One of our favorite and must exciting activities is exploring worms. To start, we first figure out where worms live; often, children have seen worms out on the sidewalk or crawling on dirt and have a good idea of where to search for more. Exploring all the places in our outdoor space where they can live—asking children where they saw them and where they could have crawled under. By taking on this approach to finding the worms, we set the groundwork to learn more about worms’ habitat. Plus, it is fun to look for clues.
Once we decide where to look, the fun and messy part starts, children can use their hands, or I provide shovels so they can dig in the dirt. Figuring out what children are comfortable with is key; some will love to touch the dirt, while others may not want to. The same can be said for when we find a worm. Some children are curious and want to pick them up immediately. Others may want to see them from afar. We give children space and allow them to go at their own pace in the exploration.
If they are touching the worm, we talk about kindness, responsibility, respect, and compassion for the worm. Years ago, when we saw a worm or bug, I would immediately say, “look with your eyes, we might scare it or hurt it”. Over time I have learned the importance of having children experience holding insects, animals, and materials. I had to shift my thinking, and instead of avoiding the touching. I began to trust the children. Talking with them about how we treat animals and how we want to make sure we are caring for nature. Allowing them to take responsibility and feel proud of how they care for others helps them develop a great sense of self.
Maple samaras or helicopters are winged seeds of maple trees; because of their shape, it is fun to see them fall and twirl in the air. Stephanie Mckinstry of My Caterpillar Clubhouse shares fun ways to utilize these seeds in your program.
Start by collecting the leaves, having children gather as many leaves as possible, and then setting them out so they can explore.
- Encourage children to toss them to see them twirl or to separate the leaf from the seed.
- Opening the seed and observing what they see, feel, and hear. You can also add a muffin tin or container to separate the leaf from the seed.
- They are a great addition to the mud kitchen, or incorporate them in your indoor dramatic play area.
- Use the seeds to count or create patterns.
- Once dried, they are an excellent collage material and can easily be glued or painted.
Get creative and encourage the kids to use their imagination!
Gardening has many benefits for young children, including developing responsibility skills , fostering a sense of community, and developing confidence as they care for the plant and observe the growth. To begin, all you need are a few materials, and gardening doesn’t need an ample outdoor space; you can easily create a small indoor garden to fit your program.
Stephanie Mckinstry from My Caterpillar Clubhouse, a Certified Nature Explore Classroom, shares more benefits of gardening, how she begins her garden indoor and transfers the seeds to her outdoor garden. Watch below.
Stephanie Mckinstry from My Caterpillar Clubhouse, a Certified Nature Explore Classroom, shares how she incorporating books and images of nature into her program. Listen below for her tips.
Creating a nature scavenger color-hunt game is a fun nature-themed activity to get your group outdoors. This is an activity that, no matter their age, they will stay busy and observe as they play creatively and explore outside.
You can use a canvas panel or a piece of cardboard, I would say roughly the size of a medium-large pizza box. You then want to take 10 color paint swatches. I like to take a walk in my space and quickly take 10 pictures to match when I get to my hardware store. This is something that will, of course, change with the seasons.
We did 10 colors; my group is 2.5-4 years old. It’s entirely up to you how you choose to do this; you can cut smaller pieces of cardboard and give each child 5 colors; you can do it as a group as we did. You can add shapes by cutting the paint sample into a circle or triangle. You can also use this as a take-home activity for family engagement. Ask families to bring it back and discuss it with the group.
So after you have the canvas panel or cardboard, the color swatches, and 10 clothespins, you want to hot glue the colors swatches down and the clothespins. Then go explore for colors!
You can set rules for the game, like the color green can not be grass. Once the child finds the color, they yell “I found yellow”, clip it, and attach it to the board. We display our board and showcase it for pick up. Children are always so proud to name what they found and the color it matches.
We are protectors!
I often remind the children of the great privilege and responsibilities we have when we spend time in nature.
I am a true believer that a child exposed to the natural world will have heightened respect and deep regard for that world.
Teaching your child to be kind to even the smallest creature is a value they can carry with them throughout their whole lives.
