Nature-based activities offer plenty of benefits for children in the early years – and it’s not just about getting fresh air and exercise outdoors!
This following list of play extension ideas might also help you find ways to expand on the children’s knowledge and experience! You will also find materials ideas at the bottom of the page.
Provide different materials for children to explore with their senses. Read books about the materials, talk about them and ask them questions that inspire curiosity and language learning (without interfering in their play). Here are some ideas for discussion:
- What is this? What is this made of?
- Where can we find it in nature?
- Where in the world can it be found? In Canada? In your home country? What other kinds of these are there in other parts of the world? What do they look like?
- How big is it?
- What does it look like?
- Which one is biggest/smallest/brightest/darkest/ smoothest/bumpiest?
- Does it look different through a microscope?
- How does it feel to touch?
- Is it hard, soft, heavy, light? Which one is heavier?
- How do they smell?
- Does it make a sound? What does it sound like if you tap it, scratch it or throw it?
Other Big Ideas to Explore
- Explore snow and ice
Photo credit: Neena Sahni, SAFSS
- Ask big, open-ended questions like “where does our food come from?”
- Talk about weather, space and our solar system
- What makes a rainbow? Learn about colours together
- Plants, animals, farms, food production, nutrition and health
- Animals and their habitat, what they eat, hibernation, nocturnal animals etc.
- Different kinds of animals (ie: mammals, amphibians, insects, fish, pets, farm animals, wild animals)
- Our ecosystem and energy – wind, water, solar – making pinwheels can show even the littlest learner how wind can turn into energy!
- Bees and honey
- Where does maple syrup come from?
- Explore maps and the idea of map-making
- Different climates and habitats. What would you see if you went walking/hiking in different places, countries, types of places (ie: mountains, desert, prairies, jungle, forest, farmland, wetlands etc.) What kinds of animals would you see? What kinds of plants would you see? What would it feel like? What kinds of sounds might you hear? What would it smell like?
- Old white button-up/collared shirts look just like lab coats! Provide the children with “lab coats,” microscopes, droppers, scales, rulers, charts, clipboards and other “kid friendly” scientific tools to explore.
- When talking about where our food comes from, provide different dress-up options that allow children to step into the role of fisher, farmer or cook.
- When talking about weather, space and our solar system, provide materials that allow children to imagine themselves as astronauts, or builders of rocket ships that can fly into outer space to visit different planets! It can be fun to pretend to get too close to the sun where it would be hot, or talk about what it might feel like to walk on the moon.
- Provide materials for the children to make their own nest.
- Set up a farmer’s market, seed store or pet shop with tables and cash registers and baskets/bags – the children can make signs and decide what they would like to sell. How much would things cost? What does money from different countries look like?
- Encourage the children to imagine what it would be like to go walking/hiking/swimming/skiing/skating/flying in different places, countries, types of places (ie: mountains, desert, prairies, jungle, forest, farmland, wetlands etc.) What kinds of animals would you see? What kinds of plants would you see? What would it feel like? What kinds of sounds might you hear? What would it smell like?
- Think about what materials you could add to your space if children become interested in veterinarians, farmers, zookeepers or wildlife photographers… remember to keep in mind that dramatic play doesn’t just have to happen in your “dramatic play” centre!
- Add magnifying glasses to the dramatic play area.
- Create a dramatic play centre outside to see what the children create.
- Add a science centre to the dramatic play area for bug catchers, investigators or scientist play.
- Plant and care for seeds and plants
- Play with colour – eye droppers, water, food colouring
- Make your own dyes to make patterns/colour an old sheet/material – try beets, turmeric, and grass patterns. Be conscious of using food in your program though – for example, you can use the water beets were cooked in. What other colours can you find in nature?
- Nature etchings – with paper and crayons, charcoal or pencil. Look at the different patterns in leaves, shells, rocks, grasses, flowers, objects found in nature
- Go on a nature scavenger hunt!
