Winter often gets a bad rap where I live! Because of the cooler temperatures and icy winds and frozen precipitation, most days children are restricted to indoor play. During the spring and summer, children have many opportunities to become familiar with their surroundings: often green lush plants; vivid, colourful flowers; and warm, sunny weather. If children are about to get outside and play during the change to a colder season, they will come to recognize different characteristics in their environment, such as the disappearance of some types of birds, dried leaves, frozen puddles, and icy paths. These changes provide children with new experiences and opportunities, such as learning about the seasons, life cycles and the changes in behaviour of living things. As outlined in a Montessori Academy’s newsletter (2017), it is especially important that children have opportunity for outdoor play in the winter “so as to see their environment through a different lens, and progress from being unconscious to conscious observers of their environment” (https://montessoriacademy.com.au/outdoor-play-in-winter/).
WHAT KIND OF LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES MIGHT ADULTS FACILITATE FOR AND WITH CHILDREN IN WINTER?
Playing outside in winter presents its own unique opportunities for exploration, discovery, and learning. Natural resources abound to facilitate the learning of concepts, skills, and scientific attitudes. In this article, I share some opportunities you can facilitate for children.
SNOW AS A MEDIUM FOR EXPLORATION AND DEVELOPMENT OF CONCEPT, SKILLS, AND SCIENTIFIC ATTITUDES
The snow falling is not only something that happens – it is a magical event to children! Often, children go to bed in one kind of a world and wake up to quite a different landscape. They become enchanted with this mystical change.
I recall how I, as a child, upon the first fall of snow would gaze at the sky with wonder as the snowflakes fell. It was like “magic” falling from the skies! The big wet flakes were truly a source of joy. Do you remember that, as well? I developed a sense of awe and wonder regarding the snow and to this day continue to hold on to that love. Fiona McLeod captured the wonder of snow well in her reflection:
“There is nothing in the world more beautiful than the forest clothed to its very hollow in snow. It is the still ecstasy of nature. Where in every spray, every blade of grass, every spire of reed, every intricacy of twig is clad in radiance “ (1855- 1905).
WINTER’S SECRET BEAUTY
Some of nature’s most exquisite handiwork, on a miniature scale, can be observed by examining a snowflake closely. Children need very little to enjoy the rich beauty of snowflakes – just an inexpensive magnifier, a light snowfall, a curious eye, and time to follow their interests.
Each snowflake is a source of wonder and has its own unique design. Snowflakes are crystals of pure ice: clear and colourless. The first medieval scientist to examine snowflakes was so astounded by their remarkable symmetry that he wondered if these ice crystals might even have souls! Libbrecht (2009) identifies that “Each snowflake looks like a tiny piece of carved glass” (p. 12). He further indicates that a snowflake is a fleeting mysterious work of nature’s art that has long fascinated humans. Libbrecht chronicles the creation of the simple snowflake noting that even today at the beginning of the 21st century, humans cannot fully explain how snowflakes are created. Their mystery remains unsolved.
With the first fall of snow children are always excited! I begin by asking children to observe the dancing snow, or snow-covered landscape for a few minutes, and then ask them to express a word that indicates how they feel about it. We make a word cloud with all their thoughts about snow. Then we go outside where I give them free reign to connect with snow. Some like to slide across it (testing friction), some like to make a snowball (testing for “packiness”), while others like to scoop it into a container to measure it. In time, they will discover that different types of snow will measure differently. These interactions with snow support children in developing scientific skills using qualitative and quantitative methods and amplifies their appreciation for the magic and beauty of their outdoor environments.
GETTING UP CLOSE WITH SNOWFLAKES
When the snow falls gently, I turn the children’s attention to closely observing individual snowflakes. Typically, children will begin by catching some on their tongue! What do they notice happens to the flakes on their tongue? Can they feel them? Taste them? What does a snowflake look like close-up? Here are some simple steps to help children observe.
Choose the screen to catch a snowflake: suggest that children use a finger of a glove, an arm of their jacket, a cold windshield on a car or a piece of cardboard covered with a dark cloth which has been cooled in a freezer.
Choose a visual aid: if available use an inexpensive, large hand-held magnifier for greater magnification. If not, children can simply use the naked eye
Guide children’s observation through questioning:
1. What do you notice about the snowflakes?
2. What shapes do you see? Do they remind you of anything you’ve seen before?
3. What patterns do you notice? Have you seen any of these before? If so, where?
4. How big are the flakes compared to something else you know?
5. Do you think the flakes are always the same size? What makes you think that?
STOPPING BY WOODS ON A SNOWY DAY
A walk to a nearby woods can be such a special happening. What opportunities for developmental growth and benefits of nature play can you imagine? You do not need to know a lot of science to engage children on such a walk. Let the children lead as curiosity can inspire exploration. What can children hear in the still of the snowy woods? Are scents and textures of plants different than in warmer weather?
Such a visit to a snowy woods, is a perfect opportunity to invite an Indigenous Elder to share experiences. I recall how an Elder enthralled a group of young children as we sat around in a circle in a snowy wooded area and she shared stories of how the woods, even in the winter, was of benefit to her grandma and her people. After her narrative, she safely lit a small fire and engaged children in roasting bannock on a stick.
Where animals have fed and what they eat can be discovered by studying animal droppings. While some adults may view these droppings/scat with disgust, many children are curious. Children take cues from adults; if the adult treats the scat as a source of evidence in helping solve the mystery of who visited the area, children will be more inclined to engage in observations. Scat can vary according to the season, and the appearance of the scat and its location can be clues in identifying the animal. For example, in the summer, moose and deer droppings can be soft and formless due to their consumption of large quantities of green food compared to in the winter where their droppings are woody due to eating fibrous foods.
MAKING TRACKS AND MODELS
Children learn about patterns by making their own track-way. Begin by suggesting children examine the bottom of their boot. How does it compare to another in their group? What do they think the print will look like in the snow? Test. In what way was it similar or different than they thought? Invite children to make their track-way as normal. What do they notice about it? Do the prints line up one after the other? Or do they alternate (introduce alternate)?
How does a change in gait (walking or running) or change in terrain (light snow versus deep snow) alter their track or trackway? Can the children find their distinct footprint amongst others? How do they know that it is their track?
In a group, discuss what a monster footprint might look like. Design and draw a pair of monster footprints on cardboard. Once children have them cut out, attach elastics to hold them on. Then in threes, have children test them. Two children hold the hands of the tester while the tester makes the tracks. As a small group, decide what gait pattern they will enact. Will it be linear or alternate? Does the large surface help to hold them up better than their own boot? What are the advantages and disadvantages of the larger sole? Through play and exploration, children learn about scientific concepts such as friction, surface area, animal behaviour, and patterning.
Outdoor play in winter provides children with opportunities to explore, experiment, heighten their curiosity, and gain new learning about seasons, landscapes, and gifts of nature. Whether children and adults are examining a grain of sand, veins on a leaf, animal tracks in the snow or the beauty of a snowflake—all it takes is time spent together in the great outdoors and an attitude of inquiry to make the world come alive with infinite possibilities for discovery, scientific investigations, sensory experiences, and imaginative play. Such experiences offer educational value to young children that goes beyond measure.
Beverley is an educator who has taught across many levels from preschool to university in the Bachelor of Education program. She has a passion for nurturing a sense of wonder in others and helping them appreciate the natural world around them.