Winter Ways – Activities

FOCUS: Of the four seasons in the year, winter is the most difficult for living things.  Temperatures are often cold, days are shorter, the ground is frozen and covered with snow, and there is a dearth of food for many creatures. Each animal species has evolved a survival strategy, and plants overwinter in different ways as well. The dried seed heads of winter weeds provide a welcome source of food for many animals.

Objective: To begin to explore and ask questions about winter compared to other seasons.

Have children work in small groups, and give each team a large, poster-sized sheet of paper with a 12” circle drawn in the middle. Give each group a set of Winter Ways Seasons cards. Have children look at and discuss the pictures with each other and consider which season(s) their cards depict. Have them place the cards on the circle to show seasonal events that occur over a year. Some pictures could fall in more than one season. (If needed, consult the Seasons Cards Key.) For younger children, you may wish to and mark the four seasons on the circle and give each group a smaller selection of cards.

Materials: for each group: a set of Winter Ways Seasons cards with captions, large, poster-sized piece of paper with a 12” circle drawn in the middle; optional: Seasons Cards Key.

UPPER GRADES CHALLENGE: Antifreeze Tests (Grades 5-6)
Objective: To investigate the effect of different dissolved substances on the freezing of water.

Many animals build up high concentrations of sugars in their cells in preparation for winter. How do dissolved substances affect the way water freezes? How could we test this? Have students work in small groups and provide each team with shallow dishes, water, measuring spoons, and a small amount of sugar and salt. Have them pour a quarter cup of cool tap water in each container, then add one tablespoon of either salt or sugar to each, mixing well (100 stirs each). The water should be no more than half an inch deep. Pour a quarter cup of plain water into a similar dish for a control.

Place dishes in a spot that’s out of direct sunlight. Check after fifteen minutes if it’s 10° F or below, twenty to thirty minutes if it’s warmer, to see if any of the liquids have frozen. Notice the consistency of the different solutions, tipping them to observe if they are still liquid, slushy (partly frozen), frozen solid, or have a skim of ice on top. Have children compare their results with other groups. Did any remain liquid even after the plain water was completely frozen? Why do students think some animals and plants might build up sugars in their cells in winter? Why do road crews spread salt on roads in winter?

Materials: for each group: cool tap water, one tablespoon each of salt and sugar, measuring spoons, measuring cup, shallow dishes or cups of equal size for each sample, spoons for stirring.

Objective: To observe conditions outdoors, noticing plants in their winter stages and looking for evidence of animal activity.

What can we find outside in winter? While the migrants are gone, the hibernators and dormant animals are hidden, and plants are in their winter survival modes, we can still look for active animals and signs of the season. With children in small groups, take a walk around the school grounds to look and listen for signs of the season.

Stop and listen quietly for sounds. Teach the children the following hand signals, which they’ll use to sign that they’ve heard something listed below. Ask each child in turn to sign one thing they heard. If the others heard it too, have them make the sign for “match.” Note: If children are wearing mittens, they can still make the signs with a whole hand.

Stop to make visual observations. Teach the children the following hand signals which they’ll use to show that they’ve seen something listed below. As above, ask each child in turn to sign one thing they heard. If the others heard it too, have them make the sign for “match.”

Afterward, have children gather a variety of winter weeds and seed heads for the class to use for Winter Food Bouquets.

Materials: Seasonal Survey Hand Sign card, basket for collecting weeds.

PUPPET SHOW “It’s Snow Picnic”
Objective: To identify some ways that plants and animals cope with winter.

Put up four signs with the words “Active,” “Dormant,” “Hibernate,” and “Migrate” on or near the stage. Perform the puppet show, or have a group of children perform it for the class. Afterward, ask questions to review the key details and vocabulary in the story. Ask children why winter might be a difficult time for animals and plants. (Cold temperatures, frozen water, less available sunlight time for diurnal animals, fewer food sources.) Review the four different ways animals cope with winter’s hardships (migrate, hibernate, become dormant, remain active), and place the puppets (or write their names) by the appropriate signs.

Challenge the children to clap their hands to imitate a woodchuck’s heart rate: about 130 beats per minute in summer (approximately thirty beats in fifteen seconds), drops to as low as four beats per minute (one every fifteen seconds) when hibernating.

