Outdoor Winter Habitat Study Activities for Elementary Students

Cover Image Winter Outdoor Habitat Study Activities

Just because it is winter, doesn’t mean that your outdoor learning time should come to an end. Students can experience the many benefits of outdoor learning in winter as well as during the warmer months. There are so many ways that you can get outside with your students and explore the winter habitats in your outdoor learning space. Studying habitats is a great way to help kids connect to nature and begin to understand the relationships that exist in nature. They also start to build their own relationship with nature while also meeting some of your curriculum objectives. Why not immerse your students in a winter habitat study activity so that they can get outside and thrive this winter?

Chickadee sitting on a branch

Before You Start- Winter Outdoor Education Safety

Taking the time to ensure that everyone is safe and comfortable will help your students have a positive experience and want to get outside more during the winter.

1. Dressing for the Weather

To ensure your students stay comfortable, warm and dry it’s important to ensure that everyone comes dressed for the winter weather. Kids who don’t come with ski pants or forget their mittens will get wet and cold rather quickly and not enjoy their time outside.

The basics of dressing for winter weather are:

  • dressing in layers
  • avoiding cotton clothing (it gets wet and stays wet)
  • a shell (wind and waterproof layer) as the outer layer on both top and bottom
  • warm winter boots (warm and waterproof)
  • mittens, toques, scarves etc.- bring extras

Take some time to prepare your students so that they know what dressing for the winter weather looks like. You can find some handy tools for communicating with families in our “Get Outside Tool Kit.”

2. Check the Snow and Weather Conditions in Advance

As part of ensuring your student’s safety, be sure to conduct a site assessment of the area you plan on using. Before taking your students out to build, ensure that you check the snow and weather conditions in the area that you plan to build in.

Some Additional Things to Consider Are:
  • how deep is the snow? can the kids easily travel through the snow? Is it accessible to everyone?
  • is the snow covering up any potential hazards?
  • are there icy areas that kids need to be aware of?
  • are there any hazards in the area that need to be mitigated?
  • are there areas with overhanging snow or ice that could fall?
  • what is the temperature and windchill?
  • do we have a warm-up space?
two children running outside

Winter Habitat Study Activities

Be an Animal Detective, Look for Animal Signs

Take your students out to look for different signs that an animal has been visiting or living in your outdoor learning space. Your students will need to be keen detectives to find different clues left by animals. Remind your students not to disturb the clues so that all students can see them. Using magnifying glasses will help your students to embrace their new detective identities.

Some examples of signs of animals are:

  • footprints
  • animal poop
  • hair or feathers
  • wing prints
  • deer nests (flattened grass or snow where a deer has slept)
  • food stashes
  • cone droppings from squirrels (leftover bits of cones and seeds)

Once your students have found some animal clues, have them try to figure out what the clues are trying to tell us about the animals and how they survive in the winter. Are they storing food for the winter? Maybe they are looking for shelter? Are they hiding from a predator? Sometimes we might not be able to see an animal, but we can still learn from the clues they leave for us.

A great book to read to build on this is “Over and Under the Snow” by Kate Messner.

Design a Winter Habitat

If it is difficult to find signs of animals, why not create your own habitats? This activity allows students to use their imaginations while they create a mini habitat using the snow and found materials in your outdoor learning space.

Prior to getting started, have your students list what all animals need to survive (food, water, and shelter.) Have students choose a local animal to build their habitat for. For younger students I have them use stuffies or puppets that represent different animals to help them visualize what they will be creating. The students can then build a habitat space using the snow and found materials for their chosen animal. They should create a habitat that meets that animals needs for food, water, and shelter.

Once all the habitats have been created, have the students tour the different habitats to see what other students have created. You can discuss how each student chose different ways to help the animal meet it’s needs through the habitat they created.

rabbit footprints in the snow

Footprint Studies

This is a fun activity for older students who are able to explore more without as much direct supervision. Students are provided with a footprint field guide. You can either purchase some or find some online to print. Students are then tasked with identifying different tracks that they find in the snow. This becomes especially interesting if different types of tracks are intersecting. Students can infer why the different types of tracks might be found in the same area and what it might indicate.

These are the guides that I use with my students.

Plants in the Winter

Plants have so many ways of adapting to the winter climate. We spend lots of time studying plants during the warmer months when flowers are blooming and leaves are out, but we often forget about them during the winter months. Take some time to explore the plants in your outdoor learning space with your students. You may want to even sketch the plants that you see.

Some questions you may want to use to help guide your students are:

  • what parts of the plant can we still see? What parts are gone? (For example are there still berries on a bush?)
  • what do you notice about the plant?
  • how do you think this plant will start to grow in the spring? Are there any clues?
  • can you find the seeds on the plant?

Winter Nature Walk

A winter nature walk is a great way to get outside and get moving with your students. As you take your students on a walk in your community or outdoor learning space, have the students point out some of the different things that they are noticing. For example, you might notice a ton of birds in a particular area or an interesting set of footprints. After your walk is completed you can have students compile a list of all of the different things that they observed. You could also have students draw what they saw to visually recreate the habitat. Once you have a list or set of pictures of the different plants, animals, and components of the habitat you can have your students discuss how all of the pieces are connected and play an important part in the habitat.

a fox standing in the snow

Who is Hibernating

This is a fun activity with younger students, although some older students enjoy role-playing games too! Spend some time learning about who is hibernating and sleeping through the winter. Students are often surprised to learn about which animals sleep through the winter and which ones stick around.

Provide your students with some examples of animals that hibernate. I like to have a set of pictures to share with the students as well. The students can then pretend to be one of the animals and start to prepare their space for hibernation. You can prompt your students by asking them what an animal might be looking for in their den or shelter. This activity can be supplemented with some indoor videos that explain how hibernation works.

Now Let’s Get Outside and Try One of These Winter Habitat Study Activities

Don’t let winter stop you from getting outside and exploring your local habitats with your students. After all, some of our local animals are outside all winter long. Take some time to get outside with your students and try one of these easy winter habitat study activities. Your students will have fun engaging with the space while also learning about and empathizing with some of the local animals that must find ways to survive through the winter. You will be amazed at what your students will find outside in the winter, especially if they are given the chance to visit the same space repeatedly. Winter is a great time to get outside and thrive!

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