Learning Through Play for 70 Years

Winter Activities and Outing Ideas

Two words can strike fear into parents everywhere. Permanent marker? Nope. Finger paint? No, again. Winter break. Seventeen consecutive days with no school, no routine, and, often, very cold weather.

What is a parent to do? Since running away from home or locking oneself in a closet with a pack of Oreos doesn’t work (not that I’ve tried, of course), I’ve found that doing a little pre-planning, while requiring up-front work, can alleviate the stress and pressure of creating an activity or outing each day to keep kiddos occupied and engaged and to prevent parents from holiday season overload.

Each year, I do an activity advent calendar beginning with the day after Thanksgiving and ending on New Year’s Eve. For our family, it serves two purposes. First, because we are Episcopalians, it gives us an alternative to a traditional advent calendar where children count down the days until Christmas with sweets, treats, or toys. Second, it provides much-needed structure for those two weeks when the kiddos are out of school and start each morning with the same question, “What are we going to do today, mommy?”  

Each pocket on our advent calendar contains, instead of a chocolate treat, a slip of paper with a different activity or outing for each day. If you don’t use an advent calendar in your family (let’s be honest, if you’re Muslim or atheist, that would probably be really odd), you can use a regular calendar template, write in each activity or outing, and cover it with a post-it note that your kiddos can pull off each morning. If you don’t even want to tempt your kids with a calendar or you want to give yourself flexibility for day-to-day changes, keep a list of activities or outings handy and you can pick a different one each day.

So, now that you have the options for how to structure your calendar, you’re thinking, great, I’ve got a big blank piece of paper and no clue how to fill it up. Never fear, your winter break cruise director is here! Our calendar is a mix of holiday-related activities and outings, craft projects, lazy days, and service projects.  If you don’t celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah and you’d rather not include holiday-related activities, I’ve tried to give alternate suggestions that might work for your family.

Holiday Activities/Outings:

-Cut down your family Christmas tree; our family has been going to Snickers Gap Tree Farm in Round Hill, VA for 8 years. www.snickersgaptrees.com There are lots of cut-your-own tree farms in western Loudoun and a quick google search will help you find one that works for you. We make a day of it by stopping for lunch and singing Christmas carols during the drive.

-Help decorate for the holidays; whether your kiddo is big enough to help string lights, decorate a wreath for the front door, unwrap the menorah and get the candles ready, or help to hang ornaments, our kids enjoy having a hand in making our home special for Christmas. We also love telling our kids the stories behind many of our ornaments and how they are special to our family.

-Wolf Trap Holiday Sing-A-Long; this is an annual tradition for our family and we often include friends which makes it even more special. It is a free event and it includes the Marine Corps Band and songs from both Christmas and Hanukkah. http://www.wolftrap.org/tickets/calendar/performance/holiday-sing.aspx Because it is a free event, it is first come, first served, so I suggest getting there early (and bring a blanket if you end up sitting on the lawn). This is, admittedly, well before winter break but it always puts us in the holiday spirit!

-Find a Christmas market and do some holiday shopping or just enjoy the lights and food. There are so many in the area from one at the German School in Potomac, MD to another near Nationals Park in DC.

-Zoo Lights at the National Zoological Park; this is another annual tradition for our family. We’re zoo junkies and FONZ members so we love this opportunity to see the zoo lit up and to experience seeing many of the animals in the evening. Getting to engage with nocturnal animals in the small mammal house is a family favorite. While this is definitely “Christmas-y,” I think families of all religions, or none, will really enjoy this.

-Write a letter to Santa and encourage your kiddos to express all the things that they are thankful for.

-Bake Christmas cookies to share with friends and neighbors.

-There are literally hundreds of events in our area for the holidays and all you really have to do is google to find one that is right for your family.

Non-Holiday Activities/Outings:

In the D.C. metro area, this is probably the easiest thing to do! Whether it’s a trip downtown to a museum or a jaunt to a local park, playground, or nature center, there are plenty of places to combat your cabin fever and have fun doing it!

-African American Museum, Air and Space Museum, Natural History Museum, American Indian Museum, American History Museum, Hirshorn, Freer Gallery, or the U.S. Botanic Gardens. Let your kiddo’s interests be your guide. Obsessed with planes or space? Clearly the Air and Space Museum is for you! Bugs and dinosaurs her jam? Make your way to the Natural History Museum.

-If you’re lucky snag a sunny, not-too-cold day? We’re so lucky to live in an area with great public parks and playgrounds. Two of our favorites are a bit of a drive, but we pack a picnic lunch, make a day of it and expend lots of energy. Clemyjontri Park, located in McLean, is an awesome park where children of all abilities can play side-by-side. https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/clemyjontri/

Chessie’s Big Backyard at Lee District Rec Center in Alexandria is a great playground with structures for kids of all ages. There’s a covered area with picnic tables for lunch and the park also now boasts a carousel!


-For anyone who knows me, or has met me for more than 10 minutes, you probably know that I don’t care for snakes and, by “don’t care for,” I mean, until recently, I couldn’t even look at a cartoon snake and the sight of a real one, even on television, makes me scream, run from the room, and stand on a chair while I hyperventilate. That said, if you’re not a reptile wuss, taking your kids to a local nature center is a great way to spend a day!

