Celebrate Summer by Learning With the Senses

Keep learning all season by heading outdoors into nature's classroom.
By Ellen Booth Church



Celebrate Summer by Learning With the Senses

Five-year-old Sam loves helping his mom in the backyard garden. He loves the vibrant colors of the plants, the bugs buzzing all around, the scent of the flowers, the cool water spraying from the hose, and above all, digging in the dirt. These are delightful sensory experiences for most young children — and all help them discover new things about the world and how things work.

Perhaps more than any other season, summertime provides plenty of opportunities for kids to watch, listen, smell, touch, and taste new things. It gives them a chance to really give their senses a workout. Summer is also the perfect time to encourage exploration, experimentation, and curiosity — the foundation for science and all-around learning. In fact, studies have shown that free, unstructured time gives children's brains a chance to process and expand on what they learned throughout the school year.

There are many things you can do to keep your child's learning alive during the long, lazy days of summer. You can start by being curious yourself. If you're walking along a brook, for example, pick up a rock and talk about it. You might wonder out loud, "Wow. Look at the layers of color in this rock. How did it become so colorful?" Happily, you don't have to have all the answers — you just need to encourage the questions!

When you walk outside, notice the feeling of the sun's warmth on your skin. Why does it feel hot? Where is the heat coming from? What can we do to cool off? With just these few questions, you have invited your child to think more deeply. When you encourage her to observe and connect new information with what she already knows, you're fostering essential critical-thinking skills that can be used in all areas of learning. Our collection of multi-sensory activity ideas can get you started.

Our Sensational Senses
Young children love to learn about how their bodies work, and in turn, their senses help them learn about even more. These activities allow your child to use his body to explore the exciting potential of all his senses: touch, taste, sound, sight, and smell.

  • See what the nose knows. Experience the sweet smell of discovery! Collect items with distinct odors, such as a flower, a banana, cut grass, or a lemon. Place the items in separate bags, and invite your child to play a "smelly" guessing game. Hand her one of the bags and ask her to smell (but not look at) its contents. After she's guessed, show the contents of the bag. When all the items have been identified, ask her how she guessed each one. Talk together about foods and their distinctive smells. When describing a scent, encourage your child to go beyond "good" or "bad." Help expand her vocabulary by modeling more descriptive words such as sweet, spicy, flowery, and sour. Then enjoy a snack by cutting the foods into small pieces for tasting.
  • Hear the sounds around you. Pretend that you're a visitor from outer space and that every sound is new to you. Invite your child to explain what all the different sounds mean, and how you should react when you hear them. Have him explain the noises he hears. For example, children laughing, the din of traffic, the sound of balls being kicked, babies crying, an ambulance siren, birds singing, and so on. Are these familiar sounds? Can your child hear anything he has not heard before? Encourage him to listen very carefully. Investigate unfamiliar sounds together.
  • Experiment with listening. Collect different hollow items (cardboard tubes, juice cans, seashells) to listen through. Demonstrate how they work. Then, let your child explore them. What does he hear through the objects? How do the sounds change through each item?
  • Play hide-and-seek with a whistle. In this version of the classic game, the hider toots a whistle to signal to the seekers where she might be. Your child's ears will be tuned to the whistle as he attempts to follow the sound and win the game.
  • Pucker up! This tasting game is a big hit with kids. Wash a lemon and cut it into very small wedges. Share a slice with your child and bite in. (Remind him not to eat the rind.) Have a full-length mirror nearby and look at your faces as you taste. Does the sourness make you pucker up? Have a camera handy to capture the results. Post the photos for all to see. Try other sour foods, such as limes and pickles.
  • Throw a tasting party. Choose one or two foods with distinct sweet and salty tastes. Possible sweet foods include applesauce, grapes, bananas, or fruit breads and muffins. Pretzels are a fun salty food. Cut the foods into bite-size pieces, and take a small amount of each. Don't force the tasting. As you sample the foods, talk about what you're eating: "Do you like those pretzels? They're salty aren't they?" "Does that pickle squirt when you bite it? Does it taste sour?" Use the words sweet, sour, and salty in describing the foods. Expand your child's language skills by introducing other words, such as chewy, crunchy, squishy, wet, and soft.
  • Follow a memory trail. Learning how to look carefully and notice detail enables your child to really focus on landmarks and other wonderful sights in your neighborhood. Start near your home. Explain that you are going to lead her on the way there, but on the way back, you would like her to lead you. On the outward journey, encourage her to notice as much as she can, especially looking out for trees and flowers, buildings of different types and colors, shops, street signs, bus stops and so on. Ask her to note those things that are particularly memorable ("landmarks") for her journey home.
  • Make goop. This is a great way to experiment with touch. You'll need cornstarch, ice cubes, a cake pan, and a measuring cup. Make the goop with your child: Pour 2 cups of cornstarch into the pan or tray. Add in 12 ice cubes and let them melt in the sun. Mix the ingredients until the goop is the consistency of white glue. Add more cornstarch or several ice cubes if necessary. Let your child enjoy slithering his fingers through it. Keep the goop cool and refreshing by periodically adding several ice cubes and a little cornstarch. Another time, freeze colored ice cubes and make colored goop.

Learning About the Outside World
Looking ever outward with their heightened senses, children can take in the natural world with new eyes. In fact, children are natural explorers, and they want to get their hands on everything. Activities grounded in nature and the elements provide a solid starting point for building observation and experimentation skills.

