Outdoor and Nature-Centered Learning Activities for Children

In this post, I share learning activities children can do outdoors in nature. I explain what to bring and write about practical ways you can implement learning in nature. Learning outdoors undoubtedly has many benefits. There are plenty of instances of deep hands-on exploration that take place outdoors when children simultaneously can engage in practical experiences gaining broader knowledge and enjoy their playtime. Children and their supervisors get to spend time in the fresh air, move around more, enjoy different scenery, and do not have to worry about creating or cleaning a mess.

It is well-known fact now that children (and adults) learn better and more effectively if their bodies are set in motion. “Researchers believe it’s because the main region of the brain responsible for motor skills—the cerebellum—is also connected to our visual processing, spatial perception, and cognitive abilities”. Source

Outdoor activities with crafts and clay

Also due to the fact that our ancestor’s survival depended upon their ability to move from place to place, we can say that necessity to move is a part of our natural development. The human brain benefits greatly from gross and motor movement. So when we take our classroom outdoors and even to a museum, we help the children to initiate processes in their bodies that trigger a whole chain of internal events that boost their cognitive functions and make learning that much more exciting and special.

Planning your next outdoor experience

It can be daunting to think and plan your outdoor learning activities. But based on my experience, you can’t go wrong when you make preparation time as practical as possible. Our goal is to help them refine their skills, such as concentration, fine and gross motor, learn to appreciate nature and living creatures, gain an understanding of academic knowledge in the context of the natural world.

Keeping these concepts in mind, you can have a successful outing without it being a stressful experience for the guides, parents, and supervisors.

We live in a warm climate. So it makes it easier for us to venture outdoors during school terms. And if you have a shorter season when children can do learning activities outdoors, I hope you get to take advantage of it fully.

I will share how I make it work for me and my children. I make a list of all materials and tools I need to have with me on every occasion. If we go outdoors as an alternative to learning at home, I do a bit more preparation than usual. Those trips only generally last 3- 4 hours at a time. Here is what goes into our backpacks every outdoor learning trip we make:

Outdoor learning tool: magnifying glass, rubber bands, flashlight, outdoor microscope
Waterbottle, wipes, mosquito repellent, ball
Pencil case, scissors, sand timer, clipboard

Self-care:

  • A water bottle is usually sufficient for us. Children generally carry their own water bottles and snacks in their backpacks. If we go on longer trips like hikes and day trips, they take their hydration packs. Also, every child has a whistle to let others know if there is danger and they need immediate help. It is important to note that I don’t let children wear anything around their necks as a precaution. So they have their hands and necks free of hazards and distractions. It is either in their backpacks or I carry it.
  • Simple snacks
  • Mosquito repellent. We prefer a natural one.
  • First Aid kit (bandaids, hand sanitizer, disinfectant, cotton tips, tweezers)

The exploration pack for children includes all the tools we use on regular basis:

I always have something to keep little ones busy if I have older children doing their work and the younger children get restless. For example, I pack a ball or a foam airplane if it is safe to use and won’t harm wildlife around us.

Children's notebook
Clear folder,

Learning materials:

  • At least one clipboard is always a must for us. We use it for children’s observational drawings or if I take nature journals and nature hunt lists with us. Sometimes older children do drawings of flowers, mushrooms, or other natural peculiar objects we find along the way. I also have my phone on me in case we need to identify any plants the children find especially intriguing. Although I try to keep them away from all the devices as much as possible.
  • A pencil case with colored pens, glue stick, eraser, writing pencil, sharpener, and a measuring tape.
  • Children safe scissors
  • A notebook. Aside from nature journals, children like to have their personal notepads to make notes of things, events, and thoughts. I make sure to allow them the time to do it freely whenever they feel prompted. It could be something new they learned or a drawing of a flower or anything really their heart desires.
  • Sandtimer. We use it generally for silence games which I aim to initiate every single trip. We find a perfect spot, we practice deep breathing and then they close their eyes for a couple of minutes listening carefully to all the surrounding sounds. Then they share their impressions. The silence game is also a great starting point for doing a couple of quiet activities, like reading and writing.
  • I always take tracing activities for the young children. These can be extended easily outdoors. Instead of tracing with a pen, they use loose parts from nature – small rocks, seeds, sticks and leaves to build shapes.
  • I gather a couple of children’s books that make a lot of sense to read outdoors. The oldest child does daily reading at her own pace while I do activities with the youngest.

Here are some of the activities I plan for outdoor learning.

I always have a plan that contains very specific learning activities I would like to do with the children. For example, counting quantities, identifying first, ending, and middle sounds in names of objects we find outdoors. I also plan for all the different questions I ask children and invite them to explain certain ideas or processes that take place in nature in their own words.

A pink flower

However, whenever we find something especially eye-catching, we make sure we learn its name, we take the time to examine it and take a closer look.

A child looking through an outdoor microscope at a pink flower.

Learning activities with cards always attract the attention of young children. I generally initiate the work by placing a couple of examples on the table when we find a quiet spot to do some work outdoors. Once the child shows interest, he or she can work on the task. But it all happens on his or her accord. With 3,4-year-old children, I do not have any kind of requirements to do any work unless they show interest. I gently assist but only if prompted by them.

Child placing a round card on a picture card with famous paintings.

Map drawing. The older children – 4 – 6-year-olds and beyond generally enjoy an activity like drawing a map. I prepare snippets of paper and they draw landmarks they observed in their surroundings on the day.

Child drawing a picture of a green tree with a pen.

After that, they glue them onto their map and create a pathway. It is a great fine motor activity for preschool age. It also encourages them to be more attentive and mindful of their environment.

Child drawing a pathway on the handmade map.

Clay modeling. Sometimes I plan a clay modeling activity. It is very much child-driven. Children design and make clay prints, little bowls, and other objects that we research together. They generally are encouraged to use the medium they find in nature that day. It does get messy and it is handy to have a place for washing hands and tools nearby.

Child doing modeling with clay

Games on logical thinking. Outdoors is a perfect place for those. We enjoy playing games like tic tac toe with materials we find around.

tic tac toe game outdoors with rocks

Nature crafts. I always have rubber bands with me. Boys especially enjoy making their versions of bow and arrows. We also make nature crafts with materials and natural objects we find on our walks.

A craft with flower and rubber band tied around a rock

Every outdoor learning experience runs differently based on children’s mood, weather, and many other factors. At times we meet other children and it turns into a social event. But it is great to transition their learning and work time we do indoors in the outdoor settings like gardens and parks. We do it at least once a week. The difference is that it is less structured and I am much more flexible with my planning. The children look forward to it every week and it is such a great way to build those important personal connections with them when distructions like electronics are practically nonexistent.

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