The first snow falls of winter is a time of celebration as the kids eagerly pile layers and layers of clothes on to head out and explore! Living in the snowbelt of Ontario means we have no shortage of snow days. Grab your favorite mittens and cozy tuque for an adventure as we discover the science of snow with our free snowflake unit study and activities!
Why does it snow?
Snow is part of our world’s water cycle. The sun’s heat causes water to evaporate from our oceans, lakes, or rivers into water vapor that rises up into the sky. The higher it goes, the colder it gets. This water vapor starts to change back into tiny water droplets or ice crystals that come together as clouds (condensation). Snowflakes form when its cold enough for water vapor to freeze onto a microscopic particle of pollen or dust floating in the sky. These snowflakes are very small but grow as more water vapor freezes onto that first ice crystal. It gets bigger, and bigger, until it gets so heavy it starts to fall to the ground (precipitation). When the weather is warmer, the snow melts and flows back into the water system (collection) and the cycle begins again! (Some water vapor is also released into the water cycle through plants in a process called transpiration and through sublimation where ice or snow directly converts into a gas instead of becoming a liquid first.)
Watch: What makes it Snow? Winter Precipitation for Kids | Free school
Activity: Free snow cycle poster and worksheets
Join the list at the end of this post to visit our subscriber page and download your FREE Snow Cycle Poster and Worksheets. If you’re already a subscriber, find this activity on our community page (check your most recent Newsletter for the link).
Why do snowflakes come in different shapes and sizes?
Every snowflake starts out as a tiny hexagon ice crystal. Why is it six sided instead of four or eight? That’s because when water molecules (made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen) bond and freeze together with other water molecules, they arrange themselves in a lattice of hexagonal rings. As our little ice crystal falls to the Earth, it’s exposed to different temperatures and humidity conditions along the way. It’ll pick up more water vapor and dust that will freeze onto our first ice crystal and branch from each of its six corners. Snowflakes that grow in warmer temperatures grow slower, creating more flat and lacy plates. But, if it then travels through a colder gust of wind, we’ll start seeing thin plates, hollow columns, and needle shapes emerge. Since no two snowflakes travel through the exact same path and conditions on their way down, no two snowflakes are the same shape or size! If it starts to get warmer closer to the ground, many snowflakes might start melting and sticking together to form larger flakes.
Activity: Watercolor resist and salt snowflake art
We loved this fun water color resist art project inspired by onelittleproject.com. Before creating your own snowflake designs, take some time to study these amazing photomicrographic images of snowflakes captured by Wilson A. Bentley (we’ll learn more about him later!) on snowflakebentley.com. Pay special attention to the arrangement of plates, needles, and other shapes in each snowflake then come up with your own! Use white crayon to add your new design to your cardstock. Paint over with cool winter colors (blues, purples, greens) and add salt while it is still wet to reveal secret crystalline designs that magically appear as it dries. Beautiful!
Study: Snowflake Bentley Images
Art Tutorial: Magic Salt and Watercolor Art | One Little Project
Activity: Paper snowflakes
We can’t have a snowflake unit study without paper snowflakes! Check out this wonderful round up of free snowflake templates from thesprucecrafts.com
Activity: Marshmallow snowflake building stem challenge
You can’t go wrong with marshmallows! After studying the photos of snowflakes in our earlier activity, set out bowls of small marshmallows, large marshmallows, and toothpicks, and invite your children to build a snowflake! Start with a large marshmallow as that first ice crystal that developed from that tiny piece of dust and water vapor. Now imagine the journey your marshmallow took as it fell to the ground, branching off in different directions. Remind them to begin their design with a hexagon and build symmetrically.
Why does snow look white?
Light is made up of different wavelengths and our brain understands each of these wavelengths as a different color. The colors we see all around us are the wavelengths reflected back to our eyes. A blue block absorbs all the colors except blue light which it reflects back to us. The tiny ice crystals in snow reflect back all of the sun’s seven colors of the rainbow, which when combined, look white. Objects that absorb all the colors look black.
Activity: Grow salt crystal paper snowflakes
Create your own crystal snowflakes with this wonderful activity from gosciencekids.com. You’ll need white paper, scissors, table salt, hot water, a shallow plate, and some patience, Hang them up when you are done to catch and reflect the light!
