Science in the Living Room—Winter Survival

by Christy Peterson

It’s December, and the weather may not be ideal for a backyard science adventure. That’s okay though, because your living room is a perfect place to explore how animals have adapted to survive the winter.

Survival Method #1—Follow the Sun

Many animals survive the winter by avoiding it altogether. Many birds and some insects gather in large groups and fly to warmer places that offer adequate food and water for the winter. Recently scientists have learned that some birds fly nonstop from summer breeding grounds to winter refuges. We’re talking thousands of miles and many days without a break! Most species, however, make stops along the way for food and rest.

Book: Welcome, Brown Bird, by Mary Lyn Ray & Flight of the Snow Geese, by Deborah King

Activity: Migration Tag

(This works well as an indoor game if your kids are small. If your kids are older and you don’t have room inside, you can adapt this activity to work outside.)

Object: To get safely from summer breeding grounds to winter gathering areas.

You’ll Need: 10 pieces of green paper and 10 pieces of brown paper

Setup: Designate a Start and a Finish (if you hide treats at the finish, it makes it even more fun). Tape the 20 pieces of paper in a “path” from start to finish. (The order is up to you, but don’t put too many of one color in a row.) You can use items other than green and brown paper for the “cities” and “refuges;” just make sure they will be okay for little feet to step on.

Rules: Pick one person to be “It.” They patrol the “migration route.” Everyone else starts at “Start.” Gather the kids together and pose the following scenario:

Winter is coming. Food is becoming scarce, and soon it will be too cold for you to survive. You are a bird, and you need to get to somewhere warmer. You need to walk to your winter home. If “It” tags you, go to the nearest square on the floor. If the square is green, you have made it to a safe rest stop. Count to ten and then keep going towards the Finish. If the square is brown, you have come to a city and need to go back to nearest green square and rest (count to 20). When you reach your winter home, relax and enjoy your success until everyone else arrives.

Survival Method #2—Sleep

Some animals cope with cold and food scarcity by going to bed—for a long time. We generally refer to this as “hibernation,” though technically there are variations among species. Some literally go into a state of suspended animation for the entire winter; others wake periodically to eat and move about.

Book: Time to Sleep, by Denise Fleming

Activity: Build a Hibernation Den

I’m cheating a little here because the “hibernation den” is just a new take on the classic indoor kid fort. Presumably you don’t need many instructions, just some chairs for the base and sheets or blankets for the roof. Fill the fort with pillows and snacks (unless, like us, you have dogs!) and you have the perfect hibernation den.

Building is half the fun, but when you are cuddled inside, you can talk about why an animal would want to have a den to sleep in. Why not just sleep outside? Ask them to go outside the “den” and then back inside. Which area is warmer?

Would they like to be a bear and sleep all winter? Or, would they rather be like a chipmunk and get up once in a while for a snack?

Survival Method #3—Tough it Out

A few birds and mammals don’t migrate or hibernate. The have thick fur or feathers to help keep them warm. They survive on plants, seeds, and hidden, sleeping insects. Some enter a state called torpor at night or during extreme cold spells. This is basically a “mini-hibernation.” Body temperature and activity drop significantly so the animal can conserve energy until the weather warms.

Some small mammals, like voles and mice, occupy the subnivean zone during periods of heavy snow cover. This is the area between the snow and the ground. Temperatures might be brutally cold outside, but in this zone, it remains a survivable 32 degrees.

Book: Over and Under the Snow, by Kate Messner

Winter Survival, Squirrel-Style

This last activity makes use of the den you just built. Have the kids find their biggest, fluffiest winter coats and put them on. You can use the narrative below to start the fun.

Your coat is just like the nice winter fur coat that a squirrel has. It’s daytime, and we’re going out in your fur coat to look for food. (If you have nuts for the kids to find, all the better.) Oh, oh! A big, cold storm is coming. Back to the den! Squirrels wrap up in their big fluffy tails. Since we don’t have tails, we’ll wrap up in these nice, warm blankets.

More Book Recommendations

Animals in Fall: Preparing for Winter, by Martha E.H. Rustad

Under the Snow, by Melissa Stewart

Christy Peterson

Christy Peterson is notorious for shouting “Look, LOOK” when she spots wildlife while riding in a car. Her husband begrudgingly admits that this can sometimes be useful, like when she spotted the grizzly bear in Yellowstone. When she isn’t nearly causing road accidents, she is a freelance writer. She lives in Vancouver, WA with the aforementioned husband, two kids, two dogs, three cats, two guinea pigs, one frog, three lizards, and some fish! She blogs at