Make: Backyard Winter Discovery Trails With Kids

Bring winter learning to life by making your own backyard discovery trails. Your kids can explore and discover the great outdoors with creative and interactive self-made trails that utilize the wonders of nature and STEAM learning, keeping them engaged, entertained, and active outside all through the winter season. 

Mother Nature has gifted us with an incredible amount of fluffy snow this year – in fact, we’re not quite halfway through the season and have already hit our annual average snowfall amount!

One of my most beloved characteristics of winter is that it completely alters the entire landscape. All of the natural delineations that break up our yard (gardens, rock walkways, bushes, lawn areas, etc.) disappear and we’re given a blank slate to build upon or carve away.

A view of our Minnesota neighborhood winter landscape

Growing up, my sister and I spent an incredible amount of time shoveling snow. Shoveling it from the walk, shoveling around the yard, shoveling along the curb – shoveling *anywhere*. For fun!

The novelty of tending to the same grown-up tasks our parents took on was still incredibly exciting, and on snow days our kid-sized shovels were all we needed to entertain us for a surprising amount of time. I’m sure our parents loved it because we’d come inside absolutely exhausted, ready for a cup of cocoa and an afternoon of quiet recovery reading or watching a movie.

Making winter trails can be as simple as handing over a shovel and inviting kids to create their own little system of winding paths through the yard. It’s honestly incredible to watch kids discover the freedom in this kind of open-ended activity. They may not even need any other prompt for play, as they come up with routes through the snow and use their imaginations to invent different ways to use them.

But beyond basic path-making, you can expand on this simple idea by creating interactive discovery trails that can evolve throughout the entire season. Use your kid-made paths for winter art walks, STEM activity trails, outdoor winter nature observation stations, a winter obstacle course, or creative winter scavenger hunts. And I have a whole list of engaging ideas for themed discovery-trail ideas that will appeal to kids of all interests and outdoor activity level!

Visit our BIG list of kids’ outdoor winter play activities for over fifty creative ideas to save for your next snow day.

To make your own backyard winter art trail you’ll need:

Note: We prefer to shop locally or use what we have at home, but this list contains Woodpeckers Crafts, Etsy, Blick Art Materials, and/or Amazon affiliate links for reference. As Amazon Associates, we make a small commission on qualifying purchases.*

BASIC SUPPLIES:

OPTIONAL SUPPLIES:

  • Plastic bins, pails, boxes, small insulated coolers, or old towels
  • Handwarmer packets (like these) or hot water bottles

How to Make Backyard Winter Discovery Trails – DIY Instructions:

  1. Create paths in the snow or backyard

    Pass around the snow shovels and let the kids in on the fun! Depending on their ages (and how heavy the snow is!) they may need an adult to get their paths started.

    Of course, you don’t need snow to enjoy a backyard trail. You can create a path in other ways. Use lines of small stones to mark the trail, or let your grass grow a little longer, and use the lawnmower to cut a winding path through the yard.

  2. Add outdoor winter activities along the path

    Lay out the supplies you need for each winter activity along the path. You can put them in plastic bins, pots, pails, boxes, or small coolers depending on the weather.

    If you’ll be leaving items out for the day, you may want to pack them in a bin or box with some old towels – adding one or two small handwarmer packets wrapped inside for extra warmth if necessary.

    I’ve shared lists of themed activities you can use along your trails below!

  3. Mark your discovery stations with flags or cones (optional)

    This is an optional step, but trail markers like flags or cones can be a helpful way to call out different stations and stops along your discovery trail.

    You can create a simple homemade trail marker by gluing or tying a square or pennant-shaped piece of scrap fabric to a stick. You can also use yardsticks, cones, or similar sports markers.

When telling my dad about my plans for discovery trails, the VSD (“Very Smart Dad”) shared a genius idea from his sixth-grade teaching days. Instead of shoveling, gather kids into a single-file line for a path-making parade through the snow.

Tread over the same trail a few times, stomping down the snow enough that it packs the powder into a clear path. Many feet make light work when it comes to trail-scaping, so this is a perfect suggestion for classes, after-school groups, neighborhood friends, or a snow-day sleepover gang.

A handmade flag sitting in the snow being used as a marker for our kids winter discovery trail.

