Most young children love the exhilarating freedom of playing outside, where they can jump like a frog, swim like a fish, climb like a monkey, and exercise their imaginations — all things that are harder to do inside. But there is more to outdoor play than just letting loose. The great outdoors provides endless learning opportunities for your child, from building her physical and social skills to sharpening her cognitive abilities through observation, exploration, and experimentation.
When your child visits the playground, he takes in his environment through sight, smell, touch, and hearing. He can count the number of birds gathered on the ground, feel the different textures of leaves, and listen to dogs barking. He learns about taking turns, about engaging in imaginative play with other children, and about making decisions, such as how high to climb. By digging in the sand and splashing in the water, he acquires fine- and gross-motor skills and refines his eye-hand coordination.
With a few basic supplies and a little creativity, you can create a rich outdoor learning environment right in your own backyard — or at the park or beach. Much of the best and most-used outdoor play equipment is simple and inexpensive. These seven ideas will keep the fresh-air learning going all summer long:
- Explore sand and water. Few things appeal to both little kids and teachers the way sand and water do. Teachers love the versatility and hands-on learning; children love the experimental fun! Large plastic bins are great for creating a sand-and-water area, while funnels and handheld eggbeaters serve as interesting water toys. Change the experience by adding food coloring to tint the water or a small bit of soap to make bubbles. Spoons, scoops, small plastic containers, strainers, and colanders make awesome sand toys. Add plastic animals or small vehicles to encourage pretend play, or wet the sand to inspire sculpting and building.
- Take art projects outside. If you have an easel, bring it outside for a painting session. If you don't, clip paper onto a fence with clothespins. You can also tape paper to your house or porch (you may want to hang a sheet of plastic under the paper to avoid having your house painted!). Another option is to bring your child's art supplies (including paper, glue, and a portable watercolor paint set) to a nearby park, where she can paint a variety of found objects or make a collage out of sticks, leaves, and seeds. Finger painting is a wonderful, free-spirited outside activity — and you don't have to worry about what fingers touch when going from the paper to the hand-washing area. Clay and play dough are quite portable, too.
- Create an outdoor seating area. Outdoor furniture provides a stage for imaginative play. Set out some plastic chairs and tables — they are inexpensive, easy to clean, and can be used indoors, too — and plates, trays, and cups, and you'll have an instant tea party. Bring out a box of dress-up clothes for an open-air play. (Keep long dresses and high-heeled shoes inside, as children can trip while running in them, and never allow children to climb while wearing dress-up clothes.) This peaceful area can be a wonderful place for exploring manipulatives, found nature objects, or for doing other quiet activities that develop fine-motor skills. For children over 4, gather seeds, nuts, stones, or other natural objects to practice counting and sorting.
- Set up tents or make a playhouse. Tents, forts, and playhouses do double duty by enhancing pretend play and protecting children from the sun. You can create a playhouse that will inspire your child's imagination just by draping a sheet or piece of fabric across a table and chairs. Serve snacks there, and bring some books along for story time.
- Go on a scavenger hunt. The whole family will enjoy this easy, no-cleanup activity in the backyard or at the local park. You can hide objects and ask everyone to check off the items on the list when they are discovered. Or you can simply ask your child to find something soft, something green, or something round.
- Plant a small garden. This project builds observation and prediction skills while fostering an appreciation of nature. You can plant in the ground if you have the space. If you don't have a yard, look into joining a community garden, or simply plant in pots. Easy-to-grow plants include grass, beans, and such flowers as zinnias and cosmos. You can enhance the experiences by planting flowers that attract birds and butterflies, such as sunflowers, snapdragons, and impatiens.
- Put up a bird feeder. Your child will love watching and caring for the birds. To make your own bird feeder, you will need string or yarn, pinecones, peanut butter, a plastic knife, a plate, and birdseed. Tie the string around the pinecone, spread peanut butter on it, and roll the pinecone on a plate of birdseed. Hang the pinecone from a tree branch. You can attract even more birds by adding a birdbath, which can be as simple as a large plant saucer filled with an inch or so of water.
Remember to protect your children and yourself from the sun when outdoors. Try to plan outdoor times for early in the morning or in the late afternoon; the sun's rays will be less intense than they are midday. Always use sunscreen, and dress children in protective clothing, including hats and sunglasses. Then get your supplies and a few snacks together, and get out!