Materials: puppets, script, white fabric to cover stage, cotton balls; four signs labeled “Active,” “Dormant,” “Hibernate,” and “Migrate”; clock or watch with second hand.

Objective: To model the winter survival strategies of some different animals.

Divide the class into small groups with an adult leader in each. Give each group a Winter Skit card.  Read or have a child read the card to the group and then plan and practice a skit to act out these behaviors. Have the children introduce their animal and perform a pantomime about its wintering strategy. They may use props and sound effects. After each skit, ask the group whether that animal migrates, hibernates, becomes dormant, or stays active in winter.


Flock of Canada Geese feeding and swimming, then flying south in a V, honking as they fly.

Monarch Butterflies emerging from chrysalis, sipping nectar, flying south to Mexico where they hang from trees for the winter.


Black Bear family eating lots of berries, getting very fat, then going off each to a cozy den and curling up to sleep for the winter.

Garter Snakes sunning themselves, alone, then all slithering to the same rocky den to spend the winter together.

Painted Turtles swimming in the water, eating water plants and bugs, sunning on a log, then as winter comes diving down to rest in mud with their heads and legs pulled inside their shells.

Stay Active

Beaver family cuts a tree and collects lots of sticks, carrying them to outside their lodge, stays all together in their lodge, grooming and chattering and swimming under the ice of their pond for branches.

Twittering Goldfinches fly with an up-and-down, undulating motion, calling “potato chip” to each other. They eat seeds in a tree, then fly down to eat seeds on the ground. They go together to sleep in an evergreen tree, fluffing up their feathers.

Snowshoe Hares hop around, nibble leafy twigs, then as it gets cold they turn white and grow lots more fur on their feet. In winter they hop around nibbling bare twigs, hiding under evergreen branches to sleep in the day.

Become Dormant

Chipmunk runs around gathering seeds, stuffing them in cheek pouches and depositing them in a den. Then it grows sleepy and curls up next to the seeds, occasionally waking to eat.

Raccoon catches crayfish and small frogs in the water and rolls them around in paws before eating, grows very fat. Sleeps in den, wakes up to find more food, goes back to sleep.

*After each skit, place the animal card, or write its name, under the appropriate sign for its wintering strategy from Puppet Show.

Alternatively: All act out these four narrated skits all together:

Migrators – Let’s be a flock of geese flying in a V formation as they migrate south for the winter. The males call, “honk” and the females, “ahink,” as they fly along.

Dormant animal – Let’s all be chipmunks preparing for winter by gathering nuts and seeds in our cheek pouches, and storing them underground. In winter we’ll curl up and sleep for weeks, occasionally waking up to take a nibble from our pile of seeds.

Active animal – Let’s all be goldfinches, active all winter. We fly around calling, “potato chip, potato chip,” as we visit weeds and eat their seeds.

Hibernators – Let’s be woodchucks. We’ll eat a lot, getting very fat, and we’ll dig a deep den. Then we’ll crawl in, curl up, and go to sleep for the whole winter. Our hearts will beat very slowly and we won’t eat or leave our den until spring.

Materials: Winter Skits cards; signs saying “FALL,” WINTER,” and “SOUTH”; optional: white cloth or blanket, winter coats for bears, fuzzy slippers for hares, evergreen branches, bare tree branches, bag of small cones or other objects to serve as food prop, piece of blue fabric for water, plastic insects.

WINTER WHO AM I? (Grades 3-6)
Objective: To learn about a variety of common animals and their winter strategies through a guessing game.

Place all the Who Am I? animal cards in a bin. Leaders take one animal card at a time from the pile, then in their small groups ask children to guess the animal, giving clues one at a time. Give each pair of children a Who Am I? chart showing pictures of all the possible animals in the activity. If children can’t guess the animal from the clues, they may ask as many yes-or-no questions as they need. (Examples: Do you have four legs? Can you fly? Are you bigger than a soccer ball?)  After all animals have been guessed, hand a card to each child. Now ask them to sort themselves into groups according to their wintering strategy – Migrators, Hibernators, Dormant animals, and Active animals. Can each group think of another animal that belongs with them?

