This is part of our 2020 Back to (Virtual) School series. You can find our other posts here.
In this post we are going to cover:
Make Outside Play Educational
Research shows that regular access to nature and green spaces is good for all of us, it helps to lower stress hormones and provides a break from screen time, but that doesn’t mean that taking young children out in nature is easy.
Sure it’s easy to let them run around at a local park but what if you’d like to include some learning? In this post I’m sharing what has worked for me over 20 years as an environmental educator:
Get young learners to not only enjoy being outside, but also be engaged in learning and working on their observation skills.
Before You Go Outside
Before diving into the activities, I want to remind you that you don’t have to drive hours to a national or state park to do these activities, nature is all around us.
While it’s definitely nice to be totally immersed in a forest, don’t let distance and (nap)time keep you from getting your kids outside. You can do these activities in a backyard, neighborhood park, on school grounds, anywhere there is open space, some grass and a few trees.
For anyone whose heart rate starts to increase when they think about everything that could go wrong while outside with children, here are some tips that I share with classroom teachers so they can have a successful time helping their students explore outside.
- Prepare the learner – talk about what you’re about to go do, ask them to gather any supplies (a backpack or bag to carry found items, a filled water bottle, sunglasses or a hat). Ask if they are appropriately dressed for the weather (pj’s are ok outside but you still may need a jacket and gloves to stay warm or an umbrella if rain is predicted). Involve your child in making these decisions so they can start to become observant and self-sufficient when preparing for an outside adventure. Don’t forget the sunscreen!
- Have a game plan for bugs: if someone’s allergic to bees do you have your epipen? If you have a child that’s afraid of anything with more than 4 legs, discuss the importance of staying calm. When we’re outside we are in the animal or insect’s home and we have to respect their space, so no stomping on the ants or spiders. If it’s mosquito or tick season have you put on bug spray?
- If you’re going somewhere with hiking trails, talk about the importance of staying on the trail, not picking anything from living plants, bringing back trash, and other leave-no-trace principles.
- Go to the bathroom before heading outside!
- For those of us that are Type A and like to control everything, try to also put yourself in “explorer” mode. Have a sense of adventure and remind yourself that you’re outside to see something new! Try as best as you can to be relaxed so your child sees the outside as an enjoyable experience.
Ok, now that you’re ready to get outside! Here are some activities to get you started.
10 Outdoor Activities
- Color with Nature
- Go on a neighborhood walk and pick up different colored items (leaves, grass, pieces of bark, acorns, flower petals, rocks, etc.). Try not to pick things from plants, but instead gather from the ground.
- Bring your treasures home and place them on the table with paper and crayons. Have your child match a crayon color to the item and color in a square with that color.
- This activity is great to demonstrate the changing seasons! Save your color sheets and talk about how the colors in the world change from season to season.
- Camouflage Activity
- To prep for this activity, grab items from around the house in a variety of colors, take them outside and hide them. Make some harder to find than others based on color (and appropriate for the age of your child).
- Bring your child outside and have them find the appropriate number of items that “don’t belong” outside.
- Discuss which ones were easier to find than others
- To reinforce the idea of how this occurs in nature, look at some pictures of common animals to discuss the ways they camouflage. This article from My Modern Met has phenomenal images of animals in camouflage.
- Become a Birder
- Grab a pair of child’s binoculars and watch birds moving around your backyard, at a park, etc. (You can also fashion a pair of binoculars out of 2 toilet paper rolls and some washi tape!)
- As you observe the birds, create a list of their colors and describe the shape of their body. (If you want to try and identify them this is a great app.)
- Cloud Viewing + Weather Prediction
- To prep: gather a piece of cardboard, a craft stick or dowel and print page 1 of the Cloud Frame document below. Glue the cloud print to the cardboard and cut out the center rectangle. Attach the craft stick or dowel to the bottom middle for your child to use as a handle.
- Each morning have your child go outside, look up and track the clouds. (You can also do this at night and discuss any changes between the morning and the evening.) Include cloud type when you talk about other weather tracking like temperature and wind. See if you can start noticing when rain will be arriving.
- Use the Cloud + Weather Watching document below to help you think about weather prediction using clouds and wind.
- Change of Perspective
- Adapt this activity based on the age of your child. Take a blanket outside with paper and crayons (a lap desk or drawing surface if you have one).
- Ask kids to lay on their back and think about what they see. Then ask them to draw it.
- Then do the same thing asking them to look directly down and draw what they see. Talk about the differences between the two perspectives.
- For younger children, it may be easier to have your child take pictures from different perspectives then describe what they see.
- Senses Activity: Smell
- To prep for this, take out a muffin tin and place a cotton ball in each empty space. Using what you have around the house (oils, perfume, spices, etc.), sprinkle some of these scents on the cotton balls. (You may want to take notes so you don’t forget what you use!)
- Go outside and place them around the patio or yard. Have children try to find all the cotton balls and identify the scents. (This can also be done as a rainy day activity in the house.) **Always be sure to be careful with essential oils and certain spices around young children.**
- Senses Activity: Touch
- To prep: draw a grid of 8 on a sheet of paper to make a bingo sheet. Label various things like hard, wet, soft, prickly, bumpy, waxy, etc.
- Have your child walk around looking for things that match those textures. (Outdoor or indoor works for this activity!)
- Senses Activity: Hearing
- Go outside, sit quietly, close your eyes if comfortable and safe. Focus on the sounds you hear. Using your hands count how many different sounds you hear.
- Try and focus just on “nature” sounds. What do you hear?
- Have your child draw a picture of one memorable sound that they heard during this activity.
- Senses Activity: Sight
- We are going to search for different shapes in nature! On your walk can you find something that’s a circle, square, triangle, rectangle, etc. How many of each shape can you find in a certain amount of time?
- For older children, make it more challenging by combining colors and shapes, a yellow circle, green triangle, etc.
- You can make a bingo sheet or list for this if you like, but the joy of seeing an abundance of shapes during your walk is enough!
- Water Walk
- During a rainy day, grab an umbrella and walk to follow water.
- Start where the water hits your home. Try to see if you can follow where it goes from there.
- See if it eventually makes its way to a local creek or stream.
- Talk about water and where it comes from and that there is no new water made, it just moves around the Earth. You can look at this neat interactive Water Cycle graphic.
- Did you know that we have the same amount of water now that we had here when the dinosaurs were here? Cool!
Things to Print
This post may contain affiliate links. As an Amazon Affiliate I earn from qualifying purchases. (This does not change the price that you pay at all!) Regardless, all product recommendations are my own opinions.
About Nicole – I’ve spent the last 20 years teaching audiences of all ages about the environment and sustainability and how their actions can impact the environment. I got my start in environmental education on a whim working for a zoo in college. I had no idea that a college job would lead to me joining the Peace Corps, leading nature camps for a nature center, developing education programs for an international development agency, working at a university and now leading environmental education programs for a water utility. While the venue may have changed, the message is always the same, “Our actions impact not just ourselves but our community (which includes nature) and the entire world”. I’m a firm believer that experiences in nature help children not only learn critical thinking skills, but also gain confidence. While I have no children of my own I’m the cool aunt to 3 amazing kids that love to explore outside.
How do you enjoy nature with your kids? Leave us a comment below!
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