Staying Warm – Activities

FOCUS: In northern climates, ecosystems are very different places in winter compared to summer, with shorter days, colder temperatures, and plants making little or no food. Even so, many warm-blooded animals stay active throughout this cold season, conserving body heat by seeking out shelter or putting on extra fur, feathers, or fat. For small animals, a layer of snow can offer some protection, and the energy stored in dormant plants and cached food provides the nutrition they need to get through the winter.

Objective: To begin to explore and ask questions about animals staying warm.

Gathered in a circle, ask children what they notice about how the outdoors in northern climates is different in the winter than at other times of the year. Ask children what they can do to stay warm outside.

Objective: Use a model to see how a warm object loses heat to its environment.

Ask a child to feel the spot in the center of the circle and report how it feels to the group. (It usually feels cool.) Now set a pan of hot water in that spot. Ask the children what they see above the hot water. (Steam.) Have a student feel the air above the pan, being careful not to get too close. (Feels warm.) Now lift the pan and have the student feel the spot where the pan was sitting. (Feels warm.) Where did the heat come from that is above and below the pan? (From out of the hot water.) Will the water keep losing heat until it is frozen? What about a dish of ice cream left out on a hot summer day? (Melts.) Explain that objects will either warm up or cool off until they are the same temperature as their environment. What would happen to a small warm-blooded animal outside in a cold winter world? (Its body would tend to lose heat to the environment.) How do we warm keep from losing heat in winter? (Put on layers.)

Materials: thermos of very hot water; a small saucepan, preferably metal.

PUPPET SHOW “Mice-capades”
Objective: To identify some of the challenges of winter life and ways that active animals stay warm and find food in winter.

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 to give an example of a hibernating, migrating, and dormant animal from the puppet show (woodchuck, monarch butterfly, raccoon respectively). What are some ways that active animals stay warm? (Deer grow extra warm fur, chickadees grow downy feathers, raccoons eat nuts to put on fat, mice take shelter in tunnels; all eat food for energy to stay warm.)

Materials: puppets, script, props, special stage with tunnel and underground chamber.

Full puppet show

Objective: Plan and carry out an experiment to compare the insulating properties of different materials.

Ask the children how you might set up an experiment to find out what materials are good at insulating – keeping in the heat – and what doesn’t work as well. One way might be to start with small containers of hot water, wrap them in different coverings to be tested, and then put them in a cold place. You could test the temperature before and after with a thermometer. Ask children for ideas about materials that might work as insulation. What materials might not work as well? As a whole group, create a list of the various insulating materials to be tested and list them in a chart, as below. Be sure to include fur and feathers as well as other materials, and some that might not hold in the heat as well (e.g. plastic wrap or foil).

Explain that in an experiment it is important to keep all the factors that might influence the outcome the same and vary only the one element that you want to test. In this case, all the containers will be the same size and made of the same material, and they will all be filled with hot tap water from the same thermos. The only difference will be the material in which the experimental containers are wrapped.

Now have children work in pairs. Each team will get a small container of hot water. Each team will wrap their container in a different material to test. Have one or two additional jars that are left unwrapped, to serve as controls.

Pour hot water into the containers and measure the starting temperature, recording this on the chart. Put covers on the containers and give them out to the children in their teams and have them wrap them up, carry them to a designated area (such as on the ground, sidewalk, bench, or picnic table), and place them at least a foot apart. Place the unwrapped “control” containers near, but not touching, the wrapped ones. Explain that they will feel the controls every five minutes or so.

Help the children unwrap their containers. For younger children, have them feel their containers with their hands and report whether they are warmer, cooler, or the same as the control jars. For older children, help them to measure the temperature of the water in each jar and in the controls. Have each team enter their temperature on the chart. Subtract (or have the children subtract) from the starting temperature to find out how much heat was lost in each container.

SAMPLE DATA SHEET Fur Downy feathers Other Other Other Other Control


Starting temperature
Ending temperature
Temperature difference

Compare the results with their predictions. Which insulations worked the best, and which ones worked poorly? What did the good insulators have in common? (Usually fuzzy or fluffy materials with tiny air spaces to trap the heat.) Discuss factors that were not well controlled in this experiment. (Amount of insulating material, how well wrapped, etc.) What could we do differently next time?