Sand, water, and soil are great sources of hands-on experimentation. For instance, what happens when children draw water through a straw? They begin to understand science and math concepts such as flow, force, gravity, and volume. What happens when children add water to soil? They develop skills in predicting while gaining knowledge about absorption and the properties of soil and water and what happens when they are mixed together. Give these outdoor activities a try. Plus, there is nothing better than messing around with water or cool wet mud on a hot summer day!

  • Go with the flow. Engage your child in a conversation about how water moves. Ask her to think about water in your home: How does water enter the sink? How does water get picked up when it spills? Invite her to think about different ways water can be moved.

    Gather an array of supplies (sponges, towels, basters, eye droppers, straws). Invite your child to conduct an experiment by using different materials to learn about how water can be moved. Give him a plastic basin of water and set to work. Help him learn new words that describe how the water is being moved: "Look how the towel absorbs the water." "Suction pulls the water into the baster."

    Give your child a grater and a handful of colored chalk. Together grate the chalk into a shallow pan of water and stir. Then float a piece of paper on top and watch a painting develop. Talk about what has happened.
  • Make mud pies and more. What child doesn't love mud? But does he know how it's made? Find out together by placing a mound of soil in a large container or sink. Play with it and describe how it feels. What happens if you add water? Ask your child to pour water onto the soil, just a little at first. Let her mix it with her hands, and then gradually add more until the soil is saturated. What have you made?

    Make a mud pie by filling a pie tin. Place your pies on a sunny area outside and let it "bake." Check back to see what happens to the mud over time. If your kids still can't get enough of the stuff, gather some sturdy paper plates, paintbrushes, plastic cups, several bowls or cups of mud, plastic spoons, and water. Create a picture on a paper plate using the mud. Children can use water to dilute the mud and change its consistency as they paint.
  • Go bird watching. You'll be surprised how fast children learn to be keen observers just by watching birds. Talk with your child about the types of birds that live in your area. On a sheet of paper, under the heading "What We Know About Birds," write down your answers. On another page, write "What We Would Like to Learn About Birds," and make a list. Gather a camera, tape recorder, and binoculars for observing and recording information about the birds in your area. Talk about the need to move slowly and quietly as you look for birds.

    Take some drawing paper, a clipboard and some colored pencils along with you. During your outdoor studies, sketch the birds you see. When you get home, choose a bird you especially liked and work together to create a dance that depicts the bird's movements. Choose music or rhythm instruments to accompany the dance.
  • Plant seeds. Ask your child what he knows about how seeds grow. Talk about different types of foods that have seeds inside of them. Can you grow plants from the seeds in these foods? Make a list of these foods and then collect all that you can find in your kitchen and yard. Consider making a trip to the store to buy some seed packets and extend your collection. Help your child cut up the foods and separate the seeds.

    Label plastic cups with the type of seed you'll be planting inside each. With plastic spoons and soil, plant each type of seed in a cup. Put them in a sunny windowsill or outdoor area and make a schedule for caring for and observing the plants. Discuss your options for collecting your observations, including drawings, dictations, graphs, and photography.

    Make predictions about the growth of the plants. Ask: How long do you think it will take your plant to grow? What will your plant look like when it sprouts? When it's fully grown? Keep track over the course of the summer and consider creating a plant diary.
  • Study common weeds. Take a stroll through your yard or nearby park. Explain that you are looking for plants known as weeds. Ask your child if she recognizes any or if she knows what a weed is. Explain that some people remove weeds from their gardens because the weeds take food away from other plants. Remind children that they must not eat any of the weeds.

    Use a piece of yarn or string to measure the weed. Consider using a camera to photograph your children with their weeds as another method of documentation. Write down the weed information on paper. Include the date and glue the yarn onto the page to show the size of the weed. Ask your child to predict how much taller the weed will grow by the end of two weeks. What else might happen to the weeds? Help your child find out what type of weed she's chosen. Look for information in an encyclopedia, during a visit to a local library or plant store, or on the Internet.

    Measure and record facts each time your child visits her weed. Bring paper and pencils or crayons to draw the weeds. Use a magnifying glass to closely observe it. Do you notice any special patterns or designs on the leaves? Have you found any insects on the weeds?
  • Refract a rainbow. On a bright, sunny day, take your child outdoors, where he'll discover a wonderful surprise - a prism or crystal that you've hung to catch the sunlight. (If possible, place it in front of a light-colored surface, like a white wall.) Talk about the rainbow of colors made by the prism. What colors does he see?

    Take down the prism and hold it. What happens when the sun catches it from behind? From the front? What happens when you walk with it? Have your child carry it to a shady place. Does the rainbow disappear? Explain how the prism bends the sunlight to create colors.

    Now make a rainbow yourselves. Turn on the hose so that it makes a misty spray of water. (Someone may need to hold the hose in place.) Have your child stand facing the water with his back to the sun. What happens when he holds the prism in the water? Explain that sunlight actually contains all of those beautiful colors even though we can't see them. When the sunlight passes through the water, the colors separate and we see a rainbow. Invite your child to cool off by walking through the rainbow. While younger children may not understand how the prism works, that's okay — they'll still have fun.

No matter what you decide to do with your child this summer, take cues from her. Children love learning new things, and you can make familiar, everyday experiences fresh by looking at the world from a different perspective. Try to slow down and relish simple walks, trips to the park, or even just sitting in your own backyard. You might be surprised at what interests your whole family.

Science & Nature Activities
Critical Thinking
Age 7
Age 6
Science and Technology
Outdoor Activities and Recreation
Sand and Water Play
Five Senses
Early Science