Snow Science: Fun Ways to Explore Snowflakes with Kids

When Michelle Cusolito’s 5-year-old daughter got so excited about snow that she tried to carry a huge ball of it through the living room, Cusolito didn’t just see the spills on the Oriental carpet. She also saw a teachable moment.

After handing her daughter a dustpan and broom and telling her to clean up quickly, Cusolito asked the girl and her 8-year-old brother how they could bring snow into their southeastern Massachusetts house without making a mess. Soon, a large metal bowl was pressed into service, and the kids were collecting snow to examine.

Follow Kids’ Curiosity
What happens if you drop a little snow on the woodstove? Or put some in the sink and run warm water over it? Put it in a sink full of hot water? Drop it in the toilet? What if you put a really big snowball in the tub with lots of cold water?

Cusolito’s two children tested all of these things, without instruction from their mom or dad.

“I stayed out of their way,” says Cusolito, a former naturalist and fourth grade teacher who now writes for children and blogs at Polliwog on Safari. “I let them play.”

Soon, the 5-year-old had learned the word “melt” from her big brother, and both children had started figuring out that hot water melts snow faster than cold water. When the girl wanted to get into the bathtub with all the melting snow, her mother stood nearby to make sure she was safe, but other than that, she didn’t direct the activity.

“I think I learned this as a teacher,” Cusolito says. “Let them figure it out themselves. Look for moments where some interest is sparked in a kid and encourage the exploration.”

Of course, parents and teachers can nudge such exploration along by creating opportunities. For example, you might want to bring a bucket of snow into your bathroom so your kids can experiment.

Catch Snowflakes
Another activity Cusolito recommends for helping kids learn about snow is collecting flakes of the fluffy stuff to inspect more closely.

You can do this by going out in the falling snow with sheets of black construction paper to catch the flakes. (You may want to let your paper cool for a minute before starting to collect.) Then move to an area that’s protected but still cold, such as a covered porch, garage, shed, or even your car, so that you can look at the snow without more falling on top.

“I recommend that kids start looking with the naked eye,” Cusolito says, “and then get the hand lens to look closely.” In addition to a magnifying glass, you may want to have a tray to make holding and carrying your snow-covered paper easier, and a small paintbrush for gently moving the flakes.

Kids can try drawing the flakes they see using plain or colored pencils and white paper. Cusolito also suggests trying to collect the flakes on towels or other pieces of fabric, to see which works best and makes observations easier.

Read About the Snowflake Man

After your observations, try reading Snowflake Bentley, an award-winning children’s book by Jacqueline Briggs Martin about a Vermont farm boy who became the world’s expert on snowflakes. Wilson Bentley, who lived from 1865 to 1931, pioneered techniques to photograph snowflakes. The book about him features Caldecott Award-winning woodcuts by Vermont artist Mary Azarian and a few of Bentley’s photos. If you are in Vermont, consider visiting the Snowflake Bentley Museum; its website offers more information about Bentley.

Cut or Color Your Own Snowflakes
After your hands-on exploration, you may want to cut your own snowflake designs, folding paper to make the symmetrical shapes. Or you may want to use templates based on Bentley’s photos, or download a two-page coloring book, also based on Bentley’s work.

If you want to remain scientifically accurate, remember that every snowflake is unique, and every snowflake has six sides.

Learn More
Get more ideas for enjoying winter with kids.

12 Great Outdoor Winter Activities for Kids

Snowshoeing Fun and Games for Kids

Home Sweet Dome: Building snow caves can be child's play

Stories in the Snow: Tracking for kids

Teaching Kids Cross-Country Skiing

Snow Days: How to make winter cool for kids

Junior Naturalist: Snowflakes

Photo by Istock.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog, written by Heather Stephenson.

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