How to Play Outside More This Winter, According to Outdoor-School Teachers

Getting your family bundled up for some cold-weather fun requires a game plan, lest your children end up looking like Ralphie’s younger brother in A Christmas Story. Whether you’re planning a long winter’s walk in the woods or just an afternoon jaunt to your local park, we’re here to help.

For the easiest, most effective ways to keep kids dry and warm, we turned to a pair of outdoorspeople who know a thing or two about keeping content in the cold: Liza Lowe, founder of New Hampshire’s Wild Roots Nature School and manager of Antioch University’s Inside-Outside professional network for nature-based educators, and Sally Anderson, founder of the New Mexico–based SOL (Soulful Outdoor Learning) Forest School, which provides a 100% outdoor curriculum (as many forest schools do) to 3- to 7-year-olds in the mountains east of Albuquerque.

“My messaging to parents, colleagues, and other teachers is to not look at the weather as good or bad. It’s just another part of your day,” says Lowe. “Use the weather and the changing seasons as teachable moments, rather than focusing on whether it’s cold.” Besides an optimistic outlook, the key to successfully spending time outdoors is “overpreparation,” Anderson says. “We see more and more parents these days who want that outdoorsy experience for their kids, but they don’t know what to wear, what to do, or what to bring to make sure everyone stays warm, dry, safe, and happy.”

If you’re ready to brave the great outdoors this winter with your little ones, here’s what Lowe and Anderson recommend.

Dress both your kids and yourself appropriately

As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. Dressing yourself with as much care as you dress your kids will help everyone stay happier for longer. Plus, Lowe says, when adults dress weather-appropriately, they show kids that “being outside is great, regardless of the weather.”

Anderson swears by two immutable truths: Dress in layers and, by and large, avoid cotton. You can always remove layers if someone feels overheated. And when it comes to warding off the chill, “cotton is evil” because it absorbs moisture rather than wicking it away.

Here’s a head-to-toe primer:

Base layer: Begin with a formfitting, non-cotton base, such as Anderson’s preferred merino wool from Patagonia or Smartwool. Wirecutter recommends the Smartwool Merino 150 Base Layer for adults, and parents on our staff have found merino-wool base layers from both Polarn O. Pyret and REI warm and durable over many years of use by multiple kids (we wait for sales). If you’d prefer a cheaper synthetic option, we also recommend the 32 Degrees Lightweight Baselayer line, which is available in both women’s and men’s versions. But you don’t need to buy new gear. Leggings, soccer jerseys, leotards, and other sportswear made from materials like polyester, spandex, and polypropylene also work well, so long as they’re not baggy.

Middle layers: If it’s relatively mild out and you’re not planning to spend all day outside, you’ll likely be fine with just a base layer and a good jacket. But as the temperatures drop (or your plans get lengthier), start adding middle layers. If the temperature is hovering around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, you can get away with just one middle layer between your base and your outerwear, Anderson says, such as a sweater or a fleece pullover. In freezing or below-freezing weather, she suggests going up to as many as three middle layers. (It’s great if at least one set of sleeves comes with thumb holes to prevent gaps at the wrists.) A fun and effective option for kids’ middle layers are polyester fleece pajamas. It’s also okay if one or two middle layers are cotton, says Anderson, as long as the base layer against the skin is not.

Outerwear: For a grown-up’s final layer, Lowe likes either snow pants or rain pants; she recommends the latter if you’ll be out for hours, since they’ll stay drier for longer and can work in the fall and spring, as well. She recommends jackets made with Gore-Tex, but you can find other good rainproof and breathable jackets made from a variety of materials, such as our pick for the best outdoorsy raincoat, the Patagonia Torrentshell 3L. For kids, Anderson raves about Polarn O. Pyret’s “amazing” waterproof snowsuits, especially the one-piece suits for smaller children. Lowe likewise favors Polarn O. Pyret, but she also recommends one-piece rain suits from Oaki as a less expensive option. On the flip side, Anderson advises against puffy down jackets. “I find that they do not perform well if you get even a drop of wetness,” she explains, “and if you get stuck with a stick or something and tear it, the down can fly right out.”

Footwear: Anderson recommends merino-wool socks, like our top pick for the best hiking socks from Darn Tough. Wirecutter kids have kept their feet toasty on extra-cold days with snug, knee-high Smartwool Wintersport socks. As for winter boots, Bogs is one of Anderson’s favorite brands for both kids and adults; she also calls Sorel’s kids boots “really awesome.” (If you buy only one pair of boots for your children, make them snow boots since they will keep feet dry in rain, while rain boots won’t keep feet warm in snow.)

Head and hands: A warm hat and hood (the former layered atop the latter on super-cold days) are essential to maintaining warmth. Anderson likes winter-weight infinity scarves for kids because they cover all of the face right up to the eyes if you need that. (You could also use a neck warmer.) The best gloves or mittens are waterproof, with cuffs that offer wrist coverage and adjustable cinching to keep them snug. For snowy days, Lowe recommends Dakine’s Yukon Mitts or Obermeyer’s Thumbs Up Mittens (which are better for young kids); for rainy days, she prefers Polarn O. Pyret’s waterproof mittens and Reima’s waterproof and knit-lined mittens. Lowe also recommends stowing hand warmers in coat pockets and backpacks; she uses charcoal-activated warmers, but we also recommend reusable electronic models. Don’t forget that disposable hand warmers, such as HotHands, can also tuck into boots to keep toes toasty.

Organize a gear station

A home entry area equipped with a wooden table, boot mat, coat hooks, and utility rack
Photo: Jackie Reeve

Get a jump on the self-reliance that can come from winter excursions by teaching kids how to bundle themselves up with less help from grown-ups. That means not only “taking time up front to keep stuff organized” so that kids know where to find and put back their apparel, Lowe says, but also making sure enough of that stuff is within a child’s reach “so they can have independence.” For example, sturdy Shaker pegs hung at kid height will help them dress independently. (We have more entryway organizing tips in our guide to optimizing kids’ morning routines.) For your inevitably damp return home, consider fold-up drying racks that your children can lay their wet clothing on near your entryway and a boot tray to keep the floor clean.

Plan for potty breaks, safety, and staying warm

Even if everyone uses the bathroom before you head out, someone’s probably gonna need to pee. When you’re venturing far from home, Lowe urges making “a plan for what the bathrooming situation will be,” including finding out whether facilities are available on-site and “having that on your radar in advance.” If you wind up with a kid who just can’t hold it in any longer, and helping them go outside is your only option, so be it. “I’ve bathroomed with dozens of young children now, and they very quickly adapt,” Anderson says. “They don’t even think much of it.”

If you’re planning an outing to a large park or nature preserve, Lowe recommends setting “ground rules around how far they can go” and creating a plan for what you and your children will do if you get separated. Lowe has had great success using an “owl call” to alert kids to return to the day’s home base. “We set it up at the very beginning … I do the owl call, and they come back to me,” she explains.

Lowe also recommends having a plan for warming kids up if they’re getting chilly. Teaching kids how to warm their bodies can be part of the adventure. She suggests doing jumping jacks, showing them how to rub their hands, or taking off boots to blow hot air onto kids’ toes.

Bring a warming drink

Planning a snack break can prolong the fun, add a bit of structure to your outing, and, of course, keep everyone hydrated. “Some kind of a warm drink is really important,” says Anderson. Our Thermos pick, the 2.5-quart Stanley Classic, is big enough to serve a crowd, and Anderson has found that her students enjoy hot apple cider even more than hot cocoa.

Don’t forget that stopping to eat and drink also makes space for other activities. Lowe says that taking a break from a hike and getting off your feet offers “a nice opportunity for oral storytelling,” or even just a chance to appreciate the stillness of the outdoors in winter. Anderson’s backpack always contains a few plastic tarps or yoga mats, which can serve as picnic blankets while providing an extra layer of insulation from the cold ground. And if you’re planning a sledding or other snowy excursion, a planned cocoa break could revive the crew for another round of fun (Wirecutter has tested and rated winter sleds).

Slow down and go with the flow

Both Lowe and Anderson suggest doing away with an agenda and letting children—even younger ones—take the lead in parks, forests, or other wooded areas. “One of the things I love to advocate for is to just let kids play and explore and be children,” explains Lowe. “There’s so much structure in kids’ lives these days and they’re losing that opportunity to just be kids.” Adds Anderson, “Think of it as more of an adventure than a destination. Slowing down and being mindful of what you can do in nature is a more developmentally appropriate way to engage a young child, who can be inspired by something as simple as a mud puddle in a way that adults can often forget. If more parents thought of going to a park or getting out into the forest with that type of mindset, their children will probably enjoy it more.”

To help nudge playtime along—again, with the goal of keeping everyone happier for longer—Anderson suggests bandanas (which you can tie to sticks) and beach pails, because “for toddlers especially, having something they can collect treasures in is a huge thing.” As for a more substantial carryall, we’ve found that outdoor backpacks can be great for both little and big kids. Bubbles are another warm-weather staple that kids are perhaps even more fascinated by in winter; likewise, Anderson is a big fan of bringing favorite books to read in a completely new environment. Even a handful of birdseed can help spark conversations about “who lives in the forest and what kind of gifts we can bring them.”