We’re living in unique times, where screen time is up (some studies put kids in front of a computer, phone or tablet for up to eight hours per day!) and social interactions are down. FOMO is a problem and there’s not much going on IRL these days (you’ll just have to Google it!)
And now, when the words “home school” are on everyone’s lips and social distancing seems like a thing that will be around in some form or another for a while, it’s harder than ever to make sure kids get a healthy balance of education, relaxation, stimulation and interaction.
So if you’ve suddenly found yourself wearing the hat of “teacher” along with everything else you do, we’re here to help!
These are some tried-and-true ideas for bringing your new home school classroom outdoors, where kids can learn, explore, connect with nature, and you can all have fun.
Take A Color Walk
Grab a sheet of paper or a sketch book and divide the page up into major color groups. Then take a stroll through your yard to find things that fit into each one – shoes optional!
Depending on the age of your child, the activity can be as simple as checking off a box after finding something for the “red” category, for example. Or your child can take a moment to draw the object and even print the name. That covers art, science and language all in one!
Try to stick to natural objects. Bikes and trash cans don’t count. Remember, we’re getting the kids outdoors to interact with nature, something they probably don’t do enough of even on the best of days. Seeking out a variety of colors and paying attention to the flowers, trees, rocks, wildlife and other landscape features will help to build your child’s powers of observation and encourage them to notice the world around them in new ways.
All you need is a ruler, or in a pinch, pull out a tape measure from the toolbox. Then bring math outdoors by collecting and measuring different types of leaves, comparing the heights of different plants, measuring the length of sticks and twigs, or just about anything that captures your child’s imagination. Reinforce concepts with young children like long sticks vs short sticks, tall trees vs short trees.
If you have a soft tape measure (the kind typically found in sewing kits) then you get bonus points for teaching concepts of length vs circumference. For another spin on this activity, bring a kitchen scale and use it to weigh different types and sizes of stones!
The great thing about using natural objects this way is that it gets kids to really look around them in a way they’re probably not used to doing. It helps build observational skills, and can even become a mini-lesson in respecting the environment since you probably don’t want them pulling up your pansies just to get a good measurement.
Indulge In Art
When kids are engaged in focused and directed tasks, creativity may be limited. Instructing them to “find something red” is quite different than asking them to interpret what they see.
The outdoors is a great place to engage in artistic endeavors. For one, it makes cleanup a breeze, since the grass won’t mind a few paint splotches the way your upholstered kitchen chairs might. For another, it provides endless inspiration for kids young and old to get creative.
Bring an easel and some paints, crayons, colored pencils or pastels. If you don’t have an easel, then a sketch book or just a sheet of paper and a hard surface like a picnic table or a book will do.
Even clay or play dough works! The medium doesn’t matter, only that your child is engaging his or her imagination.
Science shows that being outdoors and interacting with nature in an unstructured environment allows kids to think more freely, builds their confidence, and stimulates them to approach activities in unique ways.
Set up your art station beside the pond for a multi-sensory artistic experience and encourage kids to capture motion as well as color, shape and texture. Or let them choose a favorite spot, like a rose trellis, blossoming tree, rock garden or other natural location to draw, paint or mold to suit their vision. Did you think home schooling could be this much fun?
Go On A Treasure Hunt
A combination of structured and unstructured, this activity is a great way to get kids to look closely at their environment and to use all their senses.
Create a list ahead of time of all the objects or characteristics your child should look for. This can include something as simple as “a flower”, to something a little more challenging like “a pink flower” or yet more challenging like “hyacinth”.
Encourage your child to think in multiple dimensions and observe multiple characteristics. Some ideas can include: a tall, yellow flower; a scented flower; a long stick and a short stick; a smooth stone; a butterfly; a quiet sound; running water; a spider; a cloud shaped like a boat; something edible; and any number of natural treasures that reside nearby.
Help your child distinguish between things that can be collected, like stones and twigs, and things that should be respectfully left to their place, like a garden flower or beetle.
Experiment With Soil
If you read one of our recent posts about the unique properties of soil, then you won’t need any convincing to let your kids dig in the dirt. A friendly bacteria called Mycobacterium vaccae that lives in everyday garden soil has been scientifically shown to behave as an all-natural anti-depressant, relieving stress, improving sleep, enhancing creativity and making us all-around happier.
All it takes is getting close enough to the dirt to allow the bacteria to enter your body – easy to do when you’re close enough to touch it and inhale these microscopic creatures as you enjoy its pleasant, earthy scent.
Soil is a great teacher, too. From the critters that live in it to the roots that grow through it, there is plenty to explore and examine. Bring a magnifying glass and let your child get acquainted with the special micro-environments that live just out of sight.
Soil provides a multi-sensory experience as well, from its texture to its color and scent. Allow your child to compare garden soil with sand, gravel, mulch, and pond silt. Try growing something in each one. Use it in art projects if you dare!
Getting up close and personal with soil can open up new worlds for your child to understand and a new respect for the ground they walk on.
Encourage Budding Photographers
Want a way to combine technology with the natural world? Let your child bring a cell phone outside and create a photo documentary.
Start with the big picture – a sweeping landscape photo that shows off your great curb appeal, or a wide angle view of the back yard. Narrow down to individual elements, like a flower garden or even an individual flower, a tree, a log or a waterfall. Zoom in and appreciate the detail in a single petal, leaf or stone.
If you have running water, koi or goldfish, or other wildlife like birds and butterflies, a short action video is fun to make and fun to watch later.
Photography can be a creative endeavor, a way to teach technology with Mother Nature as your ally (have you *seen* how many filters and adjustments are available on a modern smart phone?) , an environmental lesson, a scientific exploration, a topic of dinnertime discussion and even the basis for a research project later.
Encourage kids to take photos at different times of the day and use that to explore light and shadow, and to examine how some plant life behaves differently in sun or shade, morning or evening. Build a photo library over time to see how nature changes day to day, month to month, season to season.
And don’t forget to print some of the best photos and hang them in places of honor to acknowledge your child’s newfound inspiration!
Build A Pond
Don’t tune out just yet, we promise you can do this! If you have a small yard or you’re working with a young child, there are myriad patio pond kits available that require little more than a garden hose and a few plants, stones or decorative items of your choice.
Patio ponds can include everything from running water, to underwater lighting and fish. Add a floating plant like lotus and you’ve got something both educational and beautiful.
If you’ve got the space and a little bit of patience, there are also myriad pond kits that you can install with an older child over several days. DIY pond kits come in a variety of sizes and are an excellent opportunity for your child to learn new skills, get physical exercise, and build something to be proud of.
Your child can choose plants, fish, stone, décor, and even water features to complete the final masterpiece. And once the physical labor is over, the hard work has just begun! A pond is an ongoing lesson in ecology and responsibility. It’s also a wonderful source of emotional well-being – something we could all use a little more of right now.
Kids were spending too much time on the couch and too little outdoors long before now. Home schooling may not be a permanent way of life for you, but you can take this moment as an opportunity to use your yard as a dream classroom. It offers lessons in all the basics, from math and science to art and language. It’s a laboratory for experimenting and understanding. It’s an experiential learning center that teaches tougher lessons like respect and responsibility. It contributes to your child’s mental, emotional and physical well-being. And it’s right there outside your door – free of charge and ready for you to explore together.