Outdoor Play for Family Walks, part 2 - Winter

Family walks can be among the best of times; they may also be some of the worst. If the kids get bored or mutinous, far from home on a rain-soaked moor, then things will go downhill fast. So what can parents do to keep children enthused on a long day outdoors? This series of articles by Forest School practitioner Ed Docwra looks at outdoor games and fun things to do on family walks, borrowing some ideas from Forest School and other forms of outdoor learning. Armed with a toolkit of activities, a few foraged leaves and twigs, and some of the gear already in your rucksack, you should be able to keep the kids entertained for hours. They might even pick up the rudiments of some key hillwalking skills along the way.

Part one of the series covered leaves, twigs and all things autumnal. Part two has more of a wintry feel.

Winter is a fantastic time out in the hills for children of all ages - even the grown-up variety. Given the right conditions it also creates some great opportunities that just aren't available for most of the year. We're talking snow and ice, and all the fun you can have with them. At the time of writing I'm still hoping that we'll get plenty of snow this year. Of course I don't know if we will yet, so I've included a mixture of suggestions for activities, some of which don't rely on the white stuff. Whether it snows or not, make sure the kids are well kitted up so that they stay warm and dry, then head out into the lower hills and valleys and have some fun.

Winter is a magic time for kids  © Dan Bailey
Winter is a magic time for kids
© Dan Bailey

1. Animal Tracking

With snow on the hills and the prospect of snowball fights and sledging it shouldn't take much to convince the kids to come out for a walk. The conditions however are also prime for doing a bit of animal tracking, and this is a great way to keep a child going on a walk, with them focusing on finding the next set of tracks and trying to identify what made them. You could even print off some animal tracks from the internet if you were organised to really help with identifying tracks that they find or take a picture on your phone and look them up in field guides when you get home. Even if there isn't snow on the ground, hopefully there will be some muddy tracks to find instead.

"Aha, oho, marks in the snow. Whose are those tracks and where do they go?"

Wild cat sighting on Skye (prints anyway... maybe...)  © David Barratt
Wild cat sighting on Skye (prints anyway... maybe...)
© David Barratt, Mar 2013
Bear prints in the sand...  © Gethin  Thomas
Bear prints in the sand...
© Gethin Thomas

2. Dinosaur Hunt

Most children seem to love dinosaurs. To encourage them to walk further, from rock to rock, start a fossil and bone hunt. In some areas you may be lucky enough to find some fossils but if not children will create their own deductions about scratches and marks in rocks and their imagination will allow them to create a great makebelieve story. You may well find some bones which can add to the dinosaur story. Alternatively, try to identify what animal they were actually from, and work out how they got there. Unfortunately you will likely find some litter and this is a good opportunity to be able to talk to the kids about the Leave No Trace ethos. Even better if you have a plastic bag, pick it up and take it home so that you can reinforce good outdoor practice from an early age - they're never too young to start.

This activity is particularly good if the kids have recently watched the Postman Pat episode where they are hunting for a dinosaur!

3. Discover Ice Formations

Winter brings some great snow and ice formations, even on low ground. Rime ice is particularly interesting, growing into the wind on blades of grass and fence posts. Use this opportunity to pull out your compass and make use of its magnifying glass to allow your children to study the ice crystals and how the ice structures have formed. If you have one of the avalanche snowpack assessment cards showing the different types of snow crystal you could bring this out too to allow the children to try and match what they are seeing against what is on the card, and thus increasing their winter walking education and giving you an opportunity to introduce avalanches.

"Ice Grass" Glen Coe  © henry castle
"Ice Grass" Glen Coe, Dec 2011
© henry castle

4. Blindfold Journey

Buffs and scarves are quite likely to be something at least one person has in your group and they make fantastic blindfolds. If you have neither then hat pulled low or a jacket put on reversed with the hood both up work well too, though there is the temptation to cheat with a hat, while a hood over the face can get quite hot and claustrophobic.

Now take your child on a blindfolded journey, guiding them by holding and supporting an arm and elbow so that you can arrest a slip or trip if necessary. They will get a great feel for what is underfoot as their proprioception is heightened. When the blindfold comes off you can get them to recount their journey: did they go up hill or down; were their feet slightly angled due to contouring; and was there a stream crossing? These skills of remembering their journey and being aware of the ground they have crossed can then be built upon to improve their navigation as they develop.

Lots of ground can be covered during this activity if you wish and you can even have a go at running some of it. If a child is tired of going uphill it is also a good way to get them to cover the ground while taking their mind off the uphill aspect and concentrating instead on placing their feet securely.

He went that-a way  © Dan Bailey
He went that-a way
© Dan Bailey

5. Hare and Hounds

Again this is another activity that works brilliantly when it has snowed - though muddy ground or even a sandy beach might serve as a stand-in. Send one of the adults off ahead as the hare, and then release the kids to chase them down by following the tracks that they have made and discover their hiding place. No biting!

Nb. For some ideas on child-friendly routes see this destination article: Ten Fab Family Hills.

Ed Docwra head shot  © Ed Docwra

About Ed

Mountain Leader and Forest School Practitioner Ed Docwra is passionate about getting children outdoors. He also runs specialist children's outdoor retailer Mountain Munchkins, which provides outdoor kit and equipment specifically for children.

When not working at the Mountain Munchkins store Ed can be found delivering Forest School sessions to local schools and community groups or out training with Bowland Pennine Mountain Rescue Team, of which he is a member.

You can book him for a Forest School session here

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