Winter in western North Carolina usually includes the whole spectrum of precipitation. Some days are cold and blustery, others sunny and breezy, so it can be difficult to make a plan for activities. Once you have exhausted indoor options: baking cookies, holiday-decorating, hot chocolate and movies, you’ll find that the whole crew becomes prone to the stir-crazies. Luckily, there are ways to get the family outside, even with the wintery whiplash that WNC tends to offer.
1- Bird-watching : Going on a walk with your family is a wonderful way to get out of the house and bond with your surroundings. However, some children may struggle with a stroll without the motivation of a “job.” If you have binoculars, now would be the time to dust them off and bring them along. Dress for the weather and enjoy the spectacular bird-watching that WNC has to offer, even in the winter! If multiple kids are involved, bring a notepad along and see who can find the most birds. For older kids, challenge them to differentiate the species. Who can find the highest variety of birds? From Bird Watcher’s Digest, you’re looking for smaller woodland birds like the Chickadee (with its distinctive call), titmice, Cardinals, jays, kinglets, thrushes, and sparrows. You may even get lucky to spot a woodpecker, like the famed Pileated, or a predatory raptor, like the sizable Cooper’s hawk. If you can’t identify a species, don’t worry! The fun is in the journey you get to share with each other. Make note of its characteristics and you can figure it out later. [Foul weather modification: Bird feeders are popular commodities for the avian population this time of year. By setting up a mixed-seed feeder at your house, you’re likely to attract all of these species to you! Winter is an especially great time to hang a suet feeder for woodpeckers, when it’s cold enough to keep the suet’s oily binding a solid. From the coziness of your own house, families can still engage with nature.]
2- Scavenger Hunt : On-theme with incorporating goals into a family outdoor-stroll, scavenger hunts are fun to design and rewarding to execute! This is an excellent opportunity for younger kids to practice identifying properties of nature. For example, “I want you to find me five things: something red, something flexible, something heavy, something soft, and something smooth.” Kids get to connect with nature via their sense of touch and apply words to what they’re experiencing (plus they can practice counting). Bonus: get kids to build a structure with the different materials they have found! They love the activity of trial and error with less-familiar materials and especially appreciate being able to share their constructs. Older kids can be challenged by scavenger lists that entail differentiating species. For example, 5th-8th-grade students could be instructed to find an oak, maple, and a poplar leaf in addition to other items. Ultimately, you know your child best. This activity is an opportunity for guardians to be creative and design a hunt that gets kids engaging with nature! [Foul weather modification: indoor scavenger hunt! List items in your home which are somewhat concealed and challenging to find.]
3- Bouldering : Of the 5 Outdoor Winter Activity suggestions, this option requires the most equipment and preparation. Yet it presents an opportunity of fairly unstructured play. When I was young, growing up in Transylvania County, my parents were constantly trying to keep my sister and I out of the trees (to no avail). They eventually gave up and just told us to be careful. Now, I attribute our full-day tree-climbing adventures to who I am as an adult. All day, kids have adults telling what to do, when, how, and why. Wherein such formatting provides kids with much-needed direction, it wouldn’t hurt to give them the reigns of their lives sometimes, too. For the developing mind and body, climbing is hailed as a superfood. It also just so happens that western North Carolina is brimming with indoor and outdoor climbing opportunities. In particular, bouldering (distinguished from sport rock climbing), requires the least equipment. Climbing shoes, chalk, and a pad will get you and your family out in the woods for many afternoons to come. Moreover, kids get to approach a climbing problem with autonomous fortitude. “You mean, I am actually allowed to climb this and no one will tell me ‘no’?” On a sunny afternoon, it can get up to the mid 40’s or 50’s here in the winter, which is excellent weather for climbing. Check out Pisgah National Forest for boulder fields. For fowl weather, many climbing gyms offer day passes and even lessons for the beginner climbers. My recommendation, do plenty of research and know safety measures before facilitating a climbing session.
4- Snowflake Science : Let’s say we are having one of those white winters that sweeps western North Carolina every few years. The kids are home from school (again), everyone is tired of being on computers and distance learning…sounds like a prime opportunity to get outside. This snowflake science activity is a great way for families to enjoy a snowy day, while learning together! It requires a black paper and a magnifying glass. Put the paper outside in the cold (but not the snow) for about 15 minutes so that it equalizes with the outside temperature. Then, if it is actively snowing, let a few flakes fall on the paper and they should be there for a few moments for you to observe before they melt! You can even sprinkle some snow on the paper (spreading out the flakes as much as possible). Did you know that snowflakes always have 6 sides? It can take up to 100,000 water vapor droplets to create a single snowflake! This activity is adaptable for older children as well, to initiate a discussion about the molecular structure of water and why it is such a cool (and valuable) medium.
5- Hiking : It is no secret that the hiking opportunities in this area are second-to-none. Whether you are a novice hiker, experienced, or something in-between, there will be something here for you. In fact, the challenge lies in choosing hikes that suit you and your family’s ability. Hikes can become definitively not fun for anyone if they turn out to be miles more than you expect. Though we at Mountain Roots tend to limit the amount of condoned technology, I do think it is worth mentioning to download the free “All Trails” app on your smartphone. That way you can decide on a hike from the comfort of your couch, download the map layers before leaving (while you know you have service), and not have to think twice about making a wrong turn on your hike. That being said, a good ol’ fashion paper map may be a great opportunity to teach young ones how to navigate. Bonus: if you have a compass, this also might be a time for kids to learn about the cardinal directions and how to find them! You may be thinking, “Winter? Hiking?…not two things I would typically put together.” Let me tell you from quite a lot of experience: this is the time of year to do it. First of all, despite our instinct to hibernate in our warm homes, we all need to get out. Even the drive to the trail head can be a part of the adventure. Secondly, the spring, fall, and summer are notorious seasons for tourists in the area. Who wants to go hiking when the trails are literally crowded with people from all over the country? And third, winter hiking is beautiful. Icicles form from groundwater sources, waterfalls and rock features are visible from much further away with the loss of deciduous tree leaves, rhododendron leaves close and unfurl based on the temperature, while evergreen ground-cover plants are vibrant among the dead leaves. Views are as spectacular as ever and the family gets to enjoy it together. For easier, sloping hikes and lots of waterfalls, check out DuPont State Forest. Technical hikes that tend to intersect with beautiful water systems are numerous in Pisgah National Forest. Bundle with layers and enjoy the journey!
The great thing about these suggested activities is that they involve creativity by the facilitator. It depends on the severity of the weather, the amount of time you have at your disposal, and your family’s propensity for adventure. However, it is important to disrupt our tendency to rely on indoor exercises, especially when winter in western North Carolina is ripe for exploration!