While it’s not officially winter in the Northern Hemisphere just yet (that’ll be on December 21st), a lot of the country is starting to feel the chill. Most of the leaves on trees have fallen, and some places like Colorado and Oregon have already seen their first snowfall. Despite the shorter days and the lower temperatures, winter can still be a very active season. Those who live where the snow falls take to the ski slopes and build snow forts. Many American families come together for winter holidays like Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa, cooking meals and sharing stories. However you choose to spend time this upcoming season, make sure you save a little time for some at-home winter science activities!
Our fall learning series is designed to give you a chance to teach your children about something new and interesting. Each week our blog covers a new topic, and is filled with specially curated activities that let you get hands-on with each lesson. It’s a great way to spend time with family and learn all at once!
- Winter in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres is caused by Earth’s axis in that hemisphere being tilted away from the sun.
- Every winter, at least one septillion (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) snow crystals fall from the sky in the United States.
- Some animals possess the amazing ability to turn white during the winter: the arctic fox, arctic hare, ptarmigan, barren-ground caribou, and ermine all change
- The Chinese plum is one of the very few plants that bloom in the winter. It is one of the most beloved blossoms in Chinese art and poetry. Because its fragrance can be noticed even in the winter, it came to symbolize hope, perseverance, beauty, and purity.
The Science of Blubber
Wintertime for some animals means hibernation. This is the dormant sleep-like state mammals go into when food is hard to find. Other animals remain active all year, and use the fall season to store food and fat. Some animals, like walruses and polar bears, live and thrive year-round in wintery climates. Children may wonder, “How do these animals stay warm?”. The answer is that their bodies create a thick layer of fat, called blubber, to keep them insulated and to help them store energy.
You can get a sense of how blubber helps animals stay warm with this simple experiment provided by Home Science Tools. See how long your hand can last in a bucket of ice water with your homemade blubber glove! Afterwards, ask your children a few follow up questions like – why do marine mammals swim in cold water? What would happen to animals that swim in cold water if they did not have an insulating layer of blubber? What strategies do humans use to keep their bodies insulated during the winter?
Humans don’t have blubber to keep them warm, but they can use other methods for heat when they’re outside. Insulated clothing and fire are great for keeping our bodies warm, but arctic-dwelling peoples like the Inuit Native Americans also used ice shelters (called igloos) to protect them from the cold. It’s sounds counter-intuitive, but these houses can actually be 100 degrees warmer inside of the structure than outside. This is because compacted snow is approximately 90 percent trapped air and makes for a great insulator. The igloo keeps all the body heat inside, making the shelter nice and cozy for its inhabitants.
If you live somewhere where you get lots of snow, you could attempt to make a real igloo. Home Science Tools has a great tutorial on the best way to construct one of these snowy shelters. If you don’t have access to snow, Bright Hub Education offers three different methods for making mini igloos – with papier mache, marshmallows, or sugar cubes. Your child will quickly see that making a sturdy igloo, even in miniature, can be hard work!
Borax Crystal Snowflakes
Even if you don’t live in a place that sees snow, winter is typically associated with that powdery, sometimes sludgy, cold substance. Each year the U.S. sees about 105 snow-producing storms, and the average snowflake falls at about 3.1 miles per hour. Most people associate the color white with snow, when in fact, snow is actually colorless. The sunlight absorbed by the flake is uniformly spread over the wavelengths of visible light, thus giving the snow its white appearance.
You can create your own snowflake that will last all year with About Education’s Borax Crystal Snowflake activity. This activity requires boiling water, so make sure an adult is present to handle hot liquids. The borax binds to the pipe cleaner snowflake mold overnight, giving it that shimmery, ice-like appearance. Use the result as a wintery decoration that you can hang anywhere in your house!
Snowstorm In a Jar
Snowstorms occur whenever a significant volume of snow falls, typically accompanied with high wind. A blizzard, however, has stricter classification rules. The wind must be blowing at 35 miles per hour and the snowfall must reduce visibility to less than a quarter of a mile for over 3 hours. Other times of snowstorms include snow squalls (an intense snowfall accompanied by strong winds that only last a short time) and snowbursts (a brief, intense snowfall that results in rapid accumulation of snow).
Snow storms can be dangerous, but you can create a safe, mini-snow storm at home using a jar, baby oil, paint, water, and alka seltzer with this activity shared by Growing a Jeweled Rose. The alka seltzer causes the paint inside of the jar to rise and fall in snow-like spheres. Afterwards, talk about what causes real snow storms versus the scientific reaction the kids saw in the jar. This is a great activity to do when you’re waiting out a real snow storm!
Icy Hands Melting Activity
Naturally, with winter comes both snow and ice. Ice sustains much of life on Earth, as it supplies much of the fresh water we drink. Ice can also tell us a lot about the history of our planet. Scientists use ice cores gathered from glaciers to learn about the conditions on Earth for millennia by analyzing dust, minerals and gas bubbles caught inside. And it’s not just unique to Earth. Ice has been found on moons and planets all around our solar system.
What’s ice’s least favorite seasoning? Salt! Salt actually lowers the freezing point of water, which is why fresh water freezes quicker than ocean water. Your children may have seen your local transportation department spreading salt on the roads to make them safe for driving. You can demonstrate the power of salt on ice with a simple experiment provided by Happy Hooligans – all you need is salt, water, and a plastic glove. It’s a cool chemistry activity that is sure to amaze!Winter is nearly upon us, as are some amazing holidays. We at ThinkFun want to wish you a safe and happy holiday season, and we hope you’ll tune in for the next and final installment of our Fall Learning Series: Optical Illusions!