Outdoor play and nature exploration aren't just for the temperate months. The benefits of experiencing the great outdoors are just as important -and just as fun - during these cold days when many families are much more inclined to hunker down and hibernate.
"All the studies out there talk about how children's connection with nature fosters creativity," said Eriks Janelsins, director of Oglebay Institute's Schrader Environmental Education Center in Wheeling. Playing outdoors also helps combat childhood obesity and improves mental ability, not to mention its positive impact on family relationships, he said.
And cold weather play might even have more of an impact, especially alongside an adult.
Horses of all shapes and sizes move along a trail at Faith Ranch near Jewett. The ranch offers horseback riding and other outdoor activities year-round.
"It's more of an experience," he said, citing the preparation involved - "I mean, it's like a six-hour process just to get dressed." Sharing the chilling experience of building a snowman, shoveling or hiking, and then sipping hot chocolate afterwards - "It makes it feel special," Janelsins said.
There is more to do outside in the winter than families might realize. Sledding, snowman-building and snowball fights are fun, as are downhill and crosscountry skiing and ice skating.
But, thinking outside the icebox brings to mind other outdoor pursuits, including but not limited to horseback riding, hiking, and bird watching.
At Faith Ranch outside Jewett, the 4,000-plus acres truly are a winter wonderland.
"There's quite a few things people can do," said Dottie Nagy, director of guest services at the working farm owned by Bill and Phyllis Wiley.
"Our public riding stables is open year-round - even in December, even in January," she said. "The landscape is beautiful; it doesn't matter what time of year you are here. Even when the hills are snow-covered, it's just breathtaking."
The ranch offers visitors the option of a short, 30-minute trail ride in the winter; and, when the wind is blowing fiercely on the hilltops or open spaces, the guides lead the horses down through the ravines for a more enjoyable trip, Nagy said.
Becky Cailis of St. Clairsville said she and seven other family members and friends eschewed the shopping malls on Black Friday and instead enjoyed a relaxing and refreshing cold-weather trail ride at Faith Ranch.
"It makes you reflect on how difficult it was to be out in the elements. You think: 'This is how they used to get around!' I mean, we complain about our cars being cold!" Cailis said.
Following a chilly trip down the trail at Faith Ranch, guests can hang out in the main ranchhouse playing games or just warming up in front of the large fireplace. Outdoor bonfires also are an option.
The ranch's resident animals are always happy to meet new friends, Nagy said. There are the horses - of every shape and size from Shetland ponies to draft horses - plus dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, cattle and sheep.
If guests work up an appetite on the trail, the staff can whip up a homecooked meal for groups of 10 or more - breakfast, lunch or dinner.
The horses, Nagy said, are kept in the pasture, so they naturally keep trails blazed through the snow. The only time riding is not available is on Mondays - the horses' day of rest - and if the snow is "incredibly deep" or there's a lot of ice on top, Nagy said. Winter riding hours are 1-5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and Sunday; and 9-5 p.m. Saturday. and the office is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Sledding and hiking also are available at the ranch. Other than meals and horseback riding, all activities are free and open to the public.
Oglebay Stables in Wheeling also is open year-round with guided trail rides available as long as there's no ice covering the trails, said Jeanette Gue, stables operator.
"I personally love to ride when it's snowy out - kind of when it's snowy and warmer, like in the 30s. When it gets down to 10, I kind of stay inside," she said. "The horses don't mind. They love the cold weather, much more than people do."
The indoor arena also is open for riding, she added. It isn't heated, but it cuts down on the wind. The stables are open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and closed on Monday.
Janelsins said winter also is a great time for nature hiking.
"Things sound different in the wintertime, the crunching of the snow under your feet," he said. Families can discover tracks of deer, raccoons and even the dogs people have taken for walks through the woods.
"This is the best time of year to start looking at birds," Janelsisn added. There are fewer birds, and the species are easier to differentiate with the leaves off the trees. Equip the kids with binoculars and carry a Peterson Field Guide to help identify birds.
Even maintaining a bird feeder in the back yard is a fun family activity, Janelsins said, and it is an environmentally friendly thing to do. Birds need people to provide food for their survival this time of year, he said.
A crucial element to enjoying a wintry excursion is, of course, to dress appropriately.
Said Nagy: "As much as people get excited about (horseback) riding, if they're cold, five or 10 minutes into it they're going to forget the fun. So, it's just extremely important to come prepared."
Matt Leary, hard lines manager at Cabela's in Triadelphia, said the first rule of dressing for the winter weather is to wear a moisture-wicking fabric next to the skin. This fabric could be made of polyester, silk or wool. Cotton is not a good choice because it tends to hold moisture. It's important to keep the skin dry, he said, because moist skin loses heat 24 times faster than dry skin.
On feet, he recommends insulated footwear with a good wicking sock. A heavy sock is OK, he said, as long as the boot is roomy enough to accommodate it.
"If your foot is squeezed it can cut off the circulation."
Yak Traks are metal studs that slip over boots, providing traction when hiking in the snow and ice. "They work outstanding," Leary said.
A hat will keep heat from escaping through the top of the head. "A stocking hat or toboggan is essential," he said.
When taking kids out for extended periods of time, parents should consider buying inexpensive charcoal warmer packs to put inside their gloves to keep little fingers from getting frostbitten, he added.