Fun & Free Cabin-Fever Busters

12 entertaining ways to beat the winter doldrums today.

  • iStockphoto

    Don't Let Winter Get You Down

    Thanks a lot, January. The whole family—and it suddenly seems like there are a dozen of you—is stuck indoors, holiday bills are due, you're sporting an extra five pounds, and was that the sound of the water heater getting ready to give up the ghost? But don't say "blahs" yet, not when these quick pick-me-ups can give you a lift in seconds. And don't worry about that battered budget: most all of these ingenious suggestions are free.

  • Corbis Photography/ Veer

    C'mon, Twist and Shout

    One thing Ellen Mahurin, the mom of a 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son, can count on in wintertime Yorktown, Virginia, is the cold. And the dark. "Sometimes I get a case of the blahs and I just sit around in our apartment all day watching movies with the kids. It can be enjoyable but come dinnertime and bedtime, the kids still have a lot of pent-up energy," she says. A happy solution: Dancing! "We clear the floor and turn on the MP3s," Mahurin says. "We use a broom to do the limbo. Everyone enjoys the Isley Brothers' 'Shout.' We do the twist and the moonwalk and ring-around-the-rosy. Just half an hour makes a big difference in everyone's mood." And the cost? Free.

    Bethany Alley Tomkins, a married student from Knoxville, Tennessee, who has a 2-year-old son, uses Grooveshark, a free music-download club, to find oldies but goodies to dance to. "If I haven't bothered with my morning workout, I can bop around while picking up toys or cleaning the kitchen," she says. "If my son is awake, a beat from Duran Duran or Cyndi Lauper is just the thing to keep the energy and spirits high for the both of us."

  • PhotoAlto/Veer

    Spice It Up

    Stews and meatier dishes are natural winter fare, since our bodies respond to low-light and temperature cues with a biological craving for denser nutrition, says Paula Pavelka, a registered nurse and certified health counselor in Palo Alto, California. "You should just go with that inclination to eat more substantial, hot foods than you might in the warm months."

    Still, your choices don't need to involve super-high calories or bland flavors. Get creative! One option that will perk up your mood and your taste buds is mango chili: Substitute frozen mango chunks or cut pieces of fresh, firm mango (not completely ripe) for about half the diced tomatoes in your favorite recipe, and garnish with more chopped mango or store-bought mango salsa. It's yum with a kick!

  • Getty Images

    Plan a Family Getaway

    Just because you can't hop a plane right this minute doesn't mean you can't be thinking about it—and plotting. Philadelphia-based professional organizer (spacetospare.com) Deb Lillard started getting the whole family involved in planning vacations a couple of years ago. They collect ideas in the winter for a warmer-weather getaway.

    "We need something to look forward to much sooner than a week in the faraway summer, so we also plan a weekend away in early March," says Lillard, whose children are now 14, 11, and 8. "The boys like to find out what we can do at certain locations; one son always tries to work in something to do with sports. And my daughter's been the one to investigate the hotel possibilities since she was 12."

    The anticipation helps make current wintry conditions seem temporary, says Lillard, and the kids learn about travel budgets. Plus, they come up with some great ideas. "My son wanted to go see Chris Angel, a magician in Vegas. By the time we'd worked together to get a cheap flight for a weekend, we figured we could also see the Grand Canyon, and it turned into a 10-day vacation."

  • Image Source/ Veer

    Get a Sugar Boost (the Right Way)

    The dark makes our bodies crave sugar in the colder months, which can pack on pounds and also create a "sugar-high, sugar-low" cycle. But you don't have to give in completely. "I work for myself, by myself, so it's easy to get down when you can't really get out," says Tennessee art director Alice Quarles Webb, who has a young daughter." If I have a chocolate craving I eat lowfat chocolate pudding or lowfat chocolate milk. That usually does the trick."

    Health counselor Paula Pavelka doesn't expect anyone to forgo sugar altogether. "But if you can, in the winter months eat more things that are naturally sweet," she says. One such dish is roasted root vegetables, which Pavelka makes by cubing sweet potatoes, carrots, onions, and beets, tossing them with about a tablespoon of olive oil, and salting, then roasting on a baking sheet in a preheated 400°F oven. "Check them after 20 minutes, then take them out when they're nice and brown," she says. "I'm not suggesting that a carrot is going to replace a pint of ice cream, but if you eat this natural sweet goodness, maybe instead of eating the whole pint, you'll have only half."

  • Veer Images

    Employ Play-Space Creativity

    Squint a little and you'll see that even cramped quarters offer spaces to play indoors, even when you don't own a Wii. "My 23-month-old relishes a daytime splash in a warm bath when the weather's too yucky to get outdoor time," says Motherboard Mom Tomkins. "I bring in all the bath toys and tub crayons and indulge him (and me, for a good laugh) in shampoo Mohawks. The bathroom ceases to be a splash-free zone for that 10 or 15 minutes, which is a fun way to burn off some energy. A towel warmed in the dryer makes for a good wind-down, and a subsequent nap is almost always guaranteed."

