For many Iowans, no two words have a sweeter ring than “snow day.” It’s like a magic spell, a free pass to skip school, a whole glorious day of recess.
When schools offered online classes during the pandemic, folks worried if the snow day’s days were numbered. But not so fast: “We still have snow days around here,” Des Moines Public Schools spokesman Phil Roeder told us. “Now that school is all back in person, it’s not so easy to switch everything online with the relatively short notice we usually get for a snow day.”
Ha! So take that, technology!
Not to rub it in or anything, but we recently enlisted technology to enhance the time-honored tradition — at least while it lasts. We asked ChatGPT to come up with some snow day suggestions.
“Of course!” the chatbot replied. “Here’s a last-minute snow day itinerary for a family with children in Des Moines.”
All of the following suggestions were written by an artificially intelligent helper — except the ones in blue, which came from real live humans.
Start the day by playing in the snow in your own backyard. Build snowmen, have a snowball fight or create snow angels.
Warm up with hot chocolate and a hearty breakfast. Pancakes, waffles or a hot oatmeal are great options.
Bundle up and visit the Blank Park Zoo, which is open year-round. It’s a unique experience to see some of the animals in the winter. Check the zoo’s website for any special winter programs or animal enrichment activities.
Speaking of the zoo … a decade of facility improvements have expanded options for visitors even in the winter. “You can see giraffes, rhinos, Aldabra tortoises and many more cold-intolerant animals all year,” said Ryan Bickel, the zoo’s chief marketing officer. He recommended the indoor Discovery Center, where you can see birds, red pandas and all sorts of sea creatures in the 15,000-gallon saltwater aquarium.
Bickel noted that crowds are lighter in the winter, except “on that rare 50-plus-degree day,” and the animals act differently than they do in the summer. “They’ll be more interested in you,” he said. “The great cats will stalk you.”
Head to a local cafe or restaurant for a cozy lunch. Des Moines has many family-friendly places to enjoy a warm meal, including Fong’s Pizza, Jethro’s BBQ and Ted’s Coney Island, a Des Moines staple for generations.
Explore the Science Center of Iowa, the State Historical Museum of Iowa or the Brenton Skating Plaza.
Spend some quality family time creating winter-themed arts and crafts. You can make snowflake decorations, homemade holiday cards, or other DIY projects.
Speaking of DIY projects … you can fill squirt bottles with watered-down paint and then head outside to paint the snow, according to Ashlen Sheaffer, who directs programs and events for the Des Moines Children’s Museum in Valley West Mall.
She also recommends freezing paint or even food-colored water. Then you can paint with the frozen chunks as they melt. And if it’s been awhile since you’ve cut out paper snowflakes, check out YouTube, where crafty experts take things to the next level.
Enjoy a home-cooked dinner together. You can prepare a comforting winter meal or even have a DIY pizza-making session.
End the day with a family game night. Play board games or card games, or engage in fun and interactive activities.
Speaking of games … few folks around town know more about games than Tony Tandeski and Annelise Tarnowski, who co-own the Rook Room, which organizes pop-up game nights and special events while they’re raising funds to build a brick-and-mortar board-game bar and cafe.
They recommended several store-bought games that are fun for all ages: Catch the Moon, Happy Salmon, Kingdomino, Quelf, Sushi Go and, of course, the absurdly named Taco Cat Goat Cheese Pizza.
They also recommended a simple game called “Pig,” which you can play with a standard deck of cards (just Google “Pig card game” for instructions) and a homemade version of Telestrations, which requires nothing more than some pens, pencils and scratch paper. As Tandeski put it, “It’s like the game of Telephone but with drawing and a lot more miscommunication.”
For details about the Rook Room’s recommended games — store-bought and homemade — read below.
Family game night? Try these eight recommendations from the experts
Few folks around town know more about games than Tony Tandeski and Annelise Tarnowski, who co-own the Rook Room, which organizes pop-up game nights and special events while they’re raising funds to build a brick-and-mortar board-game bar and cafe.
When we recently asked them to recommend a few of their favorite games for families with kids, they suggested several store-bought games, plus a couple more — Pig and Pass It On — that you can play with materials you probably already have at home. Here are their tips, in their own words:
This is a fun, card-based game where you earn points by collecting matching sets of sushi pieces. It’s super quick and easy to learn, can fit into a pocket for easy portability and features very cute artwork. (Each piece of sushi has a little smiling face.) It’s fun for any age and the whole family.
Players: 2-5, or up to 8 with the expanded version, Sushi Go Party.
Why we like it: It’s easy to learn, fast and colorful with just enough strategy to have us coming back for more. Plus, it always makes us hungry for sushi!
