As a Forest School trained practitioner I have seen the magical effect the outdoors can have on children many, many times. I know I sound a bit hippy dippy, but I really do believe the outdoors is where children do most of their learning, and where learning is easiest for them.
It’s easy to get caught up in world where we think children need fancy educational toys, websites (check out some great ones here!) and resources, when in reality a lot of what they need to learn can be taught outside with the resources provided by mother nature (I know, I know, less of the touchy feely stuff and more of the cold, hard facts!)
Before You Get Started
A Safe Space
During my training one of my key take-aways was that the outdoors is a safe place emotionally for children. There is no one standing over them with a pen, ready to scribble all over their work with ticks or crosses. No one can laugh at them for getting the answer to a question wrong. The outdoors is a place where children are free to experiment, to achieve, to celebrate and most of all, to fail without judgement.
I know you know that building a den against that twiggy branch is going to end in disaster and that it’s difficult to let them stand back and fail. But let them when they’re outside, and encourage them to think of ways to make it work next time without giving them the answers.
Follow Their Interests
Every child is different, so with a class full of different children I would alternate the tasks so that everyone had a go at doing aspects they loved. If you find something your child is hooked on then go with it. Create more opportunities for activities of a similar nature. For example, if they have loved building a birds nest them get them to build a dragons nest, or a dinosaurs nest.
Chances are they have particularly enjoyed that activity because it’s benefiting them in some way. Either they are learning something new, or it’s fulfilling an emotional need like boosting their self-esteem or calming them.
You can introduce different aspects alongside it too, like encouraging them to find bugs to put in the nest for when the dragon wakes up, or getting them to make it look pretty, or challenging them to build it off the ground. They’ll let you know when they’re tired of doing the same thing!
Just like indoor learning, children can’t take in and process information if their basic needs aren’t being met. We know how hard it is to concentrate when we’re tired, hungry or too hot or cold. The difference is that as adults we can sort the problem out.
Children don’t always even know what the problem is, let alone how to fix it. If you want them to learn then make sure all their basic needs are being met outdoors. Make sure you have a snack with you so they don’t hungry or thirsty, make sure they’re dressed for the weather, that they have shelter if it rains, somewhere to go to the toilet and above all make sure they feel safe in their environment.
Outdoor Learning Activities For Children
I’ve put together some outdoor activities for children that are educational in a wide spectrum of ways, from helping them with number to helping them emotionally. I’ve tried to explain in a simple way why these activities are beneficial for children, but if you don’t believe me then I’d thoroughly recommend you give them a go too, alongside your child, so you can experience it. It’s what made me realise!
These activities don’t need a lot of space, and I’ve included as many ways as I can think of to incorporate them into life inside during lockdown if you don’t have a garden. I’ve also tried to include ways you can alter the activities to suit older or younger children.
Creative Outdoor Learning Ideas
Build Nests As An Outdoor Learning Activity
As I said in my example above, challenge them to build a nest for a creatures eggs. You can simply give them the task, or create a little drama around to encourage empathy and purpose. For example, tell them your friend discovered a dinosaur egg in their garden and they don’t know how to build a nest. Can you show them?
You could get them to think about what the creature will need when it hatches, and talk about basic needs of all creatures including ourselves. The creature will need shelter and safety, food and water, and they’ll want to be comfortable. This is getting children to think about basic human needs, and developing a sense of empathy and compassion.
The act of building itself is developing motor skills in the picking up of small twigs and leaves, it’s building on problem solving skills and it’s therapeutic, much like mindfulness colouring. Try it if you don’t believe me!
This one is just for you! But seriously, everyone needs quiet time and kids very rarely get it. They don’t know what to do when they is a moment of peace, and it’s interesting to see how they react.
Think about their usual routines. They are woken for school, they are nagged until they get there to hurry up and get ready, then they’re nagged some more by their teacher and their friends scream in their ear all break time, then they go home and put the tv, argue with their siblings, or just run around banging things until it’s time for bed.
Give them some quiet time outside and just see what happens. Some kids hate it, and find it really difficult. Others relish it. There are lots of different ways you can encourage it, and if they’re finding it tricky I’d recommend starting with a very small amount of time and building on it. Here are a few ways you can make quiet time a little more interesting for them..
