Youth Outside | Exploring the Magic of Winter with the Mini Mountaineers

In this feature from Mountaineer magazine, learn more about how our Mini Mountaineers program connects youth to the outdoors during winter. Plus, get some winter craft ideas to try out with your little ones!
Devon Schoos Devon Schoos
Adventure Camp & After-School Coordinator
February 25, 2023
Youth Outside | Exploring the Magic of Winter with the Mini Mountaineers

Growing up, my family had an off-grid cabin in the woods off Mountain Loop Highway. When my folks bought it, a faded wooden sign hung above the door that read “Scotty’s Castle.” The name stuck. Scotty’s Castle was an unassuming wood-frame cabin with no electricity or running water, but despite its lack of amenities, winter was my favorite time of year to visit the cabin. When the door creaked open to let us in, it would be so cold inside we could see our breath. We’d start a fire, light the gas lamps, and sweep out a few dead mice before unpacking.

While Scotty’s Castle slowly warmed up and came to life, I would slip out to the forest to play. I talked to trees and made up stories about their tree lives and tree families. I would gingerly place a foot on the partially-frozen creek, slowly increasing pressure to test when it would crack (quickly learning just how cold an icy creek is). I looked for animal tracks in the snow and touched plants that looked fuzzy, curious if they would feel as soft as they looked. My parents also took us on walks - lots and lots of walks. We observed the unique prints our boots made and tried to dust each other with snow from overhanging branches. There were no rules to the game of “playing outside.” These woods taught me the beauty of unstructured play in nature. It was wild and free, and I loved it.

Looking back, it’s no wonder that running the Mini Mountaineers program is one of the greatest joys of my job. Mini Mountaineers is a nature-based program for 2-5 year-olds and an accompanying adult that aims to foster a sense of joy and connectedness between little ones and the natural world. Every month from November to May, we explore a different natural space in the greater Seattle area with an emphasis on a chosen topic. We’ve looked for salmon in Carkeek Park’s Pipers Creek during their annual spawning run, turned over rocks at Golden Gardens’ north beach during low tide, and made art with items found on our nature walks.

F240CE73-1F57-4932-B617-9EAACC2AA431.jpgMini Mountaineers sketching out their salmon hats.

Drawing from my memories at Scotty’s Castle, I designed Mini Mountaineers to be experience-based. On one of the first Minis outings I led, I was worried if my approach was the right one. It was December and there was a chill in the air reminding us that winter was upon us. Our theme was “salmon,” and we had just made some very fun salmon hats to help us “swim upriver.” In case you’ve never seen a kid in a salmon hat - it’s pretty cute. Walking along Pipers Creek on our salmon hunt, I stepped across a small puddle on the trail. A few seconds later, I turned around to see a 2-year-old boy jumping in the same puddle I’d mindlessly stepped through, shrieking with joy. Not wanting to miss out on the fun, the 5-year-old next to him joined in, their giggles bouncing off the trees around us. I let out a laugh and shook my head in wonder and appreciation. This is what it’s all about.

Rather than ushering kids past something transfixing to complete a predetermined activity, I want Minis to be a space for kids to freely explore and engage. Believe it or not, jumping in a puddle is a way of learning about and connecting with the natural world. And tying it back to salmon for a learning outcome isn’t all that difficult either. If you were a mommy salmon do you think you’d want to lay your eggs in this puddle? No! They might get stepped on, and you can’t walk on land. You’d want to lay them in the river and protect them. As long as we are respecting the environment and each other, there’s no wrong way to learn outside.

Although the chill and darkness of winter often drives us indoors, the winter months can be an especially mesmerizing time for little ones. The salmon return to spawn in December, January’s early dark nights are great for stargazing, and Seattle often sees snowfall in February. Kids find wonder everywhere, and experiencing nature through their eyes is truly inspiring. The mini inside me has learned to stop on a ski tour and look at neat patterns in the snow, practice using my other senses on a winter night walk, and find magic in a February day that’s oscillating between rainy and sunny and hailing (Oh, Washington!). May we all be a little more “mini” this winter.

minis1 (2).jpgA Mini Mountaineer enjoying his salmon hat.


With snow

Snow beach. Turns out beach toys work just as well in the snow as they do in the sand! Get out those shovels, buckets, and molds and let your little one’s imagination take the reins.

Snow kitchen. Provide your mini with some kitchen supplies like bowls, spatulas, cookie sheets, baking dishes, and measuring cups and see their inner chef come to life! Snow is the main ingredient for their pretend culinary creations, but leaves, rocks, and other natural items add even more flavor. Enjoy all the fun of experimenting in the kitchen with none of the cleanup.

Maple snow candy. It's a treat, activity, and science experiment all in one. Bring pure maple syrup to a boil, stirring constantly, then remove from heat. Pack a thick layer of snow tightly on a baking sheet. Carefully spoon the hot maple syrup onto the snow and watch it harden. Peel the candy off the snow for a hard candy treat. Alternatively, lay wooden popsicle sticks in the snow and spoon the syrup onto one end of the stick to make a maple syrup sucker.

Without snow

“Night” walks. One benefit of the sun going down early in the winter is that you and your mini can enjoy an exciting night walk well before bedtime. What can you hear? Do you know any animals that are awake during the night? Is the moon out or are there any stars? Do you know how stars are made? Take a moment to turn off your flashlights or headlamps and experience the world with your other senses.

Nature crafts. Skip a trip to the craft store and let the rocks, sticks, and leaves in your yard or a nearby park provide the supplies. Ask your mini to collect leaves of different sizes and shapes. Lay a piece of paper over the leaves and hold it in place while they use crayons to color over the leaf and watch as the pattern of the leaf transfers onto the paper. Or, go on a pinecone gathering mission together and use paint to decorate the pinecones. Tie a string through the top of the pinecone for homemade holiday ornaments.


To learn more, contact the Program Manager in  your area:

Seattle: Devon Schoos,

Tacoma: RyAnn Peverly,

Olympia: Becky Nielsen,

This article originally appeared in our winter 2023 issue of Mountaineer magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our magazine archive