    Another good indoor game: Sit at the kitchen table and blow through drinking straws at a feather, trying to be the first to blow the feather off your opponent's side of the table. Or, using only your arms and hands, see how long you can keep a balloon up in the air when you're not allowed to stand (cover any sharp-edged furniture, first).

  • Heather Weston

    Embrace Your Inner Polar Bear

    Instead of hunkering down, shake your fist at Old Man Winter. If you've got a fireplace, host a hibernation party, complete with sleeping bags and the household heat turned way, way down. Wear flip-flops and shorts to the mailbox, like a teenager—and sprint back into the house. Host a picnic in your tree house, even if it's raining. Your spirits will lift automatically because you're telling winter—and yourself—"You can't get the best of me."

  • Fancy Photography/Veer

    Play in the Cold

    Minnesota winters are something else (i.e., frigid and frosty), says personal life coach Jessie Schunk, but she still makes sure to play outdoors with her grandchildren: "In the winter, I see an escalation in anxiety and conflict because people have so much more time indoors together—and they don't get enough fresh air or exercise. It's really important to mental and spiritual health to focus on the light instead of the darkness, and bring fresh air into the day in whatever way you can."

    Schunk makes sure she and the grandkids walk, make snow angels, play in the snow, and slide down hills. "It's also nice just to open your mouth and catch snowflakes together," she says. If kids get bored easily in the cold outdoors, captivate them with some fun games. For the young set, freeze different colors of water in cubes and host an ice-cube hunt a la Easter eggs, with each color found corresponding to a coin or other little reward (for the second round, the kids can do the hiding for the adults). For a big crowd, try a tug-of-war (only in soft snow, naturally) or have a snowball battle with trash-can-lid shields.

  • Ocean Photography/Veer

    Get Dad Involved

    Fighting the winter blahs will go easier if the whole family's on board. Kids catch on quick (and we're not trying to stereotype guys, but if the shoe fits...) if Dad's on the couch napping while Mom is hustling them off to half-price day at the zoo. Plan activities Dad might think are fun, like bowling or teaching the kids to play cards.

  • iStockphoto

    Make 'Em Laugh

    Don't let your sense of humor become the first casualty of a long dark winter. The serotonin released when you laugh is what puts you in a good mood—the kids too. Funny movies and television shows are always a good idea, but even better is the kind of humor that sharpens your brain and encourages you to interact. Read some jokes from an old favorite like the All-New Clean Joke Book or act out some Mad Libs.

    Or just create some bound-to-be-funny traditions. Declare the first hour of Saturday "No means yes" time, for example, and see who remembers. Or play some quick rounds of Pictionary. Or do like Dinotopia author and illustrator James Gurney used to when his sons were middle-schoolers: demand that everyone speak entirely in one-syllable words.

  • iStockphoto

    Walk Off Temptations

    Beware of pretty catalogs on bleary winter days, warns organizer Deb Lillard, who is author of Absolutely Organized: A Mom's Guide to a No-Stress Schedule and Clutter-Free Home. "They're particularly dangerous in winter because you've got more hours in the house for browsing catalogs and you're more likely to buy." Aside from budgetary concerns, impulse purchases in dark months may lead to more household clutter, which leads to more lethargy. And, sadly, in the end "it doesn't make you feel better to buy a bunch of stuff," says Lillard.

    To start avoiding temptation today, put catalogs directly in the recycling and visit CatalogChoice.org to get off all the catalog mailing lists. And then turn the shopping impulse into a positive. Bundle up the family and go window-shopping at the mall or your nearby shopping center (leave all methods of payment at home!). If your mall doors open early for walkers, schedule your head-clearing trek before the shops open, like early on a Sunday.

  • iStockphoto

    Go on a Date

    You've probably figured out that you and your spouse or beau need rekindling time alone more, not less, in the winter months. Some Motherboard Moms tell us date night helps them better cope with cranky kids and being cooped up the rest of the time. And, of course, it might lead to sex, and that's a proven serotonin producer (that lovely chemical that produces better moods).

    Put date night on your calendar along with the other "must-haves" instead of leaving it to chance. Every couple of weeks is a good target to begin with; more often is better. If your kids are still young enough to require a babysitter, it should be simple to find another couple who will exchange child-watching duties on a regular basis.

  • Heather Weston

    Take a Hike!

    Even though Erin Perry's first inclination is to go to the movies or make a batch of cookies, getting out in nature does a lot more for a case of winter blues, she says. She lives in West Virginia, where temperatures can plummet to the lower depths, but she finds it's still best to bundle up daughter Jada, who's 3, and son Jaxon, 3 months, and go hiking on a local trail—maybe a mile or so—with Jaxon's father, Jason. "I resist, but once we're there, it's breathtaking—and everyone takes a really good nap when we get home," she says.