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Warm Up Together: Encouraging Outdoor Activity During the Winter
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by Rebecca P. Cohen
I hate being cold. In fact, I routinely wear a knit hat inside the house during winter. But, I love bundling up with my family outside. Why? Because even on days when I have to put my foot down and make everyone go outside, within fifteen minutes we are warm, peeling off a layer, laughing, and exploring. Guaranteed, my children ask to stay out longer. My family steps outside together every day of the year, even when I don't want to, because time outside is not only good for us—fifteen minutes outside every day brings us closer together, and it's fun.

Need some help to get you started? Get everyone excited about time outside together even on the coldest of winter days with these tips and ideas:

Kids need to get their wiggles out. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 60 minutes of unstructured outdoor playtime for children, every day. Fit that in between scheduled activities with a little creativity here and there. For example, have a snow-shoveling competition, watch the clouds race, or create training drills for your favorite sport. With recess dwindling, the amount of fresh air my kids get every day is up to me. I'd much rather have towels and a mud mat by the door and my kids tired from running around than them bouncing off the walls inside at the end of the day.

The family that plays together, stays together. "The bonding that comes with shared adventure is priceless," says Martha Sears, RN and coauthor of "The Baby Book." Here's how: take a vote. Have each family member suggest an activity and vote on it. My friends with children in high school and college say their bond has stayed strong because of their shared adventures outdoors, even when a new experience may push one or more of the family outside their comfort zones. I always say that you'll either love trying something new or have a really good story to tell for years around the supper table.

City or country, going outside is free. You can always take fifteen minutes to go on a safari around the neighborhood, carve a sculpture in the snow right out your doorstep, or be an archaeologist and see what is trapped in a layer of ice. With the leaves off the trees, you can see more and explore longer without tall brush in the way. At night, you don't have to stay up late to see clear starry skies. And there isn't cold weather that can't be solved by an extra layer or two. Start with noncotton long underwear and socks and layer on your clothes from there.

Let's face it: time outside is a fabulous parenting tool and a stress-release valve for everyone. My kids get ready faster with the promise of fifteen minutes outside before school, and I can redirect negative energy between siblings at any time by declaring, "I'll meet you outside for a game of tag!" Family psychologist Dr. Lynne Kenney agrees. "Kids want to spend time with their parents. By suggesting an outdoor activity that your children love, they not only get precious moments they crave with you, you teach them the value of healthy choices."

At any age, the outdoors keeps you naturally more active. What do you do when you are cold? You move to warm up, which gets your heart rate going. "Time spent outdoors is good for our health," says Dr. Daphne Miller, a San Francisco physician who routinely prescribes time outside for her patients for benefits that combat depression and hypertension. Ask your friends about their favorite winter sports and try one, such as cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. When was the last time you went sledding? Inflatable rings for summertime swimming work for sledding too, and are just as fun for adults as they are for kids.

There is a special stillness in winter; pause to enjoy it. Have a muffin and hot cocoa for breakfast on the stoop. Take a walk after a newly fallen snow to notice animal tracks and see where they lead. Keep a backpack by the door with binoculars, magnifying glass, nature guide, and a water bottle and snack such as pretzels to be prepared for a spontaneous adventure when you do have fifteen minutes. The National Wildlife Federation's Wildlife Watch program helps you learn about animals that are out in winter where you live. Simply enter your state at