Category Archives: winter fun

Wintry Outdoors

Ed’s note – Our youngest daughter Lila and I just spent two days camping with our Cub pack. The snow and -20° C nights are super chill for us these days. Winter ain’t what it used to be though. The snow doesn’t seem as abundant and fluctuations of temperatures day over day and week over week appear to be more pronounced.

This is a lightly edited post from The Finest Gift, a kids and family blog that predates my writing about play and play spaces. It was a way of holding on to memories and giving thanks for nine months that Mélanie and I were able to be at home together with the kids – all made possible by the Canadian government’s generous parental leave policies.

PlayGroundology is an organic exploration that grew out of those days drenched in curiosity, adventure, discovery and the love of kids.

The days are clear and bright as crystal. Each step crunches as we break through the old snow’s crusty covering. The powder underneath is a fine spray of fresh wisped away almost weightlessly, each flake a granule of geometric perfection. There is a lightness in the air, a cleansing crispness that shines and sculpts faces buffing cheeks and furrowing creases.

An unrehearsed symphony weaves its way in diminishing waves across open spaces. The refreshing crack of pucks and children’s voices are counterpoints to the traffic releasing us from its drone. Slapshotting sticks, squeals of laughter, skates spraying to a stop float across the white expanse. This soundscape rings true like impromptu celebrations, breathless victory dances and joyful embraces of fun.

Winding up at the outdoor rink

We are getting a high quotient of snow and ice time. I’m enjoying plenty of kid flashbacks to winter days in North York – extreme tobogganing, outdoor hockey, snowball fights, frozen feet and perpetually wet mittens, the standard stuff.

There have been windows of winter wonder in the adult years just nothing sustained. Alexa and I had a few Citadel Hill sledding adventures in Halifax and a blast of Winterlude in Ottawa when we lived there. Halifax is not a blustery winter place. We can’t really lay claim to a deep of winter tradition unlike the culture in Québec as immortalilzed in the Gilles Vigneault classic, Mon Pays.

Our best winters are in Sorel, Quebec (birthplace of PlayGroundology:-). The town has a strong recreation program that maintains several outdoor rinks with boards, lighting and cabanes for changing and warming up. Over the years, we’ve checked out several including Parc Nadeau, Parc de la Rivière and Parc Bibeau. So many outdoor rinks, so little time.

The skating and hockey are big draws for Noah on each winter visit. This is where he first rattled the puck off the boards and then skated close to examine the black mark of vuclanized rubber smudged on the wood.

There is quality sliding nearby les grand-parents too. The hill is just a short walk from rue Hébert. In the early years my father-in-law and I pull the kids up and give them a little push down. In those days, we had the legs for about 20 trips. The general rule of thumb is that the kids’ energy and enthusiasm eclipses ours. As a toddler, Nellie Nellie would tumble off the back of the sled on the way to the top. Noah’s infectious laughter would be our only clue that something was up. Turning around from our beast of burden imitations, Nellie would be sprawled on the hill giggling, happily rolling around.

Exhilaration

At the bottom of the run, where the squeals of delight start to trail away, the flats are a sheet of ice. Some of the smooth spots prove tricky for Nellie to keep her footing. She does well though only landing on her bum a couple of times. She improvises a little skating routine pushing her feet out and to the sides in an alternating sequence. She nails the movement and has a nice skating flow on the go minus the blades.

On that visit ten years ago, we were treated to a St. Valentine’s Day sleigh ride the day before we left. La tante Danièle harnessed up the gentle giants King and Prince to pull us along the back trails. It was a greatly anticipated family adventure in a class all its own. For over 2 hours we wisked over the snow in a toasty -8 °C and the trees cut the wind to a whisper.

On that day at La Halte there was a big gathering. Four sleighs, six horses, five or six dogs and about 25 people mill about the cabane. There’s a wood stove inside burning hot, bubbling chocolate for fondue with strawberries and pineapples. Hot dogs, toasted buns and all the fixings are the main course. Coffee with liqueur, champagne and beer are the beverages on offer.

