Notes from the Naturalist Week 19:The Nature Preschool at HCMA


How many times have you said the phrase: Out of sight, out of mind? When looking at our winter wonderland, do you wonder where the different animals have gone, both big and small? Out of sight, perhaps, but not very far for some of the smaller size. We explored the word and the secret animal kingdom called the SUBNIVIEAN zone.  It is under that beautiful layer of crusty snow we see right now, a world so busy, with warmth and a supply of food. This secret kingdom may be out of sight but it is a world of the living, under our feet!

“The word “subnivean” comes from the Latin words for under (“sub”) and snow (“nives”) and refers to the open, shallow layer that usually forms under deep, layered snow. The layer can form two ways. The first is when vegetation, leaf debris or trunks and branches physically hold the snow up, which creates an open space that can be used by the small mammals. The subnivean layer can also be created as the snow is warmed by the ground, and sublimates into water vapor that moves up through the snow pack. This sublimation, or the transformation of solid snow particles into the moist gas, changes the lowest snow layer into small ice particles that then act as an insulating roof. The sublimation also occurs when the snow is physically help up, providing further insulation. The result is a humid winter habitat with relatively stable temperatures around 32 degrees.” –

So who is living under the snow? Several animals live in the subnivean zone and depend on this layer for survival. Mice, volves, and chipmunks are among several species who take to the Subnivean as a means of survival in winter. Chipmunks generally sleep more than mice or voles, but will occasionally wake up, eat, move about and then settle back in for a long nap. Snowshoe hare will burrow in next to a ledge area, or downed tree and since they are active year-round, you will not find them in the true subnivean.

We played in “home-made” playdough today – white in color with silver glitter- just to give it that crystal ice look. The children loved it!  The snow playdough was fitting for today’s topic on Subnivean and will set the stage for next week when we talk about wildlife tracks in the snow. We read “Over and Under the Snow” by Kate Messner, which is a fantastic book on connecting what is happening as we walk (or as in the book – ski) above ground, there is a busy world below. The snow playdough was such a hit, that is was hard to get our nature preschoolers away! I promised the children I would share the recipe with families, so here it is:

Homemade Playdough (

1 cup Salt

2 cups flour

2 tablespoons Cream of Tartar (Alum also works)

2 cups of water

2 tablespoons oil (olive, canola, etc.)

Put all ingredients in a saucepan and stir until combined over low heat.

Add choice of food coloring – if you want it to be white skip this step).

Put over the heat and keep stirring until you feel the texture change, it may start to stick to pan.

Take off the heat and keep stirring until one big lump attached to spoon.

It will be quite sticky so you’ll need to work it with your hands until it isn’t.

Store until cool for use – always keep air-tight so it doesn’t dry up! Add silver glitter!

Jennifer MacDonaldComment