Winter nights are a perfect time to make tradition out of a family night hike. We call it, “taking the moon for a walk”—and it’s both thrilling and calming under any moon, at any age. Adjusting to the darkness and moonlight, smelling and feeling the cool air, hearing the noisy quiet that happens outside at night—these sensations never get old. Since the world gets dark early in winter, even the youngest children can participate, make memories, and still not miss bedtime by too much.
Pick a patch of nature you would like to use for your night hike. Could be the backyard, a local trail or park.
Step 2: Introduce the idea.
Perhaps our favorite way to kick off a night hike is to read a picture book. Watch a video read-aloud of one of our favorites (and this activity’s namesake), Carolyn Curtis’s, I Took the Moon for a Walk. Or, choose from this list of our favorite moon books. After the story, ask kids what they think happens outside on a wintery night. Accept any answers, then spring it on them: We are going to stay up late, go outside and find out for ourselves!
Step 3: Prepare together.
Let kids help you gather the gear you need. You may want a flashlight or lantern or two. Get gussied up in pajamas and whatever outerwear your neck of the winter woods requires. While you’re preparing, ask questions like, “What will Grampy think when we tell him about this?!” and play up how exciting and unusual this walk will be.
Step 4: Experience the walk.
We like to head out with our lanterns lit, enjoying their glow and using the light to help us find our footing. Once into our walk, though, we make a ceremony of blowing them out altogether. Good practice with self control aside, the sudden switch to darkness makes the stars and moon seem extra brilliant, often making that moment breathtaking. While you are walking, stop to look, listen, smell, feel, touch and even taste (if snow). Notice which other creatures are near you. Go slow. Take it all in. Ooo and ahh plenty. Take a moment to still bodies and voices and take in the quiet of the night. Or, if your crew is feeling more festive than quiet, suggest that you dance in the moonlight or sing a song to the moon. Here is a list of some of our favorite moon songs.
Step 5: Chat and chew upon return.
Ending a special experience by breaking bread and processing a bit together makes that experience more memorable and meaningful to kids. Maybe it’s blueberry tea and a cookie by the fire or animal crackers with milk at the kitchen table. Whatever works for your crew, enjoy a treat and talk together about what you saw, how it felt, who was out there with you, and anything else you noticed. Learn about this month’s moon together or use the chart below to discover which phase you saw the moon in.
Why is this activity great for kids?
Simply the act of going outside the typical schedule is thrilling to little kids (We are OUT at night?!). Kids will also undoubtedly become more curious for having wondered about the outdoors at night and taken the next step to actually go and explore it. The experience of walking and noticing all that one can notice on a winter’s night sharpens kids’ senses, awakens their imagination and opens their eyes to a whole side of nature that young children rarely, if ever, experience. And, perhaps, taking winter night walks will become a winter tradition for your family too.
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Curiosity means the ability and habit to apply a sense of wonder and a desire to learn more. Curious people try new things, ask questions, search for answers, relish new information, and make connections, all while actively experiencing and making sense of the world. To us, curiosity is a child’s ticket to engaging fully in learning and, ultimately, in life.
Why does it matter?
As a parent, this skill is, perhaps, the easiest to grasp and has the clearest connection to a young children’s learning. We all want my children to wonder, explore and drive their own learning and, better yet, to experience the world fully. Most teachers would agree that the curious children so often seem more attentive, involved and naturally get the most out of time in school. Even the research suggests that being curious is a driver of higher performance throughout one's life, as much if not more than IQ or test scores.
What is Imagination?
Imagination is defined in many ways, but one we like is, "the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality." This is no small task to little kids, and yet young childhood is a time in which imagination is developed more than any other. How does imagination develop in childhood? Through an increasingly sophisticated life of make believe.
We all likely have a sense of what we mean by make believe or good old "pretend play." How do experts define it, though? To some, there are different types of make believe that vary in sophistication and make pretend play different than other types of play. For example, kids may use objects to represent something else (e.g. a block becomes a cell phone). Or, they may start to give an object certain properties (e.g. a doll is asleep or a tree is on fire!). Still yet, they may themselves take on the properties of someone or something else.
From there, pretend play evolves into acting out scenarios or stories, those getting increasingly intricate as imagination develops. As kids' pretend play grows more sophisticated, these stories come to involve not only the creative use of objects, but multiple perspectives (e.g. good and bad guys in the same story), and/or the playful manipulation of ideas and emotions (e.g. I am sad, but then become happy after I save the village from certain doom).
Why does it matter?
An ever growing body of research substantiates the many benefits of pretend play including the enhanced development of: language and communication skills; self-control and empathy; flexible and abstract thinking; and creativity. These are the skills that will help kids balance emotions, form healthy relationships, work effectively on teams, stay focused in school, be successful at various jobs and solve the problems of an increasingly complicated world. An individual's creativity in particular, both requires and is limited by her imagination.
What is a Naturalist?
The oldest and simplest definition, “student of plants and animals,” dates back to 1600. The term has evolved over time, it's importance changing as the values of dominant culture have changed. 400 years after that old definition, Howard Gardner, the paradigm-shifting education theorist, added “naturalist” to his list of “multiple intelligences.” Gardner challenged the notion that intelligence is a single entity that results from a single capability. Instead, he recognizes eight types of intelligence, all of which enable individuals to think, solve problems or to create things of value. To Gardner, the Naturalist intelligence enables human beings to recognize, categorize and draw upon certain features of the environment.
A true naturalist has not simply Googled and learned the names of plants, animals, rocks, etc. Rather, he or she has had direct experience with them, coming to know about them and using all senses to develop this intelligence. A naturalist also has a reverence for nature, valuing and caring for living things from the smallest mite to the tallest tree. A naturalist comes to not only knowing the creatures and features of his or her environment, but treasuring them in thought and action.
Why does it matter?
In the process of becoming a naturalist, children become stewards of nature, a connection that is associated with a range of benefits, including greater emotional well-being, physical health and sensory development (not to mention the benefits to nature itself!). In a world in which primary experience of nature is being replaced by the limited, directed stimulation of electronic media, kids senses are being dulled and many believe their depth of both their interest in and capacity to understand complicated phenomena are being eroded. To contrast, the naturalist learns about the key features of their natural environment by using all of his senses and be interpreting open-ended and ever-changing stimuli.
What is Sensory Development?
Although some scientists classify as many as 20 senses, when childhood educators talk about "developing the senses," we typically mean developing the five standard senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. In addition to honing these senses, educators care about sensory integration, which is the ability to take in, sort out, process and make use of information gathered from the world around us via the senses.
Why does it matter?
The better kids are able to tune and integrate their senses, the more they can learn. First, if their senses are sharper, the information kids can gather should be of greater quantity and quality, making their understanding of the world more sophisticated. Further, until the lower levels of the brain can efficiently and accurately sort out information gathered through the senses, the higher levels cannot begin to develop thinking and organization skills kids need to succeed. Senses also have a powerful connection to memory. Children (and adults) often retain new learning when the senses are an active part of the learning.
So, if kids have more sensory experiences, they will learn more, retain better and be better able to think at a higher level. Makes the days they get all wet and dirty in the sandbox seem better, doesn't it?