Children need time outdoors to run, jump, and play to release some of their energy, but outdoor activities can also be meaningful educational opportunities. When educators can tie outdoor play to preschool learning objectives, children can learn in an engaging way while spending time connecting with nature.
According to a survey by Outdoor Classroom Day, 88% of teachers reported that children were more engaged in learning when taking lessons outdoors. There are also numerous physical, social-emotional, intellectual, and mental health benefits for children that are linked to outdoor activities.
The health and educational rewards that come with outdoor learning are compelling reasons to prioritize outdoor activities for preschoolers. In this article, we will share creative ideas for preschool outdoor activities to try with your children and corresponding learning objectives for each.
The importance of outdoor learning activities
Learning outdoors has physical, social-emotional, and cognitive benefits for preschoolers.
- Children who spend time learning outdoors spend less time interacting with screens, which can lower their risk of nearsightedness and obesity.
- Being outside encourages more physical play such as climbing, running, and jumping which strengthens children’s hearts, lungs, and muscles.
- Safe exposure to sunlight helps children produce vitamin D, which helps them absorb calcium to promote healthy bone growth.
- Playing outside helps children learn to interact with one another through things like sharing play equipment and taking turns, and helps them form healthy relationships.
- Exploring outdoors can improve children’s sleep and moods.
- Learning to care for plants, animals, and insects in nature fosters a sense of responsibility and independence.
- Spending time outdoors gives children opportunities to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom. Children are able to connect concepts to practical, hands-on experiences and understand their place in the world.
- Outdoor play encourages children to use their imaginations and develop problem-solving skills as they discover properties of natural materials.
How to incorporate outdoor learning activities for preschoolers
With a tool like brightwheel Learning, you can create custom lessons and lesson plans in minutes. Easily add specific milestones to lessons, track progress, and share with families. As you prepare your curriculum, follow these tips below when incorporating outdoor activities.
Get out in nature regularly
You don’t have to take your children to a special location to experience nature. Children can experience the benefits of the great outdoors by playing in a school playground, taking a walk around the neighborhood, or visiting a local park. Even something as simple as bringing storytime outside can be an opportunity to expose your children to the natural environment around them.
Use your children’s interests as a guide
Incorporating outdoor activities that reflect your children’s interest will get them excited about outdoor play. Most classroom activities can be adapted to an outdoor setting. For example, if your children love arts and crafts, there are plenty of ways to use natural materials like twigs and leaves in art projects.
Encourage safe exploration
It’s important for children to have access to safe and age appropriate outdoor playground equipment. Remind your children of ways to play safely, like using play equipment in the intended way (e.g. going feet first down a slide) and how to be respectful towards nature. Have children wash their hands before and after outdoor activities. Check your local forecast before going outside, so children can dress appropriately.
Engaging ideas for preschool outdoor activities
Engaging and interactive outdoor activities are crucial for children's development, as they encourage exploration, creativity, and physical exercise. Whether it's a nature scavenger hunt, sensory play, art projects, or water fun, this next section offers a variety of exciting outdoor activities that will captivate the imagination and keep preschoolers entertained.
1. Nature color hunt
This activity provides a great nature-filled sensory experience as the children learn to identify colors in nature.
Instructions: Give the children a list of colors to find as they walk in nature. They can identify the color of the nature item and draw a picture under the corresponding color.
For an added sensory lesson activity, have the children collect a few items and have a discussion during circle time about the color, texture, smell, and sound of the nature item.
Learning objective: Children will learn to match and identify colors in nature as well as use sensory-related vocabulary.
2. Nature memory game
This next activity, a large-scale memory game, is inspired by Growing Book by Book. The children will have fun playing a familiar memory game with a physical and outdoor twist.
Instructions: Print large matching nature images (with the corresponding name of the nature item) and glue them to paper plates. Place the plates on the ground outdoors face down and have children take turns turning over two plates to see if they match. As they are turning over the plates, the children can say the names of the items. If the child does not select two matching items, the plates are placed face down and the next child takes a turn. If the child turns over two plates that match, they earn a point.
Learning objective: Children will practice memory and concentration skills while learning nature-related vocabulary.
3. Birdwatching and other nature observations
The best part of outdoor activities is the spontaneous learning that can happen. With a pair of binoculars and a sunny day, your children can spend their day outside letting their observations and curiosity guide their questions about nature and their learning.
