Set Up Your Environment

Setting Up Your Environment for Science Learning: The Great Outdoors

By Diann Gano and Sharron Krull

“Will the children be kindergarten ready if they spend their days playing outside?”

As educators, we are often asked about kindergarten readiness by nervous parents who are hoping to give their children the best possible start in life.It’s important for parents to understand that there are endless opportunities for deep learning when children are connected to nature. Young children learn primarily through their senses. The natural world—with its stimulating and constantly changing elements—provides the ultimate sensory learning environment. 

When children use their senses to explore the natural world through sensory play, they are actively building connections in the brain’s neural pathways, which is crucial for brain development. When we slow down, we can observe the learning that takes place—and the social skills that are being developed—as children immerse themselves in the natural world.

children gardening

Nature provides the ultimate sensory learning experience.

The warm spring sun shines down on Elizabeth as she buries her nose in a patch of bright yellow dandelions. James, our sky-watching investigator, points out the moving clouds and the moon still visible in the morning sky. A group of geese flies overhead, prompting the children to run around the play yard honking and flapping their arms.

By giving our youngest learners the time, space and opportunities to explore and investigate the natural world, we can provide engaging and wonder-filled learning opportunities that promote learning through all eight senses—auditory, gustatory, visual, olfactory, tactile, vestibular, proprioception and interoception.

Auditory

“Listen! I hear a woodpecker!” calls Hudson. A hush falls over our outdoor classroom as the children try to locate the sound of the pecking.

When children listen for and locate sounds in nature, it helps them understand that space is three dimensional. Birds call from high up in the trees and the buzzing and humming of insects near plants on the ground attract the attention of infants on their tummies. The children in our program often hear the horns of trains from across town, the steeple chimes from a nearby college, barking dogs in the neighborhood or students at recess at the elementary school down the block. These sounds encourage our children to slow down as they try to locate the origin of the sound. By including bells, wind chimes and classroom musical instruments, you can add to the variety of sounds in your outdoor play space.

Gustatory

“We’re having a picnic!” shouts three-year-old Evelyn.

Food always tastes better outside. Eating outside allows us to experience the flavors, aromas and textures of our food more intensely as we connect with the natural world. Sharing time outdoors with food also fosters a sense of community between our early learners and their teachers and friends.

We spend longer periods of time around the table when we eat our meals outdoors. The meal feels less rushed, more stories are exchanged and there is more laughter. It’s magical. If lunch is an obstacle, start with a snack. If you don’t have a table, a good, old-fashioned tablecloth or blanket on the ground will suffice.

Connect taste with nature by growing edibles from seeds or seedlings. Talk with your children about the parts of each edible plant as you sow, nurture, harvest and eat from your own garden.

We started doing a lot of container gardening once we realized that our sunshine was different during the summer months than when we planted our edible gardens in the spring. Container gardening not only allows you to move your plants into better spots as the light shifts throughout the growing season, but also allows you to send your plants home over school breaks if necessary.

When our strawberry plants didn’t produce quite as many strawberries as we had hoped, strawberries from our local farmers’ market “may” have been added to the pickings on Strawberry Day. The same thing happened with our pumpkin patch one year! We always want our gardening adventures to be enjoyable and rewarding—and provide opportunities for everyone in the group to participate and enjoy the fruits of our labors.

Visual

I look over and notice our usually busy James lying still on his tummy, watching a trail of ants carrying food.

Children who spend time outside in nature are less likely to suffer from myopia (nearsightedness) than peers who spend more time looking at screens. Nature calls on us to look carefully and to focus at different distances. By providing magnifying glasses for close-up examination of bugs and leaves, we enable children to slow down and take observation much more seriously. Binoculars will bring faraway objects close and kaleidoscopes and fish-eye lenses will evoke a sense of wonder. By adding visually stimulating motion and color with the use of banners, parachutes and flags that flap and billow in the wind, we can capture the attention of little eyes to focus on wind patterns.

Olfactory

Two-year-old Eleanor is busy cooking up mint soup for the birds and the squirrels. Always our concoction- driven chef, Eleanor is quick to make use of different plants to create the colors and smells that she thinks might attract the creatures of the neighborhood.

