Naturally Teaching

An elementary teacher science blog

“Over and Under the Snow” by Kate Messner: Teaching Animal Adaptations

Read this guide to learn tips to use "Over and Under the Snow" with your elementary students

Step into the enchanting world of Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner, where winter unveils the secrets of animal survival. This article explores the fascinating narratives of creatures above and below the snow, unraveling the mysteries of their adaptations. Whether you’re a teacher looking to enhance your classroom with lessons on animal adaptations or an enthusiast eager to understand the intricacies of winter survival, read on to uncover the amazing world created by Kate Messner in Over and Under the Snow.

Don’t need all the info? Use this list to jump to the stuff you need:

Facts about animal adaptations

Over and Under the Snow animals

Over and Under the Snow activities

Kindergarten – winter animal needs

1st grade – winter animal heredity

2nd grade – animal seed dispersal

Over and Under the Snow Book

The Over and Under the Snow book is by Kate Messner and is a fantastic introduction to animal adaptations, the subnivean layer, and winter survival. If you’re unfamiliar with this book it follows a child that’s out skiing with their dad and the animals they encounter during the winter.

"Over and Under the Snow" by Kate Messner is a fantastic book to use in your elementary classroom
“Over and Under the Snow” by Kate Messner uses text and illustrations to tell the story of animals survival in winter.

As the pages turn, the father explains to his child that there’s a lot happening with animals during the winter. They talk about animals that sleep under the snow like Bullfrogs and Black bears. He introduces his child to the subnivean layer, aka a secret kingdom, that small animals like voles and shrews use during the winter. As they ski they also talk about the animals, like deer and Great horned owls, that are above the snow and how they survive the scarcity of winter. 

If you are a teacher that teaches about animal adaptations or animal needs in your elementary classroom, the Over and Under the Snow book is a great one to read to your class during the winter season.

Facts About Animal Adaptations

Let’s get down to the nitty gritty and talk about facts about animal adaptations in winter. The hard truth is that if animals didn’t adapt in winter they would not survive. That being said, not all adaptations look (or act) the same. Here’s a short list of adaptations that animals could use to help them survive the season of scarcity:

  • Color change – Some animals exchange their mating colors for some different duds in the winter time. The male American Goldfinch is typically bright yellow and black during mating season but, come fall, they molt their yellow in favor of an olive color to better blend in with the bark on trees.
  • Molting/shedding – Some animals molt their feathers or shed their fur in order to grow thicker amounts of covering for insulation. This adaptation is often seen in addition to one of the others on this list. White-tailed deer shed their thin brown fur in favor of thicker gray fur. Their winter fur is hollow which helps trap air, insulating the animal more effectively against the cold.
This American Goldfinch male changes from a yellow and black coloration during mating season to an olive coloration in winter to avoid predation
American Goldfinch males change their colors for winter to camouflage with their surroundings.
  • Migrating – Some animals, like birds, migrate during winter. Contrary to popular belief, they aren’t escaping the cold temperatures. Birds that migrate south do so because their food sources become scarce in the winter. For instance, Great blue herons, which feed on fish, can’t stay in regions where water bodies freeze over. Instead, they fly to places where food is more accessible. As an exception, migrating insects are cold-blooded and have to relocate to somewhere that’s warm in order to obtain thermal energy to move around.
  • Subnivean layer – In winter, some animals, like voles and shrews, have a smart trick to stay warm and safe. They use something called the “subnivean layer.” It’s like a secret tunnel system under the snow. This zone is created by the snow piling up on obstacles or partially melting and refreezing. Small animals create cozy tunnels here, keeping them warm and hidden from winter’s harsh weather. It’s their way of staying safe and avoiding predators while still being active during the chilly season.
  • Hibernating – Hibernation is probably the most well-known but misunderstood winter adaptation. Everyone knows that hibernation is sleeping through the winter but they don’t realize that there are different levels of dormancy. Hibernation is when an animal enters a state of dormancy so deep that their body’s systems shut almost completely off, resulting in very low heart rates, breathing rates, and metabolism. This state of dormancy takes a while to be roused from. Woodchucks enter hibernation after gaining a bunch of weight in the fall which they live off of during the winter. Before a woodchuck enters hibernation its average heart rate is 80-100 beats per minute; while in hibernation their heart rate drops to 4 or 5 beats per minute (ESF, n.d.).
Giant leopard moth caterpillars spend the winter sleeping in the leaves in a state of dormancy called diapause.
Giant leopard moth caterpillars spend the winter sleeping in the leaves in a state of dormancy called diapause.
  • Torporing – Torporing is another state of dormancy but isn’t quite as extreme. The systems of the animals are reduced but not as far as hibernation and this state tends to be more flexible. Some animals, like the Black bear, will sleep for extended periods of time and then wake up to eat, drink, and excrete waste before they go back to sleep. Some animals, like the Black-capped chickadee, enter a state of torpor overnight in order to conserve energy.
  • Brumating – Brumating is the reptile and amphibian equivalent of torporing. Many reptiles and amphibians experience this state of dormancy where they tuck themselves below the frost line to sleep the winter away. Because they are cold-blooded, most reptiles and amphibians need to remain in a location that is below the frost line in order to keep their cells from damaging. Reptiles and amphibians can move up and down in the substrate depending on the temperature and have been reported to be active on particularly warm winter days.
  • Diapause – Diapause is the invertebrate equivalent of hibernating. Because invertebrates are cold-blooded and get their heat from their environment, all of them either sleep through the winter, migrate to some place warm, or die. Invertebrates that sleep through the winter do this in either the larval, pupal, or adult stage depending on the species. Mourning cloak butterflies are an example of an invertebrate that overwinters as an adult, while the Isabella Tiger moth survives winter in its well-loved larval stage as the Woolly bear caterpillar.

