Outdoor Education

Posted on Jun 8, 2010 in Featured, Learning, Parenting | 17 comments

Living in the Pacific Northwest means that the winter is dark, gray, rainy, and wet. As you can imagine, we have rubber boots and rain gear so that we can still get outside in the middle of winter, but I will be honest with you: we really don’t do it a lot. Come summer though, we practically live outside. The days are long and bright. The weather is warm, not hot enough for my liking, but we make up for that with the lack of bugs. There are plenty of opportunities for fun in our backyard and around our lovely corner of the world.

There are so many amazing things about outdoor play: the opportunity to blend play with exercise and fresh air, the ability to create unique and imaginative play spaces with fewer restrictions than you might have indoors, the possibilities for open-ended play because there are fewer toys outdoors.  One of my favourite things about outdoor play is the way that being in nature inspires learning.

From the time he could walk, Rain loved bugs. This is probably where his outdoor education began as we started turning over rocks in the back yard to find pill bugs, snails, banana slugs, ants, ladybugs and spiders. He learned their names and where they were most likely to be found. He has an observation jar (clean peanut butter jar with holes in the lid and the labels removed) where he keeps the specimens he catches so he can watch them. We do enforce one observation jar rule that all critters be released at bedtime each day so they don’t starve or miss their mothers too much.

From there he started learning plant identification. Daddy is an arborist so we tend to notice and talk about trees quite a bit. By the time Rain was two and a half, he knew how to spot a weeping willow, a mountain ash (rowan tree) and a Japanese maple. Some great books to incorporate when learning about trees and shrubs are the Flower Fairies series by Cicely Mary Barker. We have the Flower Fairies of the Autumn book which has lovely illustrations and poems for Oak tree, Rowan tree, Dogwood, Blackberry, Rosehips and more. He would point and call out the names of trees he noticed when we drove around town. There are many tree related learning activities you can use to continue the conversation after you move indoors or as you explore the forest. You can:

  • Talk about the shapes of leaves. Gather a whole bunch of different ones and paint them and use them to make prints on paper.
  • Discuss the difference between conifers and deciduous. A fun story to listen to at the same time is The Evergreens by Odds Bodkin (find it at your local library on CD).
  • Compare the size of a seed to the size of a mature tree. Talk about the different types of tree seeds/flowers there are: samaras, catkins, cones, acorns or other nuts like horse chestnuts etc. (Oh and by the way, they aren’t called pine cones if they’ve fallen from a hemlock or a cedar tree. My husband has pointed this out to me more times than I care to admit.) You can also compare the size of cones from different evergreen trees.
  • Identify the shapes of different trees. Are they triangular, oval shaped, bell shaped, globe shaped?
  • Talk about the life cycle of plants over the seasons – this is particularly obvious for trees in fall and spring of course.

When Rain was 3.5 years old we moved to a new house where we had a yard that was big enough to plant a veggie garden. This created many new opportunities for outdoor learning as he helped us plant seeds. He learned that they need warmth and water to grow, that when they first sprout there are usually only two leaves and that sometimes the sprout is still wearing the seed case like a hat. (A great book that talks about seeds in called A Seed is Sleepy).  He learned about transplanting bedding plants. He learned that plants have roots (he now always draws flowers with a root ball underneath). He learned that we can grow our own food that is delicious and nutritious.

This spring was our first spring in our new house and we’ve had the privilege of watching mystery plants poke tender green shoots out of the earth and over the following weeks identify them by their leaves or flowers as they blossomed. Rain has been delighted to learn more plant names and to discover the distinguishing characteristics of each new flower that has emerged in our abundant flower beds.

Rain’s other recent interest is identifying birds. We got him a bird id book for Christmas and it has been fun for all of us to spot new birds when we are out and about. The pocket-size book we purchased has colour photographs and space to write in the location where we saw a particular bird. This makes forest walks and camping into a bit of a game or scavenger hunt and we look forward to finding a new bird each time. We’ve also made the effort to put up a bird feeder and fill it with seed so we can attract birds in our own yard. The sister book to A Seed is Sleepy, An Egg is Quiet could also be a good read when you are focusing on birds.

What kind of bird is this?

What kind of bird is this?

However, as parents who spent our childhoods in prairies, it is quite marvellous to us to be raising little Westcoasters.  Our absolute favourite outdoor learning activity is going tide pooling because it means we are all learning together rather than being in the roles of teacher and student. At certain times of the year, there are extremely low tides in our area that expose reefs covered in star fish, sun fish, octopi, a multitude of types of seaweeds, hermit crabs, rock crabs, spider crabs, moon snails and more. At low tide, parts of the reef remain partially underwater. We expect to get wet as we clamber over the slimy jagged rocks, poking in shallow pools and discovering a world that is normally hidden to us. We bring a bucket and Rain catches crabs to his heart’s content and weeps hot tears when he can’t bring them home.

Family exploring the reef

Family exploring the reef

Look at all the seaweed varieties.

