A snow day is the best. Everyone misses school, and you get to sleep in and spend the day in glorious, chilly nature. But as the snow continues, the snowman starts drooping, everyone gets sick of being cold and suddenly the house seems extremely small. (Note that this condition can set in by noon the first day.)
So whenever snow imprisonment starts getting to you, we have a few activities that can save parents and kids alike from the burden of Needing Stuff to Do. These simple science experiments can be done in the snow --and sometimes just the cold -- by kids of all ages. A parent might need to be in charge of a few of them, and we've pointed out which ones.
So put on your snow hat -- and your gloves, and your parka, and your boots, and your full-body snowsuit -- and let's venture out to begin our frosty experiments.
Blowing bubbles can make anyone feel a rush of therapeutic leisure, whether you're an infant or have one foot in the grave. Call it the Glinda the Good Witch syndrome: The dainty, ethereal prisms make everything look magical.
Even better, they don't have to be reserved for a hot day in the backyard. Soap bubbles might very well blow the minds of your little ones on a snow day, too. While this experiment works best in very cold temps (we're talking close to zero degrees Fahrenheit or negative 18 degrees Celsius), you might also be able to get a cool result from temps in the 20s. You can make your own soap solution, or just buy the cheapo bottle-and-wand set made for kids. Start by heating the soapy water so it's warm or hot, then let the little ones blow bubbles outside. If you can catch one on your wand, watch it carefully: It will freeze into a delicate ball.
Speaking entirely objectively, there is nothing better than making candy using snow. Not only do you get the fun of tromping around nature to collect the white stuff, but you're rewarded with food. If you can incorporate science into the mix, it's almost too good to be true.
That brings us to molasses snow candy, otherwise known as Laura Ingalls Wilder snow candy. As many children who grew up on her books can attest, her description of making candy in the snow was a revelation. It meant you, too, could become a pioneer in your own backyard, free of the bears that surrounded Laura's snowy house in the woods, with the same sweet payoff.
And it really is simple. Just heat molasses and brown sugar on the stove until it reaches about 245 degrees Fahrenheit, or 118 degrees Celsius, which is the ball stage of candy. You can always use a candy thermometer to check the temperature. If you're adventurous, you can venture right into the backyard to pour the mixture onto the snow, where it almost freezes in about five minutes. You also can collect the snow in pans and bring them in as soon as the candy's ready to pour.
Ask the kids to predict what will happen to the molasses and snow once the two meet. Explain why the candy mixture doesn't simply melt the snow, but stays on the surface.
Of course, science isn't all chemistry and biology. Getting the kiddos all bundled up and ready for a snow lesson doesn't have to include beakers and Bunsen burners. In fact, it might just be a built-in lesson that piggybacks on an activity the kids began without prodding.
During a good frolic in the snow, the kids will no doubt get the bright idea to build a terrific fort from which they can gleefully launch snowballs. While you might not be crazy about the icy projectiles to the face, don't shut down the fun just yet: Building an igloo can be a really terrific lesson in both engineering and heat conservation.
Sure, the kids might not build an igloo in a strictly traditional Inuit style. But you can teach them some simple engineering strictures. For instance, instead of having each block flush on top of each other, incorporate small gaps between the top and bottom brick, so only the corners touch. That acts as a little arch that allows for a line of compression between the bricks, holding them in place [source: Wise]. You can also show them how to keep the floor of the igloo a little higher than the crack at a door opening, to keep warm air inside.
You can't interest all kids in an impromptu science lesson. In fact, most of them are loathe to participate in the science lesson at school that the government obligates them to attend. So don't be too harsh on kids who run the other way when you follow them outside carrying a periodic table. Instead, trick them.
That's right. You can turn to good old-fashioned deception to get the kids to use science without them even knowing. The trick is to oh-so-casually ask a few questions or prompt a conversation during the course of your average snowman building practice. (We're just taking it for granted that they will want to build a snowman, since that's generally regarded as the most fun you can have in the snow.)
Don't attempt any hard-hitting questions, or they'll sniff you out. (Any parent who casually says something like, "I'm just curious, what's the atomic mass of the hydrogen or oxygen that make up this snow" isn't getting anywhere.) Instead, test the theory of Frosty by asking them to find ways to make their snowman or lady stick around longer. Would making it bigger help? Or trying to incorporate ice? Where should you build it so it doesn't melt as fast? Before you know it, the kids will be using science gleefully.
There are a lot of myths about snowflakes, and some of those myths have reached even the youngest ears. If you hear your kids expertly telling one another that no two snowflakes are alike, you might consider this science lesson the next time you're shoveling through snow.
While it's technically true that each molecular crystal is different in snowflakes, it's also possible to get two flakes that look identical -- even under a microscope [source: Stevenson]. Explain to the kids that flakes start out in some fairly uniform frozen crystal shapes (you can refer to this cool chart for help), and then -- as they travel down and encounter dust, vapor or temperature changes -- they alter. If you really want to occupy their time, challenge the kids to find two similar looking flakes or crystals, and ask them to recall why they may look similar or different.
If you live in a climate without snow, don't think that you have to miss out on all the fluffy, white fun. And while it's not going to work as a science lesson in ice crystals or temperature changes, some fake snow can teach lessons about chemicals and even the conservation of mass.
Insta-Snow is a product you can buy that, on first inspection, appears to be a fine white powder. But add a bit of water to a cup of the stuff, wait a few seconds, and suddenly your cup runneth over with fluffy, white powder that mimics the look and feel of snow. (Minus the cold.)