Instructions: Take children on a nature walk with a few observational tools: binoculars, magnifying glasses, sketch pads, and pencils. Allow the children time to find birds by listening to birdcalls or using their binoculars. Children may also look for other living creatures such as insects and squirrels. Encourage the children to sketch their findings.
Learning objective: To develop children's observation skills and understanding of animals and their habitats.
4. The letter and number race
This letter and number recognition game was inspired by Inspirational Laboratories. Children will have fun sorting numbers from letters while staying physically active and enjoying the sensory experience of dipping their hands in a bucket of water, sand, or water beads.
Instructions: Children race between water-filled buckets to sort letters from numbers (or try using sand or water beads in cooler weather). Add plastic or foam letters and numbers, or print letters and numbers on card stock, cut to size, and laminate.
Learning objective: Children will practice letter and number recognition while practicing sorting, an early math concept.
5. Sight word soccer
Sight word soccer combines literacy and physical skills. This outdoor learning activity allows older children to practice their sight words while running and kicking. For younger children, turn it into a fun letter recognition game.
Instructions: Write sight words on an index card and tape them to small cones. Call out a word and have the children take turns kicking the ball to the corresponding cone.
Learning objective: Children will learn their sight words while practicing their eye-foot coordination.
6. Nature patterns
The variety found in nature offers great opportunities for sorting, making patterns, and creating designs, supporting early math concepts and artistic expression.
Instructions: During a nature walk, have the children look for leaves, rocks, and twigs on the ground. Collect them, sort them by color or size, and create a pattern design on the side of the walking path. Leave the design on the ground for folks passing by to enjoy.
Learning objective: Children will learn how to create and recognize various patterns while practicing their fine motor skills.
7. Spray the flower letters
This fun activity was inspired by Happy Toddler Playtime. Children can practice letter recognition while "watering" the flowers with their spray bottles.
Instructions: Draw flowers on pavement with sidewalk chalk and write a letter in each. Older children can support with this first task. Once the flowers are completed, give each child a spray bottle filled with water and call out a letter or sound of the letter (for a challenging variation). Have the children find the letter and "water" the flower.
Learning objective: Children will learn to identify letters (or sounds) while also practicing their fine motor skills using the spray bottles.
8. Journey stick
This nature activity was inspired by Growing Family. A journey stick is an educational craft that can be done while exploring nature.
Instructions: While on a nature walk, have children collect items such as varying leaves, flowers, and sticks. Then, attach the items to a stick (such as a branch, paper, or a piece of cardboard) to create a keepsake of their walk.
As an added bonus, children can share what they choose to add to their journey stick and why.
Learning objective: Children will exercise their curiosity by discovering and learning about various elements of nature and also identifying shapes found in nature.
9. Outdoor dramatic play
Dramatic play is often an indoor activity, but taking it outdoors can put a fun spin on it and allow children to role-play outdoor scenes.
Instructions: Provide dramatic play materials and furniture for children to dress up, and act out familiar roles (i.e., teachers, doctors, parents) and activities (i.e., restaurant, store, house, picnics).
Learning objective: Children will practice creative storytelling, problem-solving skills, and expressive and receptive language skills as they develop and negotiate the storyline and assign roles.
10. Leaf printing
With this activity, children can appreciate and learn about the diversity of leaves: color, shape, size, parts, and structure.
Instructions: Children can collect a variety of leaves from the ground and select leaves with the most intricate shape and vein structure in the back. Take a sponge and blot some paint on the side with the vein projecting out and place that side down on a piece of paper to discover the leaf print.
Learning objective: Children will learn about the parts of a leaf and practice fine motor skills as they blot paint and print the leaf.
11. Nature letters
This outdoor activity, inspired by Sprouting Wild Ones, uses items in nature to teach children to identify letters.
Instructions: Have children create the letters of the alphabet using leaves, rocks, sticks, and other items they find outdoors. Children can find items that resemble letters, such as a round rock that resembles the letter “O,” or create letters using items they find, such as using two sticks to create the letters “T,” “V,” or “X.”
Learning objective: Children will learn to identify and create letter shapes.
12. Tree bark imprints
This creative project by I Can Teach My Child uses crayons and a tree trunk to create art prints.
