Outdoor Learning Activities for Children
Spending school hours outside sure sounds like fun. What could be better than an entire day examining plants and flowers, looking for bugs, or learning about different types of clouds? There are many benefits of outdoor education, let’s dive in and see why!
Learning in nature has several benefits for children. Studies show that walking and playing in natural settings helps kids lower their stress levels, reduce anxiety, become more focused, and even reduce ADHD symptoms. If that isn’t enough, research also shows that outdoor learning makes kids more motivated to learn and more willing to learn independently – even once they’re back inside your classroom. In fact, researchers have found that schools with lots of green space have higher graduation rates and standardized test scores, regardless of the socioeconomic status of their students.
Why does outdoor learning provide these benefits? Research suggests that students feel more connected to their world while learning in nature. They also suggest that they feel energized by natural sunlight and the exercise they get while they’re outside – and that they look at these outdoor learning experiences as special treats that keep them engaged. This is key because these studies also suggest that students who don’t get motivated by traditional indoor learning gain the most from the benefits of outdoor education.
There are many advantages to outdoor learning, but how can you make sure that your students reap the benefits of outdoor education? When it comes to learning in nature, there are numerous activities to choose from that will keep your students interested and engaged. Try these fun outdoor learning lessons:
- Plant a class garden: This is a great way to teach your students about plant science. You can have your kids put down the soil, teach them how to insert the seedlings, and then observe how they grow. If you play your cards right, your students will be able to eat the (literal) fruits of their labor!
- Take the kids on a nature hike: Not only is this a great way to get in some exercise, it can also provide a great lesson in observation. What do they see? What do they hear? You can help your kids look for certain animals, trees, rocks, or flowers, or listen out for birds.
- Build a bird feeder: This is an activity that your class can do as a group. Make a bird feeder by tying a string around a pine cone, spreading mashed banana all over it, then rolling it over a plate of birdseed. Once you’re done, hang the pine cone from a nearby tree branch. Your kids will love observing the birds as they feed.
- Teach your students about gravity: Kids love figuring out whether objects will sink or float in water. Present a list of random objects and have your little ones predict which ones will float and which will sink. Record their observations, then dunk each one in a bucket of water and see how many they predicted correctly. Then, have them observe each object to figure out why it floated or sunk. Eventually, their predictions will become more accurate.
- Create compost: Teach your students how to make compost for their class garden. It’s easy: All you need is a large glass jar, some dirt, a few fruit and veggie scraps from lunchtime, some old newspaper, a cup of fresh water, and a permanent marker (you can have the kids gather the scraps and dirt from your class garden). Layer the soil, newspaper and lunch scraps (in that order) until you’ve nearly filled the jar. Pour the water into the jar and close it tightly. Once you’ve punched a few small holes in the lid and drawn a fill line to the top of your compost, stick the jar somewhere sunny and have your students observe how the contents change.
- Run some numbers: Take your students outside and write basic numbers on the pavement outside in sidewalk chalk. Ask the kids to spread out and grab a stick of chalk. Assign each child a number to write on the pavement with the chalk. (Make sure they write the numbers out as large as they can, so everyone can see them). Call out each number and let the children run to each one you call. Then, have them stand in place on the number until you call the next one.
- Hunt for bugs: Have your students go outside and see how many different bugs they can identify. If you like, turn it into a contest! You can also do this with rocks and bring them back to your classroom to paint as an art project.
- Stack some rocks: During your next class nature hike, have your students collect rocks of different sizes. Show the kids how to stack and balance the rocks to make stone sculptures, then have them build their own. This will spark your students’ creativity and provide a cool lesson on gravity as well.
- Make sandcastles: If your school’s playground has a sandbox, you can teach your students how to mold sand into something solid and turn it into a sandcastle. They can observe the texture of the sand and how it changes when it’s wet, and they can admire their building skills as that sand transforms into a structure.
The fact that you’re teaching your students about nature doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re limited to science or math lessons. If you want to use nature to teach your students about art or even words, try these simple outdoor learning activities:
- Play games with sight words: Make a set of flashcards featuring sight words, or words that preschoolers can recognize without sounding them out. Then go outside with your students, a bucket of water (a spray bottle also works), and some sidewalk chalk. Write out the words on your flashcards on the ground and show the flashcards to your students (make sure they repeat the words after you). Then, see if your students can identify the words you’ve written on the ground. When the kids see the words on the ground, let them splash water on them. The kid who makes the most splashes wins!
- Design an alphabet hunt: Take a set of foam letters and hide them around your outdoor play area. The game ends when they’ve found and assembled the entire alphabet.
- Hunt for colors in nature: Print out a color wheel or write out a list of colors. Have your students head outdoors with you and find the colors in a natural setting.
- Make Play-Doh nature imprints: Hand your students a handful of Play-Doh and go outside. Have them make imprints of tree bark, branches, flowers, rocks, or whatever they can find. Once you come back in, pile up the imprints and have your students guess the object that made each one.
- Gather flowers for an art project: You can do this during a nature walk, or use it as a fun activity on its own. Have your kids look for certain flowers and have the little ones paint over them. Try having your students make cute flower collages or painting them as a “still life” art project. You can also identify flowers and the differences between them.
- Paint with bubbles: Have your students paint bubble art masterpieces! Start by combining water, dish soap, corn syrup, and food coloring in some containers. Tape 4-6 drinking straws together and hand a set to each child. Have the kids place the straws into the solution you made, then blow into the straws. As the bubbles form, have them blow them out onto a canvas or piece of paper. All the colors and bubbles will combine to form a one-of-a-kind print that the entire class can enjoy.
The benefits of outdoor education go far beyond doing cool stuff outside. Learning in nature opens your students’ eyes to the world around them and awakens their powers of observation. They can learn about plant life, the sky above them, the rocks on the ground, and even the animals that share the outdoors with them. As a teacher, you can use all of these things and more to fuel your little ones’ creativity, open their minds, and kickstart a lifelong love of learning.
At CCEI, we offer a number of courses to help you incorporate these sorts of activities into your curriculum, such as outdoor learning and fostering a maker mindset in young children. You can also take classes like discovering life science with young children and outdoor STEAM activities that give early childhood educators like you the tools to literally open the world up for your students.
Visit ChildCare Education Institute to learn more about the offerings above, as well as CCEI’s entire catalog of courses.