There is lots of laughter and camaraderie. Danièle and Richard know everyone under this blue sky clearing. They are a passionate lot. They love their animals, the outdoors and the bonhomie of the woods and sweeping fields. Everyone is welcome to share a few moments of cheer, to befriend the cold, to imagine the days when sleighs ruled the countryside.

A lesiurely break at La Halte

An older fellow comes to speak with Danièle. He has a horse he’s been trying to sell for two years, a ringer for King, he says. He wants to know if Danièle is interested. Danièle extends her arm, “My team is here. King and Prince pull this sleigh. I’m not looking for any other horses.” It’s a no pressure pitch. The old guy says, “You never know, he’s getting old…” Danièle is not biting. She’s polite and says she’ll keep in touch.

Out of reach of the horses, Noah, Nellie and Maxime are eyes to the sky, immersed in the snow waving their arms and legs in unison making angels. The white stuff’s powdery texture means no forts, projectiles, sculptures, snowmen, or other mischief. Now that the yummy Krispy Kreme donuts have all been scarfed the younger adventurers are starting to get restless for this show to get back on the trail. There is one notable exception, Lila-Jeanne. She’s as quiet as falling snow, not a rustle, not a sound. At three-months-old, this is her first Quebec winter, her first winter anywhere.

Noah’s favourite spot is a securely fastened saucer that drags, sometimes flies, behind the sleigh. It glides in a bumpity-bump fashion over everything including generous quantities of road apples in various degrees of freshness. Doris and Sam, the country dogs, do whizz, buzz, zips skirting the saucer on each side at full run. Noah hears them charging and looks out of the corner of his eyes for the flash of balled muscles in full stride. They’re our outriders making sure everything is right.

Old time snowy trails

Noah is riding the saucer like a pro. He gets a little additional speed and requests even more juice. Then it happens. The saucer is off the trail. He tips and at the same time King falls to his knees. Prince continues to canter dragging King and the sleigh. I run back for Noah. His tears are quickly dried with a kiss and a hug. He has snow up his nostrils and in his mouth. Despite the scare he hops back into the saucer and continues until we hit the road.

The woods are lively
Light and clear
But biting cold this time of year
I’ll keep you warm, I’ll hold you dear
I’ll not let go, I’ll keep you near.

 

Apologies to Robert Frost for the doggerel.

 

Descent of the Snow Tamers

As it drifts and shape shifts, blows and blankets, snow is the outdoor play transformer par excellence. Wet and heavy, or light and airy like faerie dust, it’s a game changer. Even the thinnest carpeting effortlessly repurposes gradual slopes of green. Steadily accumulating flakes are a signal for kids to get outside and mix it up in a swirl of excitement.

Launch

This cool new surface that’s falling down is ideal for slip sliding around. The kids pull sleds and other slidey things out from storage and dust them off for the first descent of the season.

Here on this strip of land between our houses is the new found merriment centre. It’s St. Moritz without the long line ups, ski lifts, or chic boutiques. Limitless runs are the order of the day. Head first, flat on belly, or feet planted surely for a standing slide.

Nice Form

Late afternoon shadows lead the snow tamers down the incline. Balance is good form but falling is also fine. Up and down the slope, careful to avoid obstacles, muscles push and pull.

No Return

Movement and laughter warm things up. On the precipice the friends are oblivious to the crisp wind. The snow is tamped down, grassy patches peeking through. An empty grey sky holds no promise of a fresh fall.

All Clear

Panda Power still slides true as the first of many winter play afternoons concludes. Already the kids are wishing for mountains of snow to climb and wade through, to fashion forts, build snowmen and make snowballs that unerringly find their mark.

Panda Power

Winter related question, how cold is too cold for recess?

Winter Trekking with the Pack

The pack wakes up well rested in the cabin’s common sleeping area. Some of the kids have never been away from home overnight, or went to bed without a tuck in from mom, or dad. Now after a good night’s sleep we’re gearing up for the first full day of our most excellent Camp Harris adventure.

