Dress Your Kids for Outdoor Winter Play with This Nature-Based Preschool’s Tips

Getting outside this year might be the thing that gets us all through to spring and sunnier days! To help us all get bundled up and out exploring in the winter, I spoke with Beth Wilson, the director of Hobson School in Naperville. Hobson is a play- and nature-based cooperative preschool . . . and it’s where my own kids go to school!

While outdoor play has always been a big element of play at Hobson, this year, it’s even more important, as classes have been held outdoors unless the weather has turned dangerous. Advice from Beth and the teachers at Hobson has been so helpful in getting my kids dressed for hours of outdoor fun in any weather.

“We know that children’s healthy growth and development is inextricably tied with their time and exposure to unstructured time outdoors in nature,” says Beth. “That means all year round, especially when you live in Illinois, that you would be ready to go outside in every weather.”

Curating enthusiasm for outdoor play

Getting ready to play in all weather might require a mindset shift for parents and caregivers, first and foremost.

“Children often see this in a different way,” says Beth. “We see the weather as a barrier; they see all the different things they can do. Having a positive attitude as a grown-up really impacts how the children are going to feel.”

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“Any weather can be great to go outside and play and explore the natural world,” Beth adds. When we as parents embrace that enthusiasm, it makes it easier for our kids to catch on, too.

How to dress kids in layers for chilly day play

Layering is the most important element of being ready for outdoor play, especially in the winter. Beth recommends three layers for cold days:

  • Base layer: A closer-fitting layer of cotton, wool, silk, or synthetic fabric.
  • Middle layer: Your regular, everyday clothing.
  • Outerwear layer: Waterproof from head-to-toe! That means snow pants (even if it’s not snowing), a waterproof coat, waterproof winter boots, and waterproof mittens (not knit if there is any chance of snow or getting wet).

Other important pieces of outdoor clothing

Snow pants are good for more than just snow. They provide excellent insulation to keep kids warm and dry. “Think of your snow pants as warm pants,” says Beth.

Wool socks are worth the investment. “Keeping your feet warm is really important,” says Beth. Wool socks keep moisture away from the skin and prevent feet from getting wet.

Warm hats, including fleece-lined hats and neck gaiters, “can be great for keeping your neck area extra toasty,” says Beth. A warm scarf can also help keep out the cold.

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Whatever gear you choose, make sure it’s waterproof. “Once you’re wet you’re a lot colder,” says Beth.

It doesn’t have to be expensive new gear, either. Beth recommends buying secondhand, swapping with friends, and reusing items within your social circle. That goes double since these items are meant for outdoor play and will naturally get muddy and worn.

Ideas for outdoor play in winter

Snow is an easy in with kids (making a snowman! snowball fights! going sledding!), but it’s not the only thing that makes winter exciting.

“Going out and observing the changes in your neighborhood or in a local forest preserve and just how different things can look in the winter months can be very exciting to children,” says Beth.

A few other ideas Beth shared:

  • Go on a nature hunt or game of “I spy” in nature.
  • Take trip to your local forest preserve — and feel free to go off-trail. (Maple Grove in Downers Grove has been a longtime favorite for Beth’s family.)
  • Have frozen fun with ice play: Putting salt on ice, pouring warm water on ice, and watching for cause-and-effect with how things freeze and melt.
  • Blow bubbles, do sidewalk chalk, ride a scooter, and do other activities you might associate with warm weather. “You just need extra layers,” says Beth.
  • Go looking for animal tracks, patches of ice, or differences in trees and bushes.
  • Explore by local creeks, rivers, and water sources. (My own kids and I recently spent half an hour listening to the noises sticks make when you throw them across an iced-over pond.)
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Thanks so much to Beth Wilson for sharing her expertise; check out the website for more information about the school. And be sure to check out our outdoor play guide for even more ideas for fun in fresh air!

About the Author

Rachel Matuch
Rachel is a mom to two boys (ages 2 and 4) who "certainly has her hands full," as strangers in grocery stores tell her. She's doing her best to keep up and get comfortable with the mud pies and tree-climbing her kids love. In addition to writing and editing, Rachel frequently pillages the Naperville library, plays nerdy board games with her husband, and collapses into a tired heap at 8:30 p.m.

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