- Get them to pick their favourite tree, give it a hug and sit and listen to it for a minute or two
- Lie on the grass and count how many different sounds you can hear
- Sit silently and listen to bird song (there’s an app that will tell you what it is!)
- Hide somewhere and watch silently for creatures
Create Nature Art
Become Andy Goldsworthy and make some art work. You could get them to create something based on a topic you’re doing, like the night sky, or fireworks, or flowers. You could get them to portray an emotion they’re feeling.
For some children creating art is a chance to still worries and opens opportunities to talk. For others it’s a perfect outlet for expression. The key thing here is that they can’t get it wrong. You won’t be giving them a big tick or cross at the end of the activity.
This is something they can be proud of, because art is subjective and no one can tell them that what they’ve produced isn’t worthy of being hung in a gallery. Let them feel that pride and use this activity as a chance to really boost their self-esteem. And the best way to do this is to let them tell you why it’s good and what they’ve done well.
This is an easy one to do inside. Collect a tray of outdoor treasures and make art on your dining room table or kitchen floor instead!
Problem Solving Outdoor Learning Activities
My favourite outdoor sessions with the children always involved problem solving. Lesson in the outdoors calls for lots of it, whether it’s finding shelter from the rain or ways to keep warm on a cold day, it seemed we were always solving one problem or another!
Kids have this amazing ability to come up with solutions to ‘problems’. It’s probably because they haven’t got the same caution of failing as us adults, so they’re happy to dive in with whatever weird and wonderful idea that pops into their head! Feed this with a little story telling and away they go!
For example, tell them you’ve met an ant that needs to cross the path without touching it, or that there’s a squirrel that can’t climb a tree. You can make up all sorts of scenarios and watch their brains tick over as they try to solve the problem.
Not only are they fine tuning those all important problem solving skills but they’re also experimenting, failing and persevering, helping something or someone which is encouraging empathy and most likely working on their leadership skills as they give you all sorts of jobs to do!
If you need more ideas for little stories that create problems then give me a shout in the comments below and I’ll add some ideas – lying to children seems to be a particular skill of mine!
Take the paints outside and get creative, or collect pebbles from your walk and do it inside. Get the kids to collect some pebbles from the garden and paint some pebble bugs. They’re fun to make, and if you want to add in some maths then you can look at symmetry, counting lady bird dots, ordering by size, measuring…all sorts! You can also encourage creative play by giving them names and characters and using them as puppets.
Nature And Environmental Based Outdoor Learning Activities
I think this bug hunting kit would be most kids dream present. It’s a classic that children never tire of. This is great science, as they’re examining insects and their habitats, but it’s also teaching them to respect animals and our environment as they’ll need to learn how to collect them kindly and return them to their homes once they’ve had a look.
You can combine this with building bug hotels, or older children in particular might want to make hedgehog homes or even build ponds if you have the space in your garden (or mini ponds in containers if you don’t).
If you don’t have an outdoor space then why not bring the bugs inside (in a secure container!) These butterfly hatching kits are incredible, and you can have them delivered straight to your doorstep, complete with caterpillars ready to cocoon!
Planting Outdoor Learning Activities
This is perfect for anyone who doesn’t have access to a garden. First, get hold of some clay plant pots so that you can decorate them. You can use paint, or cut up strips of decorative paper. I love this blackboard paint so that you can write on them after with the names of the plant or a little message. They look great as herb pots!
Next, get hold of some seeds and get planting! You can order all this stuff on Amazon so you don’t need to venture out to get supplies. Kids love sunflowers, as they’re bright and colourful and they grow really tall! You can plant several and see which one grows the tallest, and you can measure them as they grow. Runner beans are also great fun, or anything they can eat at the end. You never know, it might even encourage them to eat their veg!
Another great planting venture you could take on it to make a sensory herb garden. Plant herbsthat are safe to touch and that smell great. You can explain about how plants needs leaves to survive, but make it a safe space for them to handle and pick the plants. They’re so used to being told just to look that giving them a space to explore properly is exciting and new. You’ll just have to accept that the herbs may not last the year!
You can do this in your garden or when you’re out on a walk. Just make sure that you monitor them a little more closely when you’re out on a walk, or they might find some ‘interesting’ items! Get some kids gardening gloves and a litter picker, and teach them about looking after our environment! Kids especially love using the litter pickers (flights would break out over who got to use these), and they’re great for motor skills too!
