Level 2+: Antarctica Unit

Get ready to take your studies to the farthest reaches of the South Pole with this week-long unit study! We’ll explore the world’s coldest continent, get up close and personal with its residents and history, and dive deep into some of the geological wonders found in this incredibly harsh environment. We’ll also meet a few explorers and researchers who share (and still share!) our fascination with Antarctica. Click here to download this week’s skills tracker, and let’s begin!

Note: Occasionally we include project modifications (which can be useful for including younger siblings) and upgrades (for children ready for more). We’ll mark those with the minus (-) or plus (+) symbols.

What you need:

Books (find at your local library or order below on Amazon):

Optional additional reading:

Supplies (use what you have, but here are links to shop if you need anything):

What to do:

We recommend doing the below lessons in this order to build on each skill your child will develop, but don’t feel that you *need* to do them in this order. Do what works for you and your child. If they love an activity, feel free to repeat! Not a winner? Skip and try the next thing. Have fun!

Phonics Guide:

New to our phonics guide? Start here. There is no new phonics guide page for this week. Instead, we encourage you to spend the week reviewing your book and the phonograms and phonics rules you’ve worked on so far this year!

Lesson 1:

Welcome to the south pole! The southernmost continent on our planet is the coldest and windiest land on earth, which also makes it home to unique life and geography. Let’s read Antarctica: A True Book (or read it here on OpenLibrary) to gain an overview of what you could expect from a trip.

Activity 1: A lot of times when we see Antarctica on a world map, it’s depicted as a long country at the bottom of the picture. Because of this, some children don’t realize it’s actually a mostly round landmass on the south pole! Let’s create a bird’s eye view map of Antarctica and then add a few landmarks that we’ll discuss throughout the week!

First, print this map on a piece of blue cardstock. Spread a thin layer of tacky craft glue on the landmass (it may be helpful to do the edge first), and then cover the whole thing in white glitter or sand.

Once it has dried, glue beads or use permanent markers to identify some or all of the following locations (don’t forget to create a key using the same color beads or markers!):

  • Deception Island
  • Neko Harbour
  • Devil Island
  • Mount Vinson
  • Ross Ice Shelf
  • Mount Erebus
  • Onyx River
  • Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery Hut
  • Shackleton’s Hut
  • Vernadsky Research Station
  • The South Pole 

Activity 2: What is the difference between climate and weather? Weather is a specific event—like a rainstorm or hot day—that happens over a few hours, days or weeks. Climate is the average weather conditions in a place over 30 years or more. (source)

Antarctica only has two seasons: summer and winter. Because it’s located in the southern hemisphere, Antarctica’s summer is from October to February. During this time, the sun is almost always in the sky. Days rapidly get longer there in summer, until, eventually, the sun doesn’t set at all. This phenomenon is called the Midnight Sun. Although there are multiple places in the northern hemisphere that experience this perpetual sunlight during half of the year, Antarctica is the only southern location where it can be seen. (source)

Antarctica has an extremely cold, dry climate. Winter temperatures along Antarctica’s coast generally range from -10° to -30°C (14° to -22°F). During the summer, coastal areas hover around 0°C (32°F) but can reach temperatures as high as 9°C (48°F). Precipitation in the Antarctic is hard to measure. It always falls as snow. Antarctica’s interior is believed to receive only 50 to 100 millimeters (two to four inches) of water (in the form of snow) every year. (source)

Antarctica is, on average, the coldest, windiest, and driest of all the continents on Earth. In fact, Antarctica is actually a desert because it is so dry there. With such cold conditions the snow hardly ever melts; instead, it will mostly become compressed over time to form part of the ice sheet. This is known as an ice cap climate. (source)

How does your hometown compare to some of the coldest places on earth? Let’s find out with this graphing begin by creating a bar graph with the lowest recorded temperatures of these places:

  • Eastern Antarctic Plateau, Antarctica: -95°C/-137.2°F
  • Denali, Alaska, United States of America: -73°C/-99.4°F
  • Klinck Station, Greenland: -69.6°C/-93.28°F
  • Oymyakon, Siberia, Russia: -67.7°C/-89.86°F (source)

Print this graph and note on the left axis if you are recording your data in Celcius or Fahrenheit. Record the four locations above by filling in the boxes to the coldest temperature. Finally, use the internet to find the lowest recorded temperature of your town and add it to your graph. Discuss your findings with your child.

