Backyard Science – When we think about science and young children we want to focus on topics that are relevant to their own life. Noticing the changes that happen during the four seasons is one of the most powerful topics. The idea behind ‘place based education’ is that children should be learning and interacting with this place that they live. When in the outdoor classroom it is often the unplanned teachable moments that are the most powerful learning time. We do NOT need to set up formal or long lessons but rather engage in dialogue, ask open ended questions, not rush to give answers but rather to encourage young children’s wonderings and self discoverings. If a question comes up don’t pull out your phone to figure out the right answer but instead acknowledge it as a great question and start “wondering” together with the children!
Books for Teaching about Winter – check out this blog post for lots of book ideas https://aprilsteachingtree.com/2017/11/15/childrens-books-for-winter-studies/
Bird calling – While outdoors notice the bird songs that you hear and try to figure out which bird is making the sound. Try using a bird call app to communicate with the birds while outside. Check out this awesome resource for learning more about bird songs when indoors – https://livingmontessorinow.com/free-bird-sounds-songs-and-rhymes-for-circle-time/
Bird feeders & Observing Local Birds – Want to attract more wildlife to your outdoor classroom this winter? Try adding a bird feeder and notice which local birds visit throughout the winter. Be strategic in where you place the feeder so children can also observe birds from a classroom window as well. Consider making a “bird observation station” in the classroom by giving them a variety of bird identification books and pamphlets and child binoculars to explore. On warmer days you can take these tools outside in a basket to use as well…though children who are playing often scare off the birds. With bird feeders be mindful of when to put them out so you aren’t attracting bears. Learn more backyard bird watching and bird feeders at this link: https://vtfishandwildlife.com/watch-wildlife/bird-watching/backyard-birdfeeders
Catching & Observing Snowflakes – follow the instructions at my blog post for how to make these simple necklaces to help observing snowflakes easier. Read Snowflake Bentley! https://aprilsteachingtree.com/2017/01/19/snowflake-catching-necklaces/
Cloud Watching – Many children have not discovered the simple pleasures of lying down and gazing at the clouds. Read the book, “It Looked Like Spilt Milk”, and then look for shapes in the sky. Build your own background knowledge about clouds at this link – https://scienceexplorers.com/teaching-children-about-how-clouds-form/
Frost Line – Look around your play area on days there is frost and notice if you can find a ‘frost line’. Ask children “I wonder” questions about the frost and then model making your own observations: “I noticed that here is crystal looking frost but here there is wet grass. Hmm…I wonder why? As the sun shines the frost will melt but if other areas are still in the shade the frost will remain. Bring children’s awareness to this phenomenon and mark with sticks to show where the line is when you first get outside and then an hour later.
Frozen Bubbles – Bring out bubble solution and try making bubbles on very cold days. With COVID we do NOT want children spreading germs by blowing on one another but perhaps this is one that the teachers might save for another year or do just with their immediate family at home?
Maple Sap & Syrup – Explore how we get maple sap from trees and boil it into sap. Take a field trip to a maple sugar house and eat sugar on snow!
Mitten Test ~ Insulation (indoor activity) This is a great ideas to prove the point to children that the type of mittens matter when playing in the snow. Years ago at a parent open house I had the water table set up with snow that was melting and various kinds of mittens and gloves. Parents and children were asked to play together at the snow bins and we had conversations about insulation, cold, and wet ~ which mittens felt best. It drove home the point that we need kids with waterproof gloves…though we still did see some kids show up with only knit ones!
Pine Tree Exploration – walk around your area and look for all the different kinds of evergreen trees. Take note of the shape of the tree, what kinds of needles the tree, and find pine cones that have fallen from your trees.
- Can you notice different smells from the various types of pine boughs?
- Do the boughs feel different — spikey, soft, bendy, firm?
- What differences do you see in the needles? Length, color, size, number of needles in a group
- Can we find pine cones on the branches?
- Can we find pine cones on the ground?
Shadows – Look around your play area on sunny days and take note of the shadows.
Ask children “I wonder” questions about the shadows that you are noticing such as: “Over here there are shadows but in this area there are no shadows but lots of shade. I wonder why?” Taking photos of shadows helps children understand how the movement of the sun makes shadows change shape. Explore this same concept indoors with toys and flashlights! Read the book Guess Whose Shadow? by Stephen Swinburne to build on this concept. Also read the classic picture book Moonbear’s Shadow by Frank Asch.
Snow Drifts – Does snow drift in certain areas of your play area? If so, help the children notice what is happening and why. Can you place items in the path of the blowing snow and make designs?
Snowflake Bently The story of Snowflake Bentley really captures the attention of children and I think we should be inspired by his parents enthusiasm for him to follow his interests. Read more at my blog:
Snowman Snow – I can’t tell you how disappointed I was when I figured out that there were different kinds of snow and not all snow will allow you to make snowmen. Growing up in Delaware we really only had a few snowfalls a year and I remember always being able to make snowmen. Snow however can be either too wet or too dry to make snow. When children are eager to build snowmen and they can try reading the book, Snowballs by Lois Ehlert, and begin to put together your own ‘sack of special snowman items’ so when you do have the right kind of snow you can get right to work decorating them! “Scientists actually classify snow based on its moisture content—the amount of free water relative to ice crystals—not to be confused with the amount of water the snow would produce if melted. Snow comes in five categories:
- dry (zero percent water),
- moist (less than 3 percent),
- wet (3 to 8 percent),
- very wet (8 to 15 percent) and
- slush (more than 15 percent)
Build up your own snow knowledge with this link:
Snow Melt with tin pie plates – Super simple but oh so fun. Have children fill up tin pie pans with snow and then bring indoors. The shallow amount of snow will melt quickly.
Solid & Liquid Exploration – At the water table indoors explore this concept with snow, ice, and icicles. When outdoors look for more signs of solid and liquid water on your playground and take photographs!
Solid & Liquid Exploration with Ice Balls – Put water in a balloon and let it freeze solid (outside or in the freezer). Put water into another balloon and let the children compare and contrast. Ask open ended questions and elicit rich vocabulary as you explore this concept. Remove the balloons and compare – then take the ice balls outdoors to play with. *Balloons are a choking hazard so be sure to keep them out of reach of children.
S.T.E.M. Building Challenge – Think of all of the possible building challenges that you could have children create to foster their problem solving skills! These might be fun for your school age children to do in your after school program and will benefit the younger children during the day! Some ideas include:
“Stick Fort / Lean To Building”
“Snow Wall Construction”
“Snow Ball Catapult” – using just a board and a rock
“Build a Snow Bridge”
“Snow Bank Stair Steps” – carve in steps up a steep snow bank
Temperature – Exploring how temperature impacts our outdoor play is a great topic to learn about. Discuss – how does temperature affect the snow? How does temperature affect how we dress? Explore that even though it’s winter here in other parts of our country it is not as cold and in other parts of the world it is summer!
Thermometer – kindergarteners can learn how to read a color-coded thermometer as part of your weather exploration. See the thermometer clothing visual thermometer idea here – https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/What-Should-You-Wear-Today-Colored-Thermometer-with-Clothing-Visuals-2070631
Tools of Scientists – On warmer days, bring magnifying glasses and binoculars outdoors for children to make observations. Explore how one tool lets us see far away and the other lets us explore close up. Check out the idea of making a snowflake catching necklace with a magnifying glass- https://aprilsteachingtree.com/2017/01/19/snowflake-catching-necklaces/
“Tool Shop” Exploring Tools for Winter – In winter there are tools that children may not have explored before – ice scraper, snow brush, snow shovels of different sizes, snowball maker, ice molds, and snow brick makers. Set up an outdoor “Tool Shop” and encourage the kids to explore how to use the tools. Extend the learning indoors and explore the many tools children use in our classroom: hole punch, scissors, paper punch, magnifying glass, funnel, measuring cup, markers & pencils, rulers — the list is endless. Read an informational book such as “Tool” by Ann Morris to explore the concept of tools, how many different tools exist, and how tools are used around the world. I also love to read the book, “Tool Box” by Anne and Harlow Rockwell to talk about the tools of a carpenter.
Animal Tracks in the Snow – Fresh snow makes it really easy to see who has been visiting our play area. Look for animal tracks, make predictions, try to follow the tracks, take photos and try to identify using a track book or track printable. Free printable at this link and some other resources that could be fun https://explorationamerica.com/free-printable-animal-tracks-explorer-id-cards/
Kid Tracks with Sticks – Create your own tracks and try dragging sticks to make a path for another group of children to follow. Read the book, “The Snowy Day” by Ezra Jack Keats and notice the tracks the boy makes with his feet and with the stick.
Water in Snow? – Give each kiddo a cup to fill with snow to bring inside afterwards. Ask them what they think will happen to the snow. Observe what happens to the snow after they bring it in. Involve the children in discussing the changes and have them dictate a sentence or story to you about your ‘experiment’. Take photos and create a class book!
Weather Observer – Build children’s understanding of various winter weather and build their vocabulary of weather terms. Collect and record daily weather on a monthly calendar that you bring outdoors. Create a simple symbol to represent each type of weather and perhaps record the temperature at a specific time of day. It would be great to compare the fall to winter and talk about the differences.
Wind Watchers – Help children become more aware of the wind by hanging windsocks that the children made as well as hanging wind chimes on the playground. These two tools help children both see and hear when the wind blows. Can we figure out which direction the wind is coming from today? Read the book “The Wind Blew” by Pat Hutchins.