Ask the children to suggest ways to summarize what they discovered. (E.g. “Insulation kept in the heat.” “Some kinds of materials are better at keeping in the heat than others.” “Animals have fur or feathers to keep from losing heat,” etc.)

Materials: a set of identical small, watertight containers or jars with lids, one per team (E.g. film canisters, baby food jars, small canning jars) and extras for controls; a variety of materials for insulating the containers (fur, downy feathers, wool, fleece, foam rubber, bubble wrap, shredded paper, cotton balls, etc., and non-insulating materials like foil, plastic wrap, wet cotton knit); thermos of hot water, enough to fill all the containers; rubber bands or tape to fasten insulation around jars or mesh onion bags to stuff with insulating materials, two or more digital thermometers, whiteboard and marker for recording data, Keeping in the Heat Sample Data Sheet.

UPPER GRADES CHALLENGE: Heat Trap (Grades 5-6)
Objective: To plan and carry out an experiment to compare and graph the rate of cooling in insulated and uninsulated containers.

Ask students how you might carry out an experiment to see how quickly heat is lost from an uninsulated compared to an insulated container. One way might be to put a digital thermometer into each of two jars of hot water, one insulated and the other not. Students could take temperature readings at specific intervals to keep a record of temperature change over time.

Have each team pour hot water into two pint-sized glass canning jars. Cover the tops of the jars with plastic wrap and insert a thermometer (preferably digital) through the plastic into each jar so that the readout is easily visible. Wrap one jar in an insulating material. Place the jars in a spot about a foot apart. Using the Heat Trap Data Sheet, have students record the water temperature in the two jars every four minutes.

Afterward, make a line graph of the data, with temperature on the vertical (y) axis and time on the horizontal (x) axis, to look for patterns in the results. Did both jars lose heat? How quickly did the insulated jar lose heat compared to the unwrapped jar? What evidence is there that insulation reduced the heat loss? (Compare the ending temperatures of the two jars.) Ask the students to think of a way to summarize their findings. (E.g. “Both jars lost heat, but the insulated jar lost heat more slowly than the uninsulated jar.” “The insulation slowed the heat loss.” “Both jars lost heat, but the insulated jar was ten degrees warmer than the uninsulated jar at the end of the experiment, so the insulation kept in some heat.”)

Materials:  two pint-sized glass canning jars (or two per team), two digital candy thermometers (or two per team), hot water, insulating material such as fleece, wool, or fur; plastic wrap, timer, clipboard(s), Heat Trap Data Sheet(s), pencils.

Objective: To play an active game and think about some animals that are active or dormant in winter.

(This can be played while waiting for the insulation experiment to cool.)

Explain to children that they will each be an animal that forms groups in winter to share warmth or keep a lookout for predators. They will need to look for and round up others of their kind. Teach them a hand sign to depict each animal such as these:

  • Meadow vole: Hold hands by mouth as though holding and chewing something
  • Deer: Hold hands on head, fingers spread, like antlers
  • Chickadee: Flap arms like wings
  • Honeybee: Hold fingers on head like antennae
  • Flying Squirrel: Hold arms and legs out to sides as though gliding

Put Animal Round-up cards into a paper bag and have children pick a card to find out what animal they are for that round. They must return the card and keep their identity a secret. There should be at least two to four children for each animal. Have the children spread out around the playground so they are apart from each other. Be sure to establish boundaries ahead of time. The leader says “go” and the children try to find other animals of their kind without speaking, by going up to other children and making their signs. If they match another child, the two must now work together as a team to find any others of their kind. When children feel sure that they have rounded up all their kind, they should sit down. Repeat with children selecting new cards each time. Afterward, talk about how being part of a group helps some animals survive the winter. (E.g. finding food, huddling, sharing shelter and snow paths.)

Materials: Animal Round-up cards with pictures and names of animals.

Objective: To look for evidence like tracks, tunnels, and other signs and discover what animals are active near the school in winter.

