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Raising outdoor kids: Take a walk, find Spring and build STEM skills

Kids with small shovels digging in garden with adult
Kids with small shovels digging in garden with adult
March 25, 2022

In a country with as many climates as Canada, spring arrives at different times and in different ways. No matter what part of the country you find yourself in, as the days get longer and life begins to speed up, it’s the perfect opportunity to pull on your boots and get outside with the kids. Exploring signs of spring is a great way to build curiosity, problem-solving skills and creativity. Active outdoor play enhances learning and sparks insights about the physical world.

Just like breathing in the spring air often energizes us as adults, active engagement with the natural world can have a positive impact on brain development, encouraging learning and new connections, according to researchers. Experiments indicate that interaction with physical objects we can easily manipulate enhances cognition – and where better to explore and manipulate than outside? Studies have found that children who engage in more hands-on exploration learn more words. For example, most people can think more quickly about the word “feather” than they can about the word “roof”. It is also possible that handling and examining a feather can develop a deeper qualitative understanding and that by extension, kids who play in mud could develop stronger understandings of concepts like density.

Make it fun

A game of spring bingo or a scavenger hunt will sharpen awareness of and appreciation for the natural world and get kids asking questions. Make a list of things to find that touch on all the senses. You could include a flower, grass, worm, raindrop, bird, wind, mud, caterpillar, bee, worm, animal track, puddle, cloud, tree bud, feather, clover, and seedling. Give kids some tools to help them discover. A magnifying glass, a container and shovel, a bug box or a book with pictures to help identify birds, insects, trees or flowers in your local area can empower a child to explore the outdoors. A nature journal for kids between 8 and 12 can help them slow down and really enjoy nature. If you’re having trouble breaking the connection with tech, let your kids bring along a phone or camera to create a video or photo journal. Encourage a focus on recording how each of your five senses tell you spring is here.

Notice signs of spring through your senses

There’s lots to see – worms after it rains, bees on the first dandelions and other spring flowers, snow melting, busy birds migrating north or looking for nesting spots and materials, and other animals like rabbits and squirrels are more active now too. Trees are budding and pushing out new leaves. You might see tadpoles, water striders and other aquatic wildlife or even turtles sunning themselves.

There’s lots to listen for – bees buzzing, birds calling to each other, frogs peeping and croaking. At the right time and place, you can even press your ear up against a tree and hear the sap running.

The smell of spring makes believers out of us. There’s the scent of wet earth and spring flowers. And the smell of rain which even has a name all its own – petrichor.

Spring tickles our taste buds too. Have a picnic and share the flavours of new peas, strawberries, radishes, rhubarb, fiddleheads, maple syrup – whatever the iconic foods of the season are in your neck of the woods.

And there’s lots to feel including warm sunshine, brisk wind, squishy mud, and slushy snow. Let your kids get dirty building mud masterpieces, engineering run-off waterways and constructing bridges. These active, hands-on activities help kids learn about objects, kinetics, spatial relationships and natural forces.

Each of these sensory experiences is an opportunity to ask questions and explore further. For example, you can learn more about wildlife by identifying birds your kids spot. Learn about how different species build their nests. Gather materials and challenge your kids to build one themselves. Let’s Talk Science has a great collection of related resources. Don’t be afraid to head off on tangents and consider something like connections with human flight. Have you ever wondered what our wingspan would be if humans had wings?

Spring offers a wonderful, free opportunity to explore, ask questions and have fun. Unstructured time in nature allows kids to come up with their own activities and approach the world in new, inventive ways that help build STEM skills that will benefit them for years to come.

Julie Misener is a Coordinator, Report & Proposal Writing at Let’s Talk Science