Bring it In!
As Nature Play educators, we believe that there is no such thing as “bad” weather, only inappropriate clothing. We also are firm proponents of the fact that outdoor nature play can and should be enjoyed year-round. But let’s be real: Sometimes it is just too cold or too wet and our kiddos just don’t have the sufficient outerwear to be comfortable playing outside for long. It would be great if we had rain gear and coats, hats, boots, and gloves for all of our students all of the time, but even if you don’t, you can still expose your kids to nature play EVERY day. With a little prep and planning, you can bring the great outdoors right into your classrooms.
As anyone who’s checked a kid’s pockets after a nature walk can tell you, kids LOVE rocks and stones. Smooth stones are soothing and enjoyable for students to manipulate and, with just a bit of an upgrade, can make a fantastic addition to your literacy center!
Letter Stones: Collect (or purchase) a set of stones and draw a letter of the alphabet on each. Students can match uppercase and lowercase letters, use the stones to spell their names or sight words, or match beginning sounds to picture cards.
Story Stones: These take a bit longer to create, but are a fun and easy way to encourage storytelling and language development. At Wildrock, our story stone stickers are nature themed, but you can use any stickers that would appeal to your students. (Pro Tip: I applied a bit of mod podge over the stickers to keep them from peeling off.) Students can choose stones to fill in a simple story frame with the labels FIRST, NEXT, THEN, and LAST. Once their story stones are in order, they can tell or write a story to match their pictures. These story stones can also be used as picture stones for beginning/ending sound activities, rhyming activities, and more.
Natural materials make ideal math manipulatives! When stocking your math center, think OUTSIDE the classroom! Reduce the plastic and use pebbles as counters, twigs as tally marks, and leaves and petals to make patterns. Use natural materials to practice sorting based on attribute. Use pinecones, sticks, rocks, and acorns in your measurement unit! A bin of loose natural parts can be incorporated into nearly any early childhood math activity.
A vase full of bare branches provides the perfect blank canvas for a year of seasonal activities. In the fall, decorate your classroom “tree” with leaves! Collect, then press, beautifully colored fall leaves and attach them to the ends of the branches. You can even have students write (or draw or dictate) what they are thankful for on the leaves as we approach the holiday season. (With gratitudes written in silver Sharpie, these Thankful Leaves looks particularly lovely!)
In the winter, the bare branches tell the story of the season. The tree is bare, but it’s still living. It’s not dead, it’s dormant! Students can add bird nests and bird figurines in a discussion of winter animal homes, or decorate the tree with cut paper snowflakes...a fantastic fine motor activity! (Use coffee filters for easier cutting!)
In the spring, we love to add wooden beads as “buds” to our Seasonal Tree. Not only is this another activity that strengthens those fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination, but this is a beautiful and colorful way to welcome the new season into your classroom.
Sensory play is a staple in many preschool and kindergarten classrooms, and for good reason! Sensory play is beneficial for language development, cognitive growth, fine and gross motor skills, problem solving skills, emotional growth and social interaction. It can build nerve connections in the brain's pathways, which lead to the child's ability to complete more difficult learning tasks. It helps with the development and enhancement of memory. Sensory play can calm an anxious child and help in the redirection of disruptive behaviors that can inhibit learning in a classroom environment.
The trick to sensory bin success is in the rotation of the materials in the bin. Keep kids engaged and interested by switching your tools and materials every week or so. This sounds daunting and expensive, but it doesn’t have to be! Start small and simple.
Use natural materials whenever you can to keep costs down and engagement up! We love a good, old fashioned dirt bin (because as you know, dirt isn’t DIRTY! It’s full of healthy microbes that help strengthen a child’s immune system and lead to the production of healthy gut bacteria) but grasses, beans, seeds, and leaves make great foundations, too. Add loose parts like pinecones, acorns, sticks, tree blocks, and rocks for diversity of textures and material.
Then, think about how you can tie it in to your thematic unit. Maybe add animals for pretend play or measuring devices (rulers, balance scales, measuring cups etc.) for scientific exploration. Include Scrabble or Bananagram tiles for alphabet work. Add tools, such as spoons and tongs, for fine motor practice. Add an unexpected element like magnets or jingle bells or battery operated tea lights to enhance creative play.
Keep it simple! But keep it moving! Rotation of materials is key to a successful sensory station.
If you can't get outside, bring it in! Find ways to invite your children to engage in Nature Play EVERY Day!