Science ideas for young children: Using cold weather to learn about science

Temperatures in Michigan have been very cold lately. Can you think of ways to use the cold to learn about science?

With temperatures dipping below -20 degrees Fahrenheit in parts of Michigan, it has been bitterly cold. You can use these temperatures to learn some science. The following are some simple experiments Michigan State University Extension recommends to try with children. They can be done within a family, in a daycare setting, as part of a school activity, a 4-H club or with any group working with young children. Remember to ask lots of questions and let kids come up with answers or experiments before you throw in your ideas.

1. Frostbite experiment using raw meat

Many schools in Michigan have been closed, not due to unsafe road conditions, but because of cold and wind chill. Discuss with children why would schools make the decision to close. Do they think teachers and principals want to go to school extra days in June? Most likely the concern is frostbite. You can test the effects of cold on human skin by putting raw meat outside and seeing how long it takes to freeze. How would this be the same or different from a person being outside? Would clothing protect you? Once the meat freezes, does it change once it thaws back out? How would this be the same or different from people? Does doing these experiments change what you think about school decisions?

2. Wind chill versus actual temperature experiment

What is the effect of wind chill versus actual temperature? You can test this by putting some meat in a box which cuts out the wind, and the other exposed next to it and see if it freezes differently. Does the type of box make a difference? Would a metal box be different than wood, plastic or cardboard? Set up some experiments and find out.

3. Cold weather effect on batteries experiment

Some people have been unable to start their car on chilly mornings. How does cold affect batteries? Try putting batteries outside and then use them to start electronic devices. Do you think there is a temperature at which the batteries no longer work?

4. Cold weather effect on plants experiment

How are plants affected by the extreme cold? Sometimes cold temperatures can kill flower and leaf buds on trees. How could you test to see if that has happened this year? Horticulturists sometimes “force” buds by bringing branches indoors and seeing if the flower or leaf buds emerge. Use pruners to cut branches from several parts of your property and see if the buds open up. Do you think buds from some parts of the property take longer to open up than others? Compare how the buds emerged from cut branches to how they emerge when spring does finally come.

5. Infrared thermometer testing

What do you think is the best place for animals to hide when it gets cold? Are some habitats better than others for keeping warm? Guess which potential habitats might be warmer, such as within a conifer tree, in a burrow underground, hidden in a woodpile, or under a vehicle. Use an infrared thermometer to confirm or deny your hypothesis.

Have fun, enjoy your experiments, and stay cool (but not too cool)! 

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