A Sledding Curriculum: Using Sleds for Outdoor Learning

A group of kids on a sled

Nothing says winter like an afternoon of sledding. As a kid I would spend hours tobogganing at the hill in our local park. Not only did tobogganing allow me to get outside and move my body, but it also added a bit of thrill and adventure to my day. On a warm(ish) afternoon you can often find most hills packed with kids on all kinds of sleds. Why not harness the fun of tobogganing to cover parts of your curriculum? Sledding is a great way for students to explore topics such as motion, gravity, and friction. It is also a “risky play” activity that can allow students to understand their own personal boundaries and limits. Here are some ways that you can use sleds for outdoor learning as a way to cover parts of your curriculum and allow your students to experience the benefits of outdoor learning.

4 kids on a sled

Choosing Sleds for Outdoor Learning

In choosing sleds for outdoor learning or using in a class/school setting, I like to use “crazy carpets.” These are easy to find and usually inexpensive. I tie ropes to the handles of them so that students can use them to pull each other on the flat ground as well as pull them up the hill. They are also easy to store as you can lay them flat. Other options that are good for school are “flying saucers” or traditional tobagans. I would stay away from anything with a starting wheel as they are way too hard to store and way more expensive (and more likely to “go missing!”)

Safety for Sledding During Outdoor Education

Prior to doing any sledding activities, be sure to check what is allowed under your school policies. As with any outdoor activity, ensure that you have created a thorough risk management plan.

  1. Ensure that the site is safe. If you are using a hill, ensure that it isn’t too icy. Additionally find a site where there are few obstacles for students to hit
  2. Set up safe boundaries. Show students where they can walk up the hill and where they should be going down
  3. Remind students to look up the hill before they walk up and look down the hill before they slide down
  4. Go feet first on the sled
  5. Work with the students to create a set of safety rules that everyone can agree on (examples might include how many people are allowed on a sled, how much wait time between sleds going down the hill)
  6. If you have large, fast hills you may require students wear helmets (such as bike or hockey/skating helmets)
  7. Ensure that students are dressed for being outdoors in the winter.
a large group of children sledding on a hill

Some Easy Ways to Use Sleds For Outdoor Learning

There are so many ways that sleds can be used for outdoor learning. Of course you can always just use sleds as a way to have fun and have students move their bodies. If you are looking for some ideas of how to use sleds to meet some of your curriculum outcomes, then here is a great place to start!

Explore Motion and Forces Using Sleds

I love using sledding to teach students about motion. Through sledding you can expose your students to topics such as friction, and forces and allow them to explore these topics in a very kinesthetic way. I have used sleds to explore this topic even when we don’t have a sledding hill in our learning space. When w don’t have access to a hill we have used the soccer fields or even just snowbanks created by snow removal.

Some ways that you can use sleds to explore motion are:

  • exploring forces through pushing and pulling the sleds, discuss what works best
  • explore friction by using the sleds on different surfaces
  • safely exploring how to make the sleds stop or what causes a sled to stop
  • challenging students to make their sleds go further and exploring what factors affected the distance
  • safely exploring what happens when we take the sleds around a corner
  • if you have access to a hill you can explore the force of gravity

Engineering and Design- Design a Sled

I love to have students design their own sleds as a way to test out different materials and designs. Sled design can also be integrated into your motion studies as well. In designing a sled I will have a teddy bear who will be the passenger of the sled (so that students understand what size to make their design.) The students are tasked with designing a sled for the teddy bear that will move with gravity down a small hill.

The students must work through the following tasks (usually I do the design and building part indoors):

  1. Viewing the materials that I have made available for them and selecting what materials they would like to use (Usually I allow them to choose from an assortment of various craft supplies that I have found at school.)
  2. Drawing up their design for their sled
  3. Building the sled and testing it
  4. The big sled demonstration day where everyone has the opportunity to test their sleds outside with our “bear passenger.”
a child pulling another child on a sled

Distance Measurement- Measuring the Distance Sleds Travel

Another way to use sledding for outdoor learning and to explore math concepts is by measuring the distance sleds travel. Students can measure the distance their sled travels and compare it to their classmates or students can challenge themselves to measure the distance their own sled travels and then try to reach a further distance. You can set the parameters for measurement based on your class and curriculum requirements. Younger students might simply just measure through comparison. For example, each student places a beanbag at the location where their sled stops then afterwards everyone compares. Older students might use a trundle wheel or measuring tapes (depending on the distance) to measure and compare distances. You can also work in discussions on factors that made the sleds go further or slowed the sleds down.

Need for Speed- Using Sleds to Calculate Speed

Measuring the speed which different sleds travel can be a fun activity for slightly older students. As students will be trying to make their sleds move faster it is important to have safety boundaries in place first. Students will take turns sledding, potentially even using different types of sleds and using a stopwatch to measure the speed of their sleds. In order to calculate the speed, students will also have to measure the distance that the sleds travel. Students can then take steps to try to make their sleds go faster. You can build in discussions of what factors made the sleds go faster and which factors were not as effective once students have had enough fun with their time trials.

kids going down a hill on sleds

Health Topics: Understanding Safety and Boundaries

Sledding adds an element of risky play to your curriculum studies. This risky play allows students to naturally understand their own limits, safety and boundaries. If students don’t feel comfortable with an activity, they can choose a different way to participate. Students are also able to have the opportunity to experience risk in a safe and fun way. Understanding limits and personal boundaries is a part of many health curriculums. As are following safety precautions and understanding safety rules.

Prior to doing any sledding activity, be sure to discuss the safety rules with your students. Give them language to express when things are getting too fast or rough for their own comfort and provide examples of alternative ways that they can participate.

two kids on a sled together

Now Get Outside and Sled…

Using sleds for outdoor learning is a fun way for students to get some fresh air, move their bodies, and experience the thrill of speeding down the hill. However, sledding can also allow students to cover parts of the curriculum in a way that is deep and experiential. Sledding can be used to help students understand scientific concepts such as motion, gravity, forces, and friction. You can also use sleds to explore math concepts such as speed or measuring distance. Get creative, there are so many ways that sledding can be used as a learning activity.

Prior to sledding, or any other risky activity, it is important to have your risk management plan detailed and ready to go. Sledding is a risky activity that can become a dangerous activity if safety precautions are not taken seriously. Take some time to do a site assessment, set some rules and boundaries with your students, as well as provide students with examples of what to say if they are uncomfortable with the activity. With a bit of planning and preparation, you can make sledding safe, fun, and full of powerful learning.

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