What do children learn when they are playing outside. When children are outside they are using all of their senses. They hear the birds, feel the breeze, smell scent of flowers and cedar trees, taste a freshly picked strawberry and see the spiders as they spin their webs in the garden. Being outside in nature allows children to build their core strength as they climb a tree and their balance as the crossover a log. They develop fine motor skills as they stack rocks or carefully look at a worm and gently place it in the garden (without squishing it). Being on dirt paths and rough ground rather than the smooth surfaces of an inside floor or a groomed ball field allows the child’s brain to send messages to his/her body as he/she moves over the uneven terrain. It connects large motor movement with visual awareness. It develops their coordination. Being outside enhances visual discrimination as they look in the distance at an bird soaring in the sky and then to the ant crawling across the sidewalk.
All of these activities strengthen a child’s physical literacy. Physical Literacy is the ability to use one’s body ….. When children are outdoors they become more aware of how their body works. They can run, jump, swing or sit, scoop, listen. Nature time allows them to interact with the world in many ways – quiet ways as they watch a hummingbird or listen to the water hitting the shoreline. The have the chance to hear loud sounds as they hear the waves crashing onto the rocks as the tide changes or use their own voice to make an echo. They can build their knowledge of physical sounds as they hear the splash from the rock that they toss in the water compared to the sound of a rock hitting the hard surface of the larger rocks. They are building their vocabulary as they gain knowledge of objects found in nature and how that object looks, feels, sounds, tastes, smells. It is not the same as a Google search of the same object. Touching a rock and turning it over in your hand – the feel of the cold rock as it turns warm from your body heat cannot be explained on Google as well as it can be explained by experience.
What are some activities that promote body knowledge through play in nature. Some of these activities need nothing other than being outside and some will need a few items from the house but all can be done by toddlers and preschoolers with a little adult assistance.
Nature Tape bracelets - using a piece of clear packing tape, sticky side up, make a bracelet around your child’s wrist. As you walk around the yard or park, pick up things of nature to add to your bracelet. This is a time to teach your child names of plants and respect for living things as well as personal property. One spring I had quite a conversation with my nephew as to why we could pick buttercups and dandelions but not the flowers from the neighbor’s hydrangea bush. In our play area at preschool we make fall bracelets from ferns, grasses, fall leaves, small pinecones and feathers I have purchased. In the spring we find buttercups, lilac blossoms, small pinecones and a variety of new growth grasses.
Treasure Hunt - Before you take a walk make a map of places on your walk. You can make the map yourself or have your child help you make the map. The treasure map can be drawings, magazine cut outs or pictures from your phone. At the end of the walk you can bury a surprise for them to find. When our sons were little would walk through Discovery Park and look for buried treasure in the sandy area by the bluff. We would hide a baggie of snacks or a little toy in the sand before they got there ... and the person who hid the treasure would stay nearby to keep puppy dogs from getting the treasure before the kids get there ;-)
Surprise Homes - Leave a piece of cardboard, cloth or plastic in an area of dirt or bark. After a few days have the child lift up the cover – it is amazing to see what little creatures have made a home under the cover. Worms, potato bugs and slugs love to live under those covered areas in the dirt.
Build a Village - Using twigs, rocks and your imagination build little pretend homes for the “little people”. With children in our neighborhood, and at preschool, we build a Leprechaun Village in March. We build villages all year long for pretend little people, fairies and gnomes. We use leaves for beds and dandelions flowers for pillows, rocks and bark to build tables and chairs, pinecones are made into walls and sticks can be telephone poles. The neighbor children created a pretend pond with boats and a dock. The children look for treasures the Little People leave for us (small treats) and we leave them shiny rocks or marbles. The village my neighbor children built stayed under my plants in my garden for the whole summer.
Scientific Search - Using child safe magnifying glasses and/or binoculars go on a walk in search of __________. You can go on a rock search, a bird search, a tree search or a flower search. I have plasticized cards with animals, plants, trees on them. A mom came up with the idea of using an erasable marker to cross off what you find on the walk. You can make your own from pictures and put contact paper over the paper for protection from the elements (and makes them tear-proof and re-usable for more walks)
Read a Book - Read a book outside under a tree. It is a great way to introduce literature and just enjoy time together in nature. Reading a book outside in the rain is fun. Find a dry place to snuggle - under a tree, on a covered porch or in a tent - and read a book while you watch, and hear, the rain all around.
Watch the Clouds - In Seattle we lots of cloudy days but we do not often get the kind of clouds that you can just watch – the big, fluffy, white clouds. On the days we do take a blanket and go outside. While you lay and watch the clouds you can: talk about what you see, talk about colors and texture or just lay and watch without talking at all. Clouds are amazing.
Worm Walks - After a rainy day (or on a rainy night) take flashlights and go outside for a walk. You will be surprised at the earthworms that are stretched out on the sidewalks. On some nights we would count 10 on just one sidewalk square. Try to catch one – they are fast and slippery. If there are no worms out - it is still fun to be outside with flashlights!
Puddle Stomping Walk – Oh the fun of splashing in puddles. We had a favorite route to take after a rain storm – lots of big puddles for stomping in. Kids love puddles and there are a lot of discoveries you can make. How big of a splash can you make? What will make a splash in the water? Can you walk without making a splash? ,Watching the ripples after the splash can you guess when they will hit the side of the puddle? Why are there ripples? Looking at reflections in the still water and in the water after the splash discuss the differences in the reflection. All of these discoveries make for time spent in interesting conversation with your child. Storm drains are fascinating also, with the rain water running into them and the sound that makes. The storm drain at the end of our alley was a destination on many of our rain walks.
Bubbles - Bubbles are great fun in the summer but have you ever thought of bubbles in the fall or on. rainy day. Bubbles are more elastic in the rain. Bubbles will sit on any wet surface without popping. You can stomp on them, watch them land on surfaces without popping and catch them in your hand. If you get your hand wet you can hold a bubble. They are great fun in the bathtub! You can stick your finger into a bubble without it popping and they will stick all over your body and the tub.
Being outside in nature reduces stress. Five minutes of unstructured time outside will reduce stress in children and adults. Going for a walk is a calming activity that is good for your body and t is time spent with your child that develops relationships and a love for nature.
Enjoy some time together exploring nature this fall.