Activities for Young Children

*Adapted with permission from the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center, Milwaukee, WI

Ivory Snow Snow Scenes*

Mix Ivory Snow powder detergent with water and mix until it has a snow-like consistency. Put a spoonful of the mixture on black paper. The children can use their fingers to make scenes and tracks in the “snow.” They can also add animal pictures or stickers to the scene.

Snowflake Catchers*

Put black cardboard or black felt in the freezer to make it into a snowflake catcher. The next time it snows, take out your ice-cold snowflake catcher and use it to collect snowflakes. Have the kids look at the snowflakes with a hand lens.

Evergreen Painting*

In the fall or winter, have children collect evergreen branches and pine cones. Both parts of the tree can be used as paintbrushes, and the cones make interesting stamps.

Feather Painting*

Let children paint with feathers instead of paintbrushes. You can find suitable feathers at craft stores.

Homemade Bird Nests*

Take the kids outside and have them collect nest-building materials such as dried grasses, small sticks, leaves, and mud (made by the children by digging up soil and adding water). Then have them construct nests in small bowls or strawberry baskets. The mud is the glue to hold the materials together. Give the children small bits of yarn and shredded paper to incorporate into their nests. Also have them find something soft, such as cattail seeds or moss, for the eggs to lie on. They can make the eggs out of clay or Play-Doh.

Color Hike

Gather together a bunch of different colored squares, such as laminated construction paper pieces, paint chips, or countertop samples from a hardware store. Give each child one or more squares and have them match the squares to a color outside. This is a great activity to do in every season, particularly in the winter months when there are more colors to find than one might think—the blue of blue jays, the red of cardinals and berries, and so on.

Sniffer Cups

Tell the children that they’re going to have a chance to make “sniffer cups”—cups that contain pleasing scents from nature. Give each child a small paper or plastic cup, then head outside. Have the kids select natural objects such as pine needles, bark, dirt, and flowers and mix them up in the cup with a stick or spoon. When they have achieved a scent they like, have them name the concoction. Then encourage the kids to share their masterpieces with the other members of their group.

Counting Sounds

Find a place outside to sit or stand quietly. Have the children close their eyes and use their fingers to count the number of sounds they hear in a specified time frame. How many sounds did they hear? (Did they use up all their fingers?) What did they hear? Which sounds came from human activities and which ones didn’t? Alternatively, you can have kids mimic the way a deer or rabbit shifts its ears to change how it hears. If kids cup their hands behind their ears, they’ll hear sounds in front; if they cup them in front of their ears, they’ll hear sounds behind.

Bark Rubbings

Gather together paper and crayons to make bark rubbings. Egg crayons work especially well for young children: Simply melt down pieces of crayons and have them harden in egg-shaped molds (available in stores). Then head outside. Have each child hold a piece of paper against the bark of a tree and rub with the side of a crayon. The print of the bark will appear on the paper. In this way, children can “take” the tree back inside with them!

Super-easy Leaf Rubbings

Give each child a large envelope. Then take the kids outside and have them collect leaves in their envelopes. When they come back inside, have them place their envelopes flat on the table in front of them. Then have them rub an egg crayon, or the side of a regular crayon, back and forth across the envelope. The leaf prints will appear on their envelopes.

Tree Comparisons

On a nature walk, have the kids compare the sizes of different trees by putting their arms around the trees’ trunks. Can they find the smallest one? The biggest one? Try to find the biggest, smallest, smoothest, roughest, tallest, lightest, darkest trees. You can do the same with trees’ leaves, as well as comparing leaf shapes, number of lobes, and so on.

Becoming Trees

Take the children to a place near a tree or group of trees. Ask them to look at their feet, then look at a tree. Does the tree have feet? What does it have instead? Tell them they can use their imagination to become trees. Their feet can become roots. Their bodies can become trunks. Their skin can become bark. Their arms can become branches. And their fingers can become leaves. Do they feel like trees now? Describe each of the four seasons in a tree’s life and have the kids act out what happens. Then have the “trees” turn back into kids one body part at a time before you continue your hike.

Meet a Tree

Divide the children into pairs. Within each pair, one person closes his or her eyes (or uses a blindfold) and the other child is the leader. Have the leader guide his or her partner to a tree. Once there, the blindfolded child should touch and smell the tree, put his or her arms around it, and otherwise get to know it. Then have the leaders guide their partners away. When they open their eyes or remove their blindfolds, see if these children can find the tree they just met. Then have the kids switch roles.

Fall Seed Dispersal

Cut out animal shapes from felt and give them to the children. Then take them outside and have them collect seeds from various plants with their hands or by rubbing the felt on the plants. The kids will discover that many plants use ingenious ways to disperse their seeds. Some are hitchhikers, some are parachutes, some are poppers, and so on. Hitchhiking seeds are especially likely to cling to the felt animal.

Winter Weed Bouquets

Go outside and have children collect several different kinds of winter weeds. Then have them put these dried and dead plants in cups to make beautiful winter bouquets. (You can put clay in the bottom of the cups to secure the stems.)

The Three P’s of Animal Tracks

Kids can learn a lot about animal tracks by focusing on three P’s: print, pattern, and placement. Print refers to an individual footprint’s size and details. Pattern reveals how the animal is moving (walking, hopping, and so on). Placement is where the tracks are found. By looking at all three things, kids can make a good guess about which animal made the tracks.

  • First P: Print. Give each child a sheet of paper and a crayon. Have them trace an outline of their shoe. Then have them take off a shoe and do a rubbing of the bottom. Then have the kids sit together in a circle. Take turns having each child share the details of his or her rubbing with the rest of the group. When they’re done, collect the rubbings. Have the kids place one of their shoes in the middle of the circle. Then pass out the rubbings randomly. See if the kids can find the shoe that matches the rubbing they hold. Afterward, compare their footprints to those of animals. Explain that animals have unique footprints, too (size, shape, claws versus no claws, number of toes, and so on).
  • Second P: Pattern. Have the kids roll up their pants and take off their shoes. Then have them step in washable paint and walk slowly across a piece of paper. Now have them step in the paint again and then hop across the paper. Afterward, compare the two sets of prints. How do they differ? Explain that this is called pattern. Show the kids a large sheet of paper with walking and hopping tracks from animals. Can they guess which is which? Encourage the kids to walk and hop in the animal tracks.
  • Third P: Placement. Show the kids pictures of animals with their tracks and in their habitats. Explain that “placement” refers to where you find animal tracks. Placement helps you figure out what kind of animal tracks you are looking at because most animals favor certain habitats over others. Read Whose Tracks are These? by Jim Nail to show more habitats.