Make: A Play Hibernaculum Kids’ Hibernation Learning Activity

Grab a shoebox and some nature supplies for this entertaining but simple hibernaculum-building activity that encourages kids to investigate how reptiles, amphibians, insects, and other small creatures hibernate during the winter…

What is a hibernaculum?

A hibernaculum is basically a more grandiose word to describe the winter shelters of animals. From bear dens and bat caves, to the piles of leaves bees bury themselves under – they’re all unique forms of hibernacula that help protect animals from cold temperatures and harsh elements as they hunker down for the winter.

Our play DIY hibernaculum kids hibernation learning activity sitting in front of a light blue-green background

Most of the animals I remember learning about as examples of hibernators were fuzzy woodland friends like bears and chipmunks (head over to our paper bag bear den for more about them!). For our particular hibernaculum-building purposes today, we decided to focus on the creatures that don’t get as much lip service – worms, ladybugs, snakes, turtles, toads, and salamanders. Even small mammals like hedgehogs utilize underground hibernacula throughout the fall, winter, and spring.

Play the short video below to watch our hibernaculum come together

Before you get started, consider how you’d like to present this project -here are a couple of ideas…

For an invitation to build a hibernaculum, you can lay out all collected nature supplies, a small cardboard box, and some animals/insects. We quickly made ours out of play dough and egg carton cups, but you can use miniature play animals or flat paper cutouts. Cardboard tubes represent the hollow entry pipes animals use to get inside real hibernacula (and they’re a great spot to hide a couple of pretend hibernators!).

For an invitation to investigate a hibernaculum, you can put one together on your own, then ask your little ones to guess what creatures might be inside. Once they’ve made their predictions, let them take it apart and find all of the hidden animals. Follow it up with an opportunity for them to build their own.

The nature supplies for our tabletop hibernaculum sitting on a white background

The hibernaculum built for this example is one that mimics our own landscape, but you can create cool, dark bat caves or even build a tabletop desert hibernaculum (did you know that Big Bend National Park in Southern Texas experiences regular freezes and occasionally gets snow?).

For more nature-inspired shoebox projects, try making a cool upcycled nature explorer’s kit! Or take on pet ownership while learning about habitats with a recycled play aquarium or pretend play bunny hutch.

To make your own play hibernaculum you’ll need:

Note: We prefer to shop locally or use what we have at home, but this list contains Woodpeckers Crafts, Etsy, Blick Art Materials, and/or Amazon affiliate links for reference. As Amazon Associates, we make a small commission on qualifying purchases.*

BASIC SUPPLIES:

  • A shoebox, plastic container, tray, or similar
  • Nature supplies like leaves, sticks, twigs, pinecones, rocks, pebbles
  • Cardboard tubes
  • Brown paper bags or scrap paper

OPTIONAL SUPPLIES:

How to Make Play Hibernaculums – DIY Instructions:

  1. Gather nature supplies

    Head outside and grab some useful items to help you build and cover your hibernaculum. We’ve had an incredibly dry fall and the natural foliage has been giving me the sneezes, so I opted for a few good faux leaves, dried nature supplies, long sticks, a small assortment of rocks and pebbles, and a couple of cardboard tubes.
    The nature supplies for our tabletop hibernaculum sitting on a white background
    If you’d rather not use actual nature supplies or have a hard time finding them where you are, you can substitute felt cutouts, faux foliage, tissue paper, air-dry clay “sticks” or wooden nature play items.

  2. Find a shoebox or similar container

    You can build your hibernaculum in a shoebox, clear plastic bin, recycled takeout container, deep tray – anything you have around that will make a nice building base.
    How to make a play DIY hibernaculum kids hibernation learning activity from a shoebox
    We cut along the front sides of our shoebox and pulled the front down to create a bit of a “window” and make it easier for little hands to move things around, but it’s not necessary.