  1. American Toad: You might think I’m ugly, but my bumpy skin helps protect me with camouflage and poison. I hibernate underground in winter, digging myself down into soft dirt, and if the frost gets down too close to me, I’ll dig even deeper. I love to hang out in gardens eating slugs, flies, and other small creatures, which I catch on my long, sticky tongue.
  1. Beaver: I’m an excellent swimmer, and my thick pelt, oiled on the outside and soft and thick on the inside, keeps me warm and dry. My family and I get to work in November, when we cut our winter supply of branches to eat. We’re active all winter in our lodge, and we can swim out into the water under the ice.
  1. Big Brown Bat: I’m an insectivore, and I have many tiny sharp teeth to pierce exoskeletons. I am an expert night flyer, and I locate obstacles and hunt flying insects using echolocation. I spend the winter hibernating in a cave or building that is just above freezing. When I sleep, I hang upside down by my toes.
  1. Black Bear: I need to get really fat before winter comes. One of my favorite foods is beech nuts, but I’m too heavy to climb out on the branches. So I break them off and gather them into a big messy tangle in the treetops where I sit and eat the nuts! All through the winter I hibernate in my den. I don’t eat, and I’m asleep almost all the time. When I come out of my den in the spring, I’m thin and hungry.
  1. Canada Goose: I raise my young in the North, and we spend our winters in the South. My feathers are so warm, I don’t mind swimming in icy cold water. When I migrate, I go with my friends in a noisy V.
  1. Chipmunk: I live in a tunnel that can be over thirty feet long. I cache food in an underground burrow before winter begins. I’m dormant in winter, sleeping most of the time, but I occasionally wake up to eat. I carry food in the pouches in my cheeks.
  1. Garter Snake: If you bother me, I’ll make a stink. I spend my winter curled up, often hibernating with many others of my kind. I can’t hear, but I can feel things vibrate. I smell my prey with my forked tongue.
  1. Goldfinch: In winter I’m active, eating the seeds of weeds and birch trees. I don’t build my nest until late in the summer when the thistles go to seed. I eat the seeds and use thistledown to line my nest. I get new feathers twice a year, and my summer ones are bright black and gold.
  1. Great Horned Owl: I’m active in winter, finding my prey under the snow by sound. I love to eat squirrels, rabbits, and other mammals, and I’m the only predator who’ll eat skunks. My mate and I start our nest in January. My call is a low “Hu-Hu-Hooo, Hoo Hoo.”
  1. Luna Moth: I have two long tails and four eyes on my wings. I’m a beautiful green color. I like to eat birch leaves when I’m young, but as an adult I don’t even have a mouth. I spend the winter as a pupa, hibernating inside a cocoon wrapped in leaves.
  1. Monarch Butterfly: I’m a famous migrator. I disappear in the fall, flying southward, and about fifty years ago people finally learned where I was going – to Mexico! When I’m a caterpillar, I eat the leaves of milkweed, and that makes me poisonous and very bad-tasting.
  1. Moose: My fur is so warm and thick, cold weather doesn’t slow me down. I am so tall, and I can lift my feet up so high, that I hardly slow down walking in deep snow. I prefer to move to the mountain tops in winter, where I’m active, eating twigs.
  1. Painted Turtle: I’m an excellent swimmer. I spend October to April hibernating at the bottom of my pond, not breathing at all, though I do get some oxygen from the water through my skin. In summer, I like to sun myself on a log. I can pull my legs and head into my shell.
  1. Pileated Woodpecker: I make a new nest in a tree trunk every year, and my old ones are used by owls and tree-nesting ducks. My favorite food is carpenter ants, in their nests in tree trunks. I make quite a racket with my pounding on trees and noisy calls. I’m active in winter because finding food’s no problem for me. I can find ants in any weather.
  1. Raccoon: I’m dormant in winter, spending most of the winter asleep, but I do wake up once in a while, and my tracks show my waddling gate. I’ll eat almost anything I can get my clever paws on. I have a bushy striped tail and a black bandit mask.
  1. Red Fox: In winter, I’m In the daytime I like to take a nap on a sunny bank. I use my thick, bushy tail to keep my long nose warm when I’m sleeping. I hunt for mice under the snow, and when I think I’ve found one I jump up in the air and land with all four feet on top of it.
  1. Snowshoe Hare: I eat twigs, which I snip off with my sharp top and bottom teeth. My fur is brown in summer and white in winter. Winter’s no problem for me, since my huge hind feet get very furry like snowshoes. I’m active in winter and I love to hop around on the top of the snow.
  1. Spring Peeper: I’m very small, but I’m loud in the spring – you can hear my call for a quarter mile. I lay my eggs in water, but I live in the trees and bushes. In the winter, I hibernate, frozen solid, but sugary antifreeze protects my heart and other organs, and the ice inside my body forms where it doesn’t hurt me.
  1. Woodland Jumping Mouse: I weigh less than a slice of bread, but I can leap as far as three meters. My very long tail helps me keep my balance. I love to eat underground fungi, which I find by their smell, and also beetles, berries, seeds, and caterpillars. Unlike my cousins who stay active in winter, I hibernate in my nest for as long as 7 months of the year.
  1. Woolly Bear Caterpillar: I can’t tell you what winter will be like, even though people say I can. My antifreeze keeps me from freezing until it’s below 18° F. I curl up in the leaf litter in winter and hibernate until spring, when I’ll pupate and become a moth.

