Wednesday, January 28, 2009

It is NOT too cold to play outside

A lot of times people are surprised to find out how much I like winter. Maybe because I am such an avid gardener, people expect me to hibernate somewhere until the warmth returns.

But winter is one of my favorite times to hike. You see things in winter you don’t see any other time of the year. There’s a feeling of standing backstage at a big opera; everything is quiet and still and hushed, and the bare branches are like open stages where nature’s more reluctant divas cannot hide.

One of the best hikes I ever took was a lone winter walk I made one January afternoon outside Irvine Natural Science Center in Baltimore County almost a decade ago. I left my office and the stuffy, hot air of the indoors behind and felt the cold burn at my cheeks as I walked past farm fields full of stubble and frozen mud to find the woodland trail along a favorite creek. Foxes ran alongside the trail a few feet ahead of me at one point, and as the sun waned along the horizon, I watched an enormous silent owl as it glided through the branches over my head. I had never seen one before, and I was the only person there to witness its silent beauty that day. When I returned to my car, snow began to fall and I felt as if I was the only person alive on earth watching it fall from the sky.

We don’t get snow here very often, and the past few winters we’ve had almost none at all. I think this lack of flakey white stuff leads people to think that there is nothing to see in the woods during winter, and no reason to go outside, maybe because snow lends itself to all kinds of fun times like sledding and cross country skiing.

Finding things to do in brown, cold woods is a bit more challenging. But even if we don’t get snow this winter, there are good reasons to get out and get some cold, fresh air along a trail in the woods.

“I like to take people out and explore what’s happening now and in the moment,” says Tina Stachura, who leads nature walks at Brookside Nature Center in Wheaton. “There’s not enough of that these days.”

A lot people, Tina says, have the mistaken idea that everything goes to sleep here in the winter, and her winter hikes are sometimes scavenger hunts designed to prove this notion false to kids. Early this month, she’ll encourage hikers on one of her walks to find evidence of animal activity in the woods, such as feathers, fur, scat (a fancy naturalist word for poop), and tracks in the mud. She’ll also ask kids to look for berries that are unusual colors, old birds’ nests left behind from the warmer months, and places where bucks have rubbed their antlers against tree trunks. She’ll get kids on her hikes to think about what is and is not happening in the woods during the colder months, in order to explain what the seasons mean to other animals.

“The key is, just because everything looks dead to us, things are still happening in nature,” she says.

Even if you can’t attend a walk at the nature center this month, you can still find ways explore on your own with your kids when its cold, and you don’t have to be an expert naturalist to find fun things that will nudge your kids’ curiosity.

Sometimes I play games with my kids to get them thinking and exploring. We hunt for things that are different colors, for example. My kids will start out thinking that they can’t find anything bright red or purple, for example, and then are surprised to see bright berries and purple leaves hanging all around.

You can also read some great books to your kids before you start. A family favorite at our house is Jan Brett’s The Mitten, which the Nature Center even adapted into a puppet show. We also like the picture book Keep Looking, by Millicent Selsam, which as beautiful illustrations about what happens on a farm in winter. We also like Snowflake Bentley, by Jacqueline Briggs Martin. This beautiful book is full of fantastic wood cuts that tell the story of a man who was so passionate about snow he made documenting its beauty into his life’s mission. There’s a wonderful theme here for kids that illustrates the glory of stopping to slow down and notice even the small details of life.

When you can’t get out to the woods, you can try doing science experiments with your kids at home in your own backyard.

My kids never get tired of making ice, for example. If the weather is warm one day but the forecast calls for a sudden freeze the next morning, I invite my kids to make outdoor ice cubes. We search the house and yard for funny containers that we can fill with water, such sand box toys shaped like different animals. We fill put them out by our swing set, and then check them the next morning when the frost is still on the ground. As the day goes on we see if we can dislodge the ice, making funny sculptures that can be decorated with grass, or sticks or whatever strikes their fancy. We check our thermometer to see how warm it before the ice animals to melt away to nothing.

We also check to see which is colder: the freezer in our kitchen, or the air outside. Sometimes my son gets very interested in this game, and walks all around the house and yard with the thermometer, checking to see if every place he goes has a different reading.

If you want to check out a winter program or take a hike at any of the county’s nature centers, you can visit their registration booklet in PDF format online at Look under the nature center section. This same booklet is also available at most of the county’s recreation centers and libraries.

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