Activity 3: Antarctica is the fifth-largest continent in terms of total area, but it does not have a native human population and there are no countries in Antarctica. Instead, seven nations claim different parts of it: New Zealand, Australia, France, Norway, the United Kingdom, Chile, and Argentina.

There is no official flag of Antarctica since it is not a country nor governed by any authority, however, there is a caveat to that as Antarctica is a de facto condominium (or a territory that is governed jointly by two or more countries), governed by parties to the Antarctic Treaty System. (source) In 2002, the Antarctic Treaty Committee Meeting adopted an emblem to “provide a clear identity to the work of the ATCM and its Secretariat.” which is sometimes used as a flag:


In 2018, a new flag called the True South became the first Antarctic flag to be both created and supported by members of the global Antarctic community. While not yet officially recognized by every country, has been formally adopted by national Antarctica programs, Antarctic nonprofits, expedition teams, and individuals across the world. It looks like this:


What does your child think the Antarctic flag should look like? Have them create their own version using construction paper and glue or coloring materials.

Lesson 2:

Due to having no native population, exploration and research has marked all of Antarctica’s recorded history. Today, we’ll learn more about the discovery and exploration of Antarctica. Begin by reading Introducing Antarctica (or read it here on OpenLibrary) OR Sophie Scott Goes South (or listen to this read aloud).

Activity 1: Has your child ever heard of a timeline? A timeline is a visual learning aid that helps organize a series of events in the order they happened. For our first activity, we’ll create a timeline of some of the major events in Antarctica’s history. Feel free to create your timeline in a way that is meaningful to your child, but here are two suggestions for how to make it:

Option 1: Create a more accurate timeline to demonstrate the amount of time that passed between each event. Begin by using a long roll of butcher block and using a long straight edge (like a yardstick) to draw a line down the center. Using a yardstick or ruler, mark off years every few inches from 1820 to 1988. Then go back and have your child note the major events listed below on the correct years. They may also want to print or draw pictures to go with each event.

Option 2: Create a more visual timeline by printing 5-6 of these pages and taping them together. Have your child write the year and title of each event on the top two lines, including any details they would like to add on the bottom lines. (Alternatively, they may wish to type their notes and glue them onto the page.) At the top of each section, have them draw or print a photo to go with the event. Once it is complete, fold the pages back and forth (like a fan) along the dotted lines and taped edges so that the timeline can stand up (like this).

This page shares a comprehensive timeline of exploration events in Antarctica, but we have identified some highlights below that we recommend including (but feel free to use less to suit your child’s attention span):

  • January 30, 1820 – Edward Bransfield sighted Trinity Peninsula, the northernmost point of the Antarctic mainland.
  • 1821 – Seal hunters were the first to land and overwinter in Antarctica (albeit sometimes involuntarily).
  • 1831 – James Clark Ross located the North Magnetic pole in 1831 and came close to also finding the South Magnetic pole on his epic expedition of 1839-1843.
  • 1882 – First International Polar Year. A joint effort of 12 countries to operate 14 stations surrounding the North Pole. Forty observatories across the world studied meteorology, geomagnetism, auroral phenomena, ocean currents and tides, structure and motion of ice and atmospheric electricity.
  • 1898 – Australian physicist Louis Charles Bernacchi, trained in astronomy and terrestrial magnetism, endured the first winter on the Antarctic continent and collected a complete set of magnetic data over an annual cycle from observations at Cape Adare.
  • 1903 – The region’s first permanent meteorological station was established on the South Orkney Islands.
  • 1907 – Ernest Shackleton and his men were the first to bring motorized land vehicles to the Antarctic. With their base at Cape Royds in McMurdo Sound, they made the first ascent of Mount Erebus, discovered the Beardmore Glacier, reached a new farthest south of 88° 23′ on the polar ice cap and were the first to approach the south magnetic pole located high in the Victoria Land interior.
  • 1911 – The South Pole was reached twice (by Amundsen and Scott) in the 1911-12 summer (33 days separated these events).
  • 1944 – Permanent stations are established. From the Second World War, regular annual expeditions from an increasing number of countries were the principal activity, and permanent occupation of Antarctica began in 1944 at Port Lockroy (Wiencke Island) and Hope Bay (Antarctic Peninsula).
  • 1958 – Sir Edmund Hillary reached the South Pole on 4 January 1958 and landed later in 1985, together with Neil Armstrong, in a small plane at the North Pole. He became the first man to stand at both poles as well as the summit of Everest.
  • 1988 – In acknowledgement of the sensitivity of the Antarctic biota, various national laws have been enacted that bind virtually all human activity in the far south that affects the fragility of the Antarctic Treaty system (expulsion of sledge dogs is one example).

