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.
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.
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?