After fueling up on a solid camp breakfast of bologna, scrambled eggs and toast, we’re ready to roll. Almost the entire pack is present for the weekend getaway. Altogether there are 16 Cubs – boys and girls aged 8 to 10 and a handful of adult scouters caring for them.  A mild February morning awaits and the kids need no encouragement to explore the outdoors.

We set out hiking a trail that leads down to the water. Looking around, we see that camp buildings are the only visible structures on our side of the lake. There are no roads, sidewalks, cars, no power lines. The path, partially concealed by snow, is slick in places. For some it’s easier to walk on either side of it.

Enthusiastic hoots and hollers ring into the sky as we cross an open field on a gently descending gradient.  Closer to the shoreline stands of trees border the path and ice is thicker on the ground. Skates might prove to be a better footwear choice on some of the terrain. Rabbits have passed this way before us, their prints clearly stamped in the snow.

We arrive at the top of a small hill sheer with ice. In the near distance, the path continues skirting the shoreline. There is a brief discussion on whether we should head back. After assessing the risk, we position one scouter at the base of the hill. Some of the cubs opt for the full throttle slide down while others choose to walk gingerly through the trees.

Down at the bottom, there is hill on one side of us and the lake on the other. We can’t push much further along the path as kids are losing their footing tumbling and scrambling on uneven ice. We see a nice clearing overlooking the water and climb over, under and through an entanglement of natural debris to reach it.

After traversing this organic obstacle course, we sit as a group, rest a little and briefly experiment with being still and quiet. There is a nanosecond of silence. Then we’re off on the reverse journey. Up and over the dead wood with a little tricky balancing. The ice hill looms. A direct assault is not feasible. It’s through the trees and into the open where the path levels out.

Just before we reach the closest camp cabin we stop to play. A few grizzled and grey trees with scarred trunks and broken branches beckon enticingly. They look like skeletal remains bereft of a once greener glory. Before you can say ‘Mowgli’, a half-dozen cubs seize the day launching an impromptu demo of climbing prowess.

There is a rare moment of gender balance. Three girls and three boys are enjoying each other’s company while scrabbling around a tree looking for the best perch. From their lofty heights they become lookouts with a bird’s eye view of rolling fields, hiking trails and the open, cloudless sky.

On the second day of our Camp Harris adventure, the cubs break out into their lairs for some shelter building. Provided with lengths of rope and a tarp, the cubs are left for the most part to their own devices.

The three lairs charge off in different directions to scout the perfect location. The most pressing requirement is to find suitable trees and bushes that can be used as a windbreak and double as anchors to tie off the tarps and give form to the shelters.

It’s a great way to wind up our Camp Harris outing. A light drizzle provides an opportunity to test the structures to see if they provide a refuge from the elements. There is plenty of discussion within the lairs on how to complete the task, on what might work best. It’s a real team effort with everyone pitching in.

Despite the sometimes inclement weather, the outdoors are the default of choice for the kids over the course of the weekend. There are campfires, songs and toasted marshmallows – thanks Pete for keeping the flame – and games of stealth and strategy pitting cubs against the adults.

As the kids pack up and get ready for their parents a happy exhaustion permeates the air. There is a glow on their faces, a spring in their step. They have tasted adventure, trekked the woods with friends and shared the camaraderie of discovery and wonder.

Editor’s note – Fifty years ago I spent a weekend on a similar adventure at Camp Samac in Oshawa, Ontario. We learned to make fires one fall afternoon, walked in the woods and threw twigs down the chutes of a huge hydro dam. My papa was the Akela for the pack and I have many happy memories from those days that still burn bright.

 

 

A Billion Loose Parts Give or Take

Every January there’s an outdoor event in Halifax, Nova Scotia to welcome new immigrants to the wondrous world of winter. For those who come from winter-free zones, it is tingly, heady stuff.

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This year our merry band of Adventure Play YHZers join the celebrations. It is our second public event. We have a sweet selection of loose parts on hand including PVC pipes, tires, milk crates, cardboard boxes and a multilingual sign welcoming people and inviting them to play.

