones to use as markers for our obstacle course along with some hoops and balls and sleds. The children designed the course and sequence, and we used our phones to time them as they took turns completing it.
Freeze colored water (use liquid watercolors instead of food dye to avoid staining mittens and coats) in various plastic containers and then build colorful ice castles. Make ice ornaments to hang from trees or outside your classroom windows: using recyclable materials, like plastic takeout containers, layer pine needles, cranberries, and other natural materials into water and leave out overnight to freeze. Don’t forget to loop a twine or string hanger into the water so that you have a way to hang your ornament!
In my experience, more than anything “special” that you may prepare for outdoor activities, your own enthusiasm for being outside together takes center stage and sets the tone for how to be outdoors. I will admit that very cold weather makes me want to get cozy inside and avoid braving the elements. But I never, ever regret getting outside in winter with children—even in spite of myself! And what a joy it is to experience our amazing planet earth doing its seasonal thing, and all the cascading effects from vegetation to wildlife, with our students! So get the gear, pack the wagon, and make a commitment to let the outdoors be a true learning environment this winter!
Molly Breen, M.A., E.C.E., has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social and emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.
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