By incorporating plants with blooms that have distinctive, pleasing scents, we create places of beauty and wonder. Place gardenia and viburnum at key spots along pathways, jasmine near the front door and lilacs outside of windows. We have herb gardens at our entrances, and the children and their parents have a standing invitation to harvest these herbs at any time. Catching a whiff of basil from a young friend is not at all unusual during our summer months. Include native plants that have unique fragrances, colors and textures. Check with your local city for possible rain-garden grants that may help you finance pollinator or native plant gardens for young children. Our program was able to create a dry creek rain garden area full of pollinating native plants that brought butterflies and hummingbirds into our play space. Many cities are giving away rain barrels, which will give you access to water for plants and water play.

Tactile

toddler with sunflower

“Come feel how soft this flower is!” three-year-old Evelyn says to her friends.

Our skin is our body’s largest organ, making touch a vital source of stimulation. Tactile engagement is crucial, especially for babies. Connecting with plants and soil can begin early. Babies soak up sensory experiences in and near the garden. Hands and bare feet need to experience different characteristics and temperatures. Nature is rich in texture and tactile variety. Bark on trees and shrubs can be rough, smooth, bumpy or thorny. Leaves can be sticky, fuzzy, delicate or veiny. Stones can be smooth, round or jagged. Providing our young learners with these spellbinding opportunities creates strong nerve connections that are difficult to duplicate indoors.

Vestibular

“Watch me fly! I am a superhero!” Three-year-old James is pushing off with his feet and swinging high on his belly.

The vestibular sense, based in the inner ear, is related to balance. A well-developed vestibular sense helps us understand where our body is in space. We are huge proponents of swings and belly swinging. Children with a poorly functioning vestibular sense may consistently run into things, trip a lot and fall frequently. Experiences that develop the vestibular sense include swinging, swaying, bouncing, rocking and rolling. The vestibular system helps with spatial awareness, attention, emotional regulation and visual skills such as reading and writing. By including bench swings, hammocks, rope swings, tire swings and baby swings in your outdoor learning environment, you will be strengthening the vestibular sense that makes paying attention and sitting still for short periods of time a possibility for our busy young friends.

Proprioception

Proprioception refers to our awareness of where our limbs are and how our bodies are positioned in space. The receptors for this system are found in our muscles and joints. These receptors send information to our brains about where our bodies are in space and how much force we are using. This is the sense that we need to understand how to gently hold a friend’s hand, play tag without tagging too hard, pet an animal or make a light or dark mark on a piece of paper. When children use their muscles and the force of their bodies to push, dig, roll or lift heavy things, they become aware of their own bodies’ capabilities.

“Benjamin pushed me down!” a sobbing four-year-old reports as tears run down her cheeks. I look over to see four-year-old Benjamin crying just as hard, if not harder.

Proprioception is important in building body awareness and achieving motor milestones. This is why tummy time is so important for infants. Shoveling in the sandbox, moving stones to make a fort or carrying buckets of water will all benefit our children. When we use our muscles, we build strength and resistance is put on those proprioceptive receptors in the joints and muscles.

Introception

“I am so thirsty!” exclaims five-year-old Lauren as she rushes to the water pitcher to refill her cup.

Just as there are receptors in your muscles and joints that make up your proprioceptive system, there are also receptors inside your of organs, including your skin. These neurons send information about the inside of your body to your brain. Are you hungry, thirsty, hot or cold? Do you need to use the bathroom? Is your heart racing or resting? The peace of a natural outdoor environment may help children slow down enough to pay attention to these signals and learn to listen to their bodies. 

In a natural environment, sensory learning happens naturally.

Outdoors is the perfect environment to observe our young learners as they experience the world with their senses. By taking a little time to study your outdoor environment and assess what it offers, you can identify the changes that might be beneficial—from planting some herbs to adding some wind chimes to setting out binoculars. Let’s celebrate and embrace the power of outdoor learning for young minds by designing simple, wonder-filled gardens of opportunity!


Ready to create a science-rich environment for the children in your care?

View these short videos to learn how to set up daily routines and science activities, create an environment that promotes science literacy and turn everyday objects into science teaching tools.

Establish Your Daily Routines

View this short video to build on children’s love of routines and teach them how to engage in scientific observation, ask questions, make predictions and draw conclusions.

Video coming soon!

Set Up a Space For Science

View this short video to learn how to create indoor and outdoor learning environments that foster the development of early science skills in young children.

Assemble Your Materials

View this short video for a wealth of great ideas about materials that you can use to engage young children in scientific exploration and discovery during everyday play.

Video coming soon!