These quality play pieces were sure fire winners back in the fall with green grass underfoot. This time though, we are outflanked by chill temps and a fresh fall of snow. According to Reddit, there are about a billion snowflakes in a cubic foot and eight billion or more in a snowman.

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It’s hard to compete with these naturally occurring loose parts – each flake its own unique shape – unless it’s with something that transforms the snow such as shaping it into bricks.

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Close by our loose parts central, which isn’t suffering from overcrowding problems, there is one of the many off the shelf playgrounds that are found throughout the city. This is one of the larger ones close to the downtown core on the Halifax Common a large expanse of land that dates back to the city’s founding in the mid-18th century.

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Our kids grease the slide with snow to speed their descent into a cold embrace. Snow makes all the equipment just a bit more slippery – stairs, ropes, rungs and slides. The kids practice being sure-footed and enjoy the thrill from a hint of risk.

Also within a shout is the city’s biggest skatepark. There are no skaters dropping off the edge of the bowl into the collecting snow but kids are finding other ways to make this an all weather venue..

It’s not everyday that you have a chance to get the adrenalin pumping in an unanticipated adventure. Future winter visits to the Halifax Common with our gang will now include a de rigueur pit stop at the skatepark.

BOOM

I’m on the precipice sitting on a kids’ plastic sled legs akimbo. I steel myself to drop over the concrete lip. It’s a minute or two before I push off in a wonderful flash of inelegance.  The kids are braver as they zip down and clamber out sliding their way to saturation, snowsuits sopped through and through. For them, the wet discomfort is a small price to pay when discovering a new snow delight spiced with a dash of fright…

We have to leave early to get one of the girls to a birthday party. As we prepare to go, families of new Canadians are starting to cross the street as they leave the The Oval, the city’s outdoor skating venue of choice.

On this particular afternoon, snow rules. One of nature’s loose parts par excellence takes the day. Welcome to winter….

Loose parts sign

The Heat Within

It’s well chilly in Canada’s far east right now. Not arctic conditions by any stretch but bone penetrating cold from biting northern winds. The big freeze is later than usual and we of the wintry non-sportifying adults set are pleased with this tardiness. Recent temperatures are in the -10ºC range, say -20ºC with the wind chill.

SnowSlidersStorytelling with Storehouse – click through for photo montage and short videos

The kids are the ones who get me out in this weather. Short walks, hand feeding chickadee expeditions and sorties of the sledding and skating variety are the order of the day.

It’s as if the kids have small furnaces at the core of their beings that keep them stoked, impervious to the elements. Fuelled by play’s exhilaration and the adventurous pursuit of hurtling velocity, these snow sliders are oblivious to the elements, inoculated against creeping chill (warm clothes are a must too).

Simplest of FunThe Sliders

It’s simple fun with uphill huffing and puffing and downhill squeals of delight. We have a small fright too. Lila, our youngest, stands immobile in the path of a sled barreling toward her. Brother and sister are on board but they are unable to veer away. It’s a direct hit and Lila is catapulted into the air her feet swept from under her. I’m thankful that aside from the tears, there’s nothing more amiss. I don’t think we’ll have any further standing still in the path of oncoming sled incidents…

DSC00334Watch out for those sleds!

All told, we’re out for a couple of hours and pack it in just before we become walking popsicles. Even so it’s not a unanimous decision, a couple of the kids want to hang in for more. I promise we’ll return the next day. Really, there’s no better way to while away a few wintry hours than with the simple yet electrifying pleasure of some quality downhill sledding.

Get a taste of our winter fun here on Storehouse, the app that makes possible beautiful storytelling using video and photos.

The TrekThe uphill slog

There’s another storm raging outside just as I’m about to hit publish and just after I’ve seen an update from Suzanna, PlayGroundology’s Pop-Up Adventure friend – she’s on an Australia tour and right now it’s 39ºC outside. I guess she’ll just have to look for ‘the cool within’. With more snow coming down, I hope we’ll be able to get out later today for downhill dashes the sequel.