outdoor leisure

The Best Outdoor Toys for Winter, According to Experts

Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photos: Retailers

We’ve talked to dozens of toy experts, parents, and child-development specialists over the years, and they’ve all emphasized how important it is to get kids outside to play. But when the temperature drops and it’s dark in the late afternoon, getting outside can be a lot more challenging. If you live in a snowy climate or tend to have a lot of frigid or rainy days, cold-weather-friendly outdoor toys can help keep kids busy and maintain familial sanity. As a former resident of the Northeast, where winter weather can last for months and snow days aren’t uncommon, I spent nearly a decade of winters playing outdoors with my son and trying out different toys. Our favorites made it actually enjoyable to go out and play, even in extra-chilly conditions — so I set out to find all the best outdoor toys for winter by talking to toy experts, a day-care owner, and plenty of parents. Read on for their advice, and for my own personal recommendations, below.

I bought these snowball-makers a few winters ago in preparation for a blizzard in the forecast. They are ridiculously easy to use, opening up like a pair of scissors so that you can scoop up snow, squeeze the snowball-maker shut, and form a perfectly round snowball in seconds. It’s easy to build a stockpile of launchable spheres (and other shapes, including a heart and a duck) fast — all you need is good packing snow.

Made completely of foam, this lightweight disc glides effortlessly across water, snow, and ice and is a good toy to have on hand year-round. The simple, unsuspecting disc comes recommended by Toy Association content developer Jennifer Lynch, who says kids can use their imagination to invent their own games with it, or use it “like a jumbo hockey puck” or “to create your own version of curling.”

Few winter activities are more exhilarating than zipping down a snow-covered hill on a sled. According to Vox Media senior engineering manager and dad to an 8-year-old and 13-year-old Ryan Freebern, the L.L.Bean Sonic Snow Tube is the best sled for the job. “Sturdiness was definitely our number one concern,” and while his family’s Sonic Snow Tubes show a little wear after two seasons of use, “it’s nothing like [what happens to] the cheap sleds,” Freebern says. Constructed with an extra-durable plastic bottom and a fabric cover over an inflatable rubber inner tube, the sled can handle years’ worth of rides without falling apart. Available in two sizes, regular and extra-large, it works for solo or multiple riders.

Compatible with both sand and snow, the Create-a-Castle is uniquely designed to make building a snowy estate easier. “Unlike traditional molds, which you must carefully flip for the big reveal, Create-a-Castle features split molds so you can simply load them up with snow and pull them open,” Lynch explains, likening the process to using a spring mold while baking a cake. And because it also works for sand, you can use it as a beach toy once the snow is long gone. (For a simpler, more affordable version of this toy, the brand also sells a starter kit that includes a brick-patterned tower and two building tools.)

Kind of like a giant unpoppable soap bubble, the Wubble Ball is “a great go-to” for indoors or out, according to Mary Couzin, founder and CEO of People of Play. The squishy, inflatable ball is 30 inches in diameter once it’s fully blown up, and lightweight like a balloon, but more flexible and fluid in shape — plus this Groovy Glow edition glows in the dark. It’d be perfect for a quick game of “Keepy Uppy” in the snow.

Though it may not seem like an obvious winter toy, Lynch points out that Tonka Trucks are classic toys that can be used both indoors and outdoors, and all year long. One of her favorites is the Tonka 1968 Commemorative Dump Truck, because it’s easy for kids “to load it up with snow, haul, and then tilt to dump,” Lynch tells us. The truck’s metal construction is durable and can handle outdoor play, while the extra-large wheels are rugged enough to roll over icy snow.

Whether they’re building an igloo, prepping snowballs, or just want to dig a big hole, “something as simple as a digger can turn into hours of fun for kids outside,” Couzin tells us. Just make sure they have a good pair of mittens or gloves to keep their fingers warm while they get to work.

Myllicent Felder, founder of the outdoor nature-based day-care program Sidney Ridge Nature Playschool, says these colorful silk streamers are a hit with her young charges all year, but “we especially love using them in the winter as they encourage gross motor movement, and keep bodies warm.” The delightfully minimalistic toy allows kids to engage in open-ended play, which fosters imagination and creativity.

There’s always lots of cool stuff to see outside, even in the winter when there’s slush all over the place and the trees are bare. Felder, who likes to take her toddler troupe on bird-watching adventures, recommends these kid-friendly binoculars because “they don’t take a lot of adjustment to actually see things,” allowing kids to simply pick them up and take in the wonders of the natural world.

A layer of freshly fallen snow is like a blank canvas, and Felder likes breaking out this plant-based food coloring for kids to use as their palette. She found it while searching “for something safe for both the inevitable eaten snow and the environment,” and suggests using a muffin tin to separate the colors and mix them with water — then, just hand the kids some paintbrushes and let them go wild. You can also fill squeeze bottles with the food coloring and water, and write or draw by squirting the colors into the snow.

A shrunken shovel is great for little hands that are eager to dig into snow piles or help their parents clear the driveway. Kathy Caballero, a mom to 6-year-old and 2-year-old daughters, says her kids use shovels to gather snow for building and to “discover what was buried underneath.” This set of two has thick plastic scoops and handles that are screwed onto the sturdy wooden shaft, making them durable enough to last for more than one winter.

A few parents we talked to said one of their winter play solutions is to simply bundle their kids up and let them ride their scooters and bikes (as long as the sidewalks aren’t too treacherous). These 7AM Enfant scooter muffs can extend a five-minute ride into an hour or more of hanging out outdoors. They boast a temperature rating of -4 degrees Fahrenheit/-20 degrees Celsius, and conveniently fasten around scooter handlebars so kids can just shove their hands in and go. Plus, they come in a dozen stylish designs.

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The Best Outdoor Toys for Winter, According to Experts