Every teacher and parent has seen the benefits of outdoor play for kids. And a lot of adults feel that time spent playing and exploring outdoors was the best part of their childhood! Various research studies have found that outdoor play, whether structured or unstructured, offers benefits to a child’s emotional state, attention span, physical fitness, imagination, and more.Given these general benefits, it’s a natural next step for teachers to consider creating playful outdoor STEM activities that teach kids the elements of science, technology, education, and even math while satisfying their natural inquisitiveness about the world around them.
Want some fun and engaging STEM activities to share with your students? Well, keep reading! We’ve curated a short list of some of our favorite outdoor STEM activities and STEM science experiments for you to choose from.
4 Tips For Using The Outdoors As Your STEM Classroom
With some thoughtful, intentional planning, outdoor STEM projects and experiments can increase students’ understanding of science on multiple levels. Here are some general tips about using the outdoors for STEM activities and science experiments.
- While the internet has plenty of examples of dramatic science experiments that may lend themselves to the outdoors, remember that STEM learning is the most effective when it’s hands-on and participatory, ideally challenging students to think and act like scientists.
- Think of outdoor STEM activities as extensions and complements to classroom reading and experiments. The outdoor activity might be the hook that grounds later, more formal indoor learning, or it may be the outgrowth of work done in the classroom first.
- Start by setting physical boundaries around the space, set up the space if necessary, and then describe the students’ mission. Then give them the freedom to observe, collect data, and analyze their surroundings on their own. For example, older students might study how plants and flowers grow differently, depending on available light and soil. For young children, you might ask them to observe and describe natural features, like different types of soil, foliage, insects, and topography.
- Engage the senses: ask children to include sounds, smells, and tactile experiences in their drawn, written, or verbal observations of the natural world.
- Organize students into teams to discover, observe, and discuss what they find– this teaches them the scientific value of discourse as they raise differing interpretations of their findings and reach consensus on what they mean and how to communicate them.
- Over time, plan a mix of both short-term activities and longer-term experiments and data gathering activities, which might span two outdoor visits or as much as a full season or more. Decide how much structure to place around these activities, and over time provide a variety of both structured and unstructured outdoor activities.
Outdoor STEM Activities For Pre-K And Kindergarten
Playtime outdoors is a great time to introduce science concepts and procedures to children of all ages, but especially preschoolers and kindergartners. Most children this age have an insatiable curiosity about the world around them and usually spontaneously ask questions—like “Why is the sky blue?” and “Why do some things float while other things don’t?”—that can easily be turned into engaging science activities outside. Discovering science concepts in their own hands-on outdoor explorations can deepen a child's ability to see how science is connected to the real world, from a very early age. Engaging in intentional discourse that invites the children to think like scientists by asking open-ended questions like “What did you notice?” or “Why do you think that is?” starts them on a path to problem-solving that will benefit them throughout their academic careers and beyond.
Many activities for children at this age can be simply structured around sharpening their observation skills and their ability to describe differences in what they notice. For example, you may focus on the differences between sand, pebbles, garden soil, mulch, and mud. Or you might gather different shaped leaves and talk about the different ways to describe them and why they might have evolved to be different. On a cloudy or windy day you might ask the children to observe and draw different cloud shapes or find ways to measure and describe how strong the wind is (tying a ribbon to a post, letting a leaf go and watching to see how far it is taken, improvising a sail, etc.). Or, simply use the space outdoors for a modified number-matching game, where the children match numerals with groups of objects you have set up in advance.
9 Outdoor STEM Activities For Kids
1. Nature walk. If you have access to a park or outdoor area, simply take young children on a walk, stopping at different locations and asking them to use their 5 senses to observe and describe what they experience in nature. If feasible, bring art supplies and use one-stop as a chance for them to draw some of the things they observe. Suggest that they consider animals, plants, soil, clouds, terrain, water, and other aspects of the natural world.
