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Outdoor Play: Creating an Outdoor Learning Environment on a “Shoestring” Budget

Publication Number: P3980
View as PDF: P3980.pdf

Benefits of Outdoor Play

Outdoor play is essential for children’s development, providing many physical, cognitive, and social benefits. Engaging in outdoor activities allows children to develop gross and fine motor skills, enhance their coordination, and build a strong foundation for a healthy lifestyle. Exposure to nature fosters sensory exploration, stimulates creativity, and promotes cognitive growth. Additionally, outdoor play encourages social interaction, teamwork, and the development of important social skills.

Childcare providers can easily incorporate outdoor play into their daily routines using items readily available around the house. Simple activities, such as sensory paths, water play, and more, offer endless opportunities for exploration and fun. Allowing outdoor play offers children the freedom to explore, create, and learn in a natural environment.

Outdoor Play Activities

Sensory Path

Primary Learning Domain: Science

Age: Toddler and Pre-K

Materials:

  • Plastic containers and/or box
  • Outdoor foliage (leaves, acorns, rocks, sticks, sand, pine cones, etc.)
  • Materials for a path (bricks, blocks, logs)

Description:

This activity can be created in many ways. Sensory paths can be made with items found around the yard. Creating a more complex path may take more time and require additional foliage and materials. You can take the children in your care on a nature walk to collect most of these items. While on the walk, engage in back-and-forth conversations about the items.

Coat Hanger Scale

Primary Learning Domain: Math

Age: Pre-K

Materials:

  • Hangers
  • Twine
  • Plastic bowls
  • Hole puncher
  • Items to measure

Description:

This fun activity helps children practice their math skills, particularly their measuring skills. Take two bowls and punch three holes in each one. Take the twine through each hole and connect them by tying a knot at the top. Place the items that you want to measure in the bowls. Engage in back-and-forth conversations with the children about the weight of what you are measuring.

Music Center

Primary Learning Domain: Music

Age: Infants, Toddlers, and Pre-K

Materials:

  • PVC pipe
  • Zip ties
  • Baking pans
  • Spatula for drum
  • Water bottles (put in rocks, rice, corn, etc., for infants to shake)
  • Bells
  • Soup cans

Description:

This is a fun and simple activity to engage children in music. The PVC pipe is used to make the base of the music center. You can be as creative with the other items as you would like. For example, when we created a music center, we used soup cans and baking sheets for drum sets and a spatula for the drum. We found bells in the playroom and added them to the center as well. We used plastic water bottles with different items for the infants to shake. As you are engaging in this activity with young children, you will label the items and engage in back-and-forth conversations.

Wind Chimes

Primary Learning Domain: Music

Age: Infants, Toddlers, and Pre-K

Materials:

  • Cleaned tin cans
  • String
  • Washers
  • Metal washers
  • Paint and glitter to decorate (optional)

Description:

This fun, hands-on activity is for all ages. You can collect jar tops and soup cans for a wind chime. Metal washers can be placed inside of the soup cans and jars to make the wind chime sound. You can be as creative as you want by painting the cans and tops. You can even add glitter to make it pop!

Make-and-Take Books

Primary Learning Domain: Literacy

Age: Toddlers and Pre-K

Materials:

  • Lunch bags
  • Hole puncher
  • Popsicle sticks
  • Rubber bands
  • Glue
  • Markers, colors, stickers, pictures, etc., to decorate

Description:

Make-and-take books are perfect for a simple outdoor activity to promote literacy skills. You will need two to three lunch bags to make the pages in the book. The spine will be made with popsicle sticks and connected with a rubber band. You will use a hole puncher to loop and connect the rubber band to the popsicle stick. Allow children to be as creative as they want to be. Our two most popular books to make are All About Me and Nature. We went on a nature walk to collect the items for our books.

Workin’ at the Car Wash

Primary Learning Domain: Pretend Play

Age: Pre-K

Materials:

  • Milk or water jug
  • Solo cups
  • Water
  • Matchbox cars/trucks

Description:

In this activity, you will use minimal items you can find around the house. Place the solo cups down with the milk jug on top. You can cut little holes in the bottom of the milk jug. When you place the water hose inside the top of the milk jug, watch the water sprinkle down to mimic a car wash. You can use toy trucks and matchbox cars for the car wash center.

Hopscotch

Primary Learning Domain: Gross-Motor

Age: Preschool

Materials:

  • Cardboard box
  • Scissors
  • Hand and footprints (lamination is optional)
  • Zip ties
  • Hole puncher

Description:

This fun and simple activity provides children with the opportunity to practice their gross-motor skills. The easiest way to make this activity is to cut the flaps off boxes. You will use the hole punch to make two holes on each piece of cardboard and connect the pieces with zip ties. You can trace children’s hand/footprints. You can also cut them out with a die-cutting machine, laminate them, and place them on cardboard.

Sheep Shearing

Primary Learning Domain: Fine-Motor

Age: Toddlers and Pre-K

Materials:

  • Stepping stool or basket with holes
  • Cotton balls
  • Construction paper and googly eyes to make the sheep’s face
  • Child-friendly scissors or tweezers

Description:

This fun and engaging activity can be implemented indoors or outdoors to help children practice their fine motor skills. You can use a stepping stool or laundry basket for the sheep’s body. Place the cotton balls in the holes and ask the children to give their sheep a shearing. Children can use child-friendly scissors or tweezers.

Shower Curtain Painting

Primary Learning Domain: Art

Age: Pre-K

Materials:

  • Shower curtain
  • Paint
  • Paint brushes
  • Heavy-duty cord or twine

Description:

Who doesn’t love painting outdoors? All you need is a clear shower curtain, paint, cord/twine, and imagination. Let your children lead this activity and create their artwork. You will loop the twine in the holes of the shower curtain and connect it to tree limbs or a fence. Engage in back-and-forth conversations about the child’s creativity as they are painting.

Water Wall

Primary Learning Domain: Science

Age: Pre-K

Materials:

  • PVC pipe
  • Zip ties
  • Hole puncher
  • Piece of lattice, wooden fence, or bench for the “wall” (make sure it is in a safe condition)
  • Pool noodles, funnels, etc.
  • Recycled water bottles, baskets, shampoo bottles of different sizes, etc.
  • Scoops for pouring water

Description:

The perfect outdoor activity for a hot summer day. This easy water wall can be made with recycled items found around the home. You can make this so many different and fun ways. This activity helps with social, math, motor, and science skills. You can find a piece of lattice, wooden fence, or bench to make the “wall.” Make sure it is safe for the children. You will connect the items using zip ties and a hole puncher. You can use funnels, pool noodles, bottles, and other items found in your backyard for children to explore with water.

Hula Hoop Ring

Primary Learning Domain: Infant Development/Fine-Motor

Age: Infants

Materials:

  • Hula hoop
  • Twine to connect objects.
  • Ribbon, bandanas, socks, etc.
  • Rattles and shakers
  • Soft toys, mirrors, and other objects of their interest

Description:

Looking for a fun outdoor activity to do with your infants? Grab a hula hoop and items of interest found in your home. You can connect items to the hula hoop with extra ribbon or twine. This activity can also be used to encourage tummy time.


This publication was developed in partnership with the Nurturing Homes Initiative program, funded by the Mississippi Department of Human Services.

The information given here is for educational purposes only. References to commercial products, trade names, or suppliers are made with the understanding that no endorsement is implied and that no discrimination against other products or suppliers is intended.

Publication 3980 (POD-02-24)

By Louise E. Davis, PhD, Extension Professor, Human Sciences, Mary Hannah Mills, Project Manager, Human Sciences, and Alyssa Taylor, Child Care Training Coordinator, Human Sciences.

A white lunch bag affixed to a popsicle stick and a leaf, stick, and acorn glued to the bag. Two children follow the colorful hand and footprint patterns on cardboard. A plastic hanger with each notch holding three twine strings tied to a red bowl. A young boy pours a bottle of water into a funnel attached to a white lattice with pool noodles, pipes, and baskets affixed to it. Two young girls paint fun designs on a clear shower curtain that is hanging on a cord outside. An infant plays in the middle of a pink hula hoop with rattles, bandanas, infant toys, and other soft materials affixed. Jar tops and cans are painted and hanging by strings outside. A white stepping stool with a face and ears made from black construction paper and cotton balls in five rows on the side of the stool. A boy kneeling on the wet ground, washing colorful toy cars at his car wash center.

Department: Human Sciences- Early Childhood
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Authors

Portrait of Dr. Louise E. Davis
Extension Professor
Child and Family Development, Child and Family Well-Being, Child Care-Giver Training, Parenting Educ
Portrait of Ms. Mary Hannah Mills
Project Manager
Portrait of Ms. Alyssa Christina Taylor
Child Care Training Coord

Your Extension Experts

Portrait of Ms. Kelly Carmody
Project Director
Portrait of Dr. Louise E. Davis
Extension Professor
Portrait of Ms. Mary Hannah Mills
Project Manager
Portrait of Ms. Jamila B. Taylor
Director, Head Start & EHS Prg

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