When your backyard gets a nice snowy blast of winter, it’s time to start playing and learning. You can either use the snow and freezing temperatures as your outdoor lab, or you can stay in and let the cold weather fuel your inspiration to explore STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) in new ways. 

Ready, aim, fire!

Who doesn’t love the idea of a really good snowball fight? This snow day–inspired activity combines engineering with physics and delivers a lot of fun! Even better, these tools teach something about potential energy and how it can be transferred for maximum speed and distance.

Catapults and trebuchets are the classic tools that still have plenty of possibilities for today’s makers and problem solvers. However, if you’re looking for something simpler, try designing slingshots, throwers or launchers, all of which use household objects. Even better, safe-for-launching objects like foam balls are plenty adequate for testing and evaluating these tools for distance, speed and accuracy. Once the launcher is finished, talk about its strengths and weaknesses and ways to improve the design.

Salt and ice

One easy real-world discovery is experimenting with the effect salt has on ice. All it takes is an easy kitchen counter experiment to demonstrate how salt lowers the freezing point of water. Talk about how salt is used by road workers to make icy roads safe for driving.

There’s also an opportunity to talk about the environmental effects of salt spray and salty runoff, because for one, it damages plants in the path of the salt spray and displaces soil nutrients. Brainstorm ideas to protect the turf, plants and trees in your yard from road salt, and talk about what cities can do to protect wildlife.

How much water is in there?

Take three jars and fill them each to the top with one of the following ingredients: snow, ice cubes and water. Allow the snow and ice to melt and see how much water the snow and ice leave behind. The results may surprise your kids. Before they melt, weigh them, and ask the kids to predict what will happen, and talk about why snow has less water content.

Snow buildings

A snow fort made of hard-packed snow blocks is the perfect project for any fan of LEGO Bricks. Spend a snowy afternoon together building a snow fort, but beforehand, talk features of the snow fort and how to build them. Talk about construction strategies to make the structure strong and reinforced. (Hint: How about a layer of ice?) How can you incorporate ice into the structure to make windows and let in light?

For those with older kids looking for a bigger challenge, a snow cave may be just the project. It combines a formidable construction challenge with lessons about winter survival. (This is the shelter of choice for winter camping in the backcountry.) A word of warning: Do your research, because snow caves can collapse! Once the snow cave is built, use a thermometer to show the temperature difference between the shelter and the open air.

Light up the night

Transform your bleak backyard by building and designing snow lanterns while exploring the properties of filtered light. When the sun sets, admire the glow of the snow-filtered light. Swedish-inspired snowball lanterns are simple hollow pyramids made of stacked snowballs. Leave an opening so you can place a tea candle or battery-operated flameless candle. As you build together, experiment with small snowballs and larger ones and talk about pros and cons of using the different sizes. Which makes a more sturdy structure? Does one illuminate better than another? 

You can also shape snow into tall, hard-packed columns with a hollowed-out indentation at the top, where you can place your luminary.

One fun variation is an ice lantern. Experiment with food coloring, decorations and natural things like evergreens to see how they change the effect.

Or, come up with your own design to build a snow lantern. In the end, kids can create an enchanting space to play after the sun sets.

Sledding 

Combine this super-fun winter activity with a lesson that gets kids thinking about physics. Race two sleds down the hill and discuss the factors that helped the winning sled. What changes to the sled design could be made? What are the differences between sliding down a “fresh” hill and a hard-packed hill?

Cold weather may make you want to stay in and read a book. But look at it in a new way, and all seasons of the year are filled with opportunities for kids to explore, build and create.