Natural Learning

Guide your child's curiosity outdoors and open up a love of science.
By Mary Rivkin, PhD



Natural Learning

You may not consider yourself a math or science expert, but, to your child, you are. Your laboratory is right outside your front door. In your neighborhood — and the world beyond — you can introduce your child to math and science concepts. By regarding the outdoors as a learning place, you'll teach him not just facts but also an important way of thinking. When you encourage your child to observe what's around him, connect new information with what he already knows, evaluate what he's learned, and communicate his newfound knowledge, you're fostering critical-thinking skills, which are essential to success not just in school but in life.

Maximize Teachable Moments
Bring science and math into your child's life before you even step outside by simply planning ahead for your regular trip to the playground. Think of some things you might naturally say as you get ready for an outing. By expanding on these ideas, you encourage mathematical and scientific thinking.

  • "Okay, kiddo, it's time to go outdoors." By letting your child know that certain times of the day are linked to specific activities, you're giving her a lesson in how time passes and how we structure it. Eventually, she'll understand that time can be divided into hours, minutes, and seconds, and even weeks, months, and years. You can also help her understand past and future by saying things like, "Yesterday, it was raining when we went outdoors and we had to wear our raincoats. Tomorrow, it's supposed to be sunny."
  • "It's cool today, so get your jacket." Mentioning the weather sensitizes your child to the fact that indoors and outdoors have different temperatures. You can contrast the seasons by joking with your child and saying on a hot day, "Get your snowsuit and boots." When your child protests that it's summer, you can talk about the cycle of the seasons. "Shall we go to the little park? Or to the park with the big slide?" Presenting your child with a choice like this stimulates complex thinking about size and comparisons. You're implicitly comparing the physical size of both parks and slides, though you're explicitly mentioning the size of only one park and one slide.
  • "Do you want to take your tricycle? If you do, we should go to the little park because there's a big hill on the way to the big slide." This question stimulates a conversation about the rudiments of geography, physics, and technology. First, you can talk about hills and valleys and what we mean by the word steep. You can also notice other land formations along the way. When she has trouble pedaling up an incline, introduce the idea of gravity as a force that makes going uphill hard and downhill easy. You can also talk about simple machines, like wheels, and how these help us extend what our bodies naturally can do. For example, wheels enable us to go faster than we can run. On your way to the park, you can point out the trucks and buses and count how many wheels they have.
  • "Do you want to take two juice boxes in case we meet Anna there?" A simple question like this provides a natural opening to discuss the important mathematical concept of correspondence — one for me, one for you. You're also inviting your child to think about the future and to anticipate how she may feel. Planting this awareness of basic body needs, such as thirst, is an important component of preschool science.

Compare and Contrast
Once you're actually outdoors, the opportunities to study and discuss science and math facts and concepts are plentiful.

  • Take cues from your child and follow her interest. If your 2 year old loves to be pushed in the swing, chant, "High and low, fast then slow." This not only helps her learn new words, but she can link their meaning to her experience. As your 3 year old scrambles to the top of the slide, suggest that she wait up there a second and take a look around. Ask her, "What can you see up so high?" This will help hone her observation skills.
  • Build on the concepts you raised when planning your excursion. For example, once you get to the "big" playground, take some time to figure out what makes it big. Ask your child how you might go about measuring it. Should you walk around the perimeter and count your steps? By doing so, he will be learning about measurement and size.
  • For older children, expand your discussion of size to include how many children are playing in the playground and how many pieces of equipment are there. Taking this one step further, ask your child, "Which piece of equipment is for the oldest children? Which is for the youngest?" These questions encourage her to think about groups and sets, as well as the issue of correspondence.

Fine-Tune Observation Skills
When you're outside, try not to restrict your child's interest: while not everything is safe to touch, almost everything in the natural world can be looked at and studied. Observation is the basic skill for learning. Earthworms, inchworms, pill bugs, ants, rocks, leaves, pinecones, and twigs are exceptionally interesting and accessible.

With even the youngest child, point things out that you want her to focus on or simply follow her gaze to share her interest and provide information. When your child finds something that fascinates her, even if it's a patch of pebbles, a torn blossom, or a twig, share her enthusiasm. Anything can be turned into an experiment: tapping a twig against wood, metal, and concrete to hear the different sounds is a lesson in itself.

Try these ideas to help your child fine-tune her observation skills outdoors:

  • Make binoculars out of toilet paper rolls to focus your child's gaze. Simply tape together two empty rolls side by side and attach a piece of string to each side so that your child can wear them around her neck, just like a real naturalist! 
  • Place a hula hoop on the grass. Ask your child to lie down on her stomach around the outside of the hoop and look closely at what is inside the hoop. Record what she sees — insects, acorns, weeds — in a special Naturalist Notebook that's reserved for your outdoor explorations. 
  • Lay a foot of string across the grass so your child can pretend to be a tiny creature hiking along it, looking for fascinating things hiding among the blades of grass. 
  • Have a "touch" scavenger hunt. Encourage your child to find objects in different categories, like something rough, smooth, cool, or slippery. 
  • Help your child practice her auditory observing by inviting her to sit very still with her eyes closed and listen as carefully as possible. What does she hear? 

Bringing the Outdoors In
Almost everything you study together outside can be explored even further indoors. One of the best ways to continue science and math thinking when you're indoors is to help your child organize things that she's gathered from outside. Grouping her treasures in different categories will help her think about the concepts of similarity and difference. You can suggest methods of sorting, such as grouping rocks that have sparkles and those that are smooth. Some children may want to count their rocks. Organizing objects is an excellent way to understand categorization.

Translate the experience of being outdoors on a windy day into a lesson on cause and effect by inflating a balloon and encouraging your child to blow on it to make it move. Or you can lie down on the floor and blow the balloons back and forth to each other. Try folding a piece of paper accordion-style to make a fan and ask her to describe how her face feels after she fans herself. Then she can fan herself again after you put some water on her face. After discussing why she feels cooler, you can ask her where the water went. This can easily lead to a discussion about clouds, rain, evaporation, and the water cycle.

Making Connections and Sharing Discoveries
Learning through observation is the first step; the next is to teach your child to connect what she's learned with what she already knows. If, for example, she finds a stone that's very rough, ask her what it reminds her of. Maybe she'll remember the sandpaper in your toolbox, and this will naturally lead to a discussion about how we can change the surface of things. If she feels warm in the summer sun, help her to remember other "hot" experiences she's had. Ask her to feel the sidewalk, the slide, and the swings — the sun heats all of these. Maybe she'll even think of the oatmeal that gets heated in the microwave for her breakfast.

Making connections in this way, and talking with her about what she has "discovered," is an essential part of the critical-thinking process. You're helping your child take what she knows and use it as a building block to acquire more knowledge.

Once you begin to look for opportunities to talk to your child about math or science — outdoors or in — you can't stop. Remember, it's not just what children can learn outdoors, but how they learn it that's important. When children observe and make connections, evaluate their theories and ideas, and communicate their discoveries to each other and to you, they are thinking critically. This is not only a source of pleasure for them, but also the key to the academic work they will encounter in years to come. Schoolwork tends to be easier for children whose first teachers were their parents.

Science & Nature Activities
Critical Thinking
Listening and Speaking
Age 5
Age 4
Age 3
Outdoor Activities and Recreation
Shapes and Sizes
Opposites and Contrasts
Early Science
Early Math