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Outdoor activities for your kids that are simple, fun and designed for learning.



Design a nature display




If your kids are anything like ours, they like to bring all kinds of “treasures” home from a trip to the park, landing us with a collection of sticks, seed pods, flowers, fungi, etc. Whether in a small city space like ours or a roomy house, this habit has its limits. So, what better way to make good use of nature treasures than to design a nature display together? Far beyond giving kids (and you) a great way to leave treasures behind, you can include all kinds of powerful lessons into the making of your display. Kids play with all senses, sort objects by categories, develop language as they describe objects and categories with you, play with patterns and develop a sense of design—time well spent!

The Guide:

[1] Do some serious collecting: Bring a bindle, pail, bag or other container outdoors. Gather anything that interests you and pleases the senses. Leaves, sticks, seed pods, berries, petals, mushrooms, you name it.

[2] Find a spot to make your display: Look for a surface on which you can place treasures. Avoid spots that have a lot of traffic, wind or too much slant. These can lead to unnecessary frustration and loss of focus. Tree stumps, the hollow spaces in logs and the flat spaces between the roots of a big old tree are good choices.

[3] Start arranging: Dump out the contents of your collection container and start adding objects to the display. If it’s your child’s first display, model a few approaches by putting one category of objects (e.g. sticks, soft things, things animals eat, etc) in the same area in the display. Share your thinking out loud as you go. Or, just quietly start making a pattern using objects and let them observe what you are doing. Check to see if your child is also engaged and ease up if their work slows in response to yours.

[4] Chat: Talk about the objects you each are adding and try to get kids talking about why they are placing them as they are. If your child is not one to work and chat (and many are not), simply watch and take note of their purposeful actions. Later, you can ask them about why they made certain choices in their design.

[5] Savor and celebrate: Step back and behold your display. Take some pictures to share (and share them with us too!). Take time to touch, smell and gaze at the objects you’ve displayed. Celebrate with a high-five or hug.

[6] Leave it for other friends to behold: Encourage kids to leave the display so that other people can enjoy the display and even add to it. Wonder about how happy this will make someone, and take one special item home if kids clearly have trouble walking away empty handed.

Why it matters to your kids:

This activity basically begins with kids’ natural compulsion to collect and cart around objects. It turns out that children are innate collectors—and for good brain-building reasons. To read more about that, check out our Kids collect activity. Kids use and develop multiple senses as they collect, arrange and enjoy the objects in their display. As you and your child place objects, you can model and they can practice with making patterns, a valuable basis for understanding algebra and mathematical functions later. Plus, kids who are grooving on the trajectory schema get a great chance to line objects up in rows.

The making of a display also gives kids the chance to sort and categorize found objects, helping to build their ability to make connections, a gateway skill needed for higher level thinking. If you describe the objects to one another or talk about your decisions as you build your display, kids strengthen both vocabulary and communication skills. Finally, if kids leave the treasures they would normally cart home outside for others to see, they are giving of themselves in some small way, developing compassion. And, lest we forget, you have that much less to clean up at home!


Our "Big Tinkers" (age 5-7) made a nature display all on their own.



Nature fans


  • Ages: Ages 3 to 8
  • Materials: Heavy paper stock such as cut up manila folders, double-sided tape, and strong tape such as packing tape
  • Time: 30 minutes or less
  • Skills: Creativity; Self Control/Focus; Sensory Development; Self Esteem


a proud explorer and his nature fan


Although parents have to make calls about when hot is just too hot for kids, kids and adults alike are capable of contending with the heat more than we think. A little diversion goes a long way, and building and decorating a “nature fan” is just the thing kids need to feel in control of their own physical comfort and enjoy being both maker and master of a powerful tool—a functional fan. Searching for objects to adorn the fan, arranging the objects and designing the fan itself are all powerful creativity boosting tasks. Get them talking about their fan and their process, and you sneak in building communication skills and self esteem. It'll definitely make you glad you and your kiddos left the AC behind to brave the heat.


girl makes a nature fan


The Guide:

[1] Prep the fans: Start by getting some heavy card stock. For example, cut manilla folders in half along the fold, then in half once again, each folder yielding four “fans.” Next, cut three slits (~1 inch each) in the bottom center of each piece, so you can weave a stick through the slits once outdoors. Remember to pack some strong tape (e.g. packing or duct tape) to help the stick stay in place. Finally, pack some double-sided tape (e.g. window insulation tape or poster mounting tape).

[2] Let kids find their stick and help them make a fan: Ownership starts with kids searching for a stick to make their fan. Help them pick sticks that aren't too heavy and are about 10 to 12 inches long.

Weave the stick in between the slits in the cardboard and use the strong (packing) tape to attach the stick to one side of the card stock. Voila! They have their very own fan. Help kids test it out and appreciate its cooling effects. "Ahhhhhhh." Then, add some double-sided tape to the front of the fan. Now, it’s time to decorate by sticking objects to the tape.

[3] Let them loose to decorate: The hunt for nature treasures may be the best part. Ask kids, especially those under 5, what kinds of objects will stick well and which won’t. Prompt a little planning by asking them to think about what kind of fan they are in the mood to make, camouflauged? colorful? simple? Then, send them off to search and stick treasures to their fan. For kids under 4, it may help to walk near them and hold onto the fan, allowing them to venture off to collect and return with things that you can help stick on.

[4] Regroup to discuss the fans: When kids are done, praise their efforts as you regroup to sit, relax, and enjoy the fruits (or breezes) of their labor. Ask open-ended questions about the fans, with prompts like, “Tell me about this fantastic fan,” “What is your favorite thing on this fan? Why?” or “Does the fan make you feel cooler? Why/how do you think it does that?” Anything that gets them talking and gives you the chance to show that you are genuinely interested in their creation is great!

