Fun and free ways to get kids outside in the winter
Winter is when the Northwest’s forests come alive.
It may be dark, cold and dripping, but Seattle’s natural areas teem with life in the winter months. Here are some good reasons to hustle your kids into warm, waterproof clothes and head for one of the area’s beautiful parks.
First described by A.A. Milne in The House at Pooh Corner, Pooh sticks may be the ideal family contest. The rules are simple: Players find sticks and then drop them off one side of a bridge. The winning stick is the one that floats past the other side of the bridge first. But from the first round, complexities emerge. Some sticks go straight through. Others get caught on obstacles or swept back in eddies. The questions of what kind of stick to use and exactly where to drop it contain more than enough variables to fascinate adult players, and preschoolers have fun with it too. The game also hits a sweet spot for satisfaction. If you lose, it’s bad luck; if you win, it’s because of your cunning assessment of stream flow and stick dynamics. This is a contest that can take an hour or more and result in grown men and women yelling cheers at the progress of inanimate objects.
You just need to find a suitable bridge over a suitable stream — usually one that doesn’t move too quickly. (Extreme Pooh sticks is not a good idea.) It’s helpful to have woods nearby in order to have a supply of sticks or cones, but driftwood also makes for excellent Pooh sticks material. There’s a very fine Pooh sticks bridge over a small creek at the south end of Golden Gardens Park. Other Seattle-area Pooh sticks destinations include Piper’s Creek in Carkeek Park, Mackey Creek at Farrel-McWhirter Farm Park in Redmond, the Salmon Bone Bridge on Longfellow Creek in West Seattle, or anywhere else walkers can pause above a meandering stream.
The gales of November rip up kelp forests that grow in nearshore waters all summer, depositing kelp on beaches in tangled heaps. They’re interesting to investigate — you can get an idea of the many living things that depend on kelp, starting with the swarms of silvery amphipods that bounce away as you start to investigate. And fresh bull kelp makes an excellent toy. (Don’t take it home unless you have a seaweed-gathering permit, available from the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife.) Sand sculptors can use many parts of kelp to decorate castles and other creations. The gnarled holdfast could be a stand-in for a tree. Also, the stem is hollow, so the most ambitious castle builders can use it for pipes to, say, bring in water for a moat. Kelp also has musical applications. Lengths of it make a decent, if quiet, xylophone. And if your child knows how to “buzz” into the mouthpiece of a brass instrument, then a length of kelp can become a bellowing horn.
Ducks, geese, loons, grebes, gulls and other waterbirds come to the Seattle area by the hundreds to feed and find mates. They’re out in the open, so you don't need birding skills or special devices to spot them, and because they’re intent on courting, the males are quite flamboyantly beautiful. For example, the male hooded merganser, a common sight at Green Lake, has a black face, bright-yellow eyes and a large, semicircular crest that is white with a black border, which he can unfurl and flash when he wants to show off — which is often. Our placid gray waters become a parade of jaunty markings, crests and iridescence. Favorite spots to catch the action: Washington Park Arboretum and Mercer Slough in Bellevue.
In a lot of ways, winter is when this region’s forests come alive. Moss that turns brown in the summer swells back in lush green, and licorice ferns sprout from tree branches. Mushrooms — alive all year underground — sprout up in a variety of weird shapes. And stately banana slugs glide along the forest floor, no longer needing to take shelter from the heat. Some great places to enjoy this wooded winter world include Discovery Park, Schmitz Park and Seward Park, and in Bellevue, Coal Creek Natural Area.