Try Hidden Pond https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/hidden-pond/ or Hidden Oaks https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/hidden-oaks/ and, while, I’m not usually brave enough to go indoors at either place, there are plenty of non-slithery things to see and do in both locations.

-Or try something seasonal and head to a local outdoor ice skating rink! We like both Reston Town Center https://www.restontowncenter.com/amenities/ice-skating/ and Pentagon Row https://pentagonrowskating.com/ but there are also rinks downtown and at National Harbor. Either way, there are restaurants nearby to grab a hot cocoa after an afternoon of skating.

Craft Projects:

This is my weakest area because I am, admittedly, not crafty. The things our ACPS teachers come up with always blow my mind and I’m grateful for the tips and tricks I’ve learned over the years. We’re also really fortunate to live close to many craft stores that offer hundreds of options for craft kits that include all the necessary items to create fun and interesting crafts. http://www.acmoore.com/projects/projects-kid.html

I also have stretched my crafty muscles in recent years to create projects with the kids that have made wonderful gifts for grandparents, godparents, aunts and uncles. My buddy, Pinterest, has been a great partner in this endeavor and I encourage you to make friends with her as well. https://www.pinterest.com/search/pins/?q=holiday%20kid%20crafts%20winter&rs=guide&term_meta[]=holiday%7Ctyped&term_meta[]=kid%7Ctyped&term_meta[]=crafts%7Ctyped&add_refine=winter%7Cguide%7Cword%7C1

Finally, keeping a healthy stash of craft supplies at the ready has saved me from claims of chronic boredom by my kids. A stack of construction paper, a new pack of crayons, some scissors, glue, play dough (and we all know how to make this!), paint, stickers, pipe cleaners, and markers have kept my kiddos busy for hours. This is a great idea for a day that you just need to stay in and get some laundry done as well.

Lazy Days:

Let’s be honest, by the time winter break rolls around, the kids are usually exhausted from their busy schedules and parents and caregivers are also craving a break from the day-to-day routines of school, homework, sports, and activities. The best part of winter break is the opportunity to embrace lazy days spent doing next to nothing. But, of course, when faced with a whole day of, well, nothing, it can be a little overwhelming so here are some ideas for themed lazy days that will be fun and relaxing.

-PJ day-stay in your jammies, set up a tent (pretend you’re camping), build a fort (defend forts from all grown-ups), read books (older siblings can be the librarian or teacher and early or non-readers can “read” their favorite stories to stuffed animals), and eat breakfast for all three meals (pancakes, eggs, bacon, quiche, hash browns, yogurt parfaits, fruit salad, waffles, sausage, smoothies, oatmeal, bagels, donuts, French toast, cereal, or home fries).

-Movie day-sure, done every day, tons of tv will probably rot their brains but, once in awhile, vegging out and watching movies is a fun treat. After all, I don’t think my IQ dropped too many points after binge-watching Orange is the New Black so the kids will probably survive a Disney marathon. Have each kid pick their favorite movie (or give your kids a list of choices that you’re comfortable with); if you have lots of kiddos and a 4-movie day is out of the question, put all the kids’ suggestions into a hat and choose one or two. Movie day calls for curling up with favorite cozy blankets, loveys, and making popcorn. If you’re really feeling adventurous, add the movie-theater boxes of candy and treats to your next grocery store or Target list and elevate yourself to parenting level: expert.

-Baking day-pick a favorite treat, or treats, to make and hop into the kitchen. Your kids may even unintentionally learn something as they help you to measure, stir, and pre-heat the oven. The key to a successful baking day is pre-planning-make sure you have all the ingredients on hand so you don’t have to haul 2 flour-covered children out in 35 degree weather for an emergency run to Giant for unsalted butter.

Service Projects:

While we try to be mindful of giving back to our community throughout the year, the holidays certainly remind us how incredibly fortunate we are and how much we have to be grateful for.

-Adopt a family; our family always adopts a family through our church but many stores, including Giant and Target, offer opportunities to adopt families in need. We always try to choose a family that has kids around the same ages as our kids and both of our kids enjoy choosing gifts that they know the kids will enjoy.

-Create blessing kits for the homeless; the kids like to help me shop for and put together “blessing kits” for the homeless. These include everything from warm socks, small toiletry items, gift cards, bottled water, granola bars, and trail mix. We keep these in our car or day bag and hand them out when we encounter folks along the way who can use a little kindness.

-Visit nursing homes; nothing is more fun than watching little kids interact with elderly folks. Bring drawings or art projects or favorite books. It’s always best to check with the management to see what is best for each place but often bringing home-baked treats or sharing musical talent is warmly received as well.

-Draw cards and collect candy for deployed soldiers.

-Donate food to a local food pantry; often young children are not permitted to work in soup kitchen due to the dangerous nature of large kitchens but going to the store to choose non-perishable items to bring to a local food pantry is a great idea. Have your kids pick a can of their favorite vegetable or boxed mac and cheese.

-Bake cookies for the local fire station or police station. It’s always good to call ahead and make sure of a good time to stop by.

-Take supplies (old, clean towels, etc.) to an animal shelter. Be sure to call in advance to determine their greatest needs. The kids can have a great time collecting the necessary items around your house or at a store.

I’ve included our 2017 activity calendar and the only thing that makes fun winter break outings more special is having friends to share them with!

Now you’re prepared for it all and you can approach this winter break with total fearlessness. See you all in 2018!