Children’s Nature Book Review:Tracks in the Snow, by Wong Hebert Yee

Book Review by: Susan Olcott

Tracks in the Snow, by Wong Hebert Yee

Topics – tracks, winter, snow


After we had exhausted ourselves skiing, sledding, and fort building, my girls and I spent the remainder of the first snow day looking at who else had been out playing atop the freshly fallen snow. In Tracks in the Snow, Wong Herbert Yee leads the reader out of a cozy house into the fields to discover who has left a set of mysterious tracks. With an inviting series of questions, Yee piques his readers’ curiosity. The little girl on the story makes both wonderful scientific observations about what animals would be there at that time of year and some wacky ones like, “maybe it’s a hippopotamus”, both of which make her seem real. As she follows the tracks through her field, she unknowingly encounters a series of animals tucked away in nests and burrows for the winter. It is as if they are watching her instead of the other way around. And, indeed, in the end, she discovers that it is her own tracks she has been following. The story has a lovely sense of completeness as Yee ends with her sitting at a table at home with her mom drinking tea. The fuzzy pencil illustrations add to both its frosty and cozy qualities. The repetition and rhyme throughout also heighten the sense as a reader of walking along in the snow. Along with the others in his seasonal series, “Who Likes Rain, Summer Days and Nights and My Autumn Book, Tracks in the Snow captures a child’s enchantment with the signs of the seasons.

Suggested Ages – This story is great for early readers who can find repeated, simple words and will enjoy the short phrases. Younger children will like the rhyme and can imagine making their own tracks along with the narrator of the story.

Invitation to Nature-Based Play: Snow Kitchen


The Snow Kitchen was an instant success and provided my boys with endless scenarios of imaginative play”

Towards the end of summer, we posted an invitation that described how you might make an outdoor Mud Kitchen for messy, but fulfilling, nature based play. Recently I was giving some thought to repurposing this mud kitchen into a Snow Kitchen. The homemade cooktop, all of the pots, pans and utensils, the various dishes and muffin tins could be reused. The water and mud would be replaced with endless amounts of snow. To sweeten this kitchen experience, and to add a couple of new touches, I gave my sons spray bottles filled with colored water and a few more ice gems (see previous post: Snow Gems).

The Snow Kitchen, just like the mud kitchen, was an instant success and provided my boys with endless scenarios of imaginative play, rich vocabulary, and (fleeting but appreciated) moments of cooperative play.

They made a dozen snow muffins, a variety of snow cakes (formed by compacting snow in a potato ricer), bowls of snow ice cream (using an ice cream scoop), trays of snow cubes, and mugs of snow cocoa, all decorated with the red and blue water sprayed on top.

This time the boys realized that the space below the cooktop could be used as an oven to bake the snow creations.

IMG_1390Once all of their goodies were made, they opened a Snow Café and served their Dad snow drinks and snow snacks.

IMG_1429This was so much fun that we all forgot how cold is was outside (at least, for a little while). Happy Nature-Based Snow Playing!

Invitation by: Laura Grunze-Franz

Invitation to Nature-Based Play: Snow Gems

Invitation by: Laura Grunze-Franz


There are days when getting the boys out into the snow and cold is very difficult. The difficulty does not lie in the fact that it is cold and snowy, but in their desire to stay in the cozy, warm house. However, they can be easily coaxed out. Ice Gems are one way to coax them out…

All you need are ice cube trays, food coloring, and water. If you want to add a teachable science moment, use only primary (red, yellow and blue) colors and show your kids how to mix them to make other colors. My young boys think color mixing is rather magical.


Just mix the food color into the water, pour the colors into the different ice cube molds, and freeze. Make as many different colored ice cubes as you want. We made two trays full. I set the ice trays outside to freeze the water, just to avoid any color spill “mishaps” in my freezer. Once they are frozen, let the kids take them to the snow and play with them as they see fit.


We did an ice gem search in the snow. My youngest boy made a little cave for his gems and stored them in there. We let ours sit out for days until they melted and turn the snow many pretty colors. This is just a little invitation to add even more fun to nature’s wonderful playground of snow.  Happy ice gem hunting!


Top 10 Tips for Celebrating Winter Solstice With Your Family…

We at Nature Families think it is really fun to create Nature-Based Family Traditions with your families and friends that reoccur with the seasons every year.  These traditions are something that keep childhood exciting and magical.  Winter Solstice is a perfect opportunity to create an alternative to the Christmas obsessions with items and materialism.  Consider reconnecting with you family on the solstice by spending time together instead of rushing around buying things for each other!  Here our our top ten ideas for fun activities to celebrate the solstice.  If you have other ideas you have tried with your family please share!  Lets keep this list growing and add to our traditions from year to year!  Happy Solstice!

blowing out wish garden

1.  Wish Gardens, the child writes their goals/wishes for the coming year on a small pieces of paper. They then bury (plant) the wishes in soil and then decorate their garden with rocks, little bits of shell, glitter, anything found in nature. Place tea candles on the top of the wishes and light, have the child remember what their wishes were as they blow out the candles. As the smoke rises, so too do their wishes.