Activity 2: Because Antarctica is the windiest continent, any structures built there need to be designed to withstand this wind. That means they need to factor in air resistance. But what is air resistance? Air resistance is the frictional force air exerts against a moving object. As an object moves, air resistance slows it down. The faster the object’s motion, the greater the air resistance exerted against it. This video explains it in a kid-friendly way. Next, try some of these experiments to learn how air resistance varies for different 3D objects.

Activity 3: Finally, let’s use what we’ve learned for a STEM challenge! Your child’s task is to build a shelter that is at least 4 inches tall and can withstand a 30-second blast from a hair drier. (Make sure it’s on the cool setting before firing of your blast!) Have them use a flat baking sheet or cutting board as their surface, but from there, the materials are up to them! They may wish to use play dough, scrap cardboard, straws or sticks, or similar items. Add a small figurine or a cork inside the shelter to represent a person.
(+) For an added challenge, encourage them to make their shelter waterproof as well! In this case, the shelter should also be able to keep the “person” inside dry when you pour 1-2 cups of water over the top.

Lesson 3:

Today’s activities are all about one of Antarctica’s most prominent features—ice! We’ll begin by reading a true story about a famous explorer who once found his entire crew trapped by Antarctic ice in the book Trapped by the Ice!: Shackleton’s Amazing Antarctic Adventure (or read it here on OpenLibrary).

Activity 1: If you spend any time in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica, you’re almost guaranteed to see one thing: icebergs! But what are icebergs? And how do they form? An iceberg is a huge chunk of ice floating in the ocean. Many icebergs are the size of houses or large buildings. Most of their size, however, is hidden underwater. Icebergs can easily damage or destroy passing ships. Icebergs come from glaciers, or large masses of slowly moving ice. (source) Let’s learn more about how they form in this video.

One of the most interesting things about icebergs is that only a very small portion of them is often visible above water. In fact, about 90% is often below the water’s surface!

Let’s bring this to life by creating an “iceberg” and measuring how much of it is above and below the water. Start by filling a balloon with water, tying it off, and measuring the diameter (the distance around the biggest portion of the balloon) using a flexible measuring tape or a string and a ruler. Write down this measurement, and then freeze the balloon. Once frozen, measure the diameter of the balloon now. Compare the two numbers. Has it changed?

Next, carefully cut away the balloon, leaving your large chunk of ice. Place the iceberg into a container of water and measure how much is above and below the water’s surface with a ruler.

Why does this happen? So much of an iceberg is under water because water expands as it freezes, meaning the ice is less dense than the surrounding water. Sea water, because it is salty, is more dense than fresh water meaning that real icebergs float slightly higher in sea water than in our experiment.

Activity 2: Let’s experiment a bit with how to free something trapped in ice! Prior to doing this activity, freeze a small toy or figurine in a bowl of ice. (Tip: You may want to freeze more than one—this is an experiment kids love to repeat!)

Once it’s frozen solid, give your child the ice block (you may want to put it in a tray or a basking dish to contain the water as it melts). First, discuss with your child potential ways you could free the toy from the ice. After hearing a few of their ideas, give them some rock salt, an eye dropper, and a small cup or bowl of warm water with a few drops of food coloring in it (optional, but it makes the whole thing prettier!). Encourage them to sprinkle the salt and add drops of warm water to their ice block, observing what happens to the ice.

The will notice that the salt combined with the water quickly makes trails as it melts the ice. What is happening? Salt melts ice and help prevent re-freezing by lowering the freezing point of water. This phenomenon is called freezing point depression. It’s also why it’s beneficial to salt sidewalks and roads before an ice storm to keep them from freezing over!

Activity 3: Let’s work in a little mental math practice with some gross motor movement. Using white paper, cut out several iceberg shapes and write the numbers 1-20 on them. Tape them securely to the floor using masking tape. Call out addition and subtraction problems where the solution is one of these numbers and have your child “iceberg hop” across the room on the numbers.

