Indigenous peoples have a lot to teach us about enjoying the winter.
It is a cold December day. A delicate layer of frost edges the corner of each window and mounds of snow smooth over bushes and trees. Birds are huddled under eaves, fluffing their feathers, reminding us that winter is well and truly here. There is a crispness and freshness to the air that you just can’t find during any other season.
You would like to see your kids outdoors and active on such a fine winter’s day, but how do you entice them?
Who better to borrow ideas from than the indigenous peoples who have long lived in the coldest regions of Canada? The Athabascans, for instance, introduced the “quinzhee” to the world. Derived from the word “khnézhii”, a quinzhee is a sturdy shelter made of snow. Variations on quinzhees have been used as survival shelters in many northern countries.
But, nowadays, quinzhees have a less serious use too. For kids, a quinzhee is simply a snow fort by another name. Fun and easy to build, a quinzhee is a great place for kids to hang out, play games, and even camp (with adult company.)
For more winter fun, why not teach your children some traditional native games? The Inuit, for example, developed a whole series of exciting and challenging games that can be played outside. During the long northern winter when the sun hung low or disappeared all together, the Inuit played games in order to hone hunting skills, develop balance and test strength. These games also helped to pass the time during raging blizzards and severe cold. As my kids and I have discovered, the Inuit games – some for individuals, some for groups – are also just plain fun.
So, try out some of these activities below with your kids this winter and enjoy the season.
Building a Quinzhee
Kids will need your help with this activity to ensure that the quinzhee is sturdy enough. Make sure everyone wears snow pants and an insulated jacket with a hood; this can be cold and wet work!
When enough snow has accumulated on the ground, (20 cm or about 8 inches), dig out the recycling containers and find several shovels. You and the kids are going to build a quinzhee.
Fill the recycling bins with snow and haul them over to a central location. Begin mounding snow up as high as you can (a big pile about two metres high (5 to 6 feet high) and four metres (12 feet) across is ideal). Make sure your pile slopes gently. Use a shovel to smooth the sides into a symmetrical dome shape.
Now, let the mound rest overnight or for a minimum of three hours! This will give the snow crystals time to coalesce (bind) and stabilize the shelter.
After the pile has settled, find about a dozen sticks 30 cm (12 inches) long and push them into the mound so that one end is at the surface and the other end is pressed deep into the mound. Shove the sticks straight in, like pins into a pin cushion. There should be a stick every metre or so, covering the entire surface of the quinzhee.
Next, begin hollowing out the mound. Start near the ground on the side of the mound that’s away from the wind. Create an entrance by digging down and in with a scoop-shaped shovel. As you dig, the kids can haul snow away. Scoop out the sides and the ceiling of the quinzhee and continue hauling snow away. If you reach a stick, you’ve dug far enough. The sticks are there to ensure that the walls are even and have a consistent thickness.
When the quinzhee is sufficiently hollowed out, use a larger stick (12 cm or six inches in diameter) or your fist to poke three or four holes through to the outside (one overhead, the rest along the sides). These holes will serve as ventilation, helping to bring fresh air inside.
The quinzhee is now ready for whatever games your children have in mind. If you are up for a real adventure, try camping in the quinzhee. Insulate the bottom of the quinzhee with a tarp and sleeping pads. Use warm blankets and sleeping bags. If you are well dressed and if there is enough insulation above and below you, you and your children can spend a cozy and unforgettable night in a snow fort of your own creation.
A word of caution. Don’t let young kids sleep overnight unsupervised in the shelter. While a well built quinzhee can hold the weight of a dozen or more adults, there is always a chance the structure could collapse, especially if the weather warms up. If the temperature is consistently above zero, make sure you collapse the quinzhee yourself, so there is no danger of this happening on top of your children. As a general rule, always keep an eye on your children playing in and around the quinzhee, just to make sure they are safe and well.
Playing Inuit Games
Because of the sheer variety of games developed by the Inuit, every child is guaranteed to find something they are good at. All of these games can be played outside (or inside if the weather is too inclement).
Knee Jump: Each child kneels in the snow, feet flat along the ground. On a given signal, he/she jumps as far as possible, landing on both feet! Jumps of close to three metres have been recorded.
Kicking Games: Essential to traditional kicking games is a “seal” – the object that is kicked. It can be made out of a stuffed sock, a small role of paper, or anything else that can be suspended from a rope. Throw the seal over a low-lying limb of a tree, so that its height can be adjusted. In any kicking game, start low and gradually move the seal upwards as children become more adept at kicking the seal.
Perhaps the most popular of all the kicking games is the “one foot high kick.” The child approaches the seal at a trot and jumps as high as possible, taking off on both feet. While in the air, he attempts to kick the seal with one foot and land on the same foot. Landing on two feet constitutes a “no jump.” For a successful jump, the child has to touch the seal. Inuit hunters could kick well over two and half metres (eight feet) in height!
Or try the “two foot” variation of the same game. The child must jump with both feet together and kick the seal. Once again, to be successful, she must land on one foot. The highest jump wins.
Bench Reach: Find a bench and set it outside. The child kneels on the edge of a bench with someone holding onto his feet, providing a counter weight so the bench doesn’t flip over. Give the child a small wooden block – a piece of 2 x 4, 12 cm (six inches) long will do nicely. The child reaches out with the block in both hands and places it on the ground as far as possible. The block should remain vertical, on its end. The trick for the child is to not touch the ground with his hands (it’s harder than you think!). The next child reaches out to grab the block and tries to place it even further out. The longest reach wins!
Games for Two
Toe Tag: An ideal way to warm frosty toes. Two opponents face each other with hands behind their back. Each child tries to be the first to touch the opponent’s toes with her toes.
Butt Bump. Opponents stand back-to-back, about 20 cm (or eight inches) apart. At a given signal, each uses their butt to try to unbalance the opponent. The first person to shift their feet loses.
Iglagunerk: This is a traditional Inuit laughing game. Kids pair up and face their partner while holding hands. At a given signal, each child begins to laugh loudly. A designated judge declares which pair has laughed both the hardest and longest. People have been known to accidentally release their bladders because they have been laughing so hard!
Muk Muk. A group of a dozen or so kids sit down in a circle, facing in. They bend their knees and place their feet flat on floor about 20 cm (six to eight inches) in front of them. There should be space under their legs. Each child scoots forward and towards each other until their knees are touching and a tunnel is formed under their legs all the way around the circle. Hands are placed on the outside of each knee (adjacent to their neighbour’s hand).
Another child stands in the centre of the circle. At a given signal, the kids in the circle begin passing a large mitt (the seal) along the “tunnel” while slapping their hands rhythmically on the ground. No-one in the circle knows where the seal is until it’s in his hand. The child in the middle of the circle tries to discover and point out who has the seal. Draping jackets over the knees (to hide the gaps between the knees) makes this game even more challenging.
Keep the seal moving quickly and unpredictably. If the child in the middle correctly guesses who has the seal, the two trade places. If the child in the middle chooses incorrectly, the game continues.
Meanwhile, the kids in the circle wait for the moment when the child in the middle is facing away from the person who has the seal. When that moment comes, the child with the seal rapidly withdraws it from under her knees and smacks the bottom (not too hard please) of the child in the middle. If she does this quickly and smoothly enough, the child in the middle will have no idea who provided the “smack.” This is a wonderful game that generates hearty peels of laughter.
There are literally dozens of challenging Inuit games to keep the blood circulating and the toes warm this winter, even on the coldest days. To find out more, search “Arctic Games” or “Inuit Games” on the Internet.