First published in the Natural Parent Magazine.

When my daughter was 10 days old she had her first experience of a winter nature play session. She was wrapped up snuggly in her merinos, a one-piece fleece suit and a multi-coloured knitted hat from my cousin.

It was a crisp clear day with frost on the ground and not a breath of wind. She slept peacefully for the whole session. It was an ideal first nature play experience, for both of us!

Since these early days of parenthood, I have become a passionate advocate for nature play and for the last 5 years, I have been running a Bush Kindy playgroup for family all year round, no matter what the weather.

We have had a variety of weather on our Bush Kindy sessions from super cold, hot and humid, crazy wet and strong and gusty.

It has been an amazing experience helping families get prepared for going outdoors all year round and helping them to create a magical memories and experiences for their children. And I want to help you too!

With winter upon us, let’s korero about why it’s so important to get outdoors in the winter and look at some tips and ideas on how you can make it happen for your family.


I have fond memories of playing outdoors in the winter. Skating across the frosty grass in my gumboots, breaking the ice with a good jump, or breathing ‘smoke’ first thing in the morning.

It’s not just about being a smoke-breathing dragon though. It’s much more than that.

When we know what the benefits are they can help us to understand the importance of year-round nature play and get us starting to think, yes – going outdoors more in the winter is an option!

Physical Activity

  • When children have regular time in the outdoors, including forests, parks, and playgrounds, they have opportunities to release stress, play vigorously, and directly explore nature, which in turn provides physical and psychological benefits. 1-3
  • For children, green spaces are an important environmental influence on physical activity and emotional wellbeing.4

Social-Emotional Skills

  • An Australian study found that the kids who spent the most time outdoors were, on average, more cooperative. They were also more socially expressive – better able to verbalise their desires and enter into play with others. By contrast, time spent playing video games was unrelated to social skills.5
  • Play changes the structure of the developing brain in important ways, strengthening the connections of the neurons (nerve cells) in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain considered to be the executive control centre responsible for solving problems and making plans and regulating emotions.6

Sensory Rich Experiences

  • In play experiences, combining the sense of touch with the senses of vision, hearing, taste and smell helps build cognitive skills.7
  • Children become more creative simply by playing. They also build their linguistic, cognitive, visual-spatial, social and emotional skills.8-12

Mental Health and Overall Well-Being

  • Exposure to nature has great benefits, key among them being a better state of mental well-being. 13
  • In nature, there is a great advantage of germs for your child’s developing immune system. Microbial exposure and the increased microbial burden are beneficial for wellness.14
  • Reduced stress. Green plants and vistas reduce stress among highly stressed children. Locations with a greater number of plants, greener views, and access to natural play areas show more significant results.15

Creativity and Problem-Solving

  • Nature supports creativity and problem-solving. Studies of children in schoolyards found that children engage in more creative forms of play in the green areas. They also play more cooperatively in the natural environment.16
  • Play in nature is especially important for developing capacities for creativity, problem-solving and intellectual development.17

There are so many benefits to getting outdoors no matter what the season.

In summer it can feel like we just walk out the door and she’ll be right – said no parent ever! It just takes a little more effort in winter, but it’s so worth it.

What is that extra effort I am talking about? It often boils down to these four things:

  1. The Cold

This puts parents off from taking their children outdoors. I have to agree – getting cold sucks! There is a difference between being out in the cold and being cold. If we are nice and warm, being out in the cold can be rather enjoyable for all.

  1. The Rain

We often see in our society when it rains we head indoors. Even our schools and ECE centres reinforce this by getting everyone indoors at the first sign of drizzle.

Let’s put it into perspective.

If we can get warm and dry by going back inside or going back to the car, getting wet shouldn’t be such a big problem. It’s not like we are on a weeklong expedition in Antarctica sleeping in tents, with no easy access to power and warmth.

  1. Clothing

I have been told that many people don’t have the right clothing for going outside. One thing I have learned over the last 24 years working in the outdoors is yes clothing is important and it doesn’t have to break the bank!

Hand-me-downs and second-hand shops are great for warm winter gear and can often be used by younger sibblings.

When children are warm, fed and watered they will play outdoors for long periods. When they get cold is when it stops being enjoyable for both children and parents, so clothing is a key part of the success of winter nature play.

  1. Mindset

If we see the rain or the cold as a bad thing, then it will be. If we see getting outside in the winter as too hard, it will be. We need to see things differently.

Here is a great saying to help with your mindset shift. ‘I never met a child who got so wet that they couldn’t get dry again’.

The worst thing that can happen is you or your child gets a little bit cold and you have to go home. All good – at least you got outside! Even 20 minutes outdoors in winter is something worth celebrating.

Something is better than nothing, right!


What should you wear when going outdoors in the winter I hear you say? Glad you asked!

Wool or thermals next to the skin is key. If you put cotton next to the skin and it gets wet it doesn’t keep you warm or warm up when it’s wet.

Next are mid-layers. These can be additional thermals or a woollen jersey. It can be good to wear a couple of thinner mid-layers rather than one outer thick layer, as it’s easier to control your temperature that way.

On top is our waterproof layer. A one piece or a rain jacket and over trousers does the trick. I have also seen great waterproof booties for crawlers. Even if you can’t get waterproof outer layers, water resistant or windproof will be fine as the wind chill is a big contributing factor to getting cold.

Hats, gloves and socks with booties or gumboots help protect our skin from the cold. Thin hats often work well for mobile children because they get hot while they play. With a thick hat on, they will take it off quickly.