Exposing your child to bugs early on is less about education and more about empathy and understanding; It’s about teaching love and kindness, acceptance and tolerance.
The kids loved getting eye level with all the new little creatures and explore their worlds.
Today we did many kinds of bug boards to flip over and discover what their habitat looks like.
We did bug logs, rocks, stumps, boards, pavers.
While teaching the kids about bugs, I want them to understand insects can be useful and are needed in the environment. We talked about how to be respectful to the bugs. It’s normal to see interesting bugs outside because that is their home, but we have to be gentle and respect their space. Sometimes we can put them in an indoor habitat and observe them, and sometimes we observe them in their outdoor habitat.
How I guide their interest:
- Allow them to explore
- Encourage them to use their senses, observe, touch, smell
- Ask questions!
How I expand their learning:
- Counting the legs and talk about how all true bugs have six legs.
- Identify the parts of the insect: head, abdomen, and thorax.
- Discuss how bees and butterflies help plants grow, and fruit ripen
As we explore intentionality in incorporating nature into home-based care. We reached out to two family childcare professionals Diann Gano, Owner of Under the Ginkgo Tree Nature School, and Ashley Hugues, owner of Roots Nature School, to discuss the curriculum of a home-based nature program. We hope this conversation is a starting point to rethink nature in your program or help support your current practice.
We began our exploration by observing the tree, hearing, touching, and smelling the tree. We read a book to learn more about the maple tree and start our tapping exploration.
We were all excited about this inspiring learning activity that brings together science, math, forestry, and taste buds.
Tapping is done in late winter, early spring when days are above freezing and nights are below freezing. We started by inserting the spile into the tree, finding a spot that receives sunshine, and making sure to remove the bark to get a smooth area to tap.
Tapping helped us learn of the source of real maple syrup. We realized that the tree has sap “water,” which contains sugar. Trees store this sugar for their food, and trees have a way of transporting the sap.
Through tapping the maple, children are supported in observing and inquiring about their natural environment.
We went outside daily to measure how much maple water we had and if the jugs were full to put out new ones– playing around the Maple Tree was a highlight, and some children would stick their fingers under the tap to taste the sap as it oozed from the tree – learning, that sap isn’t the same as syrup.
Best practice in early childhood education is based on supporting children to understand themselves through the natural world.
In a world that often requires a lot of patience, the kids were excited to finally find their jugs full to overflowing the following morning.
Once we collected 20 gallons, we boiled the sap!
Finally, after about four days, we had syrup and rewarded our patience with pancakes and syrup.
One of many skills that young children develop is delayed gratification. Tapping and exploring the maple tree sap allows children to see the steps in developing syrup and build their patience skills.
In the book The Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv (2005) links the lack of nature in the lives of children to being part of a “wired generation.” He says attention disorders, depression (yes, in children), and obesity are all due to a “Nature Deficit.” This is an amazing book and a great resource for teachers. I encourage you to read it and bring more nature into your work with children
Kids love to dig and what’s more exciting than finding a Roly Poly? Supply the kids with shovels, magnifying glasses and bug containers and let them go to work. I purchased all of my supplies at the Dollar Store making it very reasonably priced. You could use recycled food containers and spoons found in your kitchen if you don’t have access to these materials.
Here are some fun facts about roly polies that you may not know:
- They are found in most regions of the world and live in moist dark areas, under rocks, bark, leaves and logs.
- They like to eat decaying plants or other vegetation. (What other creatures eat this type of food? Extend your science activity by setting out a fresh carrot with a rotten carrot and see which one the Pill Bugs will eat.)
- Pill bugs have three body parts, seven pairs of legs, two antennae and two eyes. They are ¼ to ½ of an inch in length and can roll into a ball when frightened. These are great facts to discover with your children. Bring out the magnifying glasses!
- Pill bugs are actually not bugs, they are crustaceans. They are related to shrimp and crayfish, breathe with gills, and need humidity or moisture to survive. You can explore other types of crustaceans with children as well.