[5] Add challenges: Try these fun twists to add a challenge and pump up the learning for kids who are ready.

  • Have kids identify a category of items for their search—Our favorite categories hones sensory skills (e.g. Objects that have either cool color, smell or texture; Use as many different greens as you can).
  • Turn it into an art project—With more double-sided tape, enough to cover most of the fan, kids can use the leaves, petals, berries, dirt, and anything else they find to make any kind of picture. Anything is possible, including faces, animals, designs, creatures, and words. Again, encourage them to imagine the picture before they start hunting and making to activate their imagination and planning skills.
  • Let them discover other ways to use the fans—Give them time and space to use the fans however they can imagine. Among other things, our kids have used them as pretend fishing poles, fly swatters, paddles for "leaf volley ball," swords, and flags.


Why it matters:

Kids benefit from this activity in several ways, beyond being able to stay more focused after they get more comfortable in the heat. The pride they derive from making a nature fan "all by themselves" and your interest in hearing them tell you all about it builds genuine self esteem. Examining all the amazing sights, smells and textures in nature builds on their inherent curiosity and requires kids to use multiple senses carefully in the search for natural decorations. Putting the fan together and then imagining and trying out different ways to use their nature fans gives kids several ways to develop creativity. Whether or not you challenge kids to find a category of objects, all ages have to pay attention and stay focused on the task at hand as they hunt for objects and decorate their fans.

If you liked this, learn more ways to help kids learn to be cool, even in a heat wave!

A nature fan made by a 3-year-old explorer.

Challenge: Fill a bucket, save a tree!


  • Ages: 3 to 5
  • Materials: 3 gallon bucket; 32oz plastic containers (1 per 2 kids)
  • Time: Under 1 hour
  • Skills: Creativity; Gross Motor Skills; Problem Solving; Teamwork & Collaboration


How do you teach little kids to work as a team, move their bodies and think creatively all at the same time? Combine a simple problem to solve, a sense of urgency and water! The problem: "A tree is burning, and we need to save it!" We have to fill a bucket (which you have placed near the edge of a pond, stream or shore), and we need the group's help to do it quickly so that this tree's life can be saved. But, we can only use special water "jugs" to transport water, and there are only half as many water jugs as there are teammates. However we do it, the whole team has to feel like we took fair turns using the water jugs. Getting the picture? Time the team and try to beat the record to make it even more exciting.

Simple? Yes. Challenging for kids ages 3-5? You'll be floored by how fired up they get. Fill a bucket, save a tree! is also a great way to get older kids warmed up and working as a team, greasing the wheels for more complicated challenges.



The Guide

[1] Set up the scene— Place a 3 gallon bucket about 30 yards from the edge of a stream, pond or shoreline. Make sure there are no hazards between water and bucket, since kids will be moving quickly back and forth. Set out enough 32 oz plastic containers or "jugs" (e.g. repurposed large yogurt containers) so that there are half as many as the number of participants (adults can join in too, as long as kids direct the action).

[2] Present the challenge—"Today, we’re going to pretend that that tree (or other object) is on fire!" "How could we put out the fire?" "Yes, we need to pour water on it." "We’ll need a WHOLE bucket of water to put the fire out, and we have to hurry!" "Where can we get water?" (The pond, stream, ocean). "The trick is, we can’t touch or move this bucket until it’s full! How are we going to fill the bucket?!" Then let them suggest using the containers.

[3] Add in the collaboration rule—"Ok, one more rule...everyone has to get a fair chance to use the water jugs. There are not enough jugs for everyone to use one at the same time. So, the team needs to figure out a way to give everyone a fair number of turns at using the jugs. To make it serious, let kids know that, if it feels unfair to any friends at the end, we pour back the water and start again!

[4] Brainstorm and plan—Get kids talking about how you could fill the bucket and make sure that every friend has fair turns. If the group is ready, talk about ways to fill up the bucket faster, letting them come up with ideas (e.g. form an assembly line; be waiting next to the bucket for the water jug; etc.). Even if they have no ideas, it's useful simply to model planning before starting.

[5] Time for safety—Since you are working near water, make some safety rules. Our suggestions: You can't run near the edge of the water; Be extra careful not to bump or push anyone as you get or pour water; walk quickly but don't run (this is necessary if it gets wet underfoot).

[6] Call out good strategies—If kids start to employ strategies, bring them to the group’s attention. “I like how Max is waiting by the bucket to get the next water jug when it’s empty. I’m going to try that too!”

[7] Celebrate and “save” the tree—As soon as the bucket is full, erupt in cheers. Work together to carry the full bucket to the tree and “put out” the fire. 

[8] Extend it—If this was a clear hit, try it again “even faster!” Use the timer feature on a watch or phone to time the group and set a team record, repeating a few times if the team is game. Depending on your kids, you can also move on to our Fill the Bucket, Level II challenge (coming soon!), designed for kids ages 5-10.



Why it matters:

Just walking through the process of understanding the problem and discussing ways to overcome the challenges gives kids experience with solving ambiguous problems. As kids consider and test out different strategies, they develop the basis for creativity. Hustling back and forth, carrying and dumping water and the leaping they’ll undoubtedly do when the bucket is full are all great ways to develop gross motor skills. Finally, the simple requirement that all friends need fair turns helps kids develop the capacity for consideration and compromise required for genuine teamwork and collaboration.