By Jennifer Pitterle
Even as a dyed-in-the-wool Upper Midwesterner—I grew up in Wisconsin and currently live in Minnesota—winter can sometimes feel like a slog. After a fresh snowfall (it is pretty!), my kids look out the window and see snow people, sledding, and forts. I see 20 minutes of getting everyone dressed (“You lost your mitten again?!”) in exchange for six minutes of play before they’re ready to come back inside.
And I can’t really blame them—a cup of hot chocolate by the fireplace is downright appealing when the temperatures are below zero and the wind is whipping through the maples in the backyard.
But I also know that if I just give in to the pull of the indoors, my kids will miss out on a fundamental right of childhood: to explore nature, to play freely in the fresh air, and to connect to the earth—in all seasons.
To make outdoor play a success in the depths of winter, focus first on the gear. Swedes and Norwegians have an old saying: “There's no such thing as bad weather—only bad clothing.” The right layers can mean the difference between damp, chilly hands and feet (right back to the hot chocolate) and warm, dry bodies that can hike, build, and explore for hours.
If researching and shopping for high-quality winter gear feels overwhelming, I’ve got you covered. I’ve been a “nature mom” for almost six years now: I’ve attended forest play groups with toddlers; dressed a 4K-er daily for his fully outdoor, year-round preschool; and led hiking excursions with small children even in the depths of a Minnesota January.
So let’s gear up!
Layer by Layer
Like putting together a cake, start at the bottom and work your way up as you dress your little one for outdoor play. Here’s where to start and what to look for:
1. Base layer.
Whether you call it a “base layer” or “long underwear,” this layer hugs the body and wicks sweat away. Wool is the ideal material for base layers, since it's breathable, warm, and doesn't hold onto moisture or odors. Start with snug-fitting wool pants and a tee, or a zip-up footie for babies and young toddlers. You can go with a well-regarded, pricier brand (like Nui Organics, Wee Woollies, or Smartwool), but don’t let cost be a barrier: You can find merino base layers at large retailers like L.L. Bean or REI (and they’re increasingly available at big-box stores, too).
2. Snow pants.
Insulated snow pants are great for kids because they offer warmth and waterproofing. For toddlers and young elementary schoolers, bib-style snow pants are extra cozy and easy to get on and off. For older kids, pants with a regular waistband or suspenders might feel less bulky.
Photo Courtesy of Jennifer Pitterle.
If you live in a particularly wet climate with lots of cold rain or wet snow, you might choose rain pants vs. snow pants for their extra watertight qualities (just add a cozy layer of sweatpants or fleece pants underneath). My oldest child used a mud/rain suit (from a brand like Tuffo or Polarn O. Pyret) all year round, including over his snow pants and coat in the winter—it was roomy enough to fit on top, and kept his winter gear extra dry for long days of forest preschool.
For active kids, look for extra features in snow pants like reinforced knees and bottoms, and ankle zippers that allow for more flexibility.
3. Warm top layer.
Over your child’s base layer tee, add a warm, lightweight fleece pullover or knit sweater. This adds one more layer where a pocket of warm air will form, keeping their body temperature regulated.
4. Coat or jacket.
Depending on where you live and how long your child spends outdoors, you might choose a down- or poly-fill parka, which is a coat that hits at thigh level and covers chilly bums.
For active kids—like skiers and snowboarders—who need lots of movement, try a puffer jacket that offers warmth and ease of movement. If temperatures are warmer, a packable down- or poly-fill jacket that's lighter might do the trick.
Many outfitters list temperature ratings for each of their coats and jackets so you can choose the one that's best for your climate. Here in Minnesota, we look for parkas with (faux) fur-lined hoods to help keep snowflakes away from faces and protect chilly necks and cheeks.
Add the Toppings
After your child is layered up, it’s time to accessorize with footwear, hats, mittens and more. Here’s what to add on:
Keeping kids’ feet warm and dry is so important in winter weather. Wool is a tried-and-true sock material for a reason: it wicks moisture, regulates temperature, and feels good. Brands like Smartwool and Darn Tough make great wool socks for kids, and you can find affordable versions, too, and most big-box retailers and local outfitter stores.
For extended playtime outdoors, consider layering a thicker, looser sock on top of a thinner one that hugs the foot (for that extra air pocket of insulation). Fleece socks are a good alternative to wool; cotton, not so much, because it keeps cold moisture close to the skin and doesn’t dry quickly.
And remember to leave plenty of room around the sock inside your child’s boot. Because feet don’t have much fat or mass on their own, they depend on blood circulation from the rest of the body for warmth. A truly warm sock (and boot) should encourage circulation, and not restrict it.
While you might assume that warmth is the most important factor in choosing winter boots, it's actually dryness! Wet feet get cold fast, no matter how warm a boot is supposed to be. We hardened “nature parents” of the frozen north swear by good, truly waterproof rain boots (yes, even in the winter!) with at least one or two layers of wool socks underneath; we’ve found that most snow boots, even those purported to be “waterproof,” usually…aren’t.
For toddlers and preschoolers, look for boots with flexible soles to let their toes and arches move as naturally (as “barefoot”) as possible.
As a rule of thumb, err on the side of “too big” rather than “too small.” You should leave about an inch of air space inside a boot for better insulation from the cold. Don't cram those tootsies in too tight! Our family has had great luck with boots from brands like Bogs and Reima.
