Young children love all things outdoors, they are naturally inquisitive and curious about the natural world around them. It is our job as home educators and parents to harness that natural curiosity and take advantage of teachable moments. The garden is a natural and safe place for children to explore their environment and wake up their senses.
Soil as a Sensory Experience
Toddlers and preschoolers need all kinds of sensory experiences. The more the better. What a better sensory experience than digging in the dirt. Give your little one different experiences by exposing them to different types of soil. In addition to the regular soil from your backyard consider potting soil, sand, clay, even leaf compost. Fill up a sensory table, or several shallow buckets with different types of soil and let your child experience each type. Older preschoolers and school-aged children might be able to compare and contrast the types of soil (color, texture, weight, smell, and more).
Taking Soil Play a Step Further
Let the child explore the soil by itself before adding in other natural elements – leaves, seeds, sticks, stones, etc. Adding these extra elements will give him the opportunity for creative play (such as making a stick forest) and artistic expression (such as making faces with the use of flat stones). Consider adding some water to your soil buckets. Wet sand feels considerably different than clay and top soil feel when wet. Maybe you should find out if wet clay makes a cool, slurpy sound.
Experiencing Texture in the Garden
The garden is a phenomenal place to discuss texture. Leaves can be waxy, jagged, or soft. Seeds can be bumpy, grainy, paper-thin, or smooth. Bark can be rough. During a nature outing introduce vocabulary terms and have examples ready for him to manipulate. Younger children will enjoy exploring these items and making art collages with them while older children may be ready to draw and write about them.
Taking Textures a Step Further
Now that you’ve introduced textural vocabulary terms such as rough, waxy, and smooth, it’s time to expand the concepts a little. Here are a handful of ideas
· Sort and categorize a bucket full of natural items. Group all the bumpy items together, all the smooth items together, etc.
· Why not do a rubbing of some of these natural items while you have them out?
· Go on a scavenger hunt. Collect or make a list of all the rough items you can find in your yard. Go to the park and make a different list.
· Fill up a mystery bag. Put natural items in a bag and allow your child the chance to reach in before looking. Have him give you a word or two to describe the item before guessing what it is.
Plant Life as a Sensory Experience
Children also need the opportunity to touch and examine plants. Consider digging up a small section of grass or weeds (we all have weeds to spare, right?) with roots intact for them to investigate. Give your preschooler the opportunity to manipulate the weeds in order to locate and gain sensory experience with the leaves, roots, and other parts. Older children can illustrate and label what they’ve seen in a field journal.
Beyond Hands On
When most people think of sensory experiences they stop with tactile. Most sensory tables are full of fun stuff to touch. What about the other senses? Smelling, tasting, hearing, and seeing are all apart of providing sensory experiences for your little one.
Smelling: Fill up a sensory area with different smelling natural items; flowers, herbs, and fruits all have their own unique smell. Give your child the opportunity to sort and manipulate naturally scented items. Introduce appropriate vocabulary terms associated with scent – spicy, sweet, musty, etc. This may be the time to create a scent collage or dry some sweet-smelling herbs for later.
Tasting: Preschoolers generally aren’t well known for their extensive culinary palette. I know, I’ve raised three myself. If your little one is less than enthusiastic about trying the different flavors your garden has to offer, try host a tasting buffet. Make it a big event and invite other homeschooled children to attend. Set several new-to-them edible items out for them to experience and see what happens. Give them the opportunity to taste and sort items as they see fit. If they aren’t willing to taste the items, see if you can engage their sense of smell.
Hearing: I know what you’re thinking. Hearing? In the garden? I hear crickets, but not much else. If that’s all you hear, that’s all your preschooler is ever going to hear. What about the swishy sound the tall grass makes as the wind (or your tot!) moves through it? Do the reeds clack together as the wind blows through? What about the sound leaves make as you crunch through them, or the gravel as you traipse past? There is much to be heard in that garden of yours. The trick is to get your preschooler to be quiet enough to hear it.
Seeing: As your child has the opportunity to touch and manipulate the natural items that you’ve provided, he’s going to make lots of visