Julie Mulkern and the other folks over at WinterKids couldn’t be more thrilled with the snowy start to this winter, especially after the dramatically snowless season Maine had last year.
Winter is Maine’s longest and most sedentary season, which only helps fuel the state’s still-rising rates of childhood obesity. Getting children outside to play in the snow can help combat the winter blahs and tear them away from their video games, computer screens and social media for a while.
“There’s about 30 percent of kids in Maine alone who are already obese when they enter kindergarten,” said Mulkern, executive director of WinterKids, an organization that promotes the development of healthy habits through outdoor winter activities. “It’s a huge problem, and one that many different groups, including WinterKids, are trying to tackle.”
Snow toys, from old-fashioned wooden sleds to plastic blocks for building snow forts, can be vehicles for luring children outside for some exercise and fun. Here’s a look at some of the hottest toys available this winter.
ROCKET LINKABLE SLED
L.L. Bean, $89
Scot Balentine, L.L. Bean’s senior developer for outdoor gear, says his team got the idea for this sled while watching how children play on sledding hills.
“One of the things you see kids trying to do is tie the sleds together, whether they’re snow tubes or inflatables or foam sleds,” he said.
The sleds link together using a durable rubber strap. Just how many sleds can be linked together and still go fast depends on the slope and snow pack, but Balentine says a typical chain could include at least four or five sleds.
The product has a molded seat and foot wells to make your ride on the sled train as comfortable as possible. Woo woo!
ZIPFY FREESTYLE MINI-LUGE SLED
This feet-first sled has won a slew of “best of” awards from retailers, parents’ groups and media. It comes in eight colors, and is designed for children ages 5 and up. The sled has a center control handle that looks something like a joystick, and you steer by leaning into turns.
It’s lightweight, which makes carrying it back up the hill for another run easy. You can watch a video of how it works at zipfy.com.
Paricon in South Paris makes a lot more than the sled it is best known for, the famous Flexible Flyer. The company still makes old-fashioned wooden sleds with runners, but also manufactures plastic, foam and inflatable sleds.
Tom Morton, whose family founded the company, says that today the biggest seller is “Winter Lightning,” a simple 48-inch plastic sled that sends you down the hill fast, even on fluffy snow, at an affordable price.
SNO SMASH INFLATABLE AIR BOARD
Why not root for your favorite team while flying down the sledding hill? This inflatable air board can be ordered with the New England Patriots logo. Sports logos are also available for the Sno Smash Inflatable Tube ($29.99).
SNOW SCREAMER AND SKELRIDER FOAM SLEDS
Kids love foam sleds because they are lightweight and soft, and work well on packed powder. A foam sled is more expensive than a simple plastic sled, Tom Morton notes, “but it gives you a nice ride, and kids love the graphics.”
Paricon is testing some new designs and shapes for its foam sleds and expects to release new models next winter.
SONIC SNOW TUBE
L.L. Bean, $109
(Some styles, including this camouflage pattern, were recently on sale for $89.99.)
Scot Balentine, L.L. Bean’s senior developer for outdoor gear, said the company decided some time ago not to make certain plastic and foam snow toys because of their impact on the environment and their lack of durability. The Sonic Snow Tube is more expensive, he said, but it will last longer and will continue to give families a good time over multiple runs.
The tubes “also tend to be probably the fastest sled that we have,” Balentine said. “They tend to follow the contours, so if you’re, say, at the golf course at a local sledding hill, they’re going to follow the downhill fast. They’re not super maneuverable unless you drag a foot or something, but they give you the fastest ride over a wide variety of snow surfaces. They have tremendous flotation.”
Balentine jokes that he knows firsthand that snow tubes are also more gentle on baby boomer bodies.
“As an older parent and somebody who tests all this stuff,” he said, “now that I’m in my 50s, the snow tube is definitely the way to go. Even if you go over a jump at my tender old age, you can still walk into work the next day.”
SNOW CASTLE/SNOWBALL MAKER SET
L.L. Bean, $24.99
Balentine admits he was skeptical when he first saw snowball makers. Any kid can make a snowball, right?
But he’s since found that being able to make a perfect snowball, or perfect blocks of snow for building, helps kids’ imaginations run wild.
“You can build a castle or you can build a rocket ship or you can build a fence around the yard,” he said.
Paricon also makes versions of these toys. The company’s snowball maker sells for $6.99, and its snow block maker is $4.99.
TUBBS SNOWFLAKE SNOWSHOES
$34.95 at tubbssnowshoes.com
How cute are these? Designed for 3- to 6-year-olds (up to 50 pounds), they come with a sticker pack so kids can customize their snowshoes.
L.L. Bean, $139 Classic, $169 Long, $109 Small
New this year, the Dash sled is an update on the classic hardwood sled with thick steel runners that slice through the snow. A pivot steering system flexes the front end for precise turns and good control. It’s handmade in Canada for kids ages 6 and up.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: