Staff Insights: Six Fun Activities for Winter!

As I sit down to write this post about winter outdoor activities, I keep stopping to gaze at the winter wonderland outside my window. How did you spend the Blizzard of 2015? After you shoveled out, perhaps with the help of some little helpers, did you get out and enjoy the snow? I hope so! You don't need 20 inches of snow to do the following activities, but a little snow certainly helps. So, without further ado...

1. Get out and play! Children love playing in the snow, and it holds so many possibilities. Make a snowball, snowman, snow fort or castle. Then use twigs or berries to decorate your creation. Bust out your sled or ice skates. Getting pulled around on a sled is the best! Work together to make a snow hill and your children will entertain themselves for hours, sledding down the hill over and over. When they roll off their sled, as they inevitably will do, show them how to make a snow angel. When you come inside have a cup of hot cocoa with mini-marshmallows to warm up.

2. Look for footprints in the snow! After a snowfall is the perfect time to look for animal footprints or tracks, so do an animal investigation and see if you can find some. Do they all look the same or are they different? Can you differentiate between mammals and birds? Make some footprints of your own. Design a footprint trail and have your children follow your tracks. Take big steps and small ones.  Have your children follow your lead as you waddle like a penguin, hop like a rabbit, and run like a wolf.  Even with snow covering everything, there is still lots of investigating you can do together. 

3.  Paint the snow! Give your little ones squirt or spray bottles such as empty dish soap bottles, fill them with water and food dye or Kool-aid packets (really!), and let them paint the snow. Using Kool-aid instead of food dye makes it a multi-sensory experience with bright colors and a fun smell, plus it's easier to wash off.  Your little ones may even want to taste it, which is fine as long as the snow is fresh and clean!

4. Freeze bubbles! On days when it is below freezing, blow bubbles outside and observe what happens. When you blow bubbles in temperatures below 32 degrees, ice crystals form on the surface of the bubbles. Try catching the bubbles you blew with your bubble wand. They will crystallize and you can see the beautiful colors. What happens when they pop? They shatter! This is a great opportunity to talk with your little ones about the changes that happen when the weather dips below freezing. Instead of puddles and ponds, we have ice. Instead of rain, we get snow.

5. Bring nature inside! If it's too cold, or you've been outside for a while and it's time to go in and get warm, you can always bring nature in with you. Bring snow inside, just like we did during Arctic week at LEAP. You can fill a big container with snow, add some cookie cutters or measuring cups and you're all set. Scoop it, mold it, and watch it melt. 

6. Come to the Lincoln Park Zoo! I love visiting the zoo during winter. It's less crowded and you have many more one-on-one opportunities with the animals. Most of our big cats are cold weather animals, so come visit our Amur tigers, Molly and Pahstrel , and our new snow leopard, Taza. Be sure to look for the puma, lynxes, and red pandas, too. The Regenstein Macaque Forest is open and our new Japanese Macaques, or snow monkeys, are on exhibit. Time it right and you might find them splashing around in their hot spring! When you need to warm up, go inside and visit our warm weather animals too. The buildings are a great place for little ones to run around and explore on a cold winter day.

Enjoy the snow while it lasts. Remember how much fun you had playing in the snow as a child. Share your memories with your children and enjoy making some new snow memories together!

-Sue Siegel 

Staff Insights: Notes from the Early Childhood Education Field

Everything is bigger in Texas! This week, I'm in Dallas to attend the annual conference for the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and, let me tell you, this conference is huge! There are thousands of professionals here who are anxious to connect and learn about how to best meet the needs of young children and their families. Naturally, I've had the LEAP program on my mind quite a bit during this conference, so I'd like to connect you to some of the big ideas my colleagues and I are discussing...After all, we're here talking about YOU and your children!

Sometimes you have to travel hundreds of miles to learn about something in your own backyard. During the first conference session I attended, I was excited to learn about The Alliance for Early Childhood, a community organization located right on the North Shore of Chicago that supports parents and professionals who are committed to the growth and development of young children. Be sure to check out their website where you can find parent resources and a calendar of upcoming early childhood events. I was thrilled to hear that many of their family events are nature-based or take place outdoors!

Nature play is here to stay. Beyond just being a trend, it is clear that incorporating nature play and environmental education into early childhood programming is critical for child development and learning. I have attended a number of sessions and had many conversations with others about all the wonderful benefits of nature play and ways we can incorporate it into early childhood education programs like LEAP. Organizations like Natural Start Alliance, Project Learning Tree, and Nature Explore are here to advocate for early childhood environmental education and share great ideas for school activities and family events that connect young children to nature.

What's next? In the coming years, I expect nature play and environmental education to continue to be a very hot topic in early childhood education. Already, nature preschools are popping up around the world, unique outdoor classrooms are being built at zoos, nature centers, and schools, and many educators are embracing technology as a tool that can help young learners explore the outdoors. It's very exciting to see so many people and organizations committed to providing meaningful experiences for young children to connect to nature and to pushing this field forward.

-Jaclyn Peterson

Staff Insights: Helping nature play happen

So you have the sticks, the rocks, the leaves, and even the mud. Now what? Encouraging nature play can be a daunting task for a caregiver of young children, especially since young children today are especially allured by screens (I'm looking at you, iPads). As adults, our role in facilitating nature play is to nurture children's sense of wonder and to encourage them to explore. There are few rules here, but it is important that children have freedom of choice in their play. Children should have free reign to dig, climb, build, bury, collect, sort, and hide. The best kind of play comes from a kid's imagination, not an adult's!

However, that does not mean that adults should always sit back and let kids have all the fun. Sometimes children need encouragement in getting started with nature play, especially city kids. Don't be afraid to be the first one to splash in a puddle or dig in the dirt. By modeling activities, we give children confidence to do it themselves. And once they get started, they will likely try out more things on their own. Then, with young children, we can narrate their actions- "Wow, you are holding a big, grey rock!" Use simple words, but the more descriptive the better, as this helps to build vocabulary. It's also best to avoid quizzing questions. Instead, make observations on the senses utilized during play- "This sand feels wet." "Look how red this leaf is!" Also make sure to sit or kneel down to kid level. This may seem obvious, but children are less likely to be able to focus, understand, and learn from you if you are literally 'over their head.'

Finally, most importantly, have fun! The more smiling and giggling the better, from both you and your child. If your child associates time in nature with positive emotions, she will be more likely to enjoy and appreciate nature as an adult. She may even grow up to be the next great conservation biologist or zoo researcher. You never know.

-Stacey Martin