Survival Skills Outdoor Learning Activities
Knot Tying Outdoor Learning Activities
If your patience is fraying then it’s best to give this a miss, especially with the younger children! However if you fancy a challenge, then knot tying is an incredible skill and an amazing way to improve children’s co-ordination and motor skills.
With a little experimentation I found that the best way to teach knot tying was to get a thickish piece of cotton rope (not the stuff coated in shiny material that doesn’t bend easily! Something more like shoelace material but thicker) and wrap a different coloured tape around each end. That way, it’s always clear which is the ‘working end’.
There are plenty of YouTube tutorials on knot tying if you want to teach proper knots (great for older kids). Younger children might just want to make up their own knots, and this is absolutely fine too!
Perfect for older and younger children! This was always the absolutely favourite of the children I taught, and they would beg to do den building for every lesson. There are different ways you can do this, depending on what resources you have at your disposal! We were lucky enough to have plenty of trees with lots of fallen branches so they could make their dens from natural materials.
It’s less likely you’ll have access to that, so get yourself a small tarp and some rope and you can rig one in the garden (or the living room!) Older ones can work on their knot tying and younger children can boss you around so you tie the knots for them!
This is problem solving at it’s finest, and the dens will often fail miserably, but it’s amazing how quickly they’ll want to try again! Perfect for creating a little resilience and a hard-working attitude. It’s also unlikely they’ll be able to do this alone, so it’s perfect for team building skills (even if you are the only team member!)
You can take this activity a little further with older children especially. Grab yourself some survival skill equipment and pretend you’re lost in the jungle. The survival food packs are great fun to try, and you can all have a play with some of the other survival equipment on hand to see how you would fare in the wilderness!
Obviously I did extensive training on keeping kids safe around fires, but as these are your own kids I’ll leave you to make the decision about whether or not you can keep them safe around a campfire.
One thing I will say is that kids aren’t stupid. They don’t want to get hurt. So give them strict rules and clear instructions and they’ll know to stay away. The more you teach them to be safe around fire now, the less likely it is that they’ll hurt themselves by accident when they’re older.
If you’re happy to take the risk then campfires are so much fun. They don’t need to be big at all, think the size of a tin can. Just big enough for children to appreciate their warmth, and obviously big enough to toast marshmallows on!
If you don’t have much space then I had a lot of success making small fires in big clam shells. Grab yourself a ball of cotton wool and a flint and steel striker and watch it burn out together. Children also love using the strikers themselves if they’re old enough. They take a lot of perseverance but they’ll stick with it, and making fire is one of the most satisfying feelings.
Useful Equipment For Fire Making Outdoor Learning Activities
Cotton wool (pull it apart a little so the fibres are thinner)
Flint and steel striker (after trying lots of different types, these were the easiest to use- for me and the kids! Don’t be tempted to go for cheaper as they just don’t work as well).
Campfire cookbook (what’s the point of a campfire if you don’t get delicious food from it?)
A few safety tips, but use your initiative!
- Choose a safe space to light the fire, away from dry leaves or trees and shrubs.
- Use stones to mark out a safe distance around the fire. Explain they can’t go inside the area unless you’re with them.
- If children are toasting marshmallows or adding sticks to the fire then get them to kneel beside it (one knee up, one knee down) That way they are perfectly poised to stand back if they need to.
- Explain how they can turn their head if smoke goes in their eyes (so they don’t run)
- Have a bucket of water and first aid kit on hand.
Using Tools As An Outdoor Learning Activity
Again, I’ll leave this to your discretion. Tools are great things for children to be able to use safely. In my opinion, as a society, we prevent children from important learning opportunities by backing away from anything deemed as ‘unsafe’. Before my Forest School training I’d never have dreamed of letting a 4 year old use a saw, and if you are reading this in horror then here’s a little story to explain!
When getting our sails repaired in Sicily last Easter we went to pick them up on an unknown to us bank holiday. The sail makers kids were playing in the warehouse and as Adam was paying, I had a chance to watch them. They were about 4 and 7, playing with sticks and a largish knife. A proper workman’s tool.
