Winter family activities

Nov 11, 2009 at 7:42 p.m. ET

Winter tends to send families indoors where the fire is roaring and steamy mugs of cocoa are aplenty. Staying warm is certainly a necessity when the temperatures plummet, but that does not mean hibernating until the spring thaw. Winter offers a playground of fun family activities, giving you the opportunity to connect with the winter side of nature and keep your family healthy and fit. We caught up with outdoor lifestyle expert and National Wildlife Federation (NWF) National Spokesperson Rebecca P Cohen to get her recommendations for fun winter activities.

Family walking in snow

The vitamin D dilemna

A November 2009 study published in Pediatrics indicates that millions of kids between the ages 1 and 11 aren't getting enough vitamin D, a vitamin aptly called the "sunshine vitamin" because the body actually produces its own vitamin D upon exposure to the sun. Rebecca P Cohen, founder of Rebecca Plants LLC and spokesperson for the newly launched National Wildlife Federation Be Out There campaign, has the answer to the vitamin D deficiency: Get your kids out of the house. Though winter does have fewer hours of sunlight, getting outside when the sun is shining can help increase vitamin D production -- for the whole family.

Supplements are still recommended: New vitamin D requirements for kids

Get over the dread of being cold

Cohen, a mom who spends time with her kids outside every day, says the thought of the first step outside in winter seems to be the biggest barrier for families -- parents, in particular -- to enjoy the playground of activities the chilly season has to offer. The key is to get over the dread and dress warm. "I do not like to be cold, but once bundled up and out there, my family starts playing all of the other games we enjoy when the weather is warm: tag, soccer, football, baseball," she explains. "When we take a daily walk, within 15 minutes we're warmed up."

Embrace the outdoors -- even when its chilly

Heading into the wintry weather is a boon for keeping the family fit during the cold season as well as for giving your kids a chance to burn off their seemingly boundless energy. On days when the weather isn't dangerously inclement, simply do the activities you enjoy doing at other times of the year (though swimming outdoors is not recommended!). For example, if you are an avid biker -- or your family bikes together -- during the summer and fall, don't let winter deter you. "As long as it's not snowing or icy, go for a bike ride – just adjust your bike helmets to fit a hat underneath and head out," advises Cohen.

In regards to your kids, chances are they are chomping at the bit to get outside. The outdoor lifestyle expert encourages letting them have fun outside (dressed warmly, of course). "My older son used to love running around with his big dump truck in the snow before pre-school," Cohen fondly recalls. "Sometimes the promise of 15 minutes outside before school gets your kids to get ready faster and help with the morning routine."

Outdoor winter activities benefit the whole family

Playing board games while a blizzard is roaring outside is certainly beneficial in keeping your family safe and giving you quality time together, but many families opt to tune in to the computer or television and forgo the family bonding. Cohen is quick to stress that family time outside is healthy for the family as a whole on many levels.

"Research has shown that time outside improves a child's ability to concentrate in school, reduces aggression, and improves levels of vitamin D, without which could lead to problems like heart disease and diabetes," she explains. "I also like to get outside in winter with my family because it keeps us active and brings us closer together."

Cohen suggests walks in the early evening as a way nurture family bonding. "Although it gets darker earlier in winter, the kids don't have to stay up late to see the stars; it's fun to take walks with flashlights and battery-operated glow sticks at night," the outdoor advocate says. "At a very practical level, taking a walk with my family in winter is my default answer when we need something to do and keeps my kids from picking on one another. They are instantly best friends, and we tend to explore longer and find new paths because there aren't spider webs and heavy brush in the way."

Winter lends itself to wonderful discoveries of nature

Summer sunrises and sunsets tend to get all the glory, but winter's dawns and dusks are equally as captivating. "I love to watch sunrises and sunsets in winter – you can usually get a better view with the leaves off the trees," says Cohen. "When I started noticing winter sunrises, my kids started noticing them too, and they would run to find me and share that moment together; what a great way to start the day!"

Here are some of Cohen's suggestions to discover the natural wonders of winter:

  • Take advantage of the trees that lose their leaves in the winter; countess nests and holes where animals may live are finally visible.
  • On your walk, look for animal tracks or scat in the mud or snow.
  • When driving in your car, have the kids look out the window for hawks perched high in trees or on wires, looking below for prey.
  • Place a bird feeder in front of where you eat meals; it will provide for a lot of family-time conversation.
  • Make a point to get outside in the early evening to view the starry skies and beautiful moons; look for your moon shadows and take notice of the lunar changes that occur.

Winter safety tips for outdoor activities

Every season requires specific safety precautions to prevent weather-related injury and illness. With winter, families need to be aware of the dangers of hyperthermia, icy walkways, and getting lost in the dark. Cohen suggests:

Dress warm. Cohen strongly recommends dressing in layers to keep warm. "If you can, invest in performance fabrics or non-cotton long underwear that wicks away sweat and waterproof outerwear, such as boots, hooded jacket, pants, and gloves.

Be consistent with family rules. "Be clear with your kids before an activity about your rules," advises Cohen. "I'm very specific with my kids about where they can play or run ahead on a trail so I can see them. The more consistent I am about telling them my rules up front, the more they have a chance to follow them and for me to feel comfortable."

Don't leave home without being prepared. Cohen says, "Keep with you what helps you feel prepared, whether it be a cell phone in case of an emergency or a first aid kit in the car or in your backpack." The outdoor lifestyle expert also suggests packing snacks and drinks, especially for longer outings.

Next page: Tips for bringing nature indoors

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