2.  Build Pine cones encrusted with peanut butter and bird seed, and orange slices hung in the trees for the Chickadee’s and Flickers.

bird oranges

3.  Faceted Crystal hung to catch the sun and bring back the colors.


4.  At sunset on Solstice toast in the “return of the Sun”, ring bells, and light candles and lanterns.


5.  Cut a pomegranate to represent the seeds of coming spring.

6.  Hide a golden foiled chocolate orange to represent the Sun, break and share on Solstice.

7.  Prepare a Solstice Feast! The food can be shaped like the sun or the color of the sun. Talk about how all the food in the feast is connected to our Sun.

butternut squash

8.  Read a solstice story:  Here are a few great choices…

Fireside Stories: Tales for a Winter’s Eve” by Caitlin Matthews and Helen Cann

My Mama Earth” by Susan B. Katz and Illustrated by Melissa Launay

The Winter Solstice” by Ellen Jackson and Jan Davey Ellis

9. Make a fire outside and roast marshmallows and sing songs…or consider making a fire inside with led tea lights and blocks…a real fire outside is better, but not when it’s 40 degrees and raining!

10.  Construct lanterns out of old milk jugs or soda jugs, glue thin pieces of crate paper on the outside for a stained glass effect.  Use a dowel or stick as a handle and connect it with a string.  Use a battery operated tea light inside.  After dark have a parade of lanterns around her yard or neighborhood!  Maybe your family solstice tradition can bring cheer to your community as well as your family!

Happy Winter Solstice From Nature Families!



Art and Nature Project: Simple Any Time of Year Ice Suncatchers

–A Simple Project submitted by our Art and Nature Specialist: Janimarie DeRose

DSC05065Here is a fun idea you can do in the winter or use the freezer in the warmer months.  This activity can stimulate the senses and creates a beautiful, ephemeral end-product.  This activity can be fun with kids of all ages, is free, gets kids outside, takes very little planning, isn’t very messy and is just a lot of fun!

My daughters and I created some “ice tree sun-catchers” during a deep mid-January freeze.  It was a fun activity getting us out of the house to gather some rose hips, old sunflower heads, dried berries, and any little bits of nature’s finery we could spy.

After the outdoor collections we brought our bounty inside and carefully arranged them on plastic plates, though a tin pie plate or any container that can hold a shallow amount of water would work.  We also put a loop of string through the composition of natural materials, weighting it down with cones or heavier berries, with a large loop intended to stay out of the water/ice. This loop later becomes the hanger for the ice ornament.


We also had fun experimenting with food coloring…one drop goes a long way!

DSC05104  DSC05120

We transferred the plates to the sub-freezing temps outside and filled them with a shallow covering of water.  If it is warm you can just put the plates in your freezer.

The next day we gently popped the ice out of the plates and hung our suncatchers.  The suncatchers were beautiful!

Inquiry Extension:  In summer it might be fun to hypothesis with kids how fast these would melt if you hung them in sun vs. shade or if you added different materials.  This could make the perfect foundation for a simple inquiry project where the students raise the questions and test their ideas.

Group Extension:  Corie Scribner, one of our other nature families writers, did this activity in winter with her kindergarten class and they hung them in a grove of trees and had a beautiful winter solstice celebration.

Literacy Connection:  The wonderful children’s book The Mitten written by Jan Brett shows pictures of these ice suncatchers in her illustrations.  This is a very common book that could be borrowed at  your local library for free.  It might be fun to read this book with your children when you do this project!

There are so many creative extensions that could be made with this project-have fun!Let us know if you try this activity and how it works for you!

char suncatcher suncatcher

“Over and Under the Snow”: Discovering the Subnivean Zone

Lesson Created and Written by: Janimarie Lester DeRose

over and under the snowRecently, my preschool age daughter was given the book Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner  with illustrations by Christopher Silas Neal.  This book explores the subnivean zone or the space between the snow and the earth during the winter’s long months.  We decided to share this wonderful book with her preschool class.


Reading the Story

We introduced the lesson by sharing a winter animal home cake.  My daughter had a wonderful time tucking the little plastic frog down into the mud for winter hibernation, creating a pretzel beaver lodge, hiding a snowshoe hare under an ice cream cone tree etc.

