How do I manage COVID winter in Chicago with my toddler?
December 2, 2020 4:44 PM   Subscribe

Cold weather is coming. How do I entertain a toddler when the regular options are out?

My wife and I have a 2-year-old kid and live in Chicago in an apartment. During the summer and fall, being able to go hiking/doing outdoor activities kept us busy and entertained.

It's getting too cold to take the kid to the park for extended periods of time and Chicago winters are brutal. We aren't comfortable seeing friends indoors at this point (multiple family members/friends sick with COVID) so that's out the window. Kid is crazy active and doesnt really focus on screens or Zoom activities -- just wants to climb, throw stuff and do physical activity. I'm taking care of the kid during the day and working nights and need activities for daytime hours and weekends that get us out of the house and are as safe as possible.

I'm from outside the midwest and navigating cold winters with kids is a new thing in general. What are our options so we're not going stir crazy trapped in an apartment for the next 3 months?
posted by huskerdont to Human Relations (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I raised a kid in the Chicago suburbs and I had a rug that emulated cars, and also a Roaring dinosaur toy, and a big old bed where he would jump, claiming he was king of the world (from Titanic, which he had to watch all the time). His blanket was his cape.

I spent a lot of time in floor play with him. You could also make forts, like under the dining room table. I know it's hard with a little one like that, they love to jump and play. You just have to get down on the floor and play hard with them, and maybe let them jump on the bed before bathtime and bedtime and read a ton of stories afterward.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 4:52 PM on December 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

It's getting too cold to take the kid to the park for extended periods of time and Chicago winters are brutal.
Honestly, I think you need warmer clothes. If you're not from someplace that cold, you might not realize how very much you can do in super cold weather outside. You *all* need warmer clothes, not just the little one. You can't just buy slightly heavier versions of what you have now but need a whole new strategy.

Iditarod racer Blair Braverman had a whole tweet thread about this today.

You might be able to find some guides about this in your local paper, but I really urge you not to give up on that outdoor time. It's so important, and you'll feel a lot better during dark, cold winters if you prepare for it and get the right clothes so you can still be outside.
posted by bluedaisy at 5:00 PM on December 2, 2020 [40 favorites]

If you search for “indoor gross motor activities for toddlers” you’ll get a bunch of lists with easy, smart activities I would never have thought of on my own. Here’s a great example.

In Northern California, some indoor play places have switched to doing private play with an hour for airing out and cleaning between families. It can be pricey but worth seeing if there are options in your area, even if it’s only once or twice a month for a special treat.

A lot of super active kids will calm down (for short periods) for good sensory experiences. Look into things like play dough, homemade or purchased sensory bins, process art especially messy projects, etc. Happy Toddler Playtime has great ideas and Fantastic Fun and Learning has a good roundup. Good luck - parenting a toddler in a pandemic is enough work without adding bad weather! Hang in there!
posted by bananacabana at 5:08 PM on December 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'm in Toronto where I think it's a bit milder but I also lived in Winnipeg for a couple of years/winters where it is colder. There's nothing preventing you all from going outside even when the weather is brutal, you just need to dress for it. You'll want to pick activities where you're moving too - so you can't just sit on a bench watching the kid play, you'll want to play along to keep warm. But dress warmly and let your kid be active outside and you'll enjoy winter, or at least tolerate it a bit better.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 5:12 PM on December 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

I live near you in IL and I had my 3.5 yo outside for 2.5 hours this morning and 1.5 hr this afternoon. If you want tips on dressing toddlers (or grownups!) properly for these environs feel free to memail me!

That said: intellectual stimulation can sub in for physical exertion. I keep a store of odd bits to give out for 'new' experiences regularly. We don't want to shower kiddo with endless new gifts but a box of nuts and bolts or a deck of cards can entertain for hours if dribbled out judiciously. We started using dominos as a construction toy at 2ish but at 3 ish we can play dominoes-keep your eye out for these 2-in-1 type opportunities. Finger paints, washable paints, stamp kits, coins, dice, etc. It's all about novelty and creativity and basically holding out so you have something cool to show off on a rainy day.

If you have the cash or can find one used, the Learning Tower will allow the kid to engage with you in the kitchen and other types of crafting, really cool and useful in terms of enrichment/education/helping me get stuff done whilst wrangling a toddler.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:23 PM on December 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

1. Definitely invest in warmer clothing and expand your permissible playing-outside-temperature.

2. A mini trampoline! We bought our daughter one last Christmas when she was just a bit over two and it was a godsend in the first months of lockdown. Be sure to get one with a bar to hang on to.

3. Make cookies, put icing in Ziplocs with a corner snipped off, and decorate them. Expect mess.

4. Family dance party. Helps if you are willing to really let loose with ridiculous moves.

5. Get some hand puppets. On whiny days when we are chopped liver our daughter will readily follow directions from her hedgehog puppet. Hedgehog brushes her teeth, Hedgehog congratulates her on getting dressed, Hedgehog asks to play outside, Hedgehog wants to read books, etc.
posted by The Librarian at 5:43 PM on December 2, 2020 [5 favorites]

Hi! I put my kid in outdoor school in Chicago I'm from decidedly a non winter state. Now, it's not truely outside, they do take some indoor breaks (with the windows open) and have a little area thats like a barn they get to retreat to. But in general, she's spending tons of time outdoors.

So with hand-holding and patience from teacher and staff, my bundle of joy is now a very bundled joy.

First off, underlayers! The school is very very much into natural things, so wool is recommended but honestly were using synthetics because 70 for a t shirt pant set is to much . We bought from landsend when they had a sale for sub 10 a set for synthetics , it was a monster print and our child loves it. She also wears them to bed. We also have underlayers from the heat tech brand at uniqlo. She prefers the landsend ones though .

We really like the primary cozy leggings for regular wear and sweaters, heavier tops from wherever. We picked up a couple snowsuits from the thrift store while we were figuring things out, ultimately we settled with a suit from Reima (Sorry can't link atm, but url is It was expensive, but it's price to pay for sanity and lots of outdoor time. We are also very impressed with their mittens.

We put a hat under the hood, and she wears a mask outdoors anyway. Socks and boots. And outdoors she goes!

Basics layers, (synthetic or wool not cotton or anything that will absorb moisture) regular clothes, snowsuit, gloves, hat, boots. Good socks.

Anyway, you can do this if you want to! Good luck.
posted by AlexiaSky at 6:53 PM on December 2, 2020 [3 favorites]

You might look into classes offered online by Chicago-based Old Town School of Folk Music, particularly Wiggleworms. They also have some dance classes for adults.
posted by amtho at 7:48 PM on December 2, 2020

Make room in your living room for a climbing frame...that helps a lot. A couple bean bags for crashing. Get a rody bouncy toy they can ride around the house. Trampoline and. Bosu ball also good. My kids have sensory movement seeking issues and these strategies helped a lot in their younger years. Also the Thomas train set never got old.

But seconding the warmer clothes. I even got myself more winter gear in the last few years and it makes a big difference.
posted by pairofshades at 9:30 PM on December 2, 2020

We had a thread here about dressing your toddlers for the cold not too long ago, I think. But yeah, there is (almost) no such thing as too cold, just insufficient clothing. Like when it's actually single digits, it may not be worth it. But bundle up, layer up, go build snowmen and climb snowbanks etc.
posted by stevis23 at 5:13 AM on December 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

It's kind of annoying because for all that the winters are brutal, Chicago doesn't get very many of the picturesque snows a lot of people might picture when they imagine a cold winter. It's less building snowmen and more freezing rain that blows sideways into your face.

That said I agree with upping your warm-clothing game and continuing to do winter park time when it's dry enough (or during our rare actual snowfalls).

Not knowing your situation re: car/yard, I offer the following which may or may not be possible:

-If you have an outdoor space, get a small tent. Doesn't have to be camping-grade, maybe just a children's play tent from IKEA or such. If you can put it on a deck or a tarp to keep it dry, all the better. You can set it up as a little "warming zone" and fill it with blankets for quick cocoa breaks or just a break out of the wind.

-If you have no outdoor space but Do have a car, I'd say get a super portable tent and bring it to one of the big parks. You could do a few hours of "play camp" when it's not too awful out. Some parks allow use of firepits or grills if you want to build a little fire and roast marshmallows, but you'll have to check online to see which ones.

-Invest in a really really good couple of thermoses, like maybe a Yeti if you can. Hot beverages for everyone is the watchword of winter 2020. You want something that won't become a sad quart of cold coffee/cocoa you have to keep dragging along while you're hiking the North Branch of the Chicago River. (Which, consider hiking the North Branch! It's very lovely even now that the leaves have mostly gone.)
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 7:56 AM on December 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

Oh! And while it's still the holidays, if you can get to new neighborhoods safely, consider wandering around to look at holiday lights. Wandering the Sauganash/Edgebrook neighborhoods, looking for the three-story tree, is one of my fondest memories of growing up in Chicago.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 8:00 AM on December 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'm a lifelong Minnesotan with a crazy active kid that just turned 3, and bundling up small children in layers and snowsuits and boots and getting them to keep their mittens on is my personal nightmare fuel, TBH. I do it anyway but I hate it. Here are my small-space indoor play sanity-savers.

- Sit and Spin
- Bilibo
- Play tunnel from IKEA, they scrunch down to nothing and you can velcro a few of them together
- Bean bag chair that he can jump off the couch and crash land on
- Friends in small apartments have gotten something like this for their toddlers
- Putting "The Floor is Lava" on the TV and building a course with couch cushions, foam blocks, and whatever else is lying around will keep him occupied for quite awhile
- A big truck or similar that he will run around pushing for hours
- One of those big road rugs and a bunch of toy cars, for some reason pushing them around the track is like a full-contact sport
- A small disco light for indoor dance parties (I got this for my dance-loving 7yo originally but turns out my toddler is far more obsessed with it)
- The mini trampoline is worth its weight in gold
- We do have a yard but at the onset of winter, I bring in any outdoor toys that the house can reasonably contain (an oversized ball, his little slide)
- I take him to the basement with me when I do laundry or change the cat litter and he runs wind sprints around the furnace and hot water heater (basement is crappy and unfinished and off-limits at all other times so this is a rare treat that is BIG FUN)

Good luck. Hang in there.
posted by anderjen at 8:37 AM on December 3, 2020

That is all great advice. I would also say, if you don’t have an already established routine this is a really great time to start one. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, just put in wake up time, meal times, bedtime, quiet time and active time.

That doesn’t mean you must have every second accounted for. It just means that you can tell your kid, now it’s time for outdoor active time, let’s get dressed for outdoors! (Or indoor active time or rest time or whatever.) I mention this only because my survival as a mom depended on developing a routine. But I grew up without siblings, had no friends with children, and really did not understand until my kid was older than two that we really really needed a routine. Don’t be like me. Even young children can understand the concepts of quiet time and active time and meal time. And get your kid to start helping you clean up now. It’s not too early. Also, what is fun for some little kids is getting soaked by helping “wash” dishes, for example. I put a bin with soapy water on a tolerant floor with a few indestructible dishes in it for my grandkids and they go to town.

It sounds like you are working really really hard to be a good parent while also working and doing the million other things that parents have to do. You are not alone. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 9:25 AM on December 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

Do you have room for a Pikler triangle? Plus or minus a slide/ladder board? They are hours of endless entertainment for climbing and swinging and fort building and pretend play.
posted by stillmoving at 11:43 AM on December 3, 2020

Warm feet and hands make a huge difference, so make sure you and the child have well-insulated boots that are easy on-off, plus the other layers.
Find outdoors spaces that aren't crowded, if at all possible, even parking garages, which have views, or a big parking lot with mounds of snow. Obv. not during the plowing process.
The Library has audio books of all sorts for kids, and might have cool project stuff; they are so great at resources. Get dressed up, go out for 40 minutes, come in, do it all again later in the day. Getting dressed seems to take forever, and it feels kind of weird and repetitive, but it gets faster because kiddo gets better at it. Have a good routine for where wet mittens and stuff go, and have spares of that stuff. For a child, getting good at dressing and undressing is a useful thing; they are learning even if you are frustrated.

My son's 1st child care provider was excellent, and *always* took kids, even 4 infants-to-toddlers, outside. Kept it up with my son, who loves the outdoors. I am happy that we gave him this.
posted by theora55 at 1:28 PM on December 3, 2020

Hard agree on still taking a child outside in the cold in Chicago. The only way I didn't lose my mind with a very active 2-year-old NOT during a pandemic was going outside every. single. day. We got a membership to the local zoo and went literally every day during the week -- because the zoo shovels its paths every day regardless, because the lions are not amused if you tell them "sorry, too much snow, not gonna feed you." Don't know how close you are to Lincoln Park Zoo, but hey! it's free! (Although during Covid you need a reservation to keep density low.) Anyway this is how I learned to identify which rhino was which by tiny differences in their faces and ears. :P

Even if you're limited to taking neighborhood walks, you can add a lot of interest to those walks by doing scavenger hunts -- finding or counting things, taking photos, collecting pinecones, whatever. My kids and I will "adopt" a tree or a stump or something, and look at how it changes every day. (Depending on your child's interest in coloring, you can keep a "journal" of your tree and draw pictures of it, and you can write down what your kiddo notices. "Two birds in my tree today" or "icicles on my tree today" or whatever.)

It has to be polar vortex, instant-frostbite cold for me to keep toddlers indoors in Chicago winters.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:24 PM on December 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'm probably going to get something like this doorway ring and swing set for my three year old niece. My sister is a single parent in Washington where rain is much more an issue than cold.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:46 PM on December 4, 2020

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