This is by no means an exhaustive list but can be a good place to start for winter animal adaptations. Do you have any other winter animal adaptations that you like to study in your classroom? Leave a comment to get the conversation flowing.

Over and Under the Snow Animals

This book is a great introduction to animals and the adaptations that help them survive winter. So what are the Over and Under the Snow animals and their adaptations?

Over the snow

Some of the animals that are depicted in this book experience winter over the snow. These animals tend to be awake and adapt their bodies and behavior to be able to survive winter. 

Like White-tailed deer, many animals adapt their body and behavior to remain active during the winter
The animals depicted in the story as experiencing winter over the snow may adapt their body or behavior to survive winter.

So which are the Over and Under the Snow animals that experience winter over the snow?

  • Humans – (pictured) This book follows the story of a child and their dad. Even though it doesn’t explicitly say it, the reader can see that people dress up in hats, coats, scarves, mittens, and boots to stay warm outside in winter. 
  • Great horned owl – (in text) Great horned owls use their keen sense of hearing and eyesight to be able to find animals to eat in winter.
  • Deer – (in text) Deer shed their thin brown coat in favor of a thicker gray coat for winter. The thicker fur insulates them and keeps them warmer while the gray color helps them blend in with the colors of winter.
  • Snowshoe hare – (in text) Snowshoe hares shed their brown fur in favor of white fur for winter. The white coloration helps them camouflage with the snow to avoid predators.
  • Red fox – (in text) Red foxes shed their thin brownish orange fur from summer and grow in thicker orange fur for winter. They also change the time of day they’re awake. During the summer they are nocturnal, awake at night, but in the winter they switch to a diurnal pattern, awake during the day.

Under the snow

Some of the animals that are depicted in this book experience winter under the snow. These animals could be asleep or awake, depending on their species. These animals adapt their bodies and behavior accordingly to be able to survive winter. 

Like Red squirrels, there are many other animals that use the subnivean layer to survive winter
The animals depicted in the story as experiencing winter under the snow may use the subnivean layer to get around or they may be sleeping in snow or underground.

So which are the Over and Under the Snow animals that experience winter under the snow?