- The pill bug goes through two stages of development: egg and adult. The female can lay up to 100 eggs, which are held in a pouch (like a kangaroo). After about two months as an egg, they hatch and emerge as a tiny adult. They grow by molting (shedding their skin) and can live up to three years. Good information to research with children. Try checking out a book about pill bugs.
You can explore habitats of all kinds of animals, bugs, or crustaceans. Try creating a roly poly habitat with children out of found materials. However, you also want to help children respect animals and their natural habitats. So make sure they know you ALWAYS put animals back in their natural habitats at the end of every day.
How will they be ready for kindergarten if they just spend their days outdoors playing?”
As educators we are often asked about kindergarten readiness by nervous parents, looking to give their children the best in an early childhood program. It is important that parents understand the vast amount of learning that is available when children are connected to nature. Young children learn primarily through their senses. The natural world, with its constantly changing and stimulating elements, provides the ultimate sensory learning environment.
Nature provides the ultimate sensory learning experiences.
When children use their senses as they explore their world through sensory play, they are actively building nerve connections in the brain’s pathways, which is crucial to brain development. And, when we slow down, we can also see all the learning and social skills that are being developed through play in nature.
The warm spring sun shines down on Elizabeth as she buries her nose in the fresh dandelions that surround her. James our sky watching investigator, points out the moving clouds and the moon that is visible this morning. Suddenly a flock of honking geese flies overhead, which instigates a group of children to run honking around the play yard flapping their arms.
Creating environments that give our youngest learners the time, space, and opportunities to explore and investigate will provide meaningful learning experiences. We can create engaging and wonder-filled environments that promote learning through all eight of their senses—auditory, gustatory, visual, olfactory, tactile, vestibular, proprioception, and interoception.
“Listen! I hear a woodpecker!” calls Hudson, and the outdoor classroom quickly becomes calm as the children try to follow the sound of the pecking.
When children listen for and locate sounds in nature, it helps them understand that space is three dimensional. Birds call from high in the trees, the buzzing and humming of insects near plants on the ground attracts the attention of infants on their tummies. The children in our program often hear the horns of trains from across town or the steeple chimes from the college nearby, barking dogs in the neighborhood or the elementary students at recess down the block. These sounds force our children to slow down and follow the direction from which they came. By including bells, chimes, and your classroom musical instruments; you can add to the variety of sounds in your outdoor play space.
“We’re having a picnic!” shouts three year old Evelyn.
Food always tastes better outside. Eating outside strips away distractions and connects us to the flavors, the juiciness, and the aromas of our food and to nature. Sharing time outdoors with food also creates a sense of community between teachers and friends. There is something special about eating outdoors, even the exact same lunch. There is no rush, there are more stories, and more laughing. We spend longer periods of time around the table when we eat our meals outdoors. It’s magical. If lunch is an obstacle, start with a snack. If you don’t have a table, a good old fashion tablecloth or blanket on the ground will suffice.
Connect taste with nature by growing edibles from seeds or seedlings. Talk with your children about all the parts of a plant as you plant, nurture, harvest, and eat from your own garden. We started do a lot of container gardening once we realized our sunshine in the summer was different than when we planted it in the spring. This also gives you a chance to send your plants home over breaks if necessary. When our strawberry plants didn’t provide quite as many strawberries as we had hoped, strawberries from our local farmers market “may” have been added to the pickings on Strawberry Day. The same thing happened with our pumpkin patch, one year! We always want these to be enjoyable, successful adventures where everyone can join in the gathering.
I look over and notice our usually busy, James lying still on his tummy. A closer look, I see him watching a trail of ants carrying food.
Children who spend time outside in nature are less likely to suffer from myopia (nearsightedness) than their peers who spend more time looking at screens. Nature calls on us to look carefully and to focus at different distances. By providing magnifying glasses for close-up examination of bugs and leaves, children slow down and take observation much more seriously. Binoculars will bring faraway objects close, and kaleidoscopes and fish-eye lenses fuel a sense of wonder. By adding visually stimulating motion and color, with the use of banners, parachutes, and flags that flap and billow in the wind, we can capture the attention of little eyes to focus on wind patterns.
