Taking Learning Outside

By Rebecca Fry | Toyology Toys Contributors

Jun 15

Sweet, sweet summertime.

We moved here last summer and I immediately fell in love with our new home.  Compared to the 100 degree days we were having in Texas, the weather here was a welcomed change.  We actually wore sweaters in the first week we moved because the 60s seemed a bit chilly to us. I could not get over all of the fun outdoor activities offered around the town; summer concerts, food truck festivals, nature walks.  The boys and I dove right into everything Michigan summer had to offer…except the swimming, we did miss the naturally heated pools of Texas. After what seemed like the winter that would never end, I am so excited to get back into this beautiful season.  Summer is my favorite time to insert learning activities into our playtime. The options seem to be endless and something about fresh air makes my two boys all the more engaged and curious. Summer makes the perfect canvas for parents to discover the joys of child led learning and the beauty of watching your child discover.  I tend to focus on three main areas when presenting activity ideas for the boys to choose from for our outdoor learning activities; nature play, messy play, and physical play, all with an emphasis on letting the kids guide the learning.

Hide & Seek Rocking Painting Kit

Nature play allows kids to grow in appreciation for nature and supports their natural tendency towards scientific thinking.  Even better, it is as easy as opening the back door or going to a park to explore. Playing pretend while we do this by dressing up as scientists, explorers, or a favorite character also encourages creativity and they often immerse themselves even deeper.  This can be as elaborate as a full safari costume or as simple as bringing along a pair of binoculars. We bring along a bag and collect different items as we go. I always point out the different things I notice, like “look how there is moss growing on this tree but not that one. I wonder why?” and encourage my boys to tell me things they are noticing as well.  I bring a notepad with me to write down the questions we come up with as we go. The items we collect either go into our bag or the boys will use them as tools on our journey; a small stick becomes a match, a bigger stick becomes a torch to light our path, leaves and rocks become our food. I find that it is best not to go into our nature play time with a planned activity because letting the boys lead allows me to see what they are interested in and stops me from interfering with their play and learning.  When we come back, we go through our bag to explore the items. For the younger crowd, like my two year old, focus on talking about the textures, colors, smells, and names of the objects. As they grow, you can start talking more in depth about what each object is and look up the answers to any questions that came up during the walk. It is always fun to end nature walks with an invitation for “spin off” activities like the opportunity to look at the objects through a microscope or magnifying glass. The organic quality of nature play and the ease make it one of my and the boys favorite summertime activities.

Often, it is our nature play spin off activities that lead us right into messy play time.  Sometimes that means bringing our bag of goodies home and taking out paint to see what it would look like to use a leaf as a paintbrush, a pinecone, a rock, etc.  Other times, it means breaking out some cups to fill with the dirt we collected to see if we can grow anything in it. As much as I don’t plan out specific activities for nature play, I always plan to get dirty.  Messy play has so many benefits for little hands and little minds. Something about sensory input awakens the neurons in little brains and helps form new connections. Using sensory input can solidify concepts better than paper and pencil.  In Montessori classrooms, you find kids writing letters and numbers in sand and rice before they write on paper. But sensory activities frequently lead to messes, so we take full advantage of clean up during the summer being as easy as tossing some water on our deck (and the boys).  Having a small sand table or place designated for sensory play also helps with clean up.

Walkie Chalk

Other messy play activities we enjoy include using sensory bins, science experiments, and painting.  With sensory bins, you can use a variety of materials including kinetic sand, colorful rice, cooked noodles, slime, beans, jello, or water and couple those with spoons, ladles, cups, and watering cans.  This allows small children to learn practical life skills, experience new textures, sights, sounds, and smells, and discover ways to manipulate the materials. I like to alternate between talking to my sons about what I observe they are doing to foster language and then walking away to allow them space to make their own stories whether out loud or only with their hands.  Walking away also gives me the chance to read a book, check my phone, or do the dishes while I watch from the window. When filled with water we often play a simple science sink or float game to teach basic physics concepts. While many science experiments can be done inside and without a mess, I love being able to open up to new experiments without worrying about getting dirty.  Baking soda and vinegar experiments as well as melting ice experiments are a couple of my favorites. These fun preschool science activities help them learn about chemical reactions. Painting makes a wonderful summer activity because you can use materials found in nature as paint brushes and let them get messy using their fingers, hands, and feet. Learning can come in many forms here; for my youngest we focus on mixing colors and basic shapes and my oldest works on letters, numbers, and words.  Much like writing in sand, the sensory input helps to solidify the concepts. But most importantly, painting gives them the freedom to create. While I may point out colors and shapes and numbers I see on their pages, I let them decide what they want to make and how they go about making it. This creative thinking gives them the power to create without correction or interjecting my idea of “right”, increasing their tendency towards self motivation and self confidence.

Science Academy Jr.: Stardust Putty Lab

Physical play is exactly what it sounds like.  Getting their bodies moving. The mind body connection has become an increasingly popular topic for adults as levels of depression and anxiety continue to rise.  The same principles apply to children just the same. Physical activity through things such as sports, going to the playground, or flying kites increases social learning, emotional intelligence, body awareness and appreciation, raises oxygen levels in the brain, and supports the formation of neural pathways.  The more formal ways we incorporate learning into physical activity include sidewalk chalk games like hopscotch, practicing counting while swinging, or talking about wind resistance while flying a kite. But again, I also enjoy to take a step back and let the learning occur without my interference. When my son plays on the playground pretending he is a knight in shining armor, I have no doubt his mind is growing.  I trust that giving him the time and space to play is the most important thing I can do for him right now.

Parents sometimes reference the “summer slide” when referring to the perception that a summer away from school leads to a drop in learning for their kids.  But the summer is the perfect time to allow kids to take charge of their interests and learning, even if they need a little prompting to get outside or given some ideas to get started.  But really, it may be us as parents who need to remember to let our kids be kids and step back some. With beautiful weather and plenty to explore, summer in Michigan offers parents the perfect opportunity to find the merit in child led, play based learning.  

About the Author

Rebecca, originally from Texas, migrated to Michigan with her husband and two boys aged 2 and 5 years old. Rebecca is currently a stay-at-home mom but has a background is psychology with a special interest in early childhood development and parenting. She keeps up to date in the latests techniques in both areas whenever she can!