For non-mobile children, a thick hat and gloves are great.

One thing that gets forgotten when we talk about dressing for going outside is us! We dress the kids up for Antarctica and then we forget about ourselves!

As previously mentioned the children are much smaller and move around a lot, they stay warm. We on the other hand are often standing still or moving slowly and we don’t warm up.

So, parents, teachers, carers – get those thermals on. Under your jeans, if you have to! Remember your gloves and hat, and a down jacket can be your best friend. Until it rains! Then you need your raincoat.


Now you are dressed for the weather, let’s get you out the door with a few tips to help make it happen.

  • If you are going from your house have a couple of towels by the door and a tub for any wet or muddy gear. These are also useful if you are going somewhere in the car. I put a tarp down in the boot, a tub for the wet clothes and a spare change of clothes ready to go.
  • Schedule time for outdoor play and make it a priority during your week. That’s right – put it in your calendar!
  • Join with other families especially if this is new for you. Having others to go with and even families who get outdoors often can make it feel more achievable. You could also join your local nature playgroup as there are lots around these days.
  • Go Local. Spending regular time in your local spaces connects children to nature and helps give them a sense of belonging. It’s also great for seeing the changes of the seasons and what mother earth has to offer.
  • Leading on from going local each week, each month go a little further afield for the day to enjoy nature. Then once a season, head away for a night to experience the season with your family.
  • Gumboots aren’t always that warm, especially in some of the colder parts of Aotearoa. Putting sheepskin or a cut-to-size piece of cell foam matting in the bottom of gumboots helps to insulate little (and big) feet.
  • For longer periods outdoors a hot flask of milo or soup can be a very welcome way of warming up from the inside out.
  • Forgot gloves or haven’t found any for those little fingers? Socks can work as gloves and be especially good for our little ones.
  • Let them lead their play and choose what and how they want to play. From posting sticks down a drain, catching raindrops on their tongue, puddle jumping, climbing trees, sitting in a pile of leaves, tasting the frost, or listening to the sounds of nature. There is so much for them to choose from!

Winter is a special time of year.  It’s a season that sparks magic and wonder and has so many incredible experiences that just don’t happen in the other seasons.

Just getting outside for 20-30mins is going to make a world of difference in you and your child’s day.

Remember, there is no such thing as bad weather just bad clothing. Make it a priority this winter and let your children play.





  1. Frost, J. L. (2010). A History of Children’s Play and Play Environments,  https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203868652.
  2. Jacobi-Vessels, J. L. (2013). Discovering Nature: The Benefits of Teaching Outside of the Classroom. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1044065.
  3. Louv, R. (2005). Last Child in the Woods.
  4. Ward, J. S., Duncan, J. S., Jarden, A., Stewart, T. (2016). The impact of children’s exposure to greenspace on physical activity, cognitive development, emotional wellbeing, and ability to appraise risk. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27179137/  
  5. Hinkley, T., Brown, H., Carson, V., Teychenne, M. (2018). Cross sectional associations of screen time and outdoor play with social skills in preschool children. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0193700
  6. Pellis, S. M., Pellis, V. C., & Himmler, B. T. (2014). How play makes for more adaptible brain; a comparitive and neural perspective. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2014-44771-003.
  7. Butcher, K., Pletcher, J. & Lansing Community College (2016). Cognitive development and sensory play.  https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/cognitive_development_and_sensory_play.
  8. Falkenberg, T., Mohammed, A. K., Henriksson, B., Persson, H., Winblad, B., Lindefors, N. (1992). Increased expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor mRNA in rat hippocampus is associated with improved spatial memory and enriched environment. doi:10.1016/0304-3940(92)90494-r.
  9. Diamond, M. (2001). Response of the brain to enrichment. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11404783.
  10. Howard-Jones, P., Taylor, J., Sutton, L. (2002). The effect of play on the creativity of young children during subsequent activity. doi:10.1080/03004430212722.
  11.  Elardo, R., Bradley, R., Caldwell, B. M. (1975). The relation of infants’ home environments to mental test performance from six to thirty-six months: A longitudinal analysis. doi:10.2307/1128835.
  12. Pellegrini, A. D. (1980). The relationship between kindergartners’ play and achievement in prereading, language, and writing. doi.org/10.1002/1520-6807(198010)17:4<530::AID-PITS2310170419>3.0.CO;2-A.
  13. Sandsetter, E., Sando, O. J., Kleppe, R. (2021). Risky play and children’s wellbeing, involvement and physical activity. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12187-021-09804-5.
  14.  Gilbert, J., Knight, R. (2017). Dirt is Good: The Advantage of Germs for your Child’s Developing Immune System. 
  15. Wells & Evans, (2003). Nearby nature; A buffer of life stress amongst rural children. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0013916503035003001.
  16.  Dyment, J. E. & Bell, A. (2006). Active by design; Promoting physical activity through school ground greening. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/248934259_Active_by_Design_Promoting_Physical_Activity_through_School_Ground_Greening.  
  17. Kellert, S. R (2005). Building for life; Designing and understanding the human-nature connection. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/40777405_Building_for_Life_Designing_and_Understanding_the_Human-Nature_Connection.  

Want support with risk management and group management in an outdoor setting? Check out our website for details of workshops, speaking and consultation opportunities. 

Celia Hogan is a nature education specialist, parenting coach, speaker and adventurer who is passionate about nature play, risky play, child development and improving mental health and well being. You can follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Linked In. Subscribe to her newsletter for tips and ideas as well as workshop announcements.

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