Children love to be outdoors, and they need to be outdoors. There are so many benefits for all ages, including natural Vitamin D from the sun, fresh air, and exercise. I repeat this mantra to my own kids almost daily! But the great outdoors also provides endless educational opportunities for children. There is no need for a worksheet or a study guide to learn outside — just get out there and start observing nature
#1 The Birds and the Bees
Watching the busy activites of insects and birds is fascinating if you pay attention. Each species is unique and serves so many purposes for our planet. We love to get to know birds who build a nest under the eaves or in the trees in our yard. The kids have watched spiders spin their webs and catch some unwary flies.
Birdwatching is a really great hobby for the whole family to do together. It can be done at home and everywhere you go. Put up a feeder, research different types of feed, and see how many birds you can attract to your yard. Experiment with a couple of kinds of birdhouses (and maybe even a bat house!). Put all of these and a birdbath where you can watch them out various windows even when you are inside. Find out which birds eat insects (like those pesky mosquitoes) and attract them to your yard. Keep a list of the different birds your family has spotted.
The world of insects is so large and amazing! When you start to really look, you may find literally hundreds of different kinds! Bugs, spiders, and flying insects all have interesting life cycles. Finding them in the different stages and observing their changes is about a thousand times more memorable than a worksheet on butterflies!
My favorite resource for this is a stack of field guides: get one on the birds in your region, insects, butterflies and caterpillars, and spiders. Also check out a book on attracting different birds to your yard. And when you move indoors for story time, check out the wonderful Thornton W. Burgess books!
#2 Plant Life
Trees, grasses, and flowers are an important part of our world, and not just for their beauty. And contrary to popular opinion, there is no such thing as a weed. Each plant serves a purpose, and once you learn about them you will see even dandelions in a whole new light.
Learn about the trees that grow in your part of the world, and the difference between evergreen and deciduous. Research hardwoods and soft woods, and how they benefit humans. Find out which animals prefer to live in certain trees and why. And definitely learn to identify different trees using a field guide for your region. Which trees are easier to climb and which are unpleasant? Consider planting a tree with your family!
Explore wildflowers in your area and learn their names. Find out, if you can, which ones are used for food or medicine. Pick some for a bouquet on the table, or press them in heavy books for an art project. Take the time to sit still and watch which pollinators like certain flowers. Different insects love different flowers!
#3 Plant a Seed
Whether you plant a few flower seeds in the front yard or an entire vegetable garden, there is no education quite like growing a plant. Even the youngest children can appreciate the excitement of waiting and watching for that little green sprout. There is so much to learn about how the sun and water bring a little seed to life. And the end result is a great reward!
Not only can children learn about sowing and reaping, but they can learn the entire life cycle of a seed by letting a plant mature and dry, and then collecting the seeds for next season. Read how we have done this here.
Gardening comes with its own physical exercise, too, like raking, hoeing, hauling, and pulling. Let the kids get dirty and work hard for their flowers and food!
#4 The Changing Seasons
It’s so fun to observe the changes in the seasons. Just watching the trees alone is educational! Have a child pick one tree in your yard to observe each season. Talk about how and why the colors change and what’s happening at each stage.
Whether at home, at a park, in the mountains, dessert, or woods, encourage your children to pay attention to how each season affects their surroundings. Trees, grasses, and animals all adapt. There is a wealth of educational opportunity here! Hybernation, migration, falling leaves, rivers and streams, clouds, wind, insects, the sun and moon and stars.
#5 Weather Patterns
Watch the skies! Pay attention to the clouds and how they change. Learn to identify the different types of clouds and what they mean for the weather. Watch a thunderstorm roll in, notice the change in air pressure and humidity, and the color of the sky. When the storm passes and the sun comes out, hunt for rainbows! Get to know weather signs in your region (blizzards, tornadoes, hurricanes) and talk about safety.
Get outside and experience all kinds of weather! Bask in the cool breezes of the Spring and Fall, bundle up and play in the cold temperatures, and put on a raincoat to play in the rain. Your kids won’t melt in any kind of weather, and they will become resilient when exposed to all kinds.
#6 Water Creatures
Whenever you get a chance, spend some free time near water, whether it’s a lake, a little stream, or the ocean. Teach your children to spot the differences in the wildlife that lives in each place. What will they see in salt water and fresh water? Can they find turtles and frogs in a pond, or spot minnows swimming in shallow lake water? What insects live near the water? Watch the behavior of the water creatures and talk about why they do the things they do. Let them walk, jump, and swim in the water and play barefoot on the shore.