Activities to add to a backyard art walk

Winter offers some amazing opportunities to create unique once-a-year art projects outside. From natural land art to colorful ice sculptures, here are a few ideas to help you make your own lovely, interactive backyard art allées.

  • Add a snow painting station. Mix up some spray bottles full of DIY snow paint and go to town filling different areas of your winter art trail with color! Not in love with the way you’ve decorated or the hues you used? You’re in luck, because within a day or two the color magically disappears and you’ll be able to start fresh all over again!
  • Create a corner for snow and ice sculptures. Whether you’re making snow people or trying some ice sculpture-building, winter is generous with its supply of sculpture-making supplies!
  • Line a section of your trail with paper bag luminarias. Here’s a good art walk activity to save for extra-cold days, because you can make the luminarias inside. Make your own paper bag luminarias by gluing dark pieces of paper to white paper bags, or using hole punches to cut shapes out. Line a section of your art walk with the luminarias and bundle up for a lovely winter evening stroll. *To keep this activity super-safe, use small battery-operated tea lights instead of candles, and turn them on only when dry weather and clear night skies are expected.*
  • Put together a winter mandala-making station. Gather nature supplies or use your colored ice blocks to make outdoor winter mandalas.
  • Assign an area for making stick drawings in the snow. Gather a pile of nice long sticks and invite kids to try drawing in the snow with them. You can offer different prompts, or let kids come up with their own imaginative drawings.

Using your shoveled path as a DIY winter nature discovery trail

In my opinion, nature is at its most magical in winter. Even in areas that don’t get snow, there are so many seasonal changes to observe. Here are a few ideas you can use to create a discovery trail that helps kids connect with nature. And be sure to take strolls in both the early morning and after-dark – what you see will be completely different!

  • Set up an animal observation area. Set out binoculars, small outdoor chairs or step stools, and maybe even a bit of birdseed and invite kids to watch for different animals or observe what’s happening in different parts of the yard – from the sky to the ground.
  • Add a magnifying glass stop. Help your little ones experience an up-close-and-personal investigation of winter wonders with a trail stop dedicated to magnification. Fill a small pail or shoebox with a few plastic magnifying glasses and invite kids to inspect the surrounding area. From snowflakes to boot prints, there is so much cool stuff to see on a macular level!
  • Create a cardboard viewfinder post. Cut different sizes and shapes of holes from the centers of cardboard scraps to create simple viewfinders. Place them in a plastic bin or hang them from strong branches at eye level and invite kids to share their observations, or prompt them to search for a specific sight through the viewfinder.
  • Dig out an under-the-snow investigation patch. Shovel a small square of exposed land out of the snow. What does it look like underneath the snow? What happens to that area when the sun comes out?
  • Five senses station. Dedicate a special spot to the investigation of winter sights, sounds, smells, touches, and taste.

Create a STEM learning discovery trail

  • Set up a frozen bubble site. Add food coloring to small containers of bubble solution and set them outside with a few wands. What happens when you blow bubbles outside in winter?
  • Make a winter meteorology corner. Gather up supplies like a wind sock, an outdoor thermometer, a yardstick or ruler for taking snow measurements, and a plastic rain gauge. Kids can keep a record book or journal to track their weather observations and chart their measurements.
  • Add an outdoor stick structure station. Gather a pile of sticks in various sizes and encourage kids to try building different types of structures.

Put together a winter obstacle course or locomotion trail

With its shorter days, taking advantage of all the opportunities to walk, bend, jump, spin, and MOVE during outdoor playtime becomes especially important. This short list of ideas to help you create a movement-themed winter discovery trail is guaranteed to keep your kiddos on the move...

  • Create a locomotor walk. Create markers along your trail that call out specific movements like, “jump,” “gallop,” “stomp” etc.
  • Build a simple backyard winter obstacle course. Here’s an example of a backyard winter course that uses items you probably already have at home to create a wonderful low-prep, movement-filled playground in the snow.
Amanda Eldridge
Amanda Eldridge

With a passion for cultivating imagination, Amanda aims to help kids and families discover their creative potential through art, play, adventure, activism, conservancy, and community. Amanda has a background in graphic design, environmental design, and art curation. When not playing with ideas and designs for barley & birch, she enjoys working in freelance design, art, and illustration.

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