Snow – A Great Maker Material

We’ve all done that classic maker activity at one time or another: the paper cut out snowflake. Most makers would agree that paper is one of our most basic, essential materials. For me, many of my earliest “Making Memories” are from time spent playing out in the snow! Therefore I would like to suggest that FROZEN WATER is also an incredible, versatile material for makers, young and old alike. Yes snow – the thing we love to hate when it interrupts our daily commute. While the challenges it causes may give snow a bad reputation, on balance this frozen water has many qualities that make it valuable to makers both outside of education and within.

This post has been inspired by something my sons and I did this winter, something most people would call “crazy”. We slept outside in the snow fort we made! This got me thinking about outdoor making in the winter, and I came up with many examples that I’d like to share.


In my early years (to be precise it was the winter of grade 4) I recall we didn’t get much snow, so during recess we used our feet to make huge elaborate “floor plans” in the snow. Scraping and shovelling with our boots, we made little piles stretched out in long lines, and then squished the snow into 10 cm high “walls”. Next we made openings for “doors” and defined newly scraped spaces as “rooms” and “halls”. The kitchen was particularly interesting, since we had to add in fixtures and appliances.

I was reminded of that memory this past week at my children’s school, where children had dug a “kitchen” into a snowbank. A block of snow here for a plate, another over there for a pet cat. A square hole in a snowbank was at times a microwave, a sink, or a garbage can. Next to this “kitchen” my sons and his friends had made a very similar looking structure – but for them it was the “secret agent fort” complete with secret communications, and a war plan. (Should I be distressed to hear about spies, enemy agents, and double crossing?) For them holes in the snowbank were weapon storage for their horde of snowballs!


The great thing about snow is how easy it is to work with. Doesn’t work the first time? Snow is like playdough – reform and reshape it. Pack it down with pressure, heat it up a bit in your hand to make it stay where you want. If that doesn’t work, start all over again with some fresh snow in a different part of the yard. Making ice sculptures on the other hand is less like working with playdough and more like carving sandstone. You don’t need glue for ice – you just get another piece, some water on the surfaces and then cool it again (maybe clamp it?) and you’ve reiterated. The tools for ice carving are also more fun: chainsaws instead of shovels!


Snow can bring out the best in children. Most obvious is the enthusiastic young entrepreneurs who go door to door offering to shovel for a fee. When it comes to winter making, my children think ahead about shovelling snow into conveniently located piles for future project use. Often my children are out early to shovel on school days, and our square patch of grass becomes surrounded with 4 walls of snow. This includes the wall made by the snowplow along the street, and suddenly, with a couple of turrets on the corners, we see the merging of responsibility and organization with imagination.


Making a snowman takes cooperation. Children have to plan where to start the snowball so they will end up in the right place. Getting the second ball on top of the first is not easily achieved alone, so children have to talk together to plan and organize how to lift it on top.


Uniquely Canadian problems have brought innovative solutions from Canadian inventors. The snowmobile and the Zamboni are both products that resulted from recognizing a problem and applying the design process. This is not a modern phenomenon, as Inuit inventors long ago solved the problem of snow blindness with a strip of material cut with two small slits. Inuit people have for many years survived harsh northern winters. They have survived through ingenuity and deep knowledge of snow and ice (both in hunting and in shelter building) to the point where the “Igloo” is probably the most readily identifiable object connected to northern peoples.

Creativity, Beauty, Whimsy

There are so many ways in which frozen water astounds and delights the viewer and the maker, whether it’s Ice Candles, Snow Lanterns, Snow Angels, Ice Sculptures, watching snow fall, or catching snowflakes on your tongue. Who can forget the incredible beauty and geometry of the imaginative ice castle in the hit movie “Frozen”.


The physics of snow and ice has fascinated me since I was a young child. I have tinkered with structural snow by building snow forts. You can make them either by making snow piles and digging into them, or by rolling huge snowballs and arranging them. I have always wanted to make a fort big enough to sleep in, and this winter we did it! While my children did learn about the physics of the Roman Arch that supported our shelter, it wasn’t anywhere near as impressive as the incredible structures in the famous ice hotel scene in the James Bond film “Die Another Day”. Winter festivals in Ottawa and Quebec in Canada, and in other northern countries have adults reliving their youth, building huge snow and ice houses and play structures.


Snow and ice on their own cause risk of injury – just ask any injury lawyer. Makers in extreme winter sports know this as well, but that doesn’t stop children from making jumps on the local toboggan hill, parents from making long tube runs for their kids on family acreages, and young adults building impressive downhill skiing and snowboarding courses. Children especially learn so much from this otherwise risky exercise. Through a process of rigorous experimentation and testing, children learn how to make jumps that don’t disintegrate when their sled flies over it! They explore questions like what kind of snow to use, where to place the jump, how big, and what angle? It may be risky, but it is valuable learning. I won’t go into further detail here – you can read my previous blog post about risks and failure.

Winter Sports

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention making in the context of winter sports, particularly in the middle of the 2018 Winter Olympics. It is easy to spend most of winters indoors, but winter sports allow for enjoyable exercise even in the cold. As mentioned, the Zamboni was a big invention for ice sports that we take for granted today. The dutch invented skates in the 14th century. Now, after 400 years of curling, and 100 years of hockey, ice sports have seen new innovations recently, for example downhill ice skate racing, and the advent of “skate trails” like the new one built this year under Toronto’s elevated highway, or the popular trail in the woods at Arrowhead provincial park.

The Environment

Finally, snow (and ice) is reusable, recyclable, and likely the most environmentally friendly maker material. I often wonder about the waste we create when we make – and how we sometimes turn otherwise recyclable things into landfill, just by putting multiple materials together in the maker process (eg. a piece of cardboard contaminated with copper tape and glue gun glue). The great and sad thing about frozen water is that eventually, it simply melts.

Melting is both a solution, and a problem. It means this wonderful material only lasts for so long each year! I try to take advantage of snow and ice while I have the opportunity, so I’m going to finish this blog post and go down to the frozen river with my homemade ice fishing rod, and make some holes!