Winter Unit Study

It’s fun to take a break from regular schooling every once in a while. If you are homeschooling, this can be the occasional period where you toss out the curriculum and do a unit study. If you always do unit studies, then here’s another one to throw in the mix. If you don’t homeschool but are wondering how to entertain your kids for the winter break, bits and pieces will work well for you.

After scouring the internet, I couldn’t find a winter unit study that wasn’t based around holidays. I wanted to focus more on the season than holidays, so here is what I put together.

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Age Group for the Winter Unit Study

This is set up for mid to late elementary students. It could work for older students with more depth or more independent research on the topics. Some of the science materials, in particular, are good even up to college level. (I know because I’ve tested them!)

What is a Unit Study?

A unit study is a focused period where you study many subjects with the same general theme. This can help students to see connections among different, and often siloed, academic topics. It’s also a great way to learn together as a family because many activities can be tailored to different age students.

Materials for a Winter Unit Study

Science and a Little Math for a Winter Unit Study

Science in the Snow

I found two great study packets from Etsy: Science in the Snow and Geometry in the Snow by WildEarthLab.

Science in the Snow is mainly focused on snow hydrology. This colorful packet teaches about weather, measuring weather, the water cycle and the role of snow in the water cycle, snow water equivalent and snow-to-liquid ratio, and area calculations. It culminates in a project to estimate how much water is on the roof of a house covered in snow.

Cover of the Science in the Snow unit study.
Science in the snow is a gorgeous unit study that focuses mainly on measuring snow and the hydrology of snow.

We had a great time looking at freshly fallen snowflakes under a hand lens. My kids were lukewarm about the snow water equivalent estimates for the house, but we did a simplified version of the problem. I did get a group of college students to do the calculations though, and they got really into it. I think the packet can apply to many different aged learners. I have used parts of it with my 9 and 11 year old children as well as with college students both in a Snow Science field course and as part of a 100-level geosciences class.

Annotated diagram of a snowflake.
The unit study includes gorgeous and informative illustrations to teach students about snow.

We also explored snow layers in a snowpack as part of this unit. We dug a pit to the ground in relatively undisturbed snow about two feet deep. We used a candy thermometer to measure the temperature of the snow at different depths to see how that varied. We also measured the temperature of the ground when bare and when covered by snow to see how snow insulates the ground. We used basic avalanche pit techniques to estimate snow hardness using our hands. For older kids, this could tie into lessons on avalanche hazards.

Back of crystal card showing how to measure snow pack hardness in the field.
Back of a snow crystal card showing how to measure snow hardness in the field.

I extended this packet a bit with some citizen science. We signed up for the Community Snow Observations program and the kids learned to make measurements that can actually be used by scientists. My daughter used this as part of her Think Like A Citizen Scientist Brownie Journey. Here’s what she said about the project:

“Last winter we went out to New Hampshire and drove up to a cabin in the Whites for a few days. Then we hiked up to Carter Notch Hut and did snow measurements. We dug a hole in the snow until we found solid ground that was not snow. Then we measured temperatures of snow at different levels, the depth of the snow, and the hardness of the snow. We also looked at snow crystals. Mama submitted the snow depth measurements to the Citizen Science group, Community Snow Observations. It was cool to share data with scientists. I want to keep winter cool, like the signs at Attitash Mountain say.”

Lua Schmidt, Age 9
Child squatting in the snow looking at a probe.
My daughter is taking a snow depth measurement to send to Community Snow Observations.
Two children lying in the snow looking at a hole.
We described layers in a snow pit to see how snow changes after it falls.

Geometry in the Snow

Geometry in the Snow is more of a math unit applied to snow. This is also a beautifully illustrated packet with great activities. It covers snowflake formation and common types of snowflakes, identifying lines of symmetry, making paper snowflakes, problem solving and pattern recognition, identifying and drawing common 3D shapes, comparing and contrasting shapes with flow charts, volume calculations for 3D shapes.

Cover of the Geometry in the Snow unit.
Geometry in the Snow was a great way to learn some math and science while playing in the snow.

For this, we had a lot of fun building snowflakes out of marshmallows and toothpicks. We explored both the way that water molecules stick to one another (big marshmallows for oxygen, small for hydrogen) following the diagrams in the Geometry in the Snow packet and built snowflakes with 3-fold symmetry without worrying about oxygen-hydrogen bonds.

Series of images showing the formation of a snowflake.
Geometry in the snow has interactive projects such as this one where students recognize and organize the phases of snow formation.

For older kids, The Snowflake: Winter’s Secret Beauty and Field Guide to Snowflakes, both by Kenneth Libbrect, are gorgeous books with more details on snowflake formation and shape. He has many other books on snowflakes that could also work.

Two children building a snowflake with marshmallows and toothpicks.
Building marshmallow snowflakes during our winter unit study.

Adding in a little history about Wilson Bentley (aka Snowflake Bentley) and his photographs of snow is a great way to expand this a bit. We loved reading about him and the work he did.

