From hiking to tobogganing, outdoor winter activities offer unique experiences that give families a chance to connect in ways that are good for health and soul.
After the excitement of the first snowfall, we tend to enjoy family activities in the warmth of our homes rather than head outside. But outdoor winter activities offer unique experiences that give families a chance to connect in ways that are good for health and soul.
We need to play outside—even in winter
The World Health Organization recommends that 60 minutes of daily physical activity is optimal for kids aged five to 17, but many families find it difficult to do this during the winter months. The health benefits of being active outside include increased vitamin D, as well as improved mood and self-esteem, so why wouldn’t we spend more time outside with our kids in winter? The first answer for many is that it’s too cold.
Dressing for the weather
According to the Canadian Paediatric Society, the best way to dress for winter is by layering. Start with a base layer that touches the skin and wicks away moisture, such as wool. Using fleece as a middle layer helps with insulation. The outer layer is for wind breaking, so choose a breathable, water-repellent, and wind-resistant fabric for a shell.
Accessorize with a hat, mittens, neck warmer, and waterproof boots to ensure a comfortable outing for all. A good way to tell if a child is warm enough is to check feet and hands. If they’re warm, the rest of the body is usually fine too.
Sledding is probably the most beloved outdoor winter activity, and many communities are fortunate to have hills in parks that are perfect for tobogganing. Sean Miner has turned the chore of shovelling the driveway into the creation of a longer toboggan run using his and a neighbour’s slightly sloped front yards.
“I find the short days in winter can make us all a bit gloomy, and we need something active and fun to do that’s easily accessible. There aren’t many barriers to getting some fun and exercise when you can sled in your front yard. Also, it’s an easy sell to the kids,” says the Guelph resident, who encourages parents to enjoy the ride too. “There are the obvious benefits like exercise and less screen time. But there are also less tangible benefits like building stronger family relationships and reducing stress.”
To prevent injury, be sure to wear a snow sport helmet when tobogganing, such as a skiing, snowboarding, or hockey helmet.
Night sky observation
For backyard astronomers, one of the benefits of long winter nights is that you can observe the stars early in the evening. Another plus of stargazing in winter is that skies may be very clear, as the frigid night air minimizes disturbances in the atmosphere.
It is not necessary to have a telescope to identify common constellations, and larger ones such as the Big Dipper and Orion are very easy to locate with the naked eye. For more easy-to-find constellations, check out downloadable star charts on the Canadian Science and Technology Museum website. The moon is also an awesome sight through hand-held binoculars while sitting in a lawn chair.
Geocaching is a worldwide treasure hunt that uses GPS technology to locate more than 2.4 million active caches on public property such as trails and parks. Kids love this activity because there may be small tradable items such as stickers and toys hidden in the containers. Older kids and adults can stretch their logic by solving puzzle caches and completing multistage challenges.
Although the game can be played in any season, winter allows geocachers to search for treasure without bugs, poison ivy, or heat hindering the experience. All that’s needed to get started is a GPS device or a smartphone with the free Geocaching Intro app.
Hitting the trail
Hiking in winter using snowshoes or skis creates a new challenge and gives family members a chance to try a new skill. Take along some birdseed and see chickadees up close as they feed from your hand. Participate in a winter bird count or identify animal tracks that are visible in the snow. Some parks and municipalities, such as the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, have created opportunities for visitors to skate their way through the forest or along the river.
The beach is a great location for a picnic even in the winter months. Make snow castles on the beach, pack a special lunch (no cooler necessary!), and bring along the kite on a breezy day. Enjoying a campfire at a conservation area or campground is always a big hit with the kids, as is playing flying disc games, snow soccer, or flag football.
Motivating reluctant family members
Active play keeps everyone warm so encourage kids to make snow angels and build forts or a snow family. If adults are engaged in the activity, there is a greater chance that children will participate.
Here are some other ideas to help create enthusiasm for hard-to-convince kids and teens.
- Designate them as photographer or videographer for the outing.
- Provide a spray bottle with natural food colouring mixed with water for painting the snow.
- Create a simple scavenger hunt looking for signs of animals.
- Invite a friend along to enjoy the adventure.
With some planning and a willingness to dress for the weather, winter offers many low-cost, active, and fun outdoor activities for the whole family. Rediscovering the playful side of winter doesn’t just keep children and parents healthy—family connections and memories that will last a lifetime are also being made.
Quick and healthy snacks
For portable snacks, choose healthy, calorie-dense options such as
- trail mix containing dried fruit, nuts, and raw cacao nibs or carob chips
- homemade granola bars using honey and nut butters
- mini muffins made with seeds and dried fruit
And to drink, pack a Thermos full of warm apple juice with cinnamon and cloves or homemade hot chocolate with chocolate nut milk or coconut milk.