#7 The Night Sky
Kids always enjoy a chance to stay up past their bedtime, and learning about the night sky is a fun reason to do it! Talk about the constellations, how they move across the sky at different times and seasons, the history of their names, and how the stars have served as a guide for directions for many a historical traveler. Find the North Star and talk about how it has been the guiding star for sailors, slaves escaping to freedom, pioneers on the open prairie, and so many more.
Have children observe the moon for 30 days and observe the changes. Teach them the names of the phases, how it affects the tides, and how previous generations planned much of their life by the moon. Learn about the planets and where they are in the sky. Try to see the planets through a telescope.
When news of special heavenly events happens, make plans to go out and watch: meteor showers, an eclipse, or other special events are a great segway into all sorts of biblical, scientific, and historic stories. Take blankets and snacks outside and sit on the roof, the top of the car, or just a clear spot in the backyard, or attend a public viewing at a local astronomy center or state park.
What child passes up a chance to build something outdoors, given a few basic materials? Logs, branches, rocks, old tires and boards, and other odds and ends can provide hours of fun building and scheming. Kids learn (without realizing it) how to make their ideas work through building forts, rivers, bridges, and more. Encourage them to try new things, learn from the things that didn’t work, and to try again. They will be using all sorts of skills, such as logic, physics, engineering, and math. This is the ultimate in STEM education.
#9 Survival Skills
Start with a cookout or a camping trip and begin to build outdoor survival skills with your children. Can they build a fire and tend it properly? Do they know the safety measures? Learn to cook simple things like hot dogs, and then expand into more complicated foods over a fire.
Have fun experimenting with outdoor shelters built just from the things they can find, like vines, dead branches, and leaves. Learn to forage for nuts, berries, and roots that are edible. Catch fish and cook them outside. Graduate to primitive camping and backpacking. Learn how to spot dangerous insects and snakes, and what to do in the event of a bite or sting. Talk about health and safety, like hydration, breathing in high elevations, desert regions, etc.
#10 Biblical Creation
When you’ve been doing the first 9 activities, you’ve been studying the amazing Creator and His creation. Kids ask so many questions about where things came from, and why, and it’s a privilege as parents to share what we know about God at every opportunity. Observing animals, clouds, stars, planets, weather, and plants all point to a benevolent Creator.
Not only can you read Genesis with your children and discuss all that you see in nature, but the book of Job contains beautiful dialogue between God and Job about the wonders of creation. One of my favorite books on this is The Wonder of It All. It has beautiful nature photography interspersed with God’s questioning of Job:
Does the rain have a father?
Who fathers the drops of dew?
From whose womb comes the ice?
Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens
when the waters become hard as stone,
when the surface of the deep is frozen?
Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades?
Can you loosen Orion’s belt?
Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons
or lead out the Bear[ with its cubs?
Do you know the laws of the heavens?
Institute for Creation Research has some beautiful books that tell of God’s amazing creation, including the animals, geology, the stars, and more. Read my review of their great creation resources for families here.
Implementing What They Learn Outside
Observing, thinking, and doing involve all the senses and are all part of a well-rounded education. Prepare ahead or follow up your outdoor time with good books, journals, and art supplies. Encourage children to look up facts that they want to know about all of the outdoor world. Suggest photography, drawing, or painting the things they see. Start a nature collection, like rocks, insects, dried flowers, or bird nests. The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady is a beautiful example of nature journaling and art together. Your daughters will especially love this one, though it’s a pursuit adaptable for anyone.
For younger children, encourage them to keep lists of what they see: trees, different wildflowers, birds, spiders, turtles…whatever! They will have an interesting subject on which to practice neat handwriting and proper spelling, not to mention improved reading and research skills!
Consider making it your goal to increase the hours your children spend outdoors. Visit 1000 Hours Outside for some great ideas, encouragement, book suggestions, and tracking charts. Playing outside isn’t just about swingsets and bicycles! Explore every facet of our amazing world while giving your children a rich education!
There are some wonderful books to bring along on your adventures, or to keep handy on your bookshelf for when curious kids want to know more! Keep them in place of easy reach and encourage frequent study. When your children ask you something about nature, say, “Let’s go look it up!” Here are some great books to get you started: