Family life

Snow forts: Play it safe

After a recent tragedy, Susan Goldberg's family places a new emphasis on safety when playing outdoors.

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Photo: iStockphoto

Thunder Bay, Ont. writer Susan Goldberg is a transplanted Torontonian and one of two mothers to two boys. Follow along as she shares her family’s experiences.

So, just in case you’ve been on the West Coast or in Florida (hi, Dad!) or, say, Fiji for the past four months, I wanted to let you know that it’s been cold around here. Like, really cold. Like we’ve set a new record for coldness: one miserable day when it was -52° with the windchill. Our pipes have frozen. Our car hates to start even when it’s been plugged in. There was the day when the seatbelt buckles—not to mention the door to the gas tank, or, for that matter, the gasoline pump itself—froze, so we couldn’t go anywhere, which didn’t matter because at that point no one wanted to leave the house, anyway.

One consequence of all this weather is that the kids haven’t had much opportunity to play outside. The school cancels outdoor recess once the temperature goes below -17°. These days, that’s pretty much every day. Rowan and Isaac come home from school with, to put it mildly, plenty of energy to burn and not necessarily a whole lot of space inside to burn it off. So whenever it does warm up enough to go outside, we’re definitely encouraging as much outdoor play as possible.

Read more: 50 essential winter activities >

Two Fridays ago, it warmed up a bit, and so, of course, the powers that be saw fit to dump a foot and a half of snow onto Thunder Bay. The city called a snow day, and (once I wrapped my head around the idea of a three-day weekend with children to entertain) we all ventured outside in snowpants and shovels to play and dig out.

While Rachel and I shovelled, Isaac busied himself with carving out a fort from one of the huge snowbanks near our front walkway. He ended up creating a snug little hidey-hole for himself—a perfect place for a six-year-old with any sense of magic and wonder about the world.

And he made me and Rachel just a little bit worried.

In the past several weeks, two nine-year-old boys—one in Winnipeg, the other in Orangeville—have died after being pulled out from underneath snowbanks. Both kids were outside playing in their own backyards when tragedy struck: a fort or a tunnel collapsed, and they couldn’t get out in time.

And that’s what I kept thinking about as my six-year-old tunnelled further into his fort, tossed a bit more snow out of the way to make it bigger.

That’s not what I wanted to think about. What I wanted to do was to enjoy Isaac’s enjoyment of the snow. Frankly, I wanted to crawl right into the fort with him, maybe have some hot chocolate. I mean, if life hands you snow—mountains and mountains of snow—it seems only rational, if not downright appropriate, to make a fort. And yet, I kept picturing the roof collapsing on him, what would happen if we didn’t get there in time…

Still, I’m not prepared to tell him that he can’t tunnel through the snow. For now, we’re emphasizing safety: we’ve told him to enter his fort feetfirst, rather than head first. We’re going to shore up the inside walls by spraying them with water so they’ll freeze.

We’ve carved out another exit in the top of his fort, and we watch him from the front door when he’s in it.

Read more: 7 ways to keep your family active this winter >

But the truth of the matter is that we can’t watch him all the time. Should we? I hate the idea that now even snowbanks might be off-limits for kids. I mean, the vast majority of the time, children play in snowbanks and emerge, red cheeked and delighted, to tell the tale. Two deaths, as tragic as they are, don’t make a trend.

But that doesn’t mean I’ll be able to relax completely while my kid plays in his fort.

How do you feel about kids and snow forts? Tweet me @mamanongrata.