Building a Quinzhee

Posted March 16, 2016

by Jenny Kleppe

By late January, we finally had enough snow to construct a winter favorite: a quinzhee! A quinzhee is a snow shelter, or snow cave. These were originally built by the Athapaskan Indians in Canada for emergency shelters. We, of course, build them for fun. A true quinzhee is a hollowed out cave, similar in shape to an igloo. We add the fun of a tunnel to our quinzhee and build it on a small incline so kids can SLIDE through!
The preschoolers started our quinzhee by making a huge pile of fluffy white snow. We used large snow shovels, small hand shovels, and even sleds to scoop and haul the snow until the pile was as tall as the teachers!  The children were motivated to build the highest pile they could. A few children recalled a quinzhee we built in the past and their excitement inspired the rest of the group. It took nearly an hour of the entire class working together to build the original snow pile. Some students dug and scooped while others packed the snow together.
Then we took advantage of a physical change in the snow called sintering. Sintering is the bonding of snow crystals of different temperatures. We piled the snow on a warm morning, knowing the temperature was going to rise. This helped the snow pack together, and that night when the temperature dropped below freezing, the snow solidified into a sturdy structure.
Our next step was to dig out a tunnel.  Directed by the teachers, children worked from both ends of the tunnel to dig towards each other. A few students discovered they could move more snow by kicking the snow than by digging with their arms. When the first kick burst through to the other side and all we could see was a boot, a great cheer erupted from the tunnel makers – this was the moment we had all been waiting for!

The tunnel completed, children took turns crawling through. A later day, some children wondered if we could make our quinzhee tunnel  faster. The group wanted the slide to be “slippery like ice.” The teacher wondered, “How could we get ice inside our quinzhee?”
There was some discussion about how to move the ice that was currently on the sidewalk up and under the quinzhee. Right away one student argued that we would not be able to get the ice off the sidewalk. Some tried, but the ice broke into small pieces when pounded.
The same child who argued against the sidewalk ice said that we needed to freeze water to make ice. A fire brigade was formed from the classroom sink to outside.  Several buckets of water were moved outside, but the group was unsure of how to get the water in the right spot. Their first attempt to pour water in the tunnel melted the snow down to the grass. The next pour at the bottom of the tunnel made a giant puddle, but all could see that it would not help our goal of a slippery slide.
Finally, from the wondering of a teacher (“I wonder where the best place to start sliding through our quinzhee would be?”) a student thought to tip a bucket of water down the hill and watched it trickle through the quinzhee. Several followed suit, starting their water close to the tunnel entrance.The teacher did have to convince the slide builders that the water needed time to freeze, and the group reluctantly agreed to wait until the next day to try their creation. It was worth it, as our perfectly slippery slide provided the whooshes and speedy ride all were seeking.

Projects like building the quinzhee are fun, but just as important is the experience of delayed gratification. Waiting for fun things is difficult, but having a project that could not be completed in one outdoor time gave the children, over time, a goal to work toward. In addition, they found that one preschooler was not capable of creating a quinzhee on their own. Teamwork, another important life skill, is necessary. An exciting icy slide through a snow tunnel that everyone worked together to build was an incredible reward.

We slid through our quinzhee many times for many days. Then alas, the temperature warmed and we got rain instead of more snow. “It’s shrinking!” children said. We also observed over several days other creatures enjoying our quinzhee- we watched birds and squirrels chewing on our quinzhee from the Autumn Room windows. “They’re eating our quinzhee!” the children exclaimed. “Why would they do that?” wondered a little girl. It wasn’t long before we solved the mystery- one day several of us watched a squirrel dig through the snowy walls until it came out with birdseed clutched in its paws. When we scooped the snow to build our structure, we must have gotten some seed-laden snow! Now we can see several small tunnels the animals have dug in pursuit of birdseed! Oh well, the more the merrier!