Every week, you all come to LEAP and interact with natural materials—from sorting pine cones and rocks to getting dirty in the sensory bin. We absolutely love getting to engage with LEAPers and not only encourage this type of play but participate in it ourselves! We often hear comments about how your child absolutely LOVED the art project or how he or she, “Can’t get enough of the sensory bin.” This type of feedback excites us because we work hard to make sure our activities are not only fun, but are also working their little minds and bodies in a developmentally appropriate way. We work in natural materials as much as possible, hoping to foster a connection and appreciation for the natural world in your toddler. This is all very exciting for us, but perhaps the thing we get MOST excited about is when you share your experiences trying nature play at home. We may have special bins and a closet filled with supplies just for LEAP, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have just as meaningful of experiences outside of class too!
To help inspire you, here are some easy ways you can incorporate nature play into your daily life:
Go on a Walk:
Going on a walk is likely something you do every day already, so this may be the easiest way to incorporate more nature play into your lives. In order to spice up your walks, try narrating what you and your child are seeing on your walk. Making observations is a skill that helps toddlers learn, so pointing out shapes, colors, textures, smells, and sounds as you walk helps them process the world around them. You may even notice that they start making observations or making more of them on their own! Nature play can be as simple as choosing a stick to go on your walk with you. In fact, the not-a-sticks we passed out at LEAP last week are perfect for walks!
If you’re looking to take your walk to the next level, we encourage you to try out a nature scavenger hunt or a color hunt next time you go for a stroll.
Read a Story:
Chances are you read stories with your child most days of the week and this can absolutely be nature play! Next time you read a story with an animal character or that incorporates nature in some way, use some natural objects to help tell the story. For example, if you plan to read Leaf Man by Lois Ehlert, you could gather some leaves beforehand and play with the leaves while reading! Imaginative and dramatic play goes hand and hand with story-telling, too. If you read a story with an owl character, you can use an owl puppet or stuffed animal and build a nest for the owl at the end. There are endless possibilities here!
We’re lucky enough to have a large, red sensory bin and loads of storage space for the materials we fill it with each week, but you don’t need all that to make an awesome sensory bin at home. We try to stick to natural materials in our sensory bins, but the options are seemingly endless for what you can use at home. Any container can be used as a sensory bin, from large tupperware, mixing bowls, and trays to storage tubs. It doesn’t need to be complicated, we guarantee your child won’t be focused on the container.
Once you’ve chosen your container, the next step is thinking about what to fill it with. We’ve tried all kinds of fun materials at LEAP: water, beans, sand, dirt, dry corn, pasta, pumpkin guts, colored rice, rocks, snow, mulch, the list goes on! We know sensory play can get messy, so choose something that works for you and where you plan to do your playing. It’s always fun to mix and match materials too--putting rocks in the dirt or mixing water beads in with snow are a few favorite combinations we’ve tried.
Curious minds and tiny fingers are wonderful tools for exploring sensory bins, but if you want to add a little something extra to your bins, there are plenty of options for that as well. We typically include tools for scooping, filling, pouring, and straining as well as loose parts (seashells, water beads, rocks, sticks, etc.) as these are things we’ve observed kids really enjoying during sensory play. Try out different materials—you can’t go wrong!
Nature tables and trays
In the spirit of loving nature and exploring and investigating the wonders of the natural world, we encourage you to start a collection of natural materials. Start by picking up a few things each time you go on a walk outside and you’re collection will grow before you know it! These materials can be stored in a special place in your home—on a table, in a bin, somewhere in your child’s play space—and available for investigating at any time. A nature table provides your child the opportunity to examine natural things, manipulate them, and observe changes over time. It’s a good idea to keep some baskets, paper and crayons, and a magnifying glass nearby in case your child wants to sort things, draw what they see, or get a closer look at something. There are so many cool natural materials to explore, but here’s a list to get you started:
Rocks, sticks, shells, pine cones, seeds and seed pods (so many cool seeds/pods out there!)
Leaves, pine needles, flower petals, stems, acorns, spices (cinnamon, star anise, lavender, rosemary—all great!)
Sand, dirt, grass, clay, water, a living plant!
Nature play at home is something you CAN do!! Try out these ideas, ask us for more ideas, tell us what you love to see at LEAP and on the blog. We love your feedback and sharing these awesome experiences with you!
--Emily Van Laan