Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Kids' Clothing Checklist for Cold, Wet, and Wintry Days Outdoors

As the seasons turn, I try to keep ahead of what my 3-year-old needs so that she can enjoy being outdoors. But she grew 4 inches in the past year, so the winter boots we bought big last spring were already too small when we tried them on this fall. Time to go shopping again!

Good gear is essential to enjoying the rain, snow, and cold of fall and winter. Kids do better when they’re not cooped up indoors—but they also enjoy their time outdoors better when they stay warm and dry.

A few key items can help your kids love outdoor play time and put your mind at ease. I recently received a list of helpful suggestions from teacher Alice Maury Beeler, who has decades of experience getting preschool children outside year-round. With her permission, I’m sharing the highlights below.

Kids’ Fall and Winter Essentials for Outdoor Neighborhood Play
  1. An extra “top” (above the waist) layer to put on over regular indoor clothes. A fleece jacket, sweatshirt, or sweater will help keep your child warm. 
  2. An extra bottom layer. For additional warmth, dress your child in long underwear or warm tights under regular clothes, or add fleece pants over them. 
  3. A waterproof rain coat with a hood
  4. Waterproof rain pants. These should have elastic or Velcro fastenings at the cuff to keep water out and heat in. 
  5. Warm socks. Wool socks are especially warm, and Maury Beeler likes those made with a mix of angora fiber (from rabbits), which is warmer and lighter than wool. She also recommends layering more than one pair of socks (a pair of synthetic socks under a pair of wool ones, for example). 
  6. Boots. Both waterproof boots for the rain and insulated waterproof boots for snow are essential for kids. “Snow boots should have fleece or felt linings, and fasten securely with Velcro or zippers,” Maury Beeler advises. 
  7. A snow suit. “A suit with a jacket and bib pants is more versatile than a one-piece suit, although one-piece suits are easier to put on,” Maury Beeler says. The suit should be roomy enough to allow your child to wear a sweater under it, and for your child to be able to move and play comfortably. The suit should have elastic or Velcro fasteners at cuffs and ankles, a zip closure, and a hood. Some suits have elastic straps that go under kids’ feet to help keep the pant legs from riding up. Snow suits are not for snow only: they’re great for warmth on any cold days. 
  8. A hat. The hat should be warm, cover the ears, fasten with Velcro under the chin, and be made of fleece, or of fleece and wool, Maury Beeler says. Hats with ties can pose choking hazards. Hats without fasteners aren’t likely to stay on heads. (With a 3-year-old or older, I would add, even the Velcro doesn’t guarantee the hat will stay on. But it helps.) 
  9. Mittens. These should have thumbs, so kids can play actively outdoors. For cool weather, children can wear lighter mittens, fleece or wool, with Velcro fastenings or elastic cuffs. When the weather is cold or wet, use waterproof mittens. “The very best mittens (that are least likely to fall off) are those with long cuffs that go far up the arms, almost to a child’s elbows,” Maury Beeler says. She recommends mittens with Velcro fastenings that allow an adult to put the child’s hands in them first before fastening the Velcro; these also tend to stay on better. “The trick is to put on the mittens and then the coat!” she says. It is good to have several pairs of mittens, since they can be easily lost.
If your child doesn’t have everything on this list, try shopping second-hand stores or local swaps to outfit him or her completely.

Also, bear in mind that this list was prepared for families whose kids are going outside for about an hour in a city environment, where a quick return indoors and a change to dry clothes is always an option. If you are heading to the backcountry or expecting to spend more time in the elements, it may be much more important to stick to clothes made of synthetics and wool, or adopt other strategies to keep your children comfortable. See the link below for more tips for extended excursions in the cold.

Learn More
For more clothing tips for winter, see Dressing Like An Onion and Other Tips for Keeping Kids Warm.

Photo by Jerry and Marcy Monkman.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog written by Heather Stephenson.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Fall Hike Bingo: A Fun Way to Keep Kids on the Trail

Scavenger hunts turn a simple hike into an adventure. For reluctant kids, especially, they can transform what would otherwise be a long gloomy slog into a fun game.

Give scavenger hunts a new twist, and you have hiking bingo. Using ready-made cards or creating your own, you can head out to the woods or fields with a grid of plants, animals, and other objects to search for, and turn the quest into a friendly competition: Moss on a log, flying bird, a nut, ferns, bird feather—Bingo!

The examples I just used come from Mass Audubon’s Fall Walk Bingo. Available as a free color PDF to print, this bingo set includes four cards, all focused on the natural world in autumn. Items to look for include a basking turtle, a hole in a tree, a spider web, and yellow leaves. The only signs of people on the cards are a trail marker and a stone wall. While most items are visual, the sound of wind and a singing bird require young hikers to listen as well as look. Each square in the grid features a picture as well as words, so this is a great activity even for kids who can’t read yet.

In a similar vein, the National Wildlife Federation offers free Camping Bingo cards. You can choose between a blank bingo card template (a simple five by five grid) or a set of four colorful cards to download. The cards focus more on what you’d see at a campsite than Mass Audubon’s set does: A sleeping bag, hiking boot, and picnic table are included, for example. But plenty of natural elements, such as a mushroom, acorn, and animal track, also appear. Each square includes a drawing as well as words.

You can play hiking bingo the traditional way, in which the first person who marks off all the items in a row or column wins. Or you can extend the game by asking each player to find every object on his or her card. And of course, you can drop the competition altogether and just use one card for your group, or your parent-child team. The point is to have fun, and maybe notice a few things around you that you would have otherwise missed.
More Trail Games
For more ideas to keep young hikers happy, see the following:

Photo of Mass Audubon card by Heather Stephenson.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog written by Heather Stephenson.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Raptor Fall Migration: What to Look for, Where, and When

We’re in the middle of birds’ fall migration, a great season for bird watching and for teaching kids about how birds live and travel.