Instructions: Wrap a sheet of large easel paper around a tree trunk. Secure the paper to the tree trunk with packing tape. Remove the labels from various crayons. Have your children color the paper with different colors. The tree bark will leave impressions on the paper, creating unique patterns. After your children have completed their drawings, ask them to explain what they have drawn and identify the colors they used.
Learning objective: Children will strengthen their fine motor skills and identify colors.
13. Color hop
This activity by ABCDee Learning helps children learn to identify colors and encourages them to get moving.
Instructions: Use different colors of sidewalk chalk to draw large circles on the ground in a circular formation. Say a color and have the children hop onto the circle of that color, then have them say the name of the color.
Learning objective: Children will strengthen their listening, color recognition, and gross motor skills.
14. Alphabet obstacle course
This activity by The Educators' Spin On It helps children recognize letters and learn alphabetical order.
Instructions: Cut a pool noodle into 26 pieces. Use a permanent marker to write a letter of the alphabet on each piece. Stick a craft stick into the foam of each pool noodle. Stake the pieces in the ground in alphabetical order, three to five feet apart from each other, to create an obstacle course. Have the children run through the obstacle course and identify the letters as they pass them.
Learning objective: Children will learn to identify letters and strengthen their motor skills.
15. Chalk counting garden
This activity by Fantastic Fun and Learning helps children learn to recognize numbers.
Instructions: Draw circles on the ground with sidewalk chalk. Write a number in the center of each circle. Have your children identify the number in each circle and draw the corresponding number of petals around the circle to create flowers.
Learning objective: Children will learn number recognition and counting skills.
This classic playground game is a great way to teach children to recognize numbers.
Instructions: Draw a hopscotch grid on the ground with sidewalk chalk and teach your children to play hopscotch, throwing a small rock into one of the grid squares and hopping from one square to another, in order, until they reach the rock. Have your children name the number in each square they hop into.
Learning objective: Children will strengthen their balance, gross motor skills, and number recognition skills.
17. Chalk painting
This activity inspired by Days with Grey is a great way to teach children to identify colors.
Instructions: Make chalk paint using cornstarch, baking soda, red, yellow, and blue food coloring, and vinegar. Pour the chalk paint into squirt bottles. Have the children squirt the paint onto the ground and identify the colors. Encourage them to mix multiple colors to create secondary colors.
Learning objective: Children will learn about color mixing, strengthen their gross motor skills, and identify colors.
18. Maple seed dragonflies
This nature-inspired craft uses sticks and leaves to create adorable dragonflies.
Instructions: Help your children find twigs, large maple seeds, and small maple seeds on the ground. If you don’t have maple seeds in your area, you can substitute with large and small leaves. Have children paint the maple seeds using craft paint. Once the maple seeds have dried, they can glue a small maple seed or leaf to a large maple seed or leaf to create their dragonfly’s wings. Next, glue a twig onto the wings to create the dragonfly’s body.
Learning objective: Children will learn about insects and practice their fine and gross motor skills.
19. Acorn shapes
This activity by Creative Little Explorers teaches children to identify and draw shapes.
Instructions: Use a stick to draw simple shapes in the dirt or use sidewalk chalk to draw simple shapes on the sidewalk. Have your children identify the shapes and place acorns or small rocks along the outline to recreate the shapes.
Learning objective: Children will practice their fine motor skills and learn to identify and create simple shapes.
20. Nature faces
This activity by Make and Takes helps children learn to identify parts of their body as they explore their creativity.
Instructions: Help your children gather natural materials, such as pine cones, acorns, rocks, grass, sticks, and leaves. Draw circles on the pavement with chalk to create heads. Have your child create a self-portrait in their circle using natural materials to make eyes, a nose, a mouth, ears, and other facial features.
Learning objective: Children will practice their fine motor skills and learn to identify their facial features.
When great weather days abound, preschoolers have the chance to fill their days with outdoor play. Being outside helps children with their emotional development while also encouraging their curiosity.
Outdoor activities are a pivotal part of a child’s early education, helping them develop cognitive skills, gross and fine motor skills, language skills, and a special appreciation for nature.
Brightwheel is the complete solution for early education providers, enabling you to streamline your center’s operations and build a stand-out reputation. Brightwheel connects the most critical aspects of running your center—including sign in and out, parent communications, tuition billing, and licensing and compliance—in one easy-to-use tool, along with providing best-in-class customer support and coaching. Brightwheel is trusted by thousands of early education centers and millions of parents. Learn more at mybrightwheel.com.