Activity 4: Let’s create an iceberg craft with a little geometry. Start by printing these tangram patterns on a piece of white cardstock. You will also need a piece of black cardstock, light blue tissue paper, a glue stick, and star stickers or a metallic marker (optional).

Cut out the tangram pieces and let your child use them to build an “iceberg” shape. It doesn’t need to be perfect, and you don’t need to use all the shapes. (You can also cut them in half to create more, or print a second sheet if needed.) Discuss the names and attributes of the shapes as they build. When they are happy with their iceberg, glue the shapes in place on the black cardstock.

Next, cut or tear strips of the tissue paper and layer them over the bottom 2/3rds of the iceberg to create water. Glue them in place.

Finally, add star stickers or draw stars with a metallic marker, if desired.

Lesson 4:

Welcome to arguably one of our favorite days of our Antarctica Unit…Penguin Day! We’re so excited to learn more about these charming Antarctica natives. Let’s begin by reading Penguins! Strange and Wonderful (or read it here on OpenLibrary) OR (-) One Day On Our Blue Planet…In The Antarctic (or listen to this read aloud)

Activity 1: We learned about so many types of penguins in our book! For our first activity, let’s write a penguin paragraph about which penguin your child likes best. Don’t forget to include a topic sentence, 3-4 supporting sentences, and a concluding sentence to complete your paragraph.
(+) Add in a little public speaking practice by having your child read their paragraph to the family over dinner tonight.

Activity 2: How big are penguins really? We often think of them as being little birds, but some can get up to four feet tall! Let’s create a penguin height chart to bring it all to life. Using these Antarctic penguin height cards, have your child measure the height on a door or wall and then mark the height card to the correct height. Finally, measure your child to show them how they stack up to these awesome birds.

Activity 3: Penguins aren’t known for flight or even fast footwork, but no one slides like they do! Enjoy this fun, informative video about penguins, and then explore how the force of friction comes into play for these super sliders with this hands-on activity.

Activity 4: Part of why penguins are such great sliders is that they have have a special oil gland (called the uropygial gland or the preen gland) that secretes oils and waxes to cover the penguins’ feathers. This oil repels water, enabling the penguins to slide with less friction and keep warm and dry in the harsh Antarctic environment. Why does this work? Watch this video to learn more about why oil and water don’t mix, and then do this activity to bring it to life.

Lesson 5:

For the last day of our Antarctica Unit, we’ll learn about a few more creatures found at the bottom of the world and have some Tea + Poetry with a recipe created by an Antarctica research facility dietician!

Activity 1: Because it has no native culture, there are virtually no recipes that originated in Antarctica. (Unless you have some roast penguin or seal on hand!) Instead, researchers on this continent rely on facility chefs and dieticians to provide their meals and nutrition. You can learn more about the types of foods they eat on their base in this article, and then bake these cookies from former Sally Ayote, a dietician and chef worked for 12 years in Antarctica—6 of them as executive chef—where she was responsible for feeding scientists and support staff at three remote research stations for the United States Antarctic Program. (source)

Once the cookies are baked, enjoy them with some Tea + Poetry! We highly recommend When the Sun Shines on Antarctica: And Other Poems about the Frozen Continent by Irene Latham (or read it here on OpenLibrary) for some Antarctica-based poems.

Activity 2: One of the remarkable phenomena we read about in our poetry book is the brinicle! A brinicle is a finger-like formation that grows underneath sea ice.

A brinicle is formed when this sea ice cracks and leaks out the saline water to the open oceans. As the brine is heavier than the water around it, it sinks to the ocean floor while freezing the relatively fresh water it comes into contact with. This process lets the brinicle grow downward. Occasionally, a brinicle may reach the sea floor as recorded in the video. As it grows, it catches various bottom-dwelling creatures around it, such as sea urchins and starfish. (source) Click here for a video of a brinicle in action.

Then bring this “instant ice” to life with this activity.

Activity 3: Finally, use our poetry book as inspiration for a lapbook! Pick an Antarctic creature that most fascinates your child and have them create a lapbook about it. Use the internet, YouTube videos, and books from your personal or local library to find out more information about the animal and have your child record what they learn.

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Published by The Learn + Live Letter

The Learn + Live Letter is a play- and project-based homeschool curriculum for children ages 3-12.