Polar Bears and Penguins in Parkas

The snow is falling, the wind is blowing, and there is a cool, crisp feeling in the air. Winter is definitely upon us. Time to bring out the big winter coats! Human beings are able to bundle up with marshmallow jackets, knit hats, and water proof boots, but have you ever thought about how outdoor animals stay warm in the snow without the fluffy parka and gloves?

This ‘hands on’ experiment will help your child understand the very special insulation polar bears and penguins use to keep warm during the coldest season. Now, prepare to get a little messy and test your tolerance for less-than-tepid temperatures!

What you need:

  • Butter or margarine
  • Bucket of ice water
  • Stopwatch


  1. First, set the bucket of ice water in front of your child and have them dip their hand into the ice water. Time how long they can keep their hand in the water. It shouldn’t be very long, considering ice water is not fun to expose yourself to.
  2. Write down the length of time your child was able to hold their hand in the ice water. Then allow them about 5 minutes to warm up their little hands.
  3. Now for the really fun part! Take a stick of butter, or margarine, and have your child completely cover their hand in a thick layer of butter. Make sure that they really cake it on.
  4. Have them dip their buttered hand into the ice water bucket and, again, time it with a stopwatch. When they take out their hand notice how the water beads off their buttered-up hand. They will be surprised to discover that the coldness of the water doesn’t affect them as quickly the second time!

Why’d the butter layer help?

Explain to your child that butter is a fat, and winter animals have a very thick layer of fat under their fur that comfortably wraps up their insides like a blanket. Polar bears for example, have a layer of fat, or blubber, up to 11 centimeters in thickness! This blubber helps animals insulate their bodies, especially in the freezing water while swimming. Also, fat works as a natural water-repellent, as your child saw when the water beaded up and slipped off his or her skin.

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