Look at all the seaweed varieties.

content despite barnacle-scraped knees

Content despite barnacle-scraped knees

Leather star fish

Leather star fish

moon snail

Moon snail

The children are particularly good at having low ewww factors – they will pick up and handle anything – and a willingness to look in every nook and cranny to make a new discovery, like a small octopus waiting in a cave for the high water to return. Sometimes we find ourselves surrounded by bald eagles taking advantage of the low tide to find themselves lunch. I can’t wait to get a book for identifying coastal life in our area in time for this summer’s low tides. This is particularly juicy outdoor fun: it involves sun, sand, beach, puddles, boots, buckets, mud, amazing creatures and learning opportunities for young and old. You can’t get much better than that.

No matter where you live, you can find occasions to learn and make discoveries just by playing outside. It doesn’t take much to get started: a book from the library or a quick google search for an unknown plant in your backyard. As long as you’re outside and looking around with wonder, you’ll see things to share with your kids. I remember learning about trees in elementary school as I sat at my desk. How amazing for our little ones to be able to incorporate a love of learning and the respect and wonder of nature just by getting outdoors.

What are your favourite ways to incorporate play and learning outdoors in your area?


Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaThis post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting. This month’s participants have shared their stories and tips for playing outside with kids. Visit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:


  1. beautiful! i also love sharing nature with my son and soon my daughter too.
    .-= carla michelle´s last blog ..Penelope says =-.

  2. I love the observation jar! We will have to try that. My son’s current favorite thing is to bring all the rolly pollies inside the house with him. I might be able to tolerate this a little better if he puts them in an observation jar first 🙂
    .-= Holly´s last blog ..Backyard Camping =-.
    Twitter: becomingmamas

    • I’m sure that’s why we instituted the observation jar too!

  3. You must be the 5th Westcoaster I’ve read about in this Carnival, and you are making me ache to travel there this summer! What an amazing environment you and Rain have to explore. I need to go outside and reevaluate our own backyard, surely it is almost as magical, at least to my toddler!
    .-= Dionna @ Code Name: Mama´s last blog ..How To Create a Pirate Treasure Hunt & Other Easy Outdoor Pirate Activities (June Carnival of Natural Parenting) =-.
    Twitter: CodeNameMama

    • I’m sure you’ll find some things to explore and discover there or in your local park.

  4. What a lot of wonderful ideas! I love the way you’re using your location and husband’s experience as an arborist to enrich your children’s lives and learning.
    .-= Deb Chitwood´s last blog ..Activity of the Week – Pincer Grip Activities =-.
    Twitter: DebChitwood

  5. “low ewwww factors” – love it! Maybe all kids have that? Mine will pick up any and all bugs… I struggle to not let the ewwwwww escape my lips. 🙂

    How wonderful to live on the coast! My husband grew up in the South Pacific, and regales the children with bedtime stories of reef walks and rainy seasons.

    Thank you so much for this lovely post, and the links along with it. This is our first season for vegetable gardening too, though we’ve been barefoot in our perennial beds since the kids were infants. Now that they can both really participate, growing things they can EAT seems to add an extra element of fun & education.

    Wonderful post, thanks!
    Twitter: kellynaturally

    • We contemplated moving away from the coast and just couldn’t do it. I think we’re here for good now.

      I hope your garden is prolific this year.

  6. I grew up on the West Coast. Ish. I was about an hour from the ocean as a kid. Right now we live about 2km from the ocean. I can’t tell you how much I love that my kids can grow up so close to the sea. It’s so amazing. Our area doesn’t have quite the same kind of tide pool diversity, but there are plenty of little crabs under rocks, and there’s lots of seaweed, and it’s good as it is.
    .-= Amber´s last blog ..Ignoring the Slights =-.
    Twitter: AmberStrocel

    • Amber, I wouldn’t have imagined that we had the diversity we do until someone showed me where to look. I wonder if it’s a matter of finding a great spot near you??
      I’m just musing aloud there…don’t mind me…remember, I’m actually a born and raised flat lander so I really know nothing about the diversity of the BC coasts. 🙂

  7. I miss living where you are for the amazing tide pools. The beaches aren’t like that further south – at least not where I live. Love your ideas!
    .-= Melodie´s last blog ..A Big Sister’s Love =-.
    Twitter: bfmom

  8. We must live very close – your tidepools and mountains look familiar! 🙂 I love linking learning with real experience. How do you hear about when the extra low tides will be?

    A good book we read recently had characters who went out exploring on a low spring tide – it is called The Octopus, in a series called Lighthouse Family by Cynthia Rylant. It is an early reader/chapter book but it has some beautiful illustrations too, and features an octopus who is stranded by an unusually low tide.
    Twitter: TheParentVortex

  9. I enjoyed reading your post – the great outdoors is the perfect place for discovery, learning and exploration and the ideal focus for a child’s innate curiosity.
    .-= jenny @ let the children play´s last blog ..make your own beautiful blocks from driftwood =-.

  10. I love low tides! So much fun to explore. Your pictures are incredible.

    I have learned something from you: that not all cones are pinecones. That makes a lot of sense now that I think of it, but I never thought of it before! I wish I had more visual recognition and good name memory to pass on to my kid, because I’m terrible at learning and remembering types of trees and flowers and animals, but maybe my son will be good at it and teach me!
    .-= Lauren @ Hobo Mama´s last blog ..Wordless Wednesday: Happy third birthday =-.
    Twitter: Hobo_Mama

  11. Thank you for this very distinctive blog of yours. I can not start to picture your sources for these ideas, but this has made a good impression on me. Hopefully there is more to come.


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