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Brrr….! It’s -10 degrees (Fahrenheit!) – too cold for extended outdoor play, but you’ve got some antsy kids in need of winter play like, YESTERDAY. Have no fear – sugar cube ice castles are here! Inspired by a local winter wonder, these miniature ice castle replicas take just a minute of prep and are the perfect way to spend a frigid afternoon. And all you need is a bowl of sugar cubes…!
One of my fondest Northern winter memories is of visiting St. Paul’s Ice Palace in 1992 – an off-and-on part of St. Paul’s annual Winter Carnival since WAY back in 1886. A mid-winter ode to the season that’s now spread to many northern cities in the U.S., they’re truly an awe-inspiring feat of engineering, and you just can’t beat a visit to an honest-to-goodness frozen castle when looking for small-scale inspiration.
Watch the video to see all the ways these castles can be used for play!
Although our sugar cube versions are a bit simpler than the real deal, they use the very same block shapes and construction principles.
For more indoor winter STEAM play, DIY a game of thin ice, use scrap wood to create moveable sculptures, embark on a 9-day mixed media art challenge, or build and decorate your own miniature ice shanties from cardboard!
To make your own sugar cube castles 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.*
- Craft glue (for more permanent castles)
- A string of battery-operated fairy lights
- Colored water or liquid watercolors and an eyedropper
- Playdough or paper (+ scissors and tape) to create small cones for turrets
- Paper plates or bowls to create roof structures
DIY Sugar Cube Castle Instructions:
- Gather your supplies in a tray or on a clean, flat surface
The only necessary supplies for this activity are sugar cubes and a flat surface, but you can add little paper cones as we did to make your structures look more castle-like. They were quick to roll and tape up by hand, and definitely give it that fantasy play finishing touch.
One quick note about the paper cone turrets: they could be a challenge for younger kids to balance on top of the cubes. You can substitute little cones shaped out of playdough for easier stacking.
It can also be helpful to build on a brightly colored sheet of construction paper – the cubes really pop off the paper, making them easier to see and count.
- Stack and build!
Your ice castles can look ANY WAY you want them to. Some of ours looked more like igloos or snow forts. You can make them small or large, short or tall – experiment with all the different ways they can be stacked to make your own creative winter castles.
- Create your own variations
You can keep this a simple stacking and building invitation, or create your own variations to help kids develop coordination and manual dexterity or to explore math, science, and engineering concepts.
For younger kids, offer a pair of tongs or chopsticks to stack their sugar cube castles (this can be a great exercise in patience and perseverance too!).
Older kids may like the challenge of creating castles from a set of specifications (i. e., “include three towers that are the height of a prime number,” or “build a base that is twice as three times as long as it is wide). Or experiment with a bit of engineering to build a sugar cube igloo.
- Tear down!
Half the fun of building these structures is being able to come up with inventive ways to demolish them. We used warm water dyed with different colors to melt our sugar palaces away (check out the video below to watch the fun process!).
- Use your melted palaces to create process art prints
This is TRULY a STEAM-oriented project when you can begin with a building and then turn it into a frame-worthy art print! Once your sugar cube castle has completely melted, grab a piece of watercolor paper and lower it onto the surface of the sugar water. After about a minute, pull your paper back up, flip it over, and let it dry on a flat surface. What does your art print look like? What happened to your colors? Does the sugar create any interesting textures?
Tip: For SUPER bright colors, you can use liquid watercolors instead of dyed water to color your castle. For another variation on these prints, you can also build your castles on top of a piece of watercolor paper. Let the sugar cubes melt into the paper, drain or soak up the excess with a paper towel, and observe what’s been left behind!
When we were finished building, we surrounded our structures with a set of battery-operated twinkle lights for fairytale-like photo ops. We didn’t use glue with our ice castles, and I was actually a little surprised that the tiny light string easily knocked cubes off as we were trying to bend them in and around the towers. If you plan on lighting your own castles for dramatic effect, I’d recommend building with the idea of creating a more permanent structure in mind. You could easily secure the cubes using school glue. Let dry, then decorate with fairy lights or place a flameless tea light inside for a kid-made mini winter wonderland of tabletop decorations.
If you plan on lighting your own castles for dramatic effect, I’d recommend building with the idea of creating a more permanent structure in mind. You could easily secure the cubes using school glue. Let dry, then decorate with fairy lights or place a flameless tea light inside for a kid-made mini winter wonderland of tabletop decorations.
Watch the quick video for a few fun castle play variations (and a very colorful knock-down!)
More ways to use your sugar cube ice castles for learning and play
- DEMOLITION! Just like real ice castles, these little sugar cube structures are a delight to demolish. You can turn your tower take-down into a Jenga-like game by using a toothpick to poke cubes out of the bottom or sides of the structure. How many blocks will your sugar cube ice castle be able to lose without falling down? How can you rebuild your structure so that cubes can be taken out without the structure falling over? Pair this with our cardboard snow plow (complete with moving parts!) for even MORE STEAM-building entertainment.
- EXPERIMENT WITH WATER. Have an eyedropper or paintbrush handy? Fill a few very small bowls with a variety of dyed waters, then pour, paint or eyedrop onto your ice castles for a lovely, colorful science-based surprise! You can also experiment with using hot vs. cold water. Word of warning: this will be the end of your castles, so make sure you’re done building and won’t want to resuse your sugar cubes later.
- MAKE IT A COLLABORATIVE GAME. Building towers together is a wonderful way for kids to work on their communication skills and practice a bit of compromise. You can make a game of it by seeing who can build the highest tower or build up the most blocks without knocking one off in the process.
If these cardboard houses set your heart a-flutter, you might also like our Burga-inspired cardboard building block castles, fill-in-the-window cardboard city neighborhood project, upcycled toadstool gnome home, or recycled pet play tank (a great way to use up a cardboard box!). Be sure to check out our 100 Little Homes STEAM-Building Challenge as well!
*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!