Among the many types of birds that migrate to warmer climes each fall are raptors, birds of prey that hunt for food while in flight (the term “raptor” comes from the Latin word raptare, which means to seize and carry off). From late August through mid-November, tens of thousands of raptors wing their way through the Northeast on their journey south, often traveling along mountains and ridgelines where updrafts make flying easier. Unlike other birds, which may be more interesting for you and your kids to observe on land or water, hawks and other raptors are particularly impressive to watch as they soar overhead.

Peak Viewing Times
The peak migration period for broad-winged hawks (around September 15) has already ended, but the migration of red-tailed hawks peaks in mid-October and early November. You may also spot sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper’s hawks, peregrine falcons, and bald and golden eagles migrating now. Some of these birds are traveling as far as the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.

The best weather conditions for viewing raptors in migration are found on the day of and up to two days after the arrival of a high-pressure system or cold front. This weather pattern can create thermals, columns of warm air that help the birds soar to high altitude with scarcely a wingbeat. The raptors can then glide for miles, gradually descending, until they catch another thermal to rise again.

Prime Locations
Dedicated bird watchers often travel to specific mountains and ridges to see raptors. A few suggestions for such destinations follow, but you may find a good site closer to home—and that may be a more realistic outing if you or your children aren’t committed bird watchers yet. Look for a mountain, hill, or ridge with a view to the north and try scanning the sky with your binoculars. Bring friends (including other kids), warm clothes, snacks, and drinks, and of course some field guides to help you identify what you see.

My colleague, blogger Matt Heid, compiled the following list of seven sites in the Northeast that are ideal for watching raptors migrate. Read his longer descriptions for more detail.
  • Bradbury Mountain, Pownal, Maine
  • Little Round Top, Bristol, New Hampshire
  • Mount Wachusett, Princeton, Massachusetts
  • Blueberry Hill, Granville, Massachusetts
  • Quaker Ridge, Greenwich, Connecticut
  • Wildcat Ridge, Morris County, New Jersey
  • Hawk Mountain, Kempton, Pennsylvania

Learn More

Read about additional New England sites for viewing hawks.

Find more about Massachusetts sites for viewing raptor migration.

Photo of soaring red-tailed hawk by Istock.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog written by Heather Stephenson.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Autumn Leaves: Simple Science and Activities for Kids

Can you explain the changing colors of autumn leaves to a child?

I admit it sometimes takes me a minute to remember the basics about chlorophyll and hidden pigments. But I just found a quick refresher on the science and some fun hands-on activities to help the lessons stick, thanks to Yankee magazine’s foliage website and an educator from the Museum of Science, Boston.

I hope these will help you answer your child’s questions more confidently this fall—and have fun doing so!

"Why Leaves Change Color: Chlorophyll goes, carotene stays”: This article simply explains how chlorophyll creates food for trees out of sunlight and water, and how seasonal changes affect the colors of leaves by allowing yellows and oranges (previously hidden by chlorophyll’s green) to show and seasonal reds (produced as nights lengthen and temperatures drop) to develop.

Why Leaves Change Colors Activity: Teach your kids about capillary action and separate hidden pigments with these chromatography projects. The simpler version uses paper towels, water, and markers; for older children, you may want to try the version with leaves, alcohol, and a glass container.

Leaves to Color: Print out these accurate illustrations of 12 different leaves, from ash to witch hazel. Then color them to match what you see outside.

Secrets of Preserving Leaves Activity: Want to press leaves at home? Here are some tips from a mom who’s done it with her kids, using either big books or an iron, and then made gift cards and bookmarks with the colorful results.

Yankee's site also includes foliage maps and forecasts, if you’re thinking of making a family trip to see the colors.

Learn More from AMC
Photo of sugar maple leaves in autumn in Rye, New Hampshire, by Jerry and Marcy Monkman.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog written by Heather Stephenson.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Spending A Gap Year Outdoors

Is your teenager wondering what to do when high school ends? Does she love to hike, or does he want to travel and camp in the backcountry?

Maybe a “gap year” focused on the outdoors would be a good next step.

More and more educators are seeing the value in young people spending a year after high school exploring their options and gaining experience before starting college or work. Princeton University, for example, several years ago established a tuition-free bridge year program for selected students who commit to nine months of international public service.

Many gap year programs allow young people to spend time outdoors, working on their own leadership skills as well as land conservation, scientific research, and other environmental issues.

AMC recently created a gap-year and summer internship program, which helps young adults explore careers in outdoor recreation in Coos County, New Hampshire.

Here (with a nod to Karen Ingraham, who compiled this list) are a few other organizations that offer semester and gap-year programs that focus on outdoor recreation and environmental conservation:

Student Conservation Association
Conservation internships at U.S. national parks, community greenspaces, and other cultural landmarks.

National Outdoor Leadership School
Semester-long courses in outdoor leadership, education, or wilderness medicine and rescue in domestic and global locations.

Outward Bound
Semester and gap-year courses in the U.S. and abroad designed to foster wilderness survival, leadership, and life skills. 

Global internships in marine and wildlife conservation, animal rescue, community outreach, education, and other disciplines.

Living Routes
Opportunities for academic and experiential learning about sustainability in ecovillages or indigenous communities around the world.

Photo of Jesse Bunnell, a former AMC intern now working on staff, outside the Highland Center in New Hampshire, by Rick McCarten.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an AMC Outdoors blog written by Heather Stephenson.

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