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Great Gardening by Sally Cunningham: Playing outside on cold, winter days brings warm memories

I have heard many Western New Yorkers, age 55-plus, say this is like the winters of their childhoods. They tell of playing outside in the snow, sledding, skating and Mom’s hot chocolate. Nobody remembers how terrible it was or how cold they were.

Now everyone seems to be complaining. Were people back then tougher? Maybe they just didn’t know any better. Or maybe we – and our connection to nature and weather – have simply changed.

The other morning I walked with my dog in the woods, the thermometer reading minus 2, and I wasn’t cold. In fact, I overheated because I was dressed right – not a pretty picture – in an old Woolrich wool-lined jacket over thermal underwear, a turtleneck and sweater, my great new snow pants, men’s ski gloves, heavy boy boots from Agway (warmer than most women’s boots) and, best of all, my winter Tilley hat with flaps over ears and forehead. I trudged mostly on top of dense, shrunken, iced-over drifts and remembered growing up in the snowy years.

Children do play differently now, compared with what we older folks used to do, except perhaps the few remaining truly country kids. Most children are nearly always supervised – at least if the family structure and income make that possible. Parents hover and protect, out of fear of human predators and physical risks. Children are kept busy with structured, organized activities, to prepare them for the future. What they’re missing: playing in the woods, alone.

If a parent did now what parents commonly did in the 1950s, they might be accused of child neglect or abuse. Younger parents, reading this, please try not to judge. My sister and I, and kids like us in Eden – and all the rural Edens out there – had responsible, loving parents. It was normal for them to tell us to “go out and play” until lunchtime or dinner. They usually did not know what we were doing for many hours, even in winter.

Here is how some of us played out there – some of it good, character-building and an education in nature. Some it was foolish and sometimes even dangerous.


While it’s still a familiar winter activity, sledding for country kids involved a lot more effort and risk compared with today’s sledders and ski-boarders on prepared slopes buffered by hay bales. As a little kid alone, going sledding meant climbing up our hill (that seemed big at the time) behind the house, dragging the wooden sled and then sliding down, over and over.

Later, my girlfriend Susan and I, with our little sisters, hiked some distance to a steep sledding hill on a neighboring farm. We flew down it on our aluminum saucers – no packed trails, no preinspection, no eye protection for us. There were thorny bramble and rose branches that scratched us, and trees and hidden stumps to avoid. We didn’t even know when we were tired or our toes were frozen or that our little sisters were beyond exhaustion. Nobody spoke of hypothermia or dehydration – no water bottles for us – but somehow we survived sledding.

Skating on the pond

Daddy tested whether the ice was thick enough by tying a rope about his waist – the other end tied to a post – and stomping out there, testing thickness with an ax. The neighborhood kids learned to skate by pushing yard chairs or snow shovels around. When the ice was thick enough, Dad used the lawn mower with snow blade to clear it. Our family was duly careful about pond safety. I know of many cases, then and now, when people haven’t been careful enough. Ice is often unpredictable, and ponds are not the place for unsupervised play.

In the woods

Much of my free time as a child and young adult was spent in the woods, with only my dog. I believe those times helped to form my imagination, connection with nature, appreciation of weather and some physical skills. I climbed trees (and fell sometimes), hiked and explored, and built forts or shelters out of tree branches. I also spent hours around a creek, and got wet often, breaking through the ice. Once I tried to slide down a steep bank, pushing a mini avalanche of snow ahead of myself, only to hit a fallen log and ricochet down to land on the frozen creek below. That was dangerous – kids do dumb things – but quite the physics lesson.

Am I advocating free play time for kids on their own, outside in the snowdrifts, creeks and hills? I know we can’t and won’t go back to that 1950s model. It’s great that parents today are much more safety conscious and protective. But I wish we could re-create the intimacy with trees and creeks and weather for everyone. I wish that kids and adults could experience more undirected, unsupervised hours, with nothing but imagination to guide them, and the woods or fields as a playground. It is so healthy to just “go outside and play.”

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.