Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
I don't know about you, but pretty soon here (in Minnesota) it is going to get outrageously cold outside, so I am always on the hunt around this time for fun, but challenging, winter STEM activity ideas to get through it!
January is notorious for its stinging, cutting, numbing, eyelash freezing, breathtaking (literally), bitter cold temperatures. By "cold" I mean -20 degrees F for weeks at a time. That kind of cold makes it difficult to want to go outside to grab the mail let alone go out for a nature walk.
So here we are. With questionable weather and winter break on the horizon, parents and educators are going to be scrambling for some fun, stimulating indoor activities. Winter STEM activity ideas are the way to go.
If you're an educator just trying to survive until winter break, try some of these winter STEM activity challenges. These activities are fun, they will occupy the antsy kiddos that are hopped up on holiday madness and break anticipation, and they are educational. STEM is a great way to learn content knowledge and build essential 21st-century skills.
The STEM challenges below are great for beginner STEM educators who might feel a tad intimidated by the prospect. I know the feeling. These activities are also adaptable for all ages and skill levels. I have done the sled challenge mentioned below with my 5 and 3-year-old, as well as with my high school students. I modify my facilitation method, level of involvement, and expectations of each learner. Tips are provided below! If you're not quite sure what STEM is, head to these posts on STEM 101.
Below you'll find winter STEM activity challenges that can be done using standard household/classroom items, trash, or recyclables. These activities are also highly flexible. If you don't have a "bigfoot" toy, for example, use something else! If you don't have a sledding hill, make one! Don't spend money, be open-minded, let kids get creative, and have fun!
Snow Day Inspired Winter STEM Activity Ideas for All Ages
1. Animal Rescue
The goal of this winter STEM activity challenge is to "rescue" an "animal" by engineering a contraption that will bring the "animal" to "safety". In other words, learners will design and build a tool that will bring a toy animal from point A to point B. I place the animal at point A, walk about 15 feet, and place a strip of electrical tape on the floor marking point B. Students cannot step over this line to rescue their animals.
I have done this activity with my own young children as well as my high school students. My children did exactly what I described above, only I added a little background story to make it more interesting - the animal was trapped on an island surrounded by lava.
My high schoolers did the same activity except I used this challenge as a way to simulate adaptations and variability as they relate to natural selection. I threw a pile of paper clips on the floor (bugs), made a large circle around the paper clips using electrical tape, and asked students to make contraptions (birds) with the goal of collecting the most paper clips (bugs) from the center of the circle.
The students gained content knowledge AND skills in a fun, interesting, and relevant way; my goal for any learning experience.
2. Yeti Escape
For this winter STEM activity ideas, students will make a "yeti" out of basic household/classroom materials and recyclables that will be placed on top of Sphero, like a cover. As Sphero moves, the "yeti" moves with it. The challenge is to create the fastest "yeti". If this isn't making sense, check out the pictures below. Hopefully, they will clarify some things!
If you have used a Sphero you know that they are not very powerful because they are round and made of smooth plastic; they slip easily. The covers, then, need to be engineered in a way that promotes quick movement, as the goal is for students to create a yeti that makes the fastest escape.
My kindergartener did this challenge and had to modify his design many times playing around with yeti weight, materials, and weight distribution.
Older students could design and conduct their own experiments around the same idea. They could also play around with coding Sphero. They could create a maze and code Sphero (and Yeti) to move through it. Get creative! Or give learners the freedom to lead their own learning experience using Sphero.
If you like this challenge but don't have Sphero, you can either alter the mode of transportation (such as a DIY balloon car) or grab yourself a Sphero! I love having Sphero because there is the option to code and it comes with a free, user-friendly, app.
There are a couple of options. I have a Sphero Mini (blue), which I like, but in the case of this this yeti experience, the miniature size caused it to slip around a bit more as more material was added to the yetis. The Sphero SPRK+, which is bigger, has more traction and can carry around more weight without slipping.
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3. LEGO Float
This is a favorite winter STEM activity because my child initiated the experience. He was playing around with a helium balloon that he got from a birthday party. I noticed him tying LEGO figures to the balloon string. Then he began to add and remove LEGO accessories to the LEGO figure tied to the balloon.
He continued to do this until the balloon was suspended at a level that was within his reach. He basically eliminated the need to hop on a chair to retrieve his balloon. Problem-solving at its finest, and completely self-led.
For children his age, then, a great activity would be to design a balloon weight using whatever materials available to keep the balloon within reach. LEGO STEM is awesome, but toothpicks, paperclips, cotton balls, etc. work well too. Tie this experience to lessons about mass, gravity, gas, and so on, or just let kids enjoy the experience of working with their hands and solving a problem as a team.
Older students can take it up a notch by designing and conducting their own experiments around the same concepts. This is scientific open-inquiry; a student-led scientific inquiry investigation. Click here for a scientific open-inquiry tool kit.