Animal Adaptations

Another fun topic is to look at how animals survive the winter. We did this mainly through an Appalachian Mountain Club Junior Naturalist Activity Book when we did a winter hut stay at Carter Notch Hut while doing this unit study. Another way to explore this topic would be with a unit study such as this one on Animals in Winter from The Homeschool Scientist.

Two children sitting on snowy rocks watching sunrise.
One special treat on our winter hut trip, during our winter unit study, was watching sunrise.

Literature to Enjoy During a Winter Unit Study

What you choose for literature will depend on your children’s ages. I have organized this section by age. For lots of winter book ideas, check out our Winter Books Guide and the post 25 Best Children’s Books About Winter. I have just included one or two favorites in each section.

Picture Books

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats is a beautiful story of a little boy who spends the day exploring the snow near his apartment. The book ends with the boy, Peter, taking a bath and going to sleep, so it’s a great cuddle read next to a fireplace. It is one of the first books with a Black main character to win the Caldecott Award.

Also check out these lists of diverse winter picture books for kids, snow themed picture books, and winter themed picture books from the blog What Do We Do All Day?

Cover of the book The Snowy Day.
One of our all-time favorite picture books is Snowy Day.

Early Chapter Books

Little Rippers (three volume set) by Rebecca Munsterer: This short series is a fantastic early chapter book series about kids who are learning to ski. My daughter devoured these books after we found them at the New England Ski Museum (a great place to learn about the history of skiing for the unit study, if you happen to be in the area). It was fun for Lua to get to read books about winter and skiing by herself during the winter.

Read Aloud Books and Chapter Books

Running on the Roof of the World by Jess Butterworth is the story of two friends, Tash and Sam, who travel with two yaks across Tibet to escape to India after Tash’s parents are arrested. It’s a really fantastic adventure across tough terrain during the early winter. I feel that this book works better as a read aloud than a read to yourself book (even for strong readers) unless the kids already know something about the politics of Tibet. I had to stop and explain the political situation to my children a few times. Regardless, it is one of our all-time favorite read aloud books.

Cover of the book Running on the Roof of the World.
Running on the Roof of the World is an excellent winter read aloud book.

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu is a novel length re-imagining of the Snow Queen in the modern United States. Like many chapter books set in winter, it includes difficult journeys through bad weather and a general theme of finding oneself. We weren’t familiar with the fairy tale before the story but enjoyed it just the same.

Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George is a novel length retelling of East of the Sun, West of the Moon. As with Breadcrumbs, it includes epic journeys across harsh environments and it doesn’t matter if you are already familiar with the fairy tale. I was so taken with this fairy tale, which I had not previously read, that I proceeded to read two more novel-length retellings the same winter I read this to my kids. Those were East by Edith Pattou and Echo North by Joanna Ruth Meyer. All three are different and exciting retellings of the story. Echo North is probably appropriate for slightly older kids than the other two and diverts from the original fairy tale more.

Also check out these lists of winter chapter book read alouds and December read aloud books from the blog What Do We do All Day?

Social Studies as part of a Winter Unit Study

There are a lot of options for social studies or history around winter. Some possibilities are to study a winter activity or seasonal holidays. Another option is to learn about the culture around where your read aloud is set.

Many people focus on holidays because there are so many culturally or religiously important holidays at this time of year. For example, Build Your Library has a Winter Holidays Around the World unit with a lot of literature.  You also could find a few books about holidays that you are interested in or that you study and study those.

We don’t celebrate any winter holidays and we are big skiers, so we went the sports history route. I bought Two Planks and a Passion by Roland Muntford and we read a page or so at a time. This is a really dense book, so it was slow going, but really interesting to learn about skiing as seen in archaeological digs and cave paintings.

Another option is to dive in a bit to the culture where your winter read aloud is set. For example, we read Running on the Roof of the World, and the kids were really excited to talk about Tibet and the modern history of Tibet and China, which features prominently in the story. In this case, we could have studied Tibet by eating momos, drinking butter tea, and making tsampa.

Family Fun with a Winter Unit Study

In conclusion, winter unit studies can be an excellent way to keep learning going through the busy holiday season or the winter blues. If you homeschool, this can mix up your routine or provide you with a fun reason to get outside to do some school in the snow. If your kids are in traditional schools, a winter unit study could give you something to structure your winter time off. With these resources, this won’t be too daunting to try.

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  • Amanda, her husband, Josh, and their children, Colby and Lua, live in Oberlin, OH where Amanda is a Geosciences professor at Oberlin College. Amanda's parents live in New Hampshire and so they spend a lot of time there as well. They take advantage of homeschooling to maximize outdoors time for everyone. Amanda grew up in Hong Kong and spent summers in New Hampshire, where she found her love for nature. Pursuing a PhD in geosciences to study why Earth looks the way it does and how people change those processes was a natural outgrowth of her love for being outside. Their outdoor sports sort of follow seasons: the winter they love to ski, in the fall they race cyclocross, in the spring they ride bikes on day trips, and in the summer they rock climb, bike tour, take overnight canoe trips, and backpack.

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