By Marlene Power, Executive Director of the Child and Nature Alliance of Canada
As days get darker, temperatures drop lower, and our instinct for hibernation sinks in, let’s talk about play. I’m not talking about building lego in front of the fire, or mounds of toys in front of the tree, or barbies in bedrooms. I’m talking about runny-nosed, cold hands, heart-pumping, multiple layers of clothing, embracing the elements kind of play. OUTDOOR PLAY, that is.
I grew up on the coast of Newfoundland, where I’m actually sitting today as I write. As a child, I climbed ragged cliffs in the afternoon sun, I roamed the woods until the same sun dropped below the treelines and I could no longer see in front of me. I jumped on the ice pans that floated on northwest and northeast winds, I built snowmen before they quickly turned to slush the following day. But, there’s no sense in nostalgia, there’s no going back in time. A child’s world today is different, and as I raise my own two children on the mainland I have come to embrace this change. Everyday, by circumstance and sometimes by choice, I embrace technology, embrace single parenting, embrace the activities that fill their days.
Then, in short windows or in larger bursts of time when I witness my own children, or other children playing outdoors at the Ottawa Forest and Nature School, I see the beauty, wonder, resilience, and creativity that comes about when we also EMBRACE winter play into the mix of our busy lives. I ponder, how do we as a society make more room for children to play deeply in the natural world, in ALL weather? How have we become so afraid of winter?I notice the prevalence of indoor recess across the country and hear the silenced sounds of children’s imaginary worlds that once echoed through our streets, through ravines, along this coastline…I wonder about the landscape that was once childhood.
Through my work and parenting, I have come to see and learn that different weather provides different kinds of play opportunities that support healthy child development and learning, play opportunities that cannot be found on only sunny and warm days. Playing outdoors in all weather conditions and all seasons teaches children that they are resilient, that they can literally and figuratively walk that extra mile, that the barred owl could be just around the corner if only they take the time to look. I have seen the resiliency of winter play transfer over into other areas of learning and social development, back into the indoor classroom and back at home.
Snow allows children to experience AND feel different textures. Playing with a solid mass of snow for instance is different than playing with a liquid puddle and both will elicit different forms of imaginative play and problem solving. When we open the door to outdoor play in the winter we give children the opportunity to learn that we don’t just engage with a place or a person when things are good or when they’re easy. We can engage with them when they’re grumpy, loud, sad, happy, joyful, etc. Nature also takes on many forms and we need to get to know and build a relationship with nature in all her moods: rainy, snowy, cold, dark, all of these have something to teach us, gifts to offer.
I have learned that there’s value in being uncomfortable sometimes. That’s how we learn not to expect others to always make us comfortable,how we learn to ask for what we need and to keep ourselves safe and warm. For instance, a child, when playing in the snow and cold, is faced with many options. When uncomfortable or cold, they can choose from the following:
- Play – run, climb, explore
- Find or make shelter outdoors out of loose materials or in nooks of nearby buildings
- Problem solve- find warmer mitts, make smart choices like not jumping in that puddle
- Be miserable and complain to the adults caring for them
As caregivers, we can help children make these decisions and problem solve, but we must first open the door to outdoor play and give them the opportunity to navigate this wintry terrain. In doing so, children don’t just learn about the climate and nature, they don’t ‘just play’, they also begin to learn about themselves and they begin to see themselves as a part of the natural world. When children connect with the land, in all weather and seasons, they begin to care for it, want to protect it, and want to become stewards of meaningful places where they explore everyday.
Playing in the winter is the most, most FUN! Children across this country have not forgotten how to play. I hesitate to write an ‘activity’ list given I feel we do not need to direct experiences for children, though sometimes we may need to inspire or support them, or we may need to play alongside each other in our play, for sure. Instead, here’s a list of what I see when I walk into various settings and programs, where children are supported to play freely. This is a list of what’s possible, of what may unfold when you unleash children onto the land in winter. They may, with your support:
- Create little mini ponds/oceans/habitats/worlds. If we let children leave the trail and follow their lead to where they want to take you. You’ll be amazed by what they can show you
- Find changes in their landscape that puzzle them:Why is there a wet area deep in the forest but everywhere else the water is frozen? Testing water levels and frozen ice is fascinating to some. Watch, listen, and sometimes, only sometimes, ask questions to deepen their thinking and curiosity.
- Seek out signs of life and signs of death. Look to see what animals make their home in any particular place. Finding burrows in the snow. Watch chickadees mobbing a visiting owl, find a deer carcass that was attacked by a visiting coyote. Support children to tell stories about these experiences
- Follow streams and find ice slides to go down. Where does the stream lead? Is it easier maybe to follow this stream in the winter when the bog is frozen and the tall grass is flattened?
- Paint on canvas outdoors and watch how it changes with water dripping on it. See how long it takes for droplets to freeze. Do colours also change in this process? What do these colours look like as the light fades in the afternoon?
- Snowball fights! Sometimes everything can be resolved in little worlds with a snowball fight. Agree upon ‘community standards’ to set a tone that we can have fun AND we can balance this with staying safe. Empower them to come up with ways to keep each other safe. Show them that you trust them to look out for each other and that you believe this is not just your job, it’s the job of everyone to care for each other.
As we approach the holidays, a wish for the families of Canada: may this winter break be filled with time playing outside, runny noses, cold hands, millions of layers, and heart-pounding FUN! #NatureForAll