Why does it snow more on one side of a mountain?
Have you ever wondered why it often snows more on one side of the mountain than the other? In winter cold winds from the sea bring clouds that hit the mountain and begin to rise over top. The farther away you get from the Earth’s surface, the colder it gets. The lower pressure up on the mountain top just isn’t very good at holding onto all that heat. When the air is near sea level, the air pressure squishes it into a smaller space. But up on the mountain the air pressure is lower. Now that same air and all its heat is spread out over a bigger space. It thins out pretty quickly and it gets very, very cold. As the clouds rise up over the mountain, these frigid conditions cool the floating water vapor making it snow. Most of the snow is gone before the clouds travel to the other side. With all that moisture now gone, it stops snowing and the clouds disappear.
Activity: Art Appreciation
Spend some time studying this wonderful color wood block print by Takahashi Hiroaki (Japan, 1871-1945) titled Foot of Mount Ashitaka , and appreciate the snowy peaks in the background. Download a jpg. of this print for study from the LACMA collections here. Then try asking these questions:
- What is this artwork about?
- What was your reaction when you first saw it?
- Which area of the print do you think the artist is emphasizing? Why?
- How would you describe this print to a friend who hasn’t seen it?
- Why do you think the artist created this?
- What do you think this print says about Japanese culture?
- What does this print make your think of or remind you of?
- If you had to create a story to go with this picture, what would it be?
Who is snowflake Bentley?
When Wilson A. Bentley (1865 – 1931) was given a microscope by his mother, the first thing he wanted to study was snowflakes. He was only 15 years old at the time and living in their family’s small farmhouse in the town Jericho, Vermont . He tried to draw what he saw, but the snowflakes melted too quickly to capture their detail! He finally asked his father to buy him a bellows camera – an early model that wasn’t the easiest device to use. At first the photos didn’t turn out very well. He didn’t have any photography training and tried to attach the camera to the microscope lens. But after 2 years of patience and persistence, everything finally came together. On January 15, 1885 he became the first person to photograph a single snow crystal through his microscope (called photomicrographs). He continued his studies and would eventually create a portfolio of over 5000 snowflakes, earning his nickname “snowflake” Bentley. In November 1931, his work was published in the book “Snow Crystals” by McGraw/Hill. We can still purchase this amazing collection today (link below)!
Activity: Studying snowflakes under a microscope (or magnifying glass)
Head outside on a calm cool day with gentle snowfall for this hands-on science of a snowflake investigation. If you don’t have a microscope, follow the directions for catching your snowflake specimen and use a quality magnifying glass to examine instead.
- portable microscope
- glass slides
- soft bristled brush
- sturdy table in a sheltered spot outdoors
- phone camera for taking pictures (optional)
- Set up your equipment outside and allow it to cool for 15 minutes. Or, chill your glass slides in the freezer.
- Use your glass slide to collect falling snow. Make sure it’s very cold or they will melt quickly. Use mittens to protect little fingers.
- Alternatively, use your brush to gently pick up snowflakes that have collected in drifts. Tap the end of your brush over your slide to transfer.
- Place your snowflake under your microscope and adjust the focus to view.
- Angle your phone’s camera into the eyepiece to photograph.
- Tip: wear a mask or scarf to cover your mouth and prevent your warm breath from melting your specimen.
Snowflake Arts and Crafts
Celebrate what we have learned with these fun snowflake art projects and crafts to decorate your home this Winter.
1. Crochet snowflake
Winter is the perfect time to fill your evenings with handicrafts. My eldest is continuing to learn how to crochet. Try this pattern from stichesnscscrapes.com or make up your own.
2. Paper Roll Snowflakes
If you have been collecting empty toilet paper rolls, this is the perfect craft! Check out the tutorial from colorfulcraftcorner.com
3. Beaded snowflake ornaments
Add a little sparkle to your window by creating these beaded snowflake ornaments from rhythmsofplay.com.
Book basket: Books about snow
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Before you go, explore our FREE Winter Nature Poetry and Copywork to complement your seasonal nature studies.
Happy snowflake hunting!