4. Sled Race
Learners design and engineer a mini-sled with the goal of winning a sled race for this winter STEM activity. This is a fun way to introduce Newton's Laws of Motion. Students take many factors into consideration including sled material, track material (you do not NEED an actual sledding hill for this experience), angle of the track, weight distribution, etc. They also practice many of the skills already mentioned that STEM challenges have to offer.
I have done this with my children and my high school students. Although the outcomes were different between the age groups, the process was the same. Both groups are encouraged to fail, identify solutions, modify the design, try again, fail, and so and so on.
I recently started a STEM Challenge product line in my store, and STEM Challenge: The Great Sled Race is the first resource in the line! It includes all of the materials to guide you and your students through the experience seamlessly from start to finish.
5. Obstacle Course
This is a great winter STEM activity for those stir-crazy youngsters that are trapped indoors, during break, for example. This is best suited for younger children, as space is a factor. I told my children to make an obstacle course in our basement using only items that were within sight. They propped couch cushions against each other to make tunnels, placed pillows on the floor to use as stepping stones, and even added rules and a background story creating a full-blown adventure.
This may sound fairly basic, and it is. But it's one of the reasons why I love this activity. It's easy to get started, it's child-led, it involves play and make-believe, it gives kids an opportunity to practice social-emotional skills, and so on. It is even a good way to introduce some math and science concepts.
For example, my 5-year-old propped two couch cushions against each other to create an A-frame to crawl through. Every time he crawled through the A-frame it would topple over. He played around with it, adjusted the angle, explored propping the pillows on different planes, and more.
6. Winter Shelter
This is another winter STEM activity that can be done across age groups and skills levels. I did this challenge with my toddler! The challenge is to build a shelter that can withstand cold temperatures using any materials that you have on hand (tin foil, styrofoam, play dough, clay, egg cartons, cardboard, etc. - one of my high school students even used snow). The goal is to build the warmest shelter.
Have learners build their shelters, place a chunk of banana in their shelters, put their shelters in a freezer or outside if it's cold enough, and let them sit there for at least one hour. Take the shelters out of the cold and check the banana's temperature in each shelter using a candy thermometer.
This is a fun way to play around with the concept of heat transfer. Older students could do this exact same experiment, and mine have. They could also design and conduct their own experimental inquiry investigations around this same idea. Head back up for the link to my inquiry tool kit.
7. Ski Lift
This winter STEM activity involves getting a skier (a LEGO figure is one option) to the top of a ski hill (actual snow hill or ramp of any kind) using a simple machine or a combination of simple machines. In other words, students cannot move the skier to the top of the hill with their hands.
They will design and build a pulley, lever, wheel and axle, etc., that will do the job for them. Students could get as elaborate as they would like with their systems, using a combination of machines. There is no limit to ingenuity!
My own children took this activity a step further by writing stories about their LEGO skiers and creating short stop-motion videos.
8. Zip Line
This is such a fun and easy winter STEM activity. It is exactly how it sounds, and is a common introductory STEM activity. My 5-year-old did this a few months ago. The goal was to get his Batman LEGO figure from one end of the room to the other by making a zip line.
The number of factors to mull over in this challenge is high, including the zip line material, angle of the line, the weight of the rider, friction between the line and the glider, and so on. Use this activity to teach about angles, gravity, motion, friction, and more.
9. Stuffed Animal Hotel
Again, this winter STEM activity is exactly how it sounds! Learners build a stuffed animal hotel using cardboard as their basic framework. For younger students like my 5-year-old, building a stationary hotel is a challenge in itself. Building stairs was a hard concept to grasp as was keeping a ramp from caving in. This is a great activity for younger children to learn some geometry concepts such as shapes and angles.
Older students could add to the challenge by including several moving parts such as an elevator, lift, garage opener, etc. And rather than creating a hotel for stuffed animals, toys that they most likely lost interest in long ago, have them create something more relevant to their lives such as their dream home or school. They could even extend this experience into a full-blown self-directed project-based learning experience.
10. Bigfoot Trap
My child has been on a big foot kick for years, so I only use bigfoot as the subject here because I have many big foot figurines in my house, AND, if you follow me on Instagram, you know that a "bigfoot hunt" has become a winter family tradition. However, you do not NEED to use a bigfoot toy for this fun winter STEM activity. Use anything!
Students will design and make a trap for bigfoot using a hodgepodge of whatever supplies are available and trap it! Placing the big foot or other object on a target will trigger an action that will trap bigfoot. Kids will draw from observations and experiences, test their traps, make adjustments, try again, and so on until they have created an effective bigfoot trap!
So there you have it. STEM is such a fantastic way to encourage discovery through observation, questioning, failure, and problem-solving. It organically integrates subject matter and provides opportunities to practice and build important skills. All great things. Why learn about natural selection or Newton's Laws of Motion by reading about them in textbooks when kids can learn about these concepts with hands-on experiences?
What are some STEM activities that you do with your kids or students? If you try any of the STEM activities I mentioned above, I'd love a report on the experience. Let me know how it goes! Send pictures to my email! Have a great break, everyone!
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To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.