Most parents know by now that playing outdoors with masks is the safest way for kids to socialize during the pandemic. “Indoor air is problematic unless it’s highly ventilated,” explained Covid-19 pandemic expert Andy Slavitt, host of the podcast In the Bubble and former federal healthcare administrator, in a Q&A in ParentsTogether’s Facebook group. “Bundling up and staying outdoors while having them keep some distance still feels like the best way [to socialize].”
But in the winter, outdoor playdates become much trickier to achieve. Sure, you can bundle up and bring warm beverages (and follow our other tips for making outdoor excursions with kids a success), but what should kids actually DO together outside?
Try some of these creative outdoor winter playdate ideas that can be adapted for children of all ages, with various degrees of participation from adults. The aim is that kids will be so active and engaged in playing that they won’t even notice the chilly weather!
Snow and ice construction
If you live someplace that’s cold enough for snow, you’ve probably already tried building a snowman. But there are plenty of other structures you could build with ice or snow to mix things up. If you have snow outside, brainstorm some new ideas with kiddos—a caterpillar, a pyramid, a ramp or slide—and then use cups, pails, shovels, forks, spoons, toy dump trucks, and more to make the construction even more involved. If you don’t have snow outside but have cold weather, try using ice cubes and water (and optional food coloring) to build something unique and cool.
Pop-up market or restaurant
Kids can design and run their own pretend outdoor restaurant or market. Bring folding chairs and tables, boxes, fake food, plates, cups, pots, and utensils outside to pretend to cook and serve, and a notebook to take orders. They can even make a menu on a chalkboard or piece of cardboard. Kids can use their favorite dolls or stuffed animals as customers, or serve the adults. If it’s cold enough, they can make pretend popsicles, ice cream, or snow cakes outside.
Shadow tracing is a perfect activity for the winter months, when the sun is lower in the sky. On a relatively sunny day, line up figurines, trucks, block castles—you name it. Then kids can trace the shadows using sidewalk chalk on the driveway or patio, or markers on a big piece of cardboard or paper. Let them embellish the scene however they want, to make a huge, imaginative mural on the ground!
For science-minded or competitive kiddos, try an ice-melting race (on a not-too-freezing day). Provide an equal lump of ice or pile of ice cubes for each kid or team, and supply some of the following materials: salt, black and white pieces of paper, containers made of different materials such as plastic and metal, magnifying glasses, metal forks, and more. Kids will have to figure out which materials and conditions make the ice melt faster. The only rule is that they can’t use their mouths (mask-wearing should help with that).
Oversized board game
Use sidewalk chalk on the driveway, or markers on huge pieces of cardboard, to recreate one of your favorite board games on a larger scale. Try a pared down version of a simple game such as Chutes and Ladders, and kids (and adults) can stand on it as the game pieces. Alternatively, you could use rocks, pinecones, or snowballs as game pieces in a large-scale version of a game like checkers.
Have each kid bring their favorite toy cars or trucks to race against each other. Set up ramps and tunnels using snow, cardboard, wood, or anything else you can think of. To make the races more exciting, set up a timer or video to capture the finish line, create fun pit stops with tools to play with or exercises to complete (jumping jacks help keep kids warm!), and come up with creative rewards for the participants.
If the temperature is below 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius), it should be cold enough to blow bubbles and watch them freeze—then shatter! It’s a good idea to refrigerate the bubble solution first. Then, try blowing bubbles outside and catching them gently on a wand or mitten. Wait for the bubbles to freeze, and observe what happens. It’s a fascinating science project for kids and adults.
Winter relay races
These may require a little more planning for the adults, but there are some field day games that may be even more fun in winter. For example, try a winter clothing race where participants have to run to a bin of oversized coats, hats, and scarves (each household can supply their own to avoid sharing germs), put everything on over their regular winter gear, then race back in the bulky outfit without dropping anything. Another wintery relay race idea involves balancing snowballs, cotton balls, or ice cubes on a spoon, and going back and forth until all of the items have been moved from one bucket to another.
Hunt for eggs (or anything, really)
To motivate kids to get moving outdoors in the winter, you can adapt the basic Easter egg hunt idea into anything you want: Hide figurines, balls, small packaged snacks, crayons, blocks, containers with surprise objects inside, etc., in the snow or all over the yard. Have a race to see who can collect the most. It’s even better if the objects tie into an activity that kids can do together afterward: blocks that they can use to build a castle, chalk that they can use to make a driveway mural, or puzzle pieces (sealed in plastic so they don’t get wrecked) to complete a puzzle.