Winter Plant Observations
Strategies for Survival

* Handout: Plants in Winter
* Seasonal Tree Photos (optional)
Whether you live in Alaska or Florida, the natural world changes come winter. While you're pondering just what your tulips are up to underground, why not uncover what's happening to other plants this time of year? How do they survive the season?

Teacher Background
To help you guide student observations, find out what happens to plants in the winter and learn the "why" behind it. Visit our Teacher Background for this activity.

Laying the Groundwork
As a class, explore these questions and create a chart listing student responses for each one.

  • What's different outdoors in the winter than in the fall or summer? (You may have to prompt students with questions about temperatures, when it gets dark, and so on.) What challenges might living things face?
  • How do you prepare for winter changes (e.g., wear warmer clothing, come in earlier)?
  • How do you think plants prepare for or respond to those changes?

Discuss the fact that plants can't migrate to places that have better conditions for winter survival, like animals can. Invite students to become keen observers of plants in their schoolyards and neighborhood this winter and try to figure out just how plants get by.


  1. Choose plants. Together, identify one or more plants or groups of plants, besides your bulbs, that you want to observe this winter and/or spring. For instance, you might look at plants in a nearby meadow or compare an evergreen tree and a deciduous tree.
    You might decide to observe many plants just once, or observe one (or more) plants each month so you can note changes. If you start this in the fall, students can observe changes that take place as winter begins.

  2. Observe and record. Students can take the Plants in Winter handouts outside with them, or complete these back in class. (Edit the handout to fit your grade level or create a class chart on flipchart paper.) Encourage students to draw and describe what they see. Ask, How are plants different than they were in the summer and fall? Students will likely notice obvious items, such as missing leaves. The background information can help you guide them to notice less obvious structures, such as buds on branches.

Making Connections

  • Combine student observations on a class list. How do they compare with their initial ideas? If practical, try to group observations as students see fit (e.g., colors, plant parts). Go through the list and for each observation or change ask, Why? How might this help the plant survive the winter?

    Remind the class that there is always a WHY behind WHAT we see!
    Share some of the background information once students have posed their own theories.
    Observation/Change How it Could Help Plant Survive
    grass is dried up won't freeze?

  • Ask, On the basis of what we observed here and with our tulips, how do you think our tulips manage to survive winter? Once students share their ideas, read Tulip Bulbs: A Survival Tale.

Digging Deeper

  • Activity: How do freezing temperatures affect plant leaves? (activity to come)
  • Seasonal Photos/Assessment: Go to this photo collection depicting a tree in each of the four seasons. Have students look closely at the photos. Ask them to describe what they see in each frame. Next ask them to explain how what they see in each season helps the plant survive. (Do this only if they have already explored plants through the seasons.) Consider the following:
    * In summer, a tree's leaves make food.
    * Fall colors show through as the leaves stop making food and prepare for winter.
    * In winter, many trees lose their leaves (which could freeze or dry out the plant); they send the food the leaves made down to the roots.
    * Spring flowers attract pollinators so the plants can produce seeds (offspring)