As with boots, waterproof mittens (sometimes marketed as “rain mittens”) from brands like Polarn O. Pyret or Reima offer the best chance at keeping little hands dry, compared to insulated snow mittens that often don’t offer much waterproofing. Underneath a rain mitten, layer a stretchy wool or cotton mitten. For babies and toddlers who have trouble keeping mittens on (and who might not be using their hands in the snow as much anyway), use an old pair or two of tall wool socks, pulled up nice and snug to their elbows. Cozy and un-pull-off-able!
As for toppers, choose a hat that covers the ears and forehead. Some brands offer warm wool hats with a layer of wind-proofing for extra coziness. Balaclavas are a great option for extremely cold weather: they cover the mouth, nose, forehead, ears, and neck. If your kiddo wants two pieces, try a fleece neck gaiter (which is safer and easier to use than a scarf) and a hat.
As with all gear, involve your kiddos as much as you can in the picking-out process. Once you’ve narrowed down the options, get their input on color and style.
Beyond the Gear
You’ve layered and bundled, and everyone is ready to head outside. Now what? We’ve got some tips to help your kids (and you!) acclimate to regular play in cold weather and truly enjoy it. Really!
Photo Courtesy of Jennifer Pitterle.
Start Out Slow
If your kids aren't used to extended periods of cold-weather playtime, help them acclimate by easing into it. To make getting dressed a little less of a drag, come up with a song that illustrates putting on each layer, or make it a (low-stakes!) race to see who can don their stuff the fastest. Then, head outside for a manageable chunk of time, even if it means you spend more time getting ready than you do outside for the first day or two! Set a timer for 15 or 20 minutes, and quit while you're ahead—stop the play while it's still fun. Bring everyone indoors to warm up with a mug of hot chocolate. And next time, stay out a little longer.
Bring a Few Supplies
To really embrace the concept of “friluftsliv” (the Norwegian term for “outdoor life”), bring a few things with you as you explore your backyard, your neighborhood playground, or your local natural area.
1. A wool blanket.
Not necessarily for wrapping up in, but for sitting on! “Spot sitting” is the art of being still in nature, observing what's going on around you, and maybe taking notes or drawing pictures of what you see. (For kids, this might take the form of a nature journal.) Find a patch of ground or a log or stump to perch on, and take a few minutes to watch the flora and fauna. Listen to the sounds you hear. Encourage your kids to spot sit with you, even if just for a few moments. My kids and I like to play the five-senses game: What do we hear? What do we see? What do we smell? What can we touch? What can we taste? We also use our blanket to mark out our base camp, where we keep our snacks and other things that get set down while we play.
2. Water and snacks.
Even though we usually think of dehydration in hot weather, it can happen in the winter, too. Offer sips of room-temp water to kids frequently, especially if they've been getting lots of exertion. Healthy snacks and a warm thermos of tea or hot chocolate are great additions, too.
3. Tissues and first aid.
Pack a few essentials: facial tissues for runny noses, bandages for scrapes, and any other first aid items you'd typically bring on a hike in your region. We like to pack a car kit that stays in the trunk until it’s needed. We fill it with first aid items, extra snacks and bottled water, and extra dry clothing.
Think Outside the Box
Now that you're outdoors, what does play look like? Whenever possible, let children lead the way. Free exploration is ideal! What will they find? What will they build? What will they notice? If you need a few ideas to get things kick-started, try building a fort out of snow or logs; reading a winter-themed picture book together; identifying animal tracks in the snow; or trying out equipment like sleds, skis, or snowshoes.
Make a Base Camp
When my family goes for a hike or goes exploring in the little woods behind our backyard, we usually set up a little base camp: We put down our blanket and stash our backpacks there. Often, I stay at base camp and let my kids lead their own nature exploration (make sure to set age-appropriate ground rules ahead of time, like staying within sight and earshot). It’s important that my kids see me enjoying the peace of nature, not just with “busy” play: reading a book, sipping from a thermos of tea, journaling, or just sitting.
Kids can return to base camp any time they need a rest, a snuggle, or a snack. I often bring a few books to read together—some of our favorite winter titles include Jan Brett’s The Mitten and Susan Cooper’s The Shortest Day. When we’re immersed in nature, it’s also one of the best times (though certainly not the only time) to learn about the indigenous communities who lived on the land where we currently live and play, and recognize that most Americans’ access to the outdoors is a privilege that came at a great cost to other communities.
Photo Courtesy of Jennifer Pitterle.
If you took your car to your snow play area, keep a large reusable grocery bag in the trunk or back seat. Help everyone strip off their wet outer layers—especially coats, boots, and mittens—and toss them right in the bag for easy cleanup when you get home. Remember that thick coats and jackets aren't safe to use in most car seats, so be sure to read your child's seat's instruction manual and keep their in-car layers as thin as possible.
Before you know it, outdoor play—in any season, in any weather—can be a normal, integrated part of your family’s life, as it’s become for ours. Wishing you and your children many happy memories and a big mug of hot chocolate to warm those chilly hands. Cheers!
Jennifer Pitterle is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor. Pre-parenthood, she was a longtime editor for a lifestyle magazine group. She writes about parenting, nature, children's literacy, and more. She's always working with her children to bring a sense of natural enchantment to their suburban home and backyard.