  • Red squirrels – (in text) These feisty little animals cache or hide their food in their territory and use the subnivean layer to get around during the winter time.
  • Shrew – (in text) Shrews make use of the subnivean layer. They are carnivores so they search the snow tunnels for insects and small invertebrates.
  • Deer mice – (in text) Deer mice create nests underground out of grasses and other plant parts that they line with soft materials like fur. Some huddle together during the winter to help trap body heat in an effort to use less energy while they sleep the winter away.
  • Voles – (in text) Voles stay awake during the winter and use the subnivean layer to get around. They look under the snow for leftover seeds, berries, and other plant parts for food. 
  • Bullfrogs – (in text) Bullfrogs spend the winter in the mud brumating, or sleeping. While they sleep, they absorb oxygen through their skin from the moisture in the mud they’re sleeping in.
Reptiles and amphibians experience a form of dormancy called brumation.
Reptiles and amphibians experience a form of dormancy called brumation.
  • Fish – (pictured) As depicted in the illustrations, most fish are active in the winter. Fish spend the winter chasing above freezing temperatures. If fish are contained to an inland body of water they migrate to depths with appropriate temperatures. If fish are in the ocean, they may migrate to different depths or they may migrate along the coast to warmer waters.
  • Beavers – (in text) Beavers are active during the winter even if they don’t seem like it. In the fall they prepare for winter by getting fat and caching food underwater so they don’t have to come above the snow very often. They leave their den via their underwater entrance and get food from their cache when they need it.
  • Chipmunk – (in text) Chipmunks torpor, or sleep, most of the winter. When they do wake up they eat from a cache of food in their underground den and then they go back to sleep.
  • Black bear – (in text) Black bears torpor, or sleep, most of the winter. Contrary to popular belief, they do not hibernate. Hibernation is a state of dormancy where the body functions of the animal are shut almost completely down, using the smallest amount of energy possible. Torpor, however, provides some flexibility where the animal’s systems use less energy than when the animal is active but not as little as hibernation. This allows the animal to save energy during the winter, a time of scarcity, but it also allows bears to be able to birth and care for their young which occurs in the winter.
  • Bumblebee – (in text) The queen Bumblebee spends the winter underground or in a log in diapause, the invertebrate equivalent of hibernation. During the fall she mated and keeps her fertilized eggs in her abdomen over winter until she can lay them in the spring. The rest of the colony died off in the fall.

Over and Under the Snow Activities

Using Over and Under the Snow to introduce science curriculum in winter can get your students excited and can lead to wonderfully rich activities.

Kindergarten – Winter Animal Needs

Kindergarteners study animal needs under the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and learning about animals in the winter could really highlight those needs (NGSS K-LS1-1). The reason that animals have to adapt for winter is because it’s a time of scarcity and it’s difficult for animals to meet their needs, providing you an easy bridge to your curriculum.

Animals need food, water, shelter, and space to survive even in the winter when these things are scarce.
Searching your school yard in winter for animal needs can help your students practice newly acquired knowledge in a real-world situation.

After reading Over and Under the Snow, have your students go into your school yard and try to find examples of food, shelter, water, and space. If you live where there’s snow, your kindergarteners will quickly learn that there isn’t much fresh liquid water around for the wildlife. After exploring your schoolyard for a given amount of time, call your students back and have a discussion about the things that they found. Do they think that their schoolyard has enough food, water, shelter, and space to support local animal needs?

1st Grade – Animal Winter Heredity

First graders study animal heredity under the NGSS and learn about patterns in behavior of parents and offspring that help young survive (NGSS 1-LS1-2). 

Animal adaptations are patterns in behavior that parents pass down to their offspring either inherently or by teaching. After you read aloud Over and Under the Snow, have a class discussion about the adaptations they notice in the book. Then, take your students outside and have them role play some of the adaptations they read about in the book.

Woodchucks belong to hibernators, animals that put on fat for winter to live off of while they sleep all winter long.
Your students may find that adding extra layers could help them stay warmer.

Give your students scenarios to act out. For example, tell your students they are going to make snowshoe hare families by looking around at their classmates and grouping together based on what color they’re wearing. When fall comes, Snowshoe hare lose their brown fur in favor of white fur and so do their offspring. 