- Make a pinwheel and talk about wind energy
- Make a solar oven with a pizza box and tinfoil
- Trace animal shadows – Place toy animals on the ground in the sun so that you can see their shadows behind them. Place a piece of paper on the ground and trace the animal’s shadow! Then the children can colour it in and add eyes and other elements if they’d like.
- Talk about shapes found in nature
- Play matching games with objects found in nature
- Make puzzles out of photos taken in your program! You can print out a photo and glue it to cardstock. Then cut the photo up into an age-appropriate number of pieces with a few simple lines and let the children enjoy putting their puzzle back together.
- Ask open-ended questions that inspire inquiry and learning. See list above in the science section.
Culture and diversity
In different climates/places around the world, explore similarities and differences in:
- the landscape, climate, plants and animals
- what kinds of food communities grow and eat
- where they get their energy
Provide pictures, books and speakers to represent all of the different aspects of nature listed above
- Invite the families to bring in items from nature in their community, or from their home country.
- Talk to adult class teachers and find out when they are learning about different parts of the Canadian natural environment. Think about ways to incorporate their programming with yours. Try to find ways to include learning about different countries, communities and cultures. (ie: When adult classes are talking about fall harvest and visiting the maple sugar bush, could you have parents come to talk about things they harvested back home)
- Have pictures of places in the community where children and families can go to be in nature. Provide parents with a list for a family nature scavenger hunt and have children bring in what they find!
- Consider a field trip with the adult class to these community places.
- Have speakers come in and talk about some of the ideas listed above – fishing, farming, space, veterinarian, zookeeper, scientist, beekeeper etc.
- Create a community book for the classroom – it can include pictures that children drawn and/or nature photographs that you have taken
- Create a family game of a nature scavenger hunt that the classes can do together or something they can do at home.
Gross motor and movement
- Catch and throw floating leaves
- Pinecone rolling
- Log balance beams
- Bowling with rocks or other outdoor items
- Hide and seek with nature items
- The ants go marching one by one
- Use tongs and spoons to scoop and measure things into containers
- Create puzzles (See cognitive section)
- Draw things from nature and/or create nature etchings
- Cutting grass or leaves with scissors
- Add nature items to play dough (ie: pebbles, sand, seeds, pinecones, twigs)
Art and creative
- Create a nature mural where the children can glue different materials from nature
- Make pinwheels to capture wind energy
- Trace animal shadows
- Paint with water and other materials from nature.
- Weaving with straw or grass
- Paint with leaves or pine needles
- Use colours from plants to paint (ie: dandelions, clay/mud, charcoal, grass)
- Introduce nature related words in different languages, and post them around the room:
- The 5 Senses – look/see, hear, feel, taste, smell
- Weather words like – rain, snow, wind, clouds, sun, hot, cold
- Provide books about nature in different play areas.
Different material ideas:
- Leaves – from all different types of plants and places (ie: tree leaves, corn stalks, banana leaves, etc.)
- Natural sea sponges
- Feathers, snail shells and/or snake skin that has been shed
- Clay and mud
- Straw and long grasses of all kinds – for weaving, painting with, charcoal or crayon etching to see the different imprint, shapes and patterns they make
- Wildflowers and/or flower seeds – Talk about what types of flowers grow wild in different countries? Which ones grow on trees, bushes, and produce fruit?
- Vegetable and fruit seeds and pits, gourds and coconut shells – make sure to include some from different climates/countries. You can try making instruments, examining them under a microscope, and/or planting seeds.
- Explore the idea of what different clothes we wear for different weather so that we can still enjoy the outdoors and nature (ie: sunhats, boots and scarves, an umbrella)
- Photos, books and posters of different plants, animals, birds and bugs from all over the world
- Plastic insects and animals
- Abandoned nests (ie: birds and bees)
Other general materials you can add to extend learning:
- Scales and weights
- Microscope or binoculars
- Paper and pencil for making etchings
- Eye droppers and containers to measure/dump/pour
- Measuring tapes and/or ruler
- Age-appropriate books and photos/posters