Build snow forts and their variations: snow mazes and more serious snow shelters. Maurer and St. Clair describe how to make a snow shelter in this short video and give tips in the article, “Home Sweet Dome.” For simpler mazes and forts, you can make snow “bricks” by packing snow into plastic bins or wastebaskets, then letting it air-harden before building. Decorate your creations with food coloring, pine cones, or other flourishes.
3. Try tracking. Kim Foley MacKinnon, author of Outdoors with Kids Boston and mother to Sadie, 13, recommends exploring the untrampled edges of local parks after a snowfall to look for animal tracks. For more tips on tracking, see “Stories in the Snow: Tracking for kids.”
4. Break out the binoculars. MacKinnon suggests making a simple pine cone birdfeeder (just add peanut butter and birdseed), setting it out in the backyard, and observing the birds (or other critters) that come to visit. Cheryl de Jong-Lambert, co-author of Outdoors with Kids New York City with her husband William, and mother to 9-year-old Riley and 6-year-old Halina, points out that many birds are easier to spot in winter, because leaves have fallen from the trees. Various owls, certain ducks, snow buntings, red-tailed hawks, and other species are visible primarily in winter. De Jong-Lambert recommends keeping a running log of the birds you see, and where and when you see them, and comparing it to what you find in warm-weather months.
5. Play winter “horseshoes.” Maurer plays this game on winter camping trips, burying a wide-mouthed water bottle in the snow so that the mouth is flush with the snow’s surface, then gathering sticks or small stones to toss into it from a few yards back. You can create your own version with a can or bowl in a backyard or park.
6. Establish snowball-throwing or sled-pulling contests. Try aiming snowballs at tree trunks. When pulling sleds, see who can pull faster, and try variations with different things on the sleds. You can also see who can roll the biggest snowball or successfully form a mound of snow into a shape other than the traditional ball.
7. Create a treasure hunt. This year-round favorite can be tailored to the season, with clues that refer to icicles and items hidden in snowbanks. Similarly, you can set children off in search of the longest or fattest icicle they can find. Bring a cloth or vinyl measuring tape to keep track.
8. Make ice art. Freeze water colored with food coloring into blocks and other shapes, using ice cube trays, muffin tins, Jell-O molds, and old yogurt containers. (This step is more easily done in your freezer, but you can also try it outdoors.) Then bring your colorful ice blocks outside, along with any natural ice and snow you can collect, to create your own ice sculptures. In sub-freezing temperatures, you can stick the pieces together by dribbling water on them—it should quickly freeze them in place.
9. Catalog conifers. How many different kinds of evergreens can you identify in your neighborhood or around town? If small branches or needles have blown to the ground, de Jong-Lambert suggests collecting them to start a species library at home. Are the needles long, short, pliable, brittle, thick, or fine? The differences are surprisingly many. You can also see how many different kinds of pine cones you can find or identify.
10. Head to the playground. “Your child’s favorite summer space will be transformed by snow and ice, and more likely than not, you’ll have it all to yourselves,” says MacKinnon.
11. Make s’mores. These camping classics aren’t just for summer, MacKinnon reminds families. Build a fire in an appropriate place and roast marshmallows or sip hot chocolate outside.
12. Skate, sled, swirl on a saucer, snowboard, or ski. Get out there and dive into the white stuff! Older kids in particular may need to burn some energy if they’ve been indoors watching the snow come down—or if they woke up to find a blanket of white already there. If you don’t have the equipment, or need to get bigger sizes, look for ski swaps and other community sales for used gear. No matter the steepness of the slope, it is a good idea to bring a bike helmet in case conditions turn quickly slick.