Too cold? Observing animals in winter

National Weather Service temperature forecast map of the United States.With very cold weather settling into many areas, children’s outdoor time may be restricted due to temperature and wind chill limits set relative to the temperature ranges normally experienced in their area. ChildCare Aware of North Dakota’s guidelines include:

  • Outdoor play is recommended when temperature/wind chill is 15 degrees F or above.
  • Use caution when temperature/wind chill is between 0 to 15 degrees F.

Sasha Martin’s blog post about the variety of acceptable temperatures for outdoor play, “How cold is too cold for recess? 24 parents across the globe weigh in,” shares parents’ experiences from around the world. Obtaining appropriate winter weather clothing for all children in a program, and having it available when needed, can make it possible to be outside even in what feels like very cold weather. 

Child uses a tally chart to count the number of crows and squirrels observed.On a walk in the neighborhood preschool children noticed goldfish swimming in a fish pond that had a thin ice sheet around the pond edges. Such an observation could be the beginning of an investigation into how local animals are able to survive and even be active when temperatures are uncomfortable for children without thick jackets and mittens. We talked about how different animals have different needs as we wondered. We decided that something about their environment makes it possible for the fish to stay alive–our evidence was their active presence. (I wanted the specific information for my own curiosity and read up on the University of Illinois Extension Service’s site about how the properties of water create an environment where hardy fish survive.) Maybe you’ll only see evidence of an animal’s presence (deer droppings). Observing from a window allows animal counts to be made without disturbing the animals.

A "Wonder Wall,"  posting of questions, thoughts, and photos, a method of making their learning visible for the children and their families.In her Science and Children article, “How Do Plants and Animals Prepare for Winter? Local resources support an outdoor inquiry-based project” (2017), Brooke Larm writes about preschoolers’ exploration into how and why the plants and animals living in a place might change over time, how they could be connected, and how their coexistence could support their survival. Using a 5E structure and the Project Approach method, teachers and children explored the farm, discussed what fall meant to them, and had many first hand experiences which they documented through journaling, and photography. They created a “Wonder Wall,” posting questions, thoughts, and photos, a method of making their learning visible for the children and their families. Children’s drawings, “their representations of learning as documentation,” were used by teachers to help them assess children’s understandings and planning for further investigation of their essential question, “How Do Plants and Animals Prepare for Winter?”

Focusing children’s attention to seasonal changes of any kind supports their developing understanding of natural phenomena and their place on the planet.

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