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Build a Snow House

Age: 0 to 8+ Time: 1 hour+
Materials: Snow shovel; garden trowel; lanterns or flashlights; wool blanket
Skills: Imagination, Behavioral Schema, Sensory, Empathy

Let’s face it: After a few weeks, winter gets old. “Too cold,” our two-year-old began complaining as we’d suit up for outdoor play. Our four-year-old pointed out that the bunnies and squirrels stay out all day -- but when she thought about it, she couldn’t imagine how they could possibly be comfortable. Were they cold?

It is hard to imagine when you’re standing exposed to wind and the flurries -- but we pointed out that bunnies build cozy houses against the elements. And that (combined with advice we recalled from sturdy friends who camped in snow) led us to try making a quinzhee -- a snug snow hut that provides shelter during even the wintriest winter. It took us under two hours to build -- and the girls have spent countless more hours decorating it, hosting parties in it, and hiding out in it, even in single-digit weather. Add a small lantern when the day grows dim and voila, you’ve rekindled the magic of winter.

The Guide

  1. Wonder Together: Bunnies manage to stay warm and cozy all winter long. How do they do it? Their fur coats probably help, but maybe they make a little room where they can huddle up. Could you make a little room, too? What would you use? How about snow?
  2. Think Together: Brainstorm with your child what kinds of things you need to build a house out of snow. A hammer and nails probably won’t help here, right? But a shovel will come in handy, or even just big spoons. Perhaps even a light plastic bowl would be good for scooping! And what could you use to help make the walls nice and sturdy? How about sticks?
  3. Build Together: You won’t need an architect’s plans for this building project. Once you’ve found a spot that’s far enough away from cars (and has plenty of snow), begin making a large mound, about five to six feet in diameter. Let the mound settle for an hour so the snow crystals can bond together. Meanwhile, gather together about a dozen twigs or branches and break them foot-long sticks. Pat down the exterior of the quinzhee, then push the sticks into it, all around the sides. Decide with your children where the door should be, and use that spot to begin hollowing out the middle. Little ones can be kept busy with an “important” job, such as filling bucket with snow to make a table later on. Once your doorway is wide enough for to crawl in and out, start digging out the snow. When you touch the tip of one of the sticks, stop digging in that direction; this will ensure your walls are about a foot thick. Use the point of a stick or a small shovel to poke a small air hole in the back to let extra CO2 escape.
  4. Play Together: First, establish (snow) house rules. No kids in the quinzhee without adult supervision, no climbing on top, and no hitting the insides of the walls. Now the fun begins! Bring out a few props, like an old blanket for a rug and a flashlight or camping lantern for light. Encourage kids to build a stove, table, or sink from snow. (Construction will probably have to take place outside the quinzhee.) A few stuffed animals, a couple plates from indoors, and before you know it, a tea party will be underway -- on ice.

Risk Management: As with so many truly enriching play experiences, a snow house comes with risks. Follow directions carefully when you build, allowing at least an hour for the mound to settle and leaving at least a foot on all surfaces. Adults must keep a watchful eye as they allow children to play freely, making sure that the structure does not get compromised. We also teach children about how and why we never climb on the outside of the snow house. As with all things, these become wonderful lessons and keeps safe risk taking a part of our children's lives!

Why is this activity great for kids?

What’s the big deal with a glorified snow fort? Plenty. Tucking their bodies into small, enclosed spaces is not just a perennial favorite for small children -- it’s also brain/body coordination work that falls into a set of preschooler behavior patterns known as behavioral schema. Kids engage multiple senses as they explore the sights, scents, textures, and even temperatures of snow play. Playing house is a powerful imaginary exercise that gives children the opportunity to emulate the people most important to them (you!). The quinzhee lends itself to cozy, rich sensory experiences, such as steaming hot cocoa and a flickering lantern against the dark, cold afternoon. These are the kinds of memories children hang on to well into adulthood. And perhaps best of all, sustained outdoor activity often leads to deep sleeps later that evening. Enjoy!

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