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Get Outside, Even in Winter

    The World Health Organization recently labeled excessive (video) gaming as a mental disorder. This classification may be unsurprising in today’s age of high performance computers and high stakes competition gaming. To make matters worse, when the weather gets cold, the tendency for many parents and teachers is to fill learning time with potentially positive technology time. To be clear, all video games have intended (hopefully learning), and unintended (addiction) effects on the brain. (Don’t get me started on the thousands of apps that have absolutely no research behind them.)
children observing frozen lake
Video games come and go, but outdoor experiences have lasting impact on children. Video games come and go, but outdoor experiences have lasting impact on children. Forest schools, founded in Scandinavia (where it’s super cold) are gaining popularity across the US, the UK, and Germany. Anecdotal and novel long-term research shows that getting children, especially young children, outdoors for long periods of time (3-4 days a week) fosters problem-solving, cooperation, confidence, self-esteem, and possibly even perseverance or grit (if you like buzzwords).

Unfortunately, not all of us have access to a good forest school – so, GreenSTEMS has put together a handy list of activities for anyone wishing to create positive outdoor experiences in frigid temperatures.

1. Snowy Sit Spot- An amazing practice first popularized by Dave Stritch,
reflective sit spots are a great activity for developing observation and contemplative practice skills. First prepare a sit spot’s designated area. Provide the children small folding stools, thin pads, or even pieces of cardboard. Develop a writing or drawing prompt so that after the activity, children may reflect upon their observations, the sounds they heard, or their personal thoughts and feelings. 10-20 minutes, depending on age and stamina, will not bring on hypothermia. It will teach children that taking time out to observe and reflect is not a punishment, but a positive activity that most adults wish they had more time to practice.

small brown nest sewn together between two branches

Red-Eyed Vireo nest found on a recent hunt.

2. Forage/Scavenger Hunt- To get you started, I really like this winter scavenger hunt for younger children. It comes from Canada – and they know cold! 

Important preparation items for any winter walking/hunting activity with a group of kids are safety and sack. It is vitally important to remind children of your personal rules for roaming in a forest. With classes, I always use the buddy system; threes are good too if needed.

Think about a time limit and a signal, like a bell or horn to bring the kids back. Older kids can use GPS to mark coordinates where their found items create a forest or even a city map. Even if they use a created or found list of items or list of senses that they are to pay attention to, it’s also important to remind them that there are some things they may not want to pay attention to.

An example of something inquisitive students may want to pay attention to and even collect, is a mushroom. (Yes, mushrooms are still fairly abundant in winter.) Mushrooms also serve as a reason why, under no circumstances, should students eat anything they find (beside snow of course).

You can “plant” specific items in an outdoor area, or allow for a day of open curiosity sparking spontaneous learning, research, and presentations. Who knows, you might even learn something, too.

children in red coals showing off their outdoor den

3. Build- We love getting children to work in teams to build something. It teaches cooperative social-emotional, problem-solving skills and also something about for what or who they are building. Most forest school place an emphasis on building dens for people, or even smaller habitats for animals.

Another great option is to observe area birds. Students may research non-migrating breeds and create an action build project related to habitat, nest boxes, or feeding. (Stay tuned for step- by-step Bluebird house plans coming to the GreenSTEMS How-to section in the Spring!) This idea may seem more like play or soft skill development. And I know, there are no woodworking standards. It doesn’t mean you can’t create a rubric of some sort to show everyone rigorous attention to standards, or just build at times for enjoying school and learning. All children deserve time to enjoy playing and creating, which is why absenteeism is not a problem in forest schools.

    We know that young children should go outside at least 3 hours a day to support normal development.  Amazing things happen when we tryThink about it. Human brains developed outside, and we have lived, thrived, and survived through all types of weather and in all types of conditions. So, take those kiddos outside, even in bone-chilling temps. Who knows, you may be doing your part to help cure excessive gaming disorder.