The warm summer breeze (with that unmistakable twist of salt when you’re by the ocean...) and late evening sunsets have everyone busy with play outside. Children are never bothered by the sweltering sunshine, so let’s explore some learning moments to cultivate while you’re walking through the garden, hiking up a mountain, or scrounging for pebbles at the riverside. It’s easy to introduce concepts of literacy, math and science while still having tons of fun playing outside.
Nature walk – Collecting and creating
The next time you’re going out for a hike, walk, or beach day, remember to pack a small bag for your child to collect materials in. We have a designated canvas tote that is lovingly known as the “nature holder.” Although we usually only walk the sidewalks of Brooklyn, we still find so many beautiful things to collect! The rule is that we can only keep and take items that are no longer growing. We can’t pick the flowers in bloom or yank a leaf off a tree. But anything that has fallen onto the ground or is clearly not going to make it much longer is ok to add to the bag.
Once we get home, the fun begins! We have used twigs to hold all of our leaves by carefully poking them through as if we were beading; we have also put all of the collected objects into a metal bowl, filled the bowl with water and kept it in the freezer overnight! It was so lovely to excavate and observe the changes in all of the flowers and leaves that had been frozen (and it kept us cool on a hot day!). You can use your shells to paint on, your rocks to stack and build with, or your pinecones to create a bird feeder. The possibilities are endless!
ABC Hunt – Using signs and nature to find the alphabet
Another fun game that we like to play while outside is a classic: ABC hunt! We scour the neighborhood looking for all the letters (and numbers!) we can possibly find. My daughter likes to take photographs and videos of all of the different letters she discovers. That’s a great way to reflect on the experience later – we print some out and are able to recall, “Oh yeah, remember the twig that looked just like the letter Y?”
You could create a checklist to make sure you find all of the letters.
You can also turn bits and pieces of nature into your own alphabet! Small twigs, rocks, blades of grass, and seed pods are perfect for number and letter creation.
Potions – Using natural materials to spark imagination, storytelling, and the scientific method
There’s nothing that children love more than being given the freedom to mix, pour, dump, and stir! And while they are enjoying being messy and creative, they are learning a whole lot. When you mix in a dump truck bed full of dirt to a small bucket of water, you watch the water being absorbed – your liquid is no longer a liquid! When a child squishes wild berries with a rock, they can see how the juice paints the rock into a new color and leaves a stain on their fingers. Children are able to use creative reasoning, cause and effect, and make their own conclusions about how things work and why. Even without any formal instruction, a child is able to see which natural materials will float and which sink into a bucket filled with water.
Potions can be made up of anything, and can be created in bowls, buckets, bottles, cups, or cans. You can use sticks and spoons for stirring, measuring cups and plastic beakers for pouring, and any kitchen tools that capture your child’s interest. When they have real tools, children feel empowered and important!
So this summer, let the great outdoors become your classroom. Collect nature, use it to play with the alphabet and numbers, and squish and pour it into wonderfully messy potions. Write down your children’s stories – someday they will be touched and excited to read these snippets of childhood.
Rachel McMinn is an early childhood educator at Buckle My School Preschool in Tribeca, who has taught the young 2-year-olds for almost ten years. She holds a Masters in Early Childhood Education from Hunter College and a Writing degree from Pratt Institute. She lives in Brooklyn with her infant daughter, post-production & screenwriting husband, and two attention-seeking cats.
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