  3. Add some “dirt” to your hibernaculum base

    Filling the bottom of your hibernaculum with a bit of “dirt” is a good way to begin building the base because it will help hold things in place.
    How to make a play DIY hibernaculum kids hibernation learning activity from a shoebox
    Though you could use real dirt, I recommend some earthy-colored playdough (I used this DIY playdough recipe along with equal parts brown and black gel food coloring. It does a good job of holding everything in place and is much easier to clean up when finished.).

  4. Add play insects, amphibians, reptiles, etc.

    A key detail of your hibernaculum will be the creature (or creatures!) inhabiting the space for winter.
    How to make a play DIY hibernaculum kids hibernation learning activity from a shoebox
    You can create your own as we did (this little snake is playdough rolled into a coil with two dry black bean eyes, and a scrap paper forked tongue). But you can also use miniature play animals (plastic or wooden) or simply cut 2D animals out of paper. I’ve linked to some of the paper insects and other printable animals we have available right here for examples.

  5. Begin building the layers of your hibernaculum

    Once you’ve added a few inhabitants, you can start building up the layers of your mini hibernaculum using sticks, bark, branch cuttings, rocks, cardboard tubes, and more.
    How to make a play DIY hibernaculum kids hibernation learning activity from a shoebox
    A nice sprinkle of leaves will give your hibernaculum some much-needed insulation – just as in real life.

  6. Finish with a brown paper bag “dirt” ground-covering layer (optional)

    As you would if you were building an actual hibernaculum, cover it with a layer of “dirt” (in this case, it’s a crumpled brown paper bag). You could use tissue paper or felt or anything similar.
    How to make a play DIY hibernaculum kids hibernation learning activity from a shoebox

Our completed hibernaculum has a couple of added touches (check out those adorable handcrafted paper bag mushrooms!) to make the setup look extra woodsy, ultra inviting, and something that kids will be excited to dive into and investigate! You definitely don’t have to add those little bits for this project to be compelling and successful though.

Our play DIY hibernaculum kids hibernation learning activity sitting in front of a white background

Using mini hibernacula for learning and play

  • Build an actual backyard hibernaculum. After learning about hibernacula, make your own real hibernaculum in the backyard using this cute video DIY or print out these easy DIY instructions.
  • Build a play hibernaculum fort inside. Make a larger-than-life-sized version using BIG cardboard boxes, pillows, and blankets. Kids can play the roles of different species.
Our play DIY hibernaculum kids project sitting in front of a dark blue-green background

Picture books to pair with hibernaculum play

I love using picture books as gateways for learning, play, and art-making or crafting. Here are a few of my favorite hibernation-themed picture books that can help introduce your little ones to the concept.

Note: We prefer to shop locally or use what we have at home, but this list contains Woodpeckers Crafts, Etsy, Blick Art Materials, and/or Amazon affiliate links for reference. As Amazon Associates, we make a small commission on qualifying purchases.*

Our play DIY hibernaculum kids hibernation learning activity sitting in front of a white background

Using these for a miniature play setup or on a nature table? Learn how to prep outdoor nature supplies for indoor play (and why it’s important) before you sit down for your next nature play session. For more indoor tabletop nature activities, visit our collection of loose parts leaf play ideas, mini winter sensory garden, or playdough fairy forest.


*A note about affiliate links: We strive to use simple, earth-friendly supplies that can be purchased locally whenever we can, but sometimes we find the best universally available options, a rare eco-friendly find, or a niche product only available on Blick Art Materials, Amazon, Etsy, or Woodpeckers Crafts. When included in our supply list, these products are affiliate links, and if you click through to make a purchase we receive a small commission that helps us re-order these supplies!

Amanda Eldridge
Amanda Eldridge

With a passion for cultivating imagination, Amanda aims to help kids and families discover their creative potential through art, play, adventure, activism, conservancy, and community. Amanda has a background in graphic design, environmental design, and art curation. When not playing with ideas and designs for barley & birch, she enjoys working in freelance design, art, and illustration.

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