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Winter's 'Ice Pies'

January 13,2014
Jill Bienenstock

I don't think we ever outgrow making mud pies. This holds true for many sensory experiences that involve water and any type of solid. Yesterday, I was walking through my children's playground and saw groups of children playing with ice, snow and freezing water. I witnessed kids of all ages playing with natures best sensory material’s which only winter can offer. At first, all the children gravitated to a giant puddle surrounded by ice and snow. That ended quickly as a staff member told everyone to leave the giant puddle because no one was dressed appropriately to endure the inevitable wet clothing. The children scattered and quickly found other sensory alternatives. Some children decided to break the ice with chunks of ice, some with stones and pieces of wood, while other children shovelled grainy snow into the forbidden puddle. Others found an ice patch to slide on.

I tell this story to remind us all that even when it's icy and slippery on your playground there is still loads to do. Just watch and learn from the children, they will find hidden opportunities which we sometimes miss. By the end of my short observation, I witnessed children problem solving, collaborating and learning about melting concepts. Most importantly they were having a great time.

Let's start providing children with the appropriate clothing for wet and messy (and sometimes cold) play while outside and not miss these learning opportunities anymore. I can only imagine the fun they might have had if they were allowed to play in that giant puddle. Tuffo is a company that provides waterproof gear for children aged 1to 5.

Recycled Bird Feeders

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Collect your recycling containers and make bird feeders with old milk jugs, milk cartons and water bottles of all sizes. It’s all very simple. All your need is a pair of scissors, wire or twine, markers, sticks, and of course bird seed to create a fun and inviting bird feeder. Watch birds all year round.

Age: 3 and up
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Activity Time: 20 minutes

  • Plastic containers: water bottles, milk jugs, peanut butter containers.
  • Milk cartons.
  • Wire or twine.
  • Scissors.
  • Wooden spoons or sticks.
  • Optional: markers and paint for decorating, stickers.
  • Bird seed.

Birdfeeder Instructions
Water Bottles:
  1. With your scissors, carefully carve a hole on one side of the bottle and on the other side to match. The amount of adult assistance and supervision that is needed will depend on the age and development of the children.
  2. Add your sticks or wooden spoons to each hole. Set the spoons in all the way so that the spoon end can catch some seed.
  3. Now take the funnel and place it up top and pour in your bird seed.
  4. Add a wire or twine at the top so you can attach it to a tree, or a place of your choosing. Replace the cap and hang.
Milk or Juice Jugs:
  1. Clean your jug with hot water and rinse thoroughly.
  2. Cut a large hole opposite of the handle.
  3. Place a stick under the opening for the birds to perch on.
  4. Remove cap and wrap wire or string around the top, and replace cap.
  5. Hang your feeder from a tree branch and fill it with birdseed.

Milk Cartons:
  1. Clean carton with hot water and rinse thoroughly.
  2. Outline a rectangle to cut out on 2 or 3 sides.
  3. Place a stick under the opening for birds to perch on.
  4. At the top of the milk carton poke two holes on either side. String wire or twine through the top.
  5. Hang your feeder from a tree branch and fill it with birdseed.
Helpful Hints:
  • These bird feeders won't last long, but they are so easy to make, you can always replace it easily when it wears out!
  • Scattering some seeds on the ground can help the birds find the feeder. Watch the birds. Be patient. Try different types of seeds and different locations. Record your observations. I found that placing bird feeders near my hedges was an excellent location and I was filling each bird feeder every 2 to 3 days.
  • To attract birds and squirrels, string cranberries, popcorn and shelled peanuts (if allowed) and hang them from the trees and fences.
Note: If you choose to begin feeding the birds regularly, try to do it throughout the winter. They start to depend on you and may have trouble finding other sources of food later in the winter.