*Note: Students may nitpick and question a student that they don’t think is wearing the “right” color but the idea behind the activity is to recognize that animals of the same species will have the same adaptations.

Another scenario could be to have your students find a way to stay warm in the winter weather. This adaptation could require exploration and experimentation. Once they have found a method that keeps them warm, they have to talk to their classmates to find other students that discovered the same method of insulating. Children with the same method group together to make a “family”.

Some animals like flying squirrels huddle together to preserve warmth. Other animals like deer lose fur and grow thicker fur. Some animals like Woodchucks eat a lot and put on weight. Your students’ methods don’t need to emulate what’s happening in nature, but the goal would be for them to find other students that discovered the same method as them. This relates to animal adaptations because each species uses its own set of techniques to stay warm in winter but the parents pass along their adaptations to their offspring.

2nd Grade – Animal Seed Dispersal

Second graders study how animals disperse seeds under the NGSS which can be experienced during all seasons, including winter (NGSS 2-LS2-2). There are references in both the text and the illustrations of Over and Under the Snow of animals eating seeds during the winter and could be a great introduction to the concept. 

As you read Over and Under the Snow together as a class, have your students point out each time they see seeds either in the pictures or hear about them in the text. Tell your students that the seeds in the book are traveling from their home plant to a new location; can they spot how?

Squirrels and other animals rely on seeds to survive winter and accidentally help the seeds travel to new locations
Squirrels and other animals rely on seeds to survive winter and accidentally help the seeds travel to new locations.

After talking about squirrels burying nuts for winter and animals eating seeds and pooping them out, it’s time to head outside. Go to your school yard and look for seeds that have traveled. Spend time looking at the dead heads of flowers to see if there’s evidence of animals eating the seeds; look for holes in the snow or dirt indicating squirrels are digging up their cached food; watch bird feeders to see how the birds are harvesting the seeds.

After looking for evidence of seed dispersal, give your students a chance to try to collect and disperse seeds in your school yard. Provide your students with simple tools such as white paper plates and cloth mittens to be able to gather seeds from flower heads or small shovels to dig under the snow for acorns and beech nuts. Once they collect the seeds they can try blowing, throwing, or dropping the seeds to see which way they travel best. (Feeling rusty on your seed traveling techniques? Check out “Seed Dispersal Types: 6 Innovative Ways Seeds Travel to New Places” for a refresher.)

In a nutshell

As we conclude our exploration of the captivating world presented in Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner, I hope this journey into the realms of animal adaptations and the secret subnivean layer has sparked inspiration for your classroom. Whether you choose to incorporate these insights directly or adapt them to suit your unique needs, your students are sure to reap the benefits of your time and dedication. Remember, the seamless integration of literature, science, and hands-on activities not only enriches the learning experience but also makes the most of your valuable time in the classroom. So, dive into the wonders of winter survival with your students, and let the magic of Over and Under the Snow continue to unfold in your educational journey!

Love the idea of using Over and Under the Snow in your kindergarten classroom this winter but don’t have time to put together activities for it? Check out my Snow and Winter Weather Mini Unit for Kindergarten with ELA and science activities that can be used alongside most snow-related picture books including this gem by Kate Messner.

"Over and Under the Snow" picture book companion by Naturally Teaching
A picture book companion for “Over and Under the Snow” with 4 ELA activities and 5 science activities

Are you a 3rd grade teacher looking to develop your students’ understanding of animal adaptations? Embrace the season and combine states of matter with weather this winter. Check out my “‘Over and Under the Snow’ Picture Book Companion for 3rd Grade” with ELA and animal adaptation science activities that can be used alongside the story.


Environmental Science and Forestry. (n.d.) Woodchuck. Retrieved from,80%2D100%20beats%20per%20minute

Do you have any amazing experiences using Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner in your classroom? Describe them in the comments section to inspire a fellow elementary teacher to take action!

Read this guide to learn tips to use "Over and Under the Snow" with your elementary students
Click this image to follow the Naturally Teaching TpT store for updates and newly released products
Skip to content