Thrills and chills: Outdoor winter adventures in Chicago to beat back the winter blues

Getting everybody up and outside for winter activity can take extra leverage – especially if your kids, like mine, are the sort that would rather sit inside and have packed on extra pounds as a result.

But even the most sedentary child has an ignitable spark of derring-do. And what better way to light that up than a family trip to an awesomely towering snow-tubing hill or a weekend dog-sledding adventure in Minnesota or Wisconsin. (Yes, there are places that specialize in family dog-sledding trips!) Or, create your own backyard-or-bust version of Rudolph’s Reindeer Games.

Truly adventurous outdoor play really does provide extra thrills with the chills of winter. So here are some helpful tips to get you up, out and over the threshold.

Fears about fat

When a child is chubby, parents may silently fear that truly active outdoor play will be setting their child up for failure, ridicule or worse, physical danger. “There are no greater dangers involved in getting an overweight child out there playing hard, than getting a fit child out there,” says Dr. Joel Fuhrman, a former world-class figure skater and author of Disease-proof Your Child and Eat for Health. “And there are a lot of benefits,” says Fuhrman.

Start small, build bigger

Go tubing. But start with the small hill, not the mountain. Build up to that. Be watchful without hovering. If a child is winded or flagging, slow things down and rest a bit. Back them up with encouragement during the walk back up that tubing hill. And walk up the hill with them.

Balance really vigorous activity with easier to manage play

Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are much more difficult than sledding down a hill or building a snowman. Do some of both. Set the time-minimum (20 minutes) but beyond that, Fuhrman suggests letting the child control the intensity and duration. “They’ll naturally self-monitor, go fast for a while and then rest for a bit. The key is to get them out there-daily if possible.” He suggests a game of tag in the snow as an excellent option. “It’s natural interval training and running in the snow is quite rigorous.”

Do something crazy

Go dog-sledding: Ride on a dog-sled across the nearby frozen north behind a gorgeous team of Huskies or learn to “mush” and drive yourself. At Arleigh Jorgenson’s Sled Dog Adventures in Grand Marais, Minn., you can take a two-hour dogsled ride with 10 to 12 Alaskan Huskies pulling you and your family through the Superior National Forest or learn to drive a team of dogs yourself (kids are allowed to learn this too)-with instruction and supervision on the trail. The same is true at Wolfsong Adventures in Mushing near Bayfield, Wis. There you can do a 2 ½-hour or four-hour (with lunch) day trip where you tuck in for a ride behind a Siberian Husky team or learn to drive the team.

Create your ownbackyard winterfest

In colder Midwest climes, small towns are big into creating kooky, cold-weather games for their Winterfests. Why not do a mini version in your own backyard? Get some neighborhood friends in on the act: Build two huge snow forts and decorate with Christmas lights. Make a two-team snowball fight from behind these two edifices the climax of your event. But before that, do a frozen pancake toss, frozen fish toss or frozen weenie toss (egg-toss style). Do a human “dog-sled” race (each team of five people-four pulling and one on the sled-has to see who can pull fastest to the finish line). Do snow golfing-smooth an area, build bumps and slopes out of snow around each hole, put a flag to mark them, dig the holes into the snow and paint them with watercolor paint to make them stand out.

Keep up the momentum

Plan your next outdoor activity while the memory of the fun you just had is still fresh. And in between, gently ramp up the amount of outside time you’re spending with your kids by adding extra moments of more-mellow winter excursions: walking the ice-crusted beach shorelines in winter, visiting snowy woods and bird sanctuaries or sitting on a frozen lake ice fishing.

Do it together

One of the success builders in all of this is family participation. “The number one most important thing in getting your kids healthy is to get fit yourself and involve them in the process,” says Fuhrman. “Even if you have not yet been the best role model for your kids with what you eat thus far, changing that and telling your kids why you’re changing that, is powerful.” Overcoming your own fears of the bunny hill or ski lifts, or what people will say if they see you looking like the Michelin tire man in down-filled coveralls, will help your children face these challenges themselves.

“That way, the focus isn’t so much ‘fixing the child,’ which will make the child feel attacked, it’s more, ‘we’re all in this together.'”

Monica Kass Rogers

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