Photo credit: Play of the Wild
You don’t have to be a Naturalist to make nature education an integral part of learning. Going outside should be about more than just ‘not being inside.’ Encourage outdoor pretend play, create or buy some natural toys, and use adventure education to expand your child’s critical thinking skills. We’ve got some great tips below to get the ideas flowing.
Outdoor Pretend Play as Learning
Challenge your kids to think like an animal. Let them pretend to be a squirrel, for instance. Give them some open-ended and age-appropriate questions. How do squirrels find food? Where do they shelter? How do they deal with changes in weather? What dangers do they face? Change the pretend animal to a lion and ask the same questions. Compare the challenges that different animals face.
Using Nature's Toys to Teach
For your youngest tots, counting exercises are easy using sticks or pine cones. Or teach sorting and categories using color and size. Or ask them to find a leaf that is bigger than the one they are holding, a branch that is straighter than the one next to them.
Investigate the birds that are in your area during the current time of year. Binoculars are a nice addition, but aren't necessary. Take photos and make your own picture book. Add pages or chapters for different seasons. When you visit friends or relatives, take your book along with you to compare with the birds you see in their location. If you are lucky enough to find a nest with eggs, you are in for a treat. But don’t get too close, and be sure not to touch any part of the nest. Adult birds will abandon the nest, and even the eggs if they sense danger.
Take a walk and see the variety of bugs, snap some photos, and then do some old-fashioned research. Introduce your child to your local library and its research area. Or let them take the lead with some on-line research. Yes, you really can Google “what is the black bug with gray wings and white stripes on its back?”
How do the trees in your neighborhood change throughout the year? Follow the life cycles of different trees. How do deciduous trees and evergreen trees differ?
Sitting behind a desk has its benefits, but exploring is always a hit with kids. Get outside and let your students be Nature Explorers. Ask them to consider that they have discovered this area, as the first humans. What would it feel like? Would they feel safe in this environment? What challenges would they need to overcome? Is this environment subject to seasonal changes? How would they deal with those seasonal issues?
Every kid loves a scavenger hunt. Your list can be as broad (find a bird, a yellow leaf, etc.) or as specific (find a stick that is shaped like a ‘K’, a leaf that has been eaten by a bug, etc.) as you wish. Let your child choose the items for YOU to hunt. You will learn a lot about your child’s perspective when you change roles.
Create Your Own Natural
Feeling crafty? Make some great natural toys. Paint faces on rocks for your kid’s play time. Or write emotion-words on them. The next time your child is sad, give him the rock with “happy” written on it to put in his pocket. Gather a variety of sizes and shapes and glue them together to make animal shapes. A few pipe cleaners and wiggly eyes can be the perfect finishing touch.
Sticks are great for bringing the outdoors inside. Hang an interesting stick on the wall, add some hooks for a great natural coat rack. Stand a stick in the corner and drape a sheet over it to make an impromptu teepee or play space.
Sources for Great Nature
The selection of books from your local library will be of unending supply and interest. In the children’s section, you will find beautifully illustrated books about bugs and gardens and every other imaginable topic. Many have interesting activity suggestions; many have scientific information.
There are lots of great hand-made nature toys available. Shopping local? Start at your local Farmer’s Market. You’ll likely find some small carved wood toys.
Galleries and gift shops often feature local craftsmen who create small and inexpensive toys. It is a good way for them to use small pieces and to expand their customer base. When you find an artist’s work that you admire, investigate their portfolio to see if they have small toys that are suitable for your child.
Nature Centers, Zoos and Aquariums have gift shops with great nature toys. Make a day trip to one of these amazing learning centers.
Photo credit: Western North Carolina Nature Center
For online shopping, Etsy is full of Artisans who make great nature toys. You’ll have trouble choosing among the selection. Spend some time looking at their offerings. Share your choices with those who want to give gifts to your children. It’s a great way to prepare your holiday gift-giving list.
Nature Education is nothing new: our own moms knew what they were talking about when they told us to go outside. There is a whole wild world full of adventure out there. Don’t let your kids miss it!!