DSC05187The other children loved dissecting the cake and at the end of the lesson eating it!


The Final Cake

We then read Over and Under the Snow and the students carved/drew their own subnivean zones into the sides of leather hard vases. (You could do this if you are a potter or you could easily have the students do this on tiles with a leather hard slip instead of vases.)  If the clay project is too much a simple drawing can be as impactful.  Or you could use scratch boards for added effect where they could scratch away what is under the snow.


Carving their vases…

For our project the students simply used a ball point pen to carve through a white slip surface.  They drew a line depicting the surface of the snow near the top of the vase and applied a blue glaze for the sky.  Then they carved animals under the snow on the rest of the slip.  The bare clay at the base of the vase was to represent the ground.  Later, I fired the vases with a clear glaze.  The students then took them home filled with pussy willows celebrating the coming spring!

DSC05222DSC05217 (2)DSC05213

As an outdoor component explore outside with your children looking for plunge holes where small animals dive into the snow.  On a warmish winter day head outside to see the tunnels left behind as the snow around them melts.  This is a delightful activity with children of all ages!


Finding melted subnivean tunnels on a warm winter day…


“Growing Paperwhites”: A Winter Nature Journal Project

Project Created and Written by: Janimarie Lester DeRose


Using watercolor to capture the Paperwhites in the nature journal.

A few years ago I spent two winters in interior Alaska. For several months of deepest winter we had only four hours of a dusky-rose sky, and the rest of our days and nights were spent living by reflected starlight on the snow. I desperately missed growing green life. It was during this time that I developed a tradition of growing Paper Whites or Narcissus, and recording their growth through a watercolor field journal.


“Hope for a Bloom”

This is a perfect antidote to the long colorless scapes that fill our winter months, and a great activity to get your young ones and yourself to really observe the changes in growth carefully. Drawing what you observe, measuring the height with a ruler, and watering the living plant every few days really drives home the amazing metamorphosis taking place!

red pw

Full Bloom

Narcissus are a common bulb that you can find at most garden stores during the winter months. These flowers amazingly grow in even a small amount of sunlight, as long as you keep them amply supplied with water.

Place the bulbs in a small pot with only rocks and water for the roots to cling to.


Growing the Bulbs

The water should be kept at the base of the roots where they emerge from the bulb and no higher. If the water touches the bulb too much it will begin to decompose.

You will need to check the water every few days and more when they start to grow.

Give them a good two weeks in a sunny window (or a bit longer if you live with little light) before you will start seeing growth.

As they grow, measure, and sketch the plant at different stages of their growth and development.


A page from the author’s nature journal

Enjoy the process and have fun adding some life to your winter days!

full bloom (2)

The flowers in bloom!

Let the Light Shine

-An Essay for the first day of winter by: Susan Olcott

Here is an excerpt from a blog I wrote five winters ago entitled, “Winter is Hard, Heavy and Slow.”

“In winter, the lightness of being is literally taken away, as you realize when you try to move in all of this gear and feel a bit like you’ve donned one of those Sumo wrestler suits you can put on at a carnival. The spontaneity of things goes away, as you can’t pop in and out of doors with the fluidity of warmer seasons’ constant temperature. There is no grabbing a pair of flip-flops in winter and heading out the door. The physical heft of winter can make you feel the heaviness of daily life in ways that summer frees you from, allowing you to shake off things easily.  Add to that the long, dark afternoons when your Vitamin D levels are critically low and you feel shortchanged by the day length.”

Five years have since passed and I now am the Mother of twin girls who will turn four this January.  While winter is still certainly hard, heavy and slow (often even more so now with juggling boots, snowsuits, mismatched mittens and clumpy socks), my girls have literally shined their light into the dark afternoons.

For most of the year, they are asleep when it is dark, but in winter it is a special treat to go out for walks in the quiet darkness.  We bundle up and bring glow sticks or flashlights.  This time of year, we look at Christmas lights, but other times we search for the moon and the night’s first stars.  These “moon walks” have become a winter tradition for us and have made me look forward to the darkness rather than dread it.  They see such beauty at night, posing poetic questions about the sky like, “I could stick my finger out and poke a hole in the sky to make a star” and, “I think the moon is sleeping under a blanket of clouds.”  How could I not be eager to welcome winter’s darkness with them when these experiences are so rich?  We have recorded these experiences and images through poetry and stories.  Here is an example of a simple book we wrote together about the sky and about our moonwalks.(copy) A new book  If you are interested in this activity, you can download a free app called Book Creator and make books like these with your kids. But, most importantly, get outside on these long, dark afternoons with your children and make it an adventure.  It will bring lightness into your winter.


The author’s daughters playing on the ice on one of their many winter moon walks.