Materials: Who Am I? cards; for each small group: Who Am I? picture chart.

Objective: To look for and collect wintering plants in a tiny bouquet and consider how they provide a source of food for animals.

WARNING: Before collecting winter weeds, check your school grounds for poisonous plants, such as poison ivy, which has white berries in winter. In small groups with a leader, visit places where weeds are growing so children can collect seed heads, berries, small twigs, etc. for their bouquets. If there are not many weeds on the school grounds, bring in a supply from elsewhere to supplement those that the children collect themselves.

Using a small (walnut-sized) piece of soda-cornstarch play dough* as a base, add winter weeds, berries, and woody twigs with seeds and buds to make a tiny bouquet (about three inches high). Initial the bases with a toothpick. These can be baked, briefly, to harden the bases. See below for directions.

What will happen to the plants in your bouquet in the spring? What parts of your bouquet might an animal that is active in winter eat?

Materials: three-inch stems of a variety of plants in winter such as seed heads, twigs with buds, berries, or other seeds; white play dough (recipes below); clippers and scissors; toothpicks; optional: cookie sheet, oven to bake dough. (Note: remember that anything juicy, like berries or evergreen needles, won’t last.)

 *Play dough recipe with baking soda and cornstarch (pure white, keeps sharp detail, bakes hard but brittle): Mix 4 cups baking soda, 2 cups cornstarch, 2½ cups water in saucepan. This recipe is gluten-free. Follow cooking directions below.

*Play dough recipe with flour and salt (off-white, very elastic, good for modeling, dries hard): Mix 2 cups flour, 1 cup salt, 4 tsp. cream of tartar, 2 tbsp. vegetable oil, and 2 cups water in a saucepan. For gluten-free, substitute 1 cup rice flour and 1 cup cornstarch for the 2 cups flour. Follow cooking directions below.

Mix all ingredients in saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly. Cook about ten minutes, until it’s like mashed potatoes. Turn out on a plate, cover with damp cloth, and let cool. Knead until smooth, then store in airtight container.

To bake, heat oven to 350°F, add bouquets, turn off oven immediately and let cool. (Keep an eye on the bouquets in the oven and remove when cool.) Repeat if needed.

Objective: To use drawing and/or writing to imagine the life cycle of an animal or plant.

Create a story in words, pictures, or both about an animal in winter. In small groups, have the children share their journal entries with each other.

Materials: journal or paper and clipboards, pencils; optional: colored pencils.

Objective: To review and share personal thoughts about winter and how living things survive it.

Ask the children to tell one new thing they learned about how a plant or animal lives through the winter. Or have them pick which winter survival strategy is their favorite.


Plant Challenge: Challenge the children to find plants (other than conifers) that have green leaves in winter (e.g. mosses, some ferns, mullein, rhododendrons.) What benefit might these plants get from keeping their leaves in winter?

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