Pine Cone Bird Feeders

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Age: 3 and up
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Activity Time: 20 minutes

  • Pine cones.
  • Bird seed.
  • Vegetable shortening.
  • Pipe cleaners or wire ties.
  • 3 Lunch Trays: one for bird seed, one for shortening and one for the finished bird feeders.
  • Small butter knife or Popsicle sticks
  1. Collect pine cones with the children.
  2. Spread the vegetable shortening on the pine cones. Have the children roll the pinecone in the shortening or spread the shortening onto the pinecone with a butter knife or popsicle stick.
  3. Roll the pine cone in the bird seed. The children can also sprinkle or shake the birdseed on the pine cone. Place the finished birdfeeder on a tray.
  4. Wrap a pipe cleaner or wire around the pine cone. Make sure that the pipe cleaner or wire is nice and tight. Adult assistance may be necessary to do this. Leave enough pipe cleaner or wire to hang the birdfeeder.
  5. Hang the pinecone birdfeeder on a tree or large shrub.

Helpful Hints:
  • The shortening needs to be at room temperature so that it can spread like butter over the pine cone.
  • Use different types of pine cones. This will create opportunities to discuss that each tree produces its own seed and fruit.
  • If the birdfeeder is not used immediately, store the birdfeeders in the fridge.
  • This activity can get messy. The shortening is gooey and the birdseeds fall on the floor quite easily.This activity can get messy. The shortening is gooey and the birdseeds fall on the floor quite easily.


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This activity can be created anytime during the year. I like to make them in the winter and set up viewing stations both inside and out. It’s a great opportunity to watch the birds in your playground. All you need are paper towel rolls, masking tape, sticks and some string and you have created your own binoculars for viewing the beauty of nature.

Age: 3 and up
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Activity Time: 15 Minutes

  • Paper towel rolls one per child
  • Paint markers, markers, or crayons
  • 2 inch thick masking tape (I prefer a colour to it)
  • Stickers
  • Scissors
  1. Cut the paper towel roll into 2 equal lengths.
  2. Place the two rolls side by side and tape together.
  3. Decorate with markers and stickers.
  4. Optional: Depending on the age of the children, add a string to the binoculars. This allows the children to hang them around their necks when outside and hang them on a hook when not in use.
Helpful Hints:
  • Use paint markers on the paper towel rolls. It’s easier for the children to have more success when colouring on a curved and often slippy surface.
  • Use 2 inch masking tape. I find thin masking tape awkward to use when taping the 2 rolls together. I like using a coloured masking tape, it just looks better.

There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing

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Wow, winter is definitely here (at least in Southern Ontario, Canada), and will be for a few months. In the last few weeks we have had ice storms, snow storms, freezing temperatures and some mild sunny days when the temperature actually hit 0 Celsius or 32 Fahrenheit. It’s been an array of weather that has offered tons of beauty and opportunities. However, winter days can be long and gruelling, especially if we are stuck inside months on end. Let’s not miss out on the beauty of winter, after all, there is truth in the old Scandinavian saying, ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing’.

As many of you know and practice, being outside and connecting with nature is not only beneficial to a child’s overall development, but is a necessary part of their growth. This statement applies to all seasons, not just the warmer ones.

Kari Svenneby from the Children and Nature Network has summed it up perfectly! This list came from her blog Recess, Even in the Winter:
  1. Spending time outside in the winter can lift children’s moods and prevent SAD - winter depression
  2. Spending time outside gives kids vitamin D
  3. Kids who spend more time outside are less likely to become sick than kids stuck inside spreading germs.
  4. Fresh air helps kids concentrate better
  5. Outside is not as noisy as inside; reducing the stress level for children.
  6. Being outside in active play gives children exercise.
  7. Exercise is good for the brain.
  8. Time outdoors provides opportunities for creating new friendships and learning healthy social behaviour.
  9. Spending time outdoors connects children with the outside world and prevents Nature Deficit-Disorder.
  10. Kids who spend time outside in fresh air sleep better; better sleep makes better students.
Let’s embrace and celebrate all that nature throws at us, even when there is a chill to the air. Needless to say, please make sure your child has the appropriate clothing to stay warm and comfortable when playing outside. Here’s a winter clothing checklist to help:
  • One or two piece snowsuit
  • A good pair of winter boots
  • Water resistant gloves and/or mittens (mittens tend to be warmer)
  • A neck warmer or scarf
  • A balaclava (combined hat and neck warmer)
    On really cold days, I suggest kids have a balaclava under their hat.
  • What's underneath their winter clothes is just as important. Possible layers include: long underwear, fleece, a wool sweater, a hoodie, sweat pants fleece pants.