2. Cloud in a Jar. Not quite outdoors but this activity is nature-themed and makes an excellent practice of the scientific method. In this activity, water vapor condenses into water droplets that attach to particles in the air within a Mason jar, creating a visible cloud. For younger grades, this can be paired with reading about weather and then observing, describing, and drawing clouds of different types outside. Older children can perform the experiment themselves, and try two alternate variations, as part of a unit on the water cycle and observing and recording weather patterns over time.
3. Identifying Leaf Shapes. This botany lesson starts inside with a lesson on leaf parts and shapes, which are provided in a helpful chart. Younger children may not necessarily learn the specialized vocabulary describing different leaf shapes, although they may surprise you with their ability to memorize the names (similar to their ability to memorize different dinosaur names!). Then take a walk outside to find vines, shrubs, trees, and other plants and identify their leaf shapes. Older children might take photographs or sketches and create a poster demonstrating their labeled finds. Younger children might start with an art project where they create a set of paper leaf shapes on popsicle sticks that they can use to compare to leaves they find outdoors.
4. Soil Science: How Moist Is That Mud? This could be a multi-day activity, starting with a discussion about soil structure (what soil is made of), what lives in soil, how much water is the right amount (of course, the answer depends on what lives in it), and how to measure the amount of moisture in soil. This measurement activity might start inside with soil taken from an outdoor location near school, or with soil brought from elsewhere. Once the first experiment is undertaken to determine how to determine moisture content visually, gather different types of soils outside to examine their structure, repeat the experiment, and compare results.
5. The Sun’s Warmth. This outdoor activity for lower elementary grades invites children to observe the different effects of Sun and shade on different natural and man-made materials and ground covers. It provides guiding questions for adults to ask and background on the effect of the Sun on the Earth, including radiation and heat. Additional activities that dig deeper include exposing paper cups filled with different types and colors of soil, water, and pebbles to sunlight and observing or measuring how much heat they absorb.
6. Gone With the Wind: Seed Dispersal. As a complement to a unit or scope on how and why plants disperse their seeds, this activity can be done outside on a windy day or inside using a table fan. Children create different types of “seeds” using paper, paper clips, and other art supplies, then observe how well they travel when released into the wind. This project could be set up as a competition, as a controlled experiment, or even as a STEAM-style activity. And after you’ve talked about the forces of the wind, you might want to pick a windy day to go fly kites!
7. Measure the Wind with a Hand-made Anemometer. And while we’re working with wind – elementary-age students can create their own anemometers using paper cups, straws, and a pencil. This activity can start inside as a controlled experiment with a fan that runs at different speeds and can move outside on different days and/or in different locations. Students can also be challenged to convert the speed of their anemometers to miles per hour using their math and geometry skills.
8. Weather Station. This may be an activity undertaken over three or four outdoor sessions after some foundational study of weather patterns, or it could be a semester- or even year-long project for middle schoolers. Students build four simple tools to collect data on wind speed, air pressure, temperature, and precipitation, then make their own weather predictions based on the science of weather.
9. Stick Towers Challenge. Group your students into small teams and challenge them to build the largest tower they can using only string and sticks of different sizes. In addition to being an engineering challenge, this activity gives them practice with math skills, since they must “purchase” their materials using points, and they must measure their final tower and calculate the points they gain from each centimeter of height.
Your ability to lead these activities may depend on your access to the outside world. However, you don’t need to take your class to a national park to observe the clouds or measure air temperature: whether you’re in an area of outstanding natural beauty or an urban school playground– you are still surrounded by the natural world and there will be things to pique the children’s curiosity and satisfy their inquisitiveness. Children love any opportunity to explore nature. So, go out and explore!
Looking for more fun, hands-on activities to do with your students? Check out one of recent blog posts on Inquiry-based learning in Math.
See how STEMscopes can change the way students learn about math and science. Learn more at www.STEMscopes.com.