Two year old Eleanor is busy cooking up mint soup for the birds and squirrels. Always our concoction driven chef, Eleanor, is quick to make use of different plants to create the colors and smells she is sure will arouse the creatures of the neighborhood.
By incorporating plants whose blooms have distinctive, pleasing scents, we create places of beauty and wonder. Place gardenia and viburnum at key spots along pathways, jasmine near the front door, and lilacs outside of windows. We have herb gardens at our entrances that children and parents are invited to pick anytime. Catching a whiff of basil from a young friend is not at all unusual during our summer months! Include native plants that have unique qualities in fragrance, color, and texture. Check with your local city for possible rain garden grants that may help you finance pollinator or native plant gardens for young children. Our program was able to create a dry creek rain garden area, full of pollinating, native plants that brought butterflies and hummingbirds to our play space. Many cities are giving away rain barrels which will give you access to water for plants and water play.
“Come feel how soft this flower is!” invites three year old Evelyn to her friends nearby.
Our skin is the largest organ of our bodies, making touch a vital source of stimulation. Tactile engagement is crucial, especially for babies. Connecting with plants and soil can begin early. Babies soak up sensory experiences in and near the garden. Hands and bare feet need to experience different characteristics and temperatures. Nature is rich in texture and tactile variety— bark on trees and shrubs can be rough, smooth, bumpy or thorny. Leaves can be sticky, fuzzy, delicate, or veiny. Stones can be smooth, round or jagged. Providing our young learners with these spellbinding opportunities, creates strong nerve connections that are hard to duplicate indoors.
“Watch me fly! I am a superhero!” Three year old James is pushing off with his feet and swinging high on his belly.
The vestibular sense, based in the inner ear, is related to balance. A well-developed vestibular sense helps us to understand where our body is in space. We are huge proponents of swings and belly swinging. Children with a poorly functioning vestibular sense may consistently run into things, trip a lot, and frequently fall. Experiences that develop the vestibular sense include swinging, swaying, bouncing, rocking, and rolling. The vestibular system helps with spatial awareness, attention, visual skills such as reading and writing, and emotional regulation. By including bench swings, hammocks, rope swings, tire swings, and baby swings, you will be strengthening the vestibular sense that makes paying attention and sitting still for short periods of time a possibility for our busy young friends.
The sense of proprioception informs us of our body’s position in space. The receptors for this system are found in our muscles and joints and they send information to our brain about where our body is and how much force we are using. This is the sense we need to understand how to gently hold a friend’s hand, play tag without tagging too hard, pet an animal, or make a light or dark mark on the paper. When children use their muscles and the force of their bodies to push, dig, roll or lift heavy things, they become aware of their own bodies’ capabilities.
“Benjamin pushed me down!” a sobbing four-year-old, reports as tears run down her cheeks. I look over to see four-year-old Benjamin crying just as hard, if not harder.
Proprioception is important in building body awareness and achieving motor milestones. This is why tummy time is so very important for infants. Shoveling in the sandbox, moving stones to make a fort, or carrying buckets of water will all benefit our children. When we use our muscles it creates strength, and resistance is put on those proprioceptive receptors in the joints and muscles.
“I am so thirsty!” exclaims five year old, Lauren, as she rushes to the pitcher of water to fill a cup.
Just as there are receptors in your muscles and joints that make up our proprioceptive system, there are also receptors inside your organs, including your skin. These neurons send information about the inside of your body to your brain. Are you hungry, thirsty, hot, or cold? Do you need to use the bathroom? Is your heart racing or at a normal pace? The calmness in outdoors may help children recognize these signals and learn to listen to their bodies. We encourage our young learners to slow down and listen to their bodies.
In a natural environment, sensory learning happens naturally.
Outdoors is the perfect environment to observe and understand the senses that make up our young learners. By taking a minute to look at your outdoor environment and assess what it offers, you can address the changes that might be beneficial—even if it’s planting some herbs, adding a chime, or providing binoculars. Let’s celebrate and embrace the power of outdoor learning for young minds by designing simple, wonder-filled gardens of opportunities.
Article courtesy of Community Playthings