It’s important to have doubles of the following: mittens, hats, balaclavas and snow pants. These items often get wet easily. Make sure all outer clothing has a good zipper and that winter coats and snow pants are breathable and repel water.

Layering is very important. There should be 3 layers; one layer against your skin to repel moisture, one layer to insulate and the top layer to resist moisture, give warmth and offer durability.

The first layer is the layer in contact with the skin. It needs to be able to breathe and allow moisture to evaporate easily. Long underwear or ’long johns’ need to be made from wool, polyester or a microfiber blend. Cotton is not the best as it tends to absorb moisture and cling to the skin.

The second layer is the insulating layer. Its job is to trap warm air next to the body. The most common and user friendly is fleece. It is lightweight, stretchy and soft. Polyester blends and wool are also popular options, but not as cozy as fleece.

The third layer is the top or outer layer. This layer needs to be insulating, but also needs to deflect moisture and be breathable. One piece suits are perfect for little ones, while 2 piece snowsuits are good for older children who are toilet trained. It’s important to make washroom breaks easy and quick.

Snow Forts & Christmas Tree Forts

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Winter forts are fantastic for getting children to be physical, social, and creative all at the same time. They need to work together and problem solve the best way to create a winter fort. If there is not a lot of snow, just use old Christmas trees found within your neighborhood in early January. If you have missed this opportunity, call your local tree service and I am sure they would be happy to help out with evergreen boughs.

Ages: 3 and up, Prep Time: 15 minutes, Activity Time: 30-60 minutes

Materials List:

  • Christmas Trees
  • Evergreen boughs
  • Hand saw or scissors
  • Logs or poles
  • Packing Snow
  • Square plastic boxes, (different sizes)
  • Bienenstock Natural Playground's Wacky Posts
  • String or Twine

  1. Cut or break off the Christmas tree branches with the children. The amount of assistance needed will depend on the age of the child. Supervision is always needed when using sharp pruning tools. It is also helpful to have some branches cut ready to explore and put on to the fort.
  2. If there is enough packing snow; make giant cubes from the plastic bins and stack snow cubes. Place the evergreen branches on the top for a roof or on the ground for a fort floor. If you have wacky posts in your playground use them as a frame for the snow blocks and for the roof of your fort . When making the roof use twine or heavy string as a frame to place the branches across.
  3. If there is not enough snow make the walls of the fort with the Christmas tree branches. Tie twine or string between the posts to hang the branches.
  4. Use logs or stumps for seating in the fort.


- Discuss the construction of your fort. Ask if the big snow blocks should be on the bottom or top? How many snow blocks will be needed on the bottom? How many up top? Why is this number different? How many layers of blocks do you need? Where will the door be? Will there be any windows? How many people do you think will fit into this fort?

- Discuss why winter forts are needed. Why is a winter fort important? Who uses winter forts? What is this fort used for? What do we need for winter survival?

- Discuss the Christmas tree branches that are used. If using different types of Christmas trees compare the similarities and differences of the branches and pine needles. Discuss and compare sizes. Which one insulates better?

- Discuss the possibility of winter wildlife coming to use this fort for shelter. Who would come and live in the branches and why?

Helpful Hints:

  • Use 2 or 3 different sizes and shapes of recycling boxes to make the snow cubes. Make sure they are not too heavy to stack.
  • Some branches can be very heavy and challenging to work with. The lighter ones are easier to work with especially if you are using twine or string to hang your branches from. Letting the children figure out what happens when you use a heavy branch versus a lighter one is also great!
  • I found that having 2 walls to the fort was plenty as it gave the children more room to move within the fort.
  • Once created the children can decorate the fort with hanging Ice or pine cone bird feeders.