They were carving the knife to a point, taking turns to use it. They used downward stroke away from their body as they laughed and chatted. They passed the knife by placing it on the floor first, so the other could pick it up using the handle. When they were bored the older child placed the knife back in it’s case and put it straight into the tool box. They weren’t being watched over by anyone, but they were perfectly safe.
I’m not saying leave your kids unaccompanied with a knife! But it’s a great example of how we can teach children to use tools safely.
The best way to get children started on using tools is to buy some potato peelers. They can use them to peel old potatoes outside which are easier, and once they get the hang of it they can carve sticks into a point, making arrows or herb labels or Father Christmas sticks! You will need to help them, and show them how to use them safely away from the body, and put them away safely too.
Once they’ve learned how to carve then why not teach them to use a saw! I’ll leave it to you to decide if your child is capable and how you’ll teach them safely!
Sensory Outdoor Learning Activities
The outdoors is one big sensory playground, and sensory play has been proven to help children’s development big time. There’s been a big push on it in early years education, but sensory play shouldn’t stop once children reach a certain age. Lots of the activities above (if not all) encourage sensory development, but here are a few more to add to the list!
Play In The Leaves
Great in the Autumn, harder in other seasons! But whatever the season there is something outside to touch. Get them to take of their shoes and walk on the grass/sand/mud. Lie in the grass. Rub the tree trunks. Let your hands brush through the reeds. Get in touch with your hippy roots and get back in touch with nature!
Jumping In Puddles
Rain shouldn’t stop children from going outside, they should be getting out there in all weathers. Honestly, teaching forest schools on a Friday afternoon in the rain was something I always dreaded. I went out there because I had to, not because I wanted to. But once we were out there catching the raindrops, splashing each other in the puddles and getting our hands and faces covered in mud I really didn’t care anymore. Once you see their enjoyment you won’t care either!
Next time it’s raining go outside and let them do all the things you usually get mad about. Let them stick their hands in the mud, let them throw stones in puddles, let them get horribly messy and try not to think about the clearing up you’ll have to do afterwards! This is learning at its best.
If you want a little more structure then use the puddles to create opportunities for all sorts of water play. You can explore floating and sinking, problem solve by getting them to make boats out of sticks and leaves or make up stories about mud monsters and make some yourselves. Take clay outside and make gargoyle faces to stick to the trees and watch over the naughty fairies, or set challenges to see who can collect the most water without a bucket.
Making Potions Or Perfumes
I spent hours doing this as a little girl, though I’m not sure I ever told my parents I was picking their favourite flowers! Collecting flower petals or herbs and crushing them up with a stick before adding water is the perfect sensory activity. Flowers are great because they’re colourful too, but herbs are safer if there’s any danger of it going in mouths! This is an easy one to do inside with potted flowers or herbs.
You’ll have to make sure whatever you use isn’t going to react with delicate skin, and explain to them that picking flowers isn’t something they should do unless they’re with you and you say it’s ok.
I know, this is most parents worst nightmare, but it’s also every child’s dream morning so give it a go at least once! There are many activities you can try based around mud play, but really they’re just going to be thrilled to stick their hands in it (a generalisation-some children HATE getting dirty, you are the lucky parents!)
Making mud pies can be as simple or as complex as you like. Get some old saucepans and wooden spoons for added fun. With my year 2s I made a recipe sheet and gave them scales when learning about weight. They had to measure out the right amount of sticks, pebbles, mud, sand and leaves to make their mud pies.
Mud painting is another great outdoor activity. We even made our own paintbrushes from sticks and pine needles, but using hands is just as fun.
A Little Note To Say
When I started my Forest School practitioner training I was interested in teaching outdoors, now I am passionate about it. There is no possible way to put down in this blog post just how beneficial outdoor learning is for your child, so you’re just going to have to trust me (or ask me a load of questions, I would love to answer!)
I have trained for weeks and learned a million and one activities to do outside with children. I have also spent hours sat in a classroom listening to presentations from experts on the proven benefits, and written literally thousands of words worth of research on the subject. I’m not claiming to be an expert, I’m just trying to get across how passionately I believe in getting children learning outdoors as a priority.
It’s fun, it’s easy and it’s the best thing you can do for your kids during lockdown!
I will keep adding to this list of outdoor educational activities so keep checking back. I just wanted to get the ideas out there so you could make a start. Hopefully some of this will be useful, let me know if it is in the comments section below.