Short days and cold temps don’t lend easily to keeping families entertained, especially outdoors. Downhill skiing, sledding at the local hill, and ice skating at rinks or outdoor ponds are all great options that almost go without saying. In addition to those classic winter pastimes, here are a few ideas for things to do with kids in the winter.
Head to the museum
The Montshire Museum of Science, in Norwich, is a great thing to do with kids, says Trish Palao, a staff member of the museum, because “it’s filled with hands-on science exhibits.” That means people get to learn about science, not just from reading or watching, but from doing.
“Within each exhibit,” she says, “there’s lots of opportunities to discover something amazing about how the world around us works, like how an accordion creates sound, how air can bring things to life, or how bubbles are formed.”
In addition to regular museum exhibits and activities, there are several special events on tap this winter. On Jan. 12, a new exhibit opens at the museum called “Destination: Space!” that highlights the art and science of space exploration, and celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission’s moon landing.
On Jan. 26, the museum hosts Astronomy Day to explore the Earth, moon and stars, which is perfect timing because the shorter days of winter mean longer nights for star-gazing. Educators and special guests will be on hand to share their knowledge and hands-on activities.
On Feb. 16, Montshire Museum is hosting an annual igloo-building event. “Everybody goes outside, an engineer is brought in who specializes in building igloos, and everyone works together to build a village of igloos,” says Palao. “And, there’s hot chocolate,” she adds.
The Warm Welcome program offers income-eligible Vermonters special admission rates, like $3 per day tickets and $20 annual memberships, and there are also school vacation camps. See the website for more information on events and rates, at www.montshire.org.
Winter is a great time to look for animals, since their tracks record their activity as they move through forests and fields. One neat way to get kids engaged is through a citizen science tracking program called iNaturalist (www.inaturalist.org). Users can post pictures of plants, animals or tracks to this online database using their mobile device, and members of this online naturalist community will help identify the species — be it animal or plant.
Local biologists and naturalists also peruse the iNaturalist database to monitor animal movement around the state. For example, a member of a local conservation commission may look for all local coyote signs to help them understand populations and activities in their area.
“It’s a cool user-friendly way to do something out in the field with family and be able to contribute to natural science,” says Sean Beckett, a staff naturalist at North Branch Nature Center in Montpelier.
Tracking animals is an especially great way to get kids engaged in nature during the winter. “It can be tough to get kids into things like looking at bark and identifying trees in the winter, but kids can interact with an otter slide or deer tracks.”
For families looking to track animals, Becket recommends the book “Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Sign,” by Paul Rezendes. Many pocket-size, waterproof guides are also available at most book stores, and these are useful because they give outlines of animal tracks in real size.
Make your own tracks
Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are great ways to get kids outside in the winter. It’s best to take shorter trips on mellow terrain so that kids are set up to have fun and be successful. Tiring kids out on long ski or snowshoe adventures can lead to more complaining and whining that it’s worth. A thermos of hot chocolate, some special trailside snacks, or searching for signs of animals can keep things engaging.
There are a number of Nordic skiing centers around the state, such as Rikert Outdoor Center in Ripton and Craftsbury Outdoor Center, and many downhill ski resorts include cross country networks for skiing and snowshoeing. Check their calendars of events, too, because many ski resorts offer guided outings or kid- and family-oriented trips. Ski gear and snowshoes are available for rent at most of these locations, too, though it’s always good to call ahead. Rental gear and season lease programs are also available at outdoor gear stores around the state.