This is like a game of dominoes, but you get to create your own kingdom surrounding your castle. You take turns picking and laying sections of land representing farm fields, forests, water, mines, swamps and pastures. The better you can connect similar types of land, the more points you’ll get. The rules are simple, so it only takes about five minutes to learn and just 15-20 minutes to play, so you can play over and over again. Plus, there are alternative ways to play, with or without the expansion, so it’s like having several different games in the same box.
Why we like it: It’s strategic, and we love creating different kingdoms every time we play. With all the variations, we can keep playing and never get bored.
This is for families that don’t mind getting a little silly. Players move characters around the game board while attempting to follow absurd instructions on cards that you pick up along the way. The cards may tell you to do the chicken dance, answer a crazy question, talk in a goofy voice, or something else. The rule book is only two pages, so it’s simple and straightforward. Most games last about an hour, but time flies. Younger kids may need help reading the cards, but besides that, anyone can play, laugh and enjoy.
Why we like it: It’s easy to learn so you can start playing almost immediately. The real fun here is in the hilarious memories you make as everyone gets a little weird and goofy around the table.
Taco Cat Goat Cheese Pizza
Here’s another game that can fit in your pocket while also fitting any sized crowd, and it takes less than two minutes to learn. It’s a matching-card, hand-slapping game where you try to get rid of the cards in your hand, like Slapjack. But what really makes this game shine are the special action cards (in the original base game, there’s a gorilla, narwhal and groundhog) that tell you to perform a silly action (like beating your chest like an ape). Once the game really gets going, this can turn into a hilarious mismatch of players doing all sorts of crazy things in a hurry.
Why we like it: You can take it anywhere and play wherever you are, and it’s quick, so it can fill any available time. The real fun comes with the challenge of keeping up with the actions. We’ve had to pause for laughing breaks many times.
If you like Taco Cat Goat Cheese Pizza, you’ll love Happy Salmon. Again, it takes all of two minutes to learn, so you can get right into the action. As in the other game, you want to get rid of your cards, but to do so you have to match cards with another player. The fun happens when you make the match, because then you have to perform the action on the card (like a high-five).
Why we like it: It’s super quick to learn, almost quicker to play and perfectly frenetic and chaotic… A little hilarity is almost guaranteed when players start yelling, high-fiving and fist-bumping at the same time. Super fun chaos.
Catch the Moon
We should throw a dexterity game in here, and this one is perfect. You stack tiny ladders as high as you can to “catch the moon.” Lay ladders flat, hook the rungs, prop them against each other — whatever you can to make sure you don’t topple the stack. It takes less than five minutes to learn and takes about 20 minutes to play. Plus, it’s different every time.
Reasons we like it: It’s like a more serene Jenga, without the scary clatter of falling blocks. It’s a simple game with just enough of a story and theme to hook us. The combo of strategy, planning and dexterity makes us keep playing again and again, hoping to stack things even higher.
Here’s a fun one for all ages that you can play with a standard deck of cards. The goal is simple: Be the first to collect four of a kind. Each player starts with four cards in their hand. The rest of the deck is divided up into piles between each player. When the game begins, players discard unwanted cards to the pile on their right and then pick up cards from the pile on their left. This occurs simultaneously, without waiting for turns; you just discard and pick up the cards as quickly as you can. Once a player collects four matching cards, they quietly place a finger on their nose. When another player notices, they do the same. The last player to do so loses that round and gets a letter, starting with “P” and eventually “I” and “G.” The players keep starting new rounds until someone loses three times and spells out “PIG.” You can stop there or continue eliminating players until a single winner remains.
Reasons we like it: It’s the perfect amount of chaos without a ton of noise (for parents who prefer to keep things at a dull roar). It’s mostly luck, so anyone can win at any time. Besides, you probably already have a deck of cards around the house somewhere.
Pass It On
This is like the store-bought game Telestrations, but all you need is a couple of pens, pencils and some notebooks or pieces of paper. First, players write down some random words and phrases on pieces of scratch paper. Next, each player draws a word or phrase from the pile and then secretly illustrates it in a notebook or on the top sheet of a stack of paper. When they’re done, they pass the notebook/stack to the right (and receive one from the person on the left). Then they try to interpret what the drawing is, write down their best guess on the next sheet of the notebook/stack and pass it once more to the right. The next person draws what the previous person wrote down. This process continues — writing, drawing, writing, drawing — until the notebook/stack returns to where it started. Then each player unveils the illustrations and clues to see how closely they stuck to the original or, more often, how far they veered off track. It’s like the old game of Telephone but with drawing and a lot more miscommunication.
Players: At least 6.
Reasons we like it: It’s always good for a laugh, and you can play almost anywhere with simple, readily available materials.