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Cold Weather Nature Learning for Preschoolers

On the NAEYC forums and on a private Facebook group for preschool directors that I belong to, there have been a lot of discussions about taking children outside in cold weather. Teachers are wondering whether or not children should spend time outside when the temperature drops.

Of course, as the owner of a nature school, I swear by that old adage that, “There is no bad weather. Only bad clothing.” Portland is usually a relatively temperate zone, so we wear layers consisting of long underwear and waterproof outerwear and head outside. If the temperature drops close to or below 20 degrees, we either limit our time outside or take breaks inside to warm up before returning outside.

The better question, really, is what meaningful activities can children engage in when they are outside during the winter months. While there are many exciting and fun activities to do outside, for this post I have focused on ones that encourage children to look closely at nature and investigate changes in flora, fauna and the weather. Winter, and the cold it brings, offers the opportunity to observe things naturally occurring that can’t be observed at other times of the year.

Taking the Temperature

A few weeks ago, we took thermometers outside to measure the temperature of different areas of our yard. We were looking at the comparative temperatures of various surfaces – wood, cement, stone, the mirror on the easel, etc. After we compared the temperatures of a few surfaces, we talked about what properties each surface had that that might affect their temperatures. Were they smooth, rough, reflective, dark, in full sun or in the shade? And then we made predictions about new surfaces.

Experiment with States of Matter

Children always notice the ice that forms outside as the weather gets colder, and it’s easy to capitalize on their excitement. When we first notice the ice, we spend time just gathering as much information about it as we can, encouraging the children with open-ended questions. Where is it smooth? Where is it rough? Are there any bubbles inside the ice and how did they get there? Is there anything else trapped in the ice?

The children are always delighted when leaves get trapped and frozen in the ice. One year, we decided to make our own ice sculptures. We gathered leaves, berries, sticks and placed them in old pie tins. We filled the tins with water and then left them outside to freeze.

Experiments with freezing and melting ice are also quick and easy to set up. This year, the children wanted to know which naturally occurring weather would melt ice fastest – the return of sun and its heat, wind or rain. We designed some simulations to mimic different weather effects on the ice. The children were surprised at how quickly rain could melt ice.

Other ice investigations could include shaking different substances (sand, gravel, salt) on the ice, determining the effect of different insulators (newspaper, aluminum foil, a mitten) or placing the ice on different surfaces (grass, a rock, a log) before measuring how long it takes to melt. Another possibility is to focus on ways to freeze the ice rather than ways to melt it.

Take Advantage of the Snow

If you are lucky enough to be at school when there is snow on the ground, there are many ways to take advantage of the opportunity. The simplest way for children to experiment with snow is to play with it the same way they play with sand. Using sand molds, mud kitchen toys and a little imagination to make masterpieces provides a hands-on opportunity to explore what makes snow “packable.”

Another useful tool for observing snow is a magnifying glass. Last year, we spread a bit of snow on black paper so that the flakes would stand out in sharp contrast. We talked about the shape of snowflakes, estimated how many snowflakes fit on the paper, and challenged ourselves to find two identical flakes. (picture of child looking at snow through a magnifying glass)

This year, the children want to know why snow is sometimes not white. The answer (which we haven’t yet explored) is that snow is not ever white. It is a transparent substance that reflects white light. I have my fingers crossed that we will get a chance to experiment with snow’s transparency before winter is over. I already have many questions I plan to encourage the children to explore: Can they see through a snow ball?

What happens if you shine a flashlight on snow? What if you place a translucent color wand in front of the flashlight and then shine it on snow? What happens if you dig a deep hole in the snow? Does the color of the snow look different at the bottom of the hole than at the top rim?

As you can see, cold weather excites me as a learning opportunity as much as warmer weather. There is wonder worth exploring in every season. The challenge is to seize the opportunities when they present themselves.

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