What can you learn from Insta-Snow? For one, you can discuss how it works in general. The powder is made from polymers that are similar to those found in baby diapers: that means they soak up liquids like crazy. But these polymers swell really large, and thus create the "flakes" of snow [source: Steve Spangler Science]. You can ask kids about the difference between a physical reaction and chemical reaction using Insta-Snow -- does the substance actually change or just transform temporarily? To prove your point, ask them to observe the fluffed-up Insta-Snow after a few days: They'll see that it's reverted back to powder form, due to evaporation.
For the really little kids in the house, science experiments involving words like "polymers" or "molecular crystal structure" aren't going to go over so well. But there are some really basic science lessons that even the pre-K kids can get involved with.
Send them to collect some snow from outside, and ask them to predict how much liquid will come from the frozen stuff once it's melted. Put one cup in the sun and another in the shade; ask which will melt first. Explain the idea of a hypothesis, experiment and results. Ask them to hypothesize if the water will turn back into snow if you put it outside. Conduct the experiment to test your hypothesis, and then ask what the results and conclusion are.
A big warning before we send you out into the freezing cold with a bucketful of boiling water: This is an experiment that isn't just dangerous for kids but adults, too. Be very vigilant about things like wind direction and speed -- not to mention cautious about boiling water, period.
But if you're all bundled up and taking proper precautions, this experiment is a likely candidate to impress even the most jaded youngster. The theory is this: Because hot liquid evaporates faster than cold, throwing some boiling water into cold air will create instant snow. The cold air can't accommodate all the water vapor you're throwing at it and combines with tiny airborne particles to form snow [source: Thompson].
It's absolutely true, but not as simple as throwing hot water on a regular old winter day. It has to be extremely cold. We're talking minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 29 degrees Celsius) here. You might be surprised at just how much snow volume results. A coffee mug will create a decent storm, and an entire bucket will make you feel like you're in a blizzard.
This is another one that will delight the littler kids, and possibly even surprise your bigger ones. Or you. We won't judge.
While it's not strictly a snowy experiment, this is still a great way to introduce kids (and not-so-science-savvy adults) to contraction and expansion. Simply blow up a balloon (helium isn't necessary), and tie it up outside. If it's really cold -- far below freezing -- you'll notice that it will quickly deflate. If it's a little warmer, it might take a few minutes.
A little primer if you've forgotten your science lessons: As air gets colder, the molecules crowd closer, which means the balloon loses volume. That's contraction. Now bring the balloon inside and impress the kids by explaining that as the air heats, all of its molecules spread out again et voilá: a reinflated balloon, exhibited with expansion.
As every beleaguered middle school biology or high school chemistry teacher pleaded, science is fun. While balancing chemical equations and trying to stomach a dissection might leave you with a bad taste in your mouth, remember that the simple science concepts can be pretty amazing to discover as a kid. So with that in mind, enter the banana hammer.
It's admittedly straightforward, as far as scientific enquiry goes. What happens when you leave a banana out in the freezing cold? To most of us world-weary adults, the answer might not seem so exotic. But to a child who is just learning about the effect of temperature on water, the presentation might just blow their little minds.
It really is as easy as putting the banana in the freezing (very freezing works best) cold. Ask the kids what will happen to the banana. Will it get softer? Harder? Will it grow bigger or smaller, like the balloon trick we just learned? After the banana is thoroughly frozen, ask the little one to inspect it. And then totally blow the kid's mind when you show them that the banana is so rigid that it can actually hammer a nail into wood. Explain that it's the water in the banana that freezes, just like the ice cubes in the freezer.
What kind of glue did Neanderthals use? Learn how scientists tried to replicate ancient tar-based adhesives in this HowStuffWorks article.
Author's Note: 10 Science Experiments to Do in the Snow
I spent many childhood winters playing Laura Ingalls, attempting to pour molasses onto snow to make candy -- without realizing that I needed to add sugar and boil to create a more viscous mixture. I may have just realized that, in fact, while writing this article. Just a friendly reminder to introduce children to science before the age of 30.
- Ballisty, Tim. "Cold Weather Experiments." The Weather Channel. Jan. 4, 2010. (Jan. 15, 2014) http://www.weather.com/outlook/weather-news/news/articles/cold-weather-experiments_2010-01-04
- Fixmeasnack.com "Little House Molasses Snow Candy." Jan. 2, 2011. (Jan. 15, 2014) http://www.fixmeasnack.com/2011/01/little-house-molasses-snow-candy-recipe/
- Freed, Ben. "Frozen bubbles to banana hammers." Michigan Live. Jan. 8, 2014. (Jan. 15, 2014) http://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/index.ssf/2014/01/who_said_the_polar_vortex_wasn.html
- Libbrecht, Kenneth G. "Is it really true that no two snowflakes are alike?" California Institute of Technology. (Jan. 15, 2014) http://www.its.caltech.edu/~atomic/snowcrystals/alike/alike.htm
- Steve Spangler Science. "Instant Snow." 2013. (Jan. 15, 2014) http://www.stevespanglerscience.com/lab/experiments/insta-snow-polymer
- Thompson, Andrea. "Frozen Fun." LiveScience. Jan. 7, 2014. (Jan. 15, 2014) http://www.livescience.com/42371-cold-weather-science-experiments.html
- Vermette, Laureen. "Expansion and Contraction." University of Manitoba. (Jan. 16, 2014) http://www.umanitoba.ca/outreach/crystal/Grade%205%20Science.html
- Wise, Jeff. "How to build an igloo." Popular Mechanics. Feb. 24, 2012. (Jan. 15, 2014) http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/engineering/gonzo/how-to-build-an-igloo
- Younger, Shannan. "Cold weather science projects to make your kids' snow day educational and fun." Chicago Now. Jan. 6, 2014. (Jan. 15, 2014) http://www.chicagonow.com/tween-us/2014/01/cold-weather-science-projects-kids-snow-day/