Cold-fashioned winter fun
Winter means nightfall starts earlier in the evening, so you can stargaze without sweating bedtime for the little ones. Wrap yourself in blankets and cuddle together on lawn chairs, or bundle up and take an adventuresome night walk in a more remote locale. (Don’t forget your flashlight.) Some easy-to-spot winter constellations are Orion and his dogs Sirius (the brightest star in the winter sky) and Procyon. Also, the Big Dipper shines the brightest during this time of year. If you need some astronomical guidance, a smidge of technology may help: Print out a constellation map at kidsastronomy.com or download a free app, like Planets or SkyView.
In many Native North American cultures, people gather around the fire for a time of communal storytelling. Jane Drake, author of The Kids Winter Cottage Book, recommends creating your own fireside experience. Start with a traditional Native American “story stick,” which could be a chopstick, wooden spoon, or a piece of wood your kids decorate with paint or permanent markers. “Whoever holds the stick gets to speak; the others must be quiet,” Drake explains. “My family likes to tell memories around a topic, for example, stories about a special event or person with a birthday. If you’ve had a loss of a pet or a grandparent, you can each share about that loved one. It’s very cathartic.”
To give the night a comical twist, tell a story in true Mad Libs fashion. Drop into a paper bag 10 to 20 random items, such as a bird feather, toilet plunger, and toothbrush. Ask each person to pull out an object, which she will use as the basis for her part of the narrative. The sillier the story, the better.
Channel your inner Indiana Jones.
Host a winter scavenger hunt. Ask each participant to collect 5 to 10 of most interesting natural items they can find, such as dried seed pods, empty birds’ nests, feathers, and pine cones. Then return home to identify and discuss the items over a cup of hot cocoa. If your kids need an incentive, award prizes for the most creative, unusual, or beautiful specimens. And, to prevent those treasures from eventually landing in sock drawers, dedicate a space, such as a card table or end table, to display the items for a designated period. “A nature table encourages collecting and helps children connect with the outdoors,” says Drake.
Snake the drafts.
Claire Gillman, author of The Kids Winter Fun Book, says she’s not afraid of snakes — draft snakes, that is. These stuffed tubes of cloth serve two purposes in her native Britain: stopping the draft under doors or windows and keeping little hands busy on a cold winter’s day. To create homemade draft snakes, start with an old pair of pantyhose or tights. Cut off the legs and fill them with flexible odds and ends found around the house, such as dried beans, rice, lentils, and scraps of old fabric. Next, tie a ribbon around the “neck” to form the snake’s head. Children can create a face for their draft snake by gluing on pieces of felt and sewing buttons for eyes. Let them search for the draftiest spot in the house and put this friendly snake to work.
Bing: Preventing drafts
Race boats in the tub
When it’s too cold to frolic outside, a little warm-water play is just the ticket. (Bonus: Your kids might jump for bath time.) Start by creating your own fleet of motorized boats using empty cardboard milk cartons, bendable straws cut so the bendable part is in the middle, tape, and empty balloons. Cut the milk cartons in half and lay them on their sides. Next, poke a hole in the carton’s bottom and push the straw through it, with the straw bending at the hole. Place the empty balloon inside the carton and stick the straw into the balloon, securing it with tape. Now blow up the balloon through the straw. When you remove your mouth from the straw, the air from the balloon should make the straw spin like a propeller. All systems go? Fill up the tub, and it’s off to the races!
Video: How to make a paper boat
Winter snow and mud helps track animal visitors by preserving their footprints. Take an hour-long walk around your backyard or a local nature preserve and try to identify the various tracks you see. Before you go, draw or print out a track guide from bear-tracker.com. Back at the house, encourage each family member to research information about one of the animals detected, draw a picture of it, and present the findings over dinner.
Create a homemade gift
Long before drug stores and department stores became the destination for gift-buying, families used to make presents by hand. One easy-to-make item for all ages is the pomander: a fragrant-smelling ball that was used in Victorian times to scent drawers, closets, or powder rooms. To make your own, simply poke the pointed ends of cloves through the skin of a tangerine or orange, making a pretty pattern of your choice. Then shake the orange in a paper bag with two tablespoons of cinnamon, which will help dry and preserve the fruit. Let the pomander balls dry in a warm, airy spot for two to three weeks. For an extra-special touch, wrap the pomander ball in a square of lace tied with an elegant ribbon. Or, simply tie the ribbon around the fruit itself and present it to a grandparent or special neighbor.
Pack a picnic
On the next snow day, delight your kids with an indoor picnic. Spread a blanket on the floor and set the mood with some ambient sounds of the beach or woods, or your favorite summer tunes. Consider turning up the heat for an hour and dress in shorts and t-shirts for extra fun. Cook up a summer-style menu that will shake away the winter blues: fried chicken, hot dogs, potato salad, baked beans, and popsicles. Or, roast “campfire” s’mores in the fireplace (or over the gas stove).
Feed the birds
Craft homemade bird-feeders and watch the wildlife that come to feast. To make the simplest bird treat, tie a string to the tip of a pinecone. Slather it with peanut butter. (Even a small child can do this using a popsicle stick.) Then roll the pinecone in birdseed or raw oats and hang it on a tree visible from your house.
For a more sophisticated version, save mesh bags, like the ones that hold oranges and onions. Then make your own suet mix with equal parts Crisco, peanut butter, flour, and birdseed with three parts corn meal. Kids will love getting their hands gooey as they roll the mix into a ball and place it in the mesh bag to hang.
Don’t forget to keep a pair of binoculars and a bird guide near the window so your family spot and identify the birds. Some typical winter visitors include downy woodpeckers, blue jays, purple finches, American goldfinches, and Northern cardinals. Search your state’s Department of Natural Resources site for specific guidelines and feeding tips.
Serve up sweets
Children love to help in the kitchen, and there’s no better time to warm up your home than a dreary, winter afternoon. Gillman suggests making something warm and sweet like a pie, since most people already stock the ingredients (butter, flour, water, and any given fruit). Keep your kids entertained with tasks such as rolling the dough, peeling the fruit, and decorating the top with cut-outs made from leftover dough. Drake’s tradition involves making sheets of gingerbread with which her family creates houses, boats, or whatever strikes their fancy. “It doesn’t have to look perfect,” says Drake. “Just have fun picking a theme and figuring out how to create it using things you can find."