Ask children what animals might be active near the school in winter. How could we find out? In small groups with a leader, take the children on a walk around the school grounds, looking for tracks and tunnels in the snow, activity at bird feeders, and any other sign of animals that you can find. Have children put some seeds in the entrances to tunnels in the snow. Make a list of discoveries and report back to the rest of the class. How many and what kinds of animals were active near the school? What evidence of each did they find?

Materials: for each small group: clipboard, paper, pencil, small cups of birdseed; optional: camera.

Objective: To learn interesting facts about some animals that take shelter under the snow or underground.

Ahead of time, mount duplicate copies of the Snow Mammal Memory Cards (pictures of animals that take shelter under the snow) on a large whiteboard or poster. Cover each picture with a numbered flap that can be easily removed from the board. Divide the class into two teams. Children in each team will work together to try to match up the pairs of animal pictures behind the numbered flaps. Give teams equal chances at guessing the animals by alternating sides for each round.* When a match is made, read the information about that animal, or have a child read it to the group.

Afterward, ask a few questions to review key details in the information cards such as:

What is the only mammal with a poisonous bite? (Shrew.)
Which animals change color in winter? (Weasel, hare.)
Which animal makes an underwater food cache? (Beaver.)
What animal has 22 tentacles around its mouth? (Star-nosed mole.)
Which animal runs in zigzags? (Hare.)
Which animal may store a bushel of seeds underground? (Red squirrel.)
Which animal is busy from dusk to dawn? (Mouse.)
Which animal is so numerous there can be hundreds in an acre of field? (Meadow vole.)
Which animal makes a food pile on the ice? (Muskrat.)

*As an alternative, make several sets of cards and have children use them to play memory in small groups.

Materials:  white poster board with removable flaps to cover pictures; duplicate copies of Snow Mammal Memory cards or pictures of beaver, muskrat, weasel, vole, mole, shrew, mouse, red squirrel, rabbit; Snow Mammal Information sheet; tape.

Objective: To make small dioramas to model an animal’s home and life under the snow.

Have children think about what a small animal like a vole might need to survive in its under-the-snow home in winter, or show them a picture of a vole or mouse in its subnivean home under the snow. While outside, have the children collect bits of dried grasses, seeds, and other soft natural materials for food and bedding for their mouse homes. Provide clay or play-dough for each child to make a mouse or other small mammal. To make dioramas, give each child a small milk carton or a white paper cup and some masking tape. Have the students use tape loops to fasten the materials inside the tunnel and glue cotton balls or batting for snow on top of the container, to create a diorama of a small animal’s home under the snow. Or have them create an outdoor home for their clay critter. How does the snow help small animals in winter? As a follow-up, have children write a narrative about their animal as a journal entry (see below).

Materials: small milk carton or white paper cups or cones (one per child); gray modeling clay or play dough (one-inch cube per child); peppercorns for eyes; masking tape or glue, cotton balls or batting for snow; seeds, dried grasses, soft natural materials for mouse bedding; foil for frozen water; scissors; picture of vole or mouse in a subnivean tunnel.

*Play dough recipe with baking soda and cornstarch (pure white, keeps sharp detail): 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.

Objective: To write a story about an animal that stays active in winter.

Have children write a story about an animal that stays active in winter such as the animal they chose for their diorama, in which they recount at least two things that happen to it.  Afterward, have children share their stories in small groups.

Materials: Science journals or clipboards and paper, pencils.

Objective: To think about ways that people and animals stay warm in winter.

Have each child complete this sentence:  “My favorite way to stay warm in winter is______ because_________.”

Layer of Fat: Fill a plastic bag with about two cups of vegetable shortening. Place a second bag inside the first so that the shortening is sandwiched between two layers of plastic (or use plastic gloves fitted one inside another). Now fit together a second set of plastic bags (or gloves), omitting the shortening. Put one hand into the shortening bag and the other hand into the empty bags. Now dip both into a basin of ice water. Do you feel a difference in temperature between the two? Is fat a good insulator?

What Animals Do in Winter: Have children research different animals that live in your area, and make a chart of animals that are active, hibernate, become dormant, or migrate away.

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