As a physical educator in northern Minnesota, I have to be prepared for long winters with lots of snow! Because I still want my students to get outside for fresh air and some natural vitamin D, I’ve gotten creative with one of my favorite units, which focuses on a standards-based approach with teaching opportunities in social and emotional learning.
Here are a few winter activities for elementary PE that include opportunities to practice personal responsibility, cultural studies, and physical fitness outside.
Snow Fort Unit
As a PE teacher for grades K-6, I’ve had a lot of success teaching the importance of guided play, goal setting, teamwork, working with others, communication, and valuing other students’ creations with respect.
When snowplows create large piles of snow outside our school, each PE class gets a hill of snow to create a snow fort. Each fort is required to have slides, safe tunnels, shelters for students to go in, a creative space where students get to create anything, and walls built by snow boulders to protect the fort.
This is one of the students’ favorite PE activities every year!
I have had PE classes where students have needed to work on taking turns, sharing, watching out for others, respecting personal space and others’ property, as well as working on spatial awareness. One of the best outdoor activities I have found to teach these skills is sledding down a hill.
When I wanted to try this unit, I was lucky enough to receive a grant from the local power company to purchase enough sleds for one section of students. (It is recommended if you are looking for a grant to purchase the sleds, try to get at least one sled per student.)
In my case, since not all students had their own sled to use, it was necessary to make sure every student had the opportunity to use a sled. The students helped come up with the safety rules and expectations, talked about the physical activity benefits of sledding outside and what it does to the body, and also mapped out their sledding “tracks.”
Overall, my students enjoyed sledding in a group and the simple joy of a great outdoor activity.
Snowman Days is one of my favorite days at the end of the winter. During and after the pandemic, it became even more apparent how important getting fresh air was for my students’ physical and, more important, emotional health.
I thought it would be a great physical activity to build snowmen, as it was a way to practice working with others, creativity, and teamwork, as well as being a fun physical activity. When I brought my kindergarten class out for the first time, I was surprised by the conversation we first had, although post-pandemic it made so much sense.
They all asked me, “How do you build a snowball?”
Wow, that got to me as a teacher, as a mother, and as a Minnesotan! My students needed to be taught how to build a snowball and how to roll it to make it larger. So, my youngest students were instructed to find a partner and work together to squish the sticky, wet snow together and roll it into a large ball. Once the students were happy with the size of their snowball, they found a new partner to make another snowball.
This activity included all students of all abilities — and invited student choice and input. It was hard work for the students as they got ready to make the snowmen and helped each other lift the pieces of everyone’s snowman together.
The greatest lesson my students learn from Snowman Days is the following: The (snow) people will break and fall down, with all sorts of (weather) conditions, but we can be a team and all work together to “build” each other “up” every single day!
With a little creativity and using the resources around your school, you can enjoy teaching physical fitness, social and emotional learning, and responsibility during PE — even in the winter months!
- 5 Tips for Teaching Physical Education Without a Gym
- Fishin’ for Change: Combining Physical Education and Outdoor Recreation
Heather Burd, the 2021 Minnesota Elementary Physical Education Teacher of the Year, is in her eighth year of teaching in the Win-E-Mac school district in her hometown of Erskine, MN. Heather teaches physical and health education for grades K-12 and is an adjunct instructor for the College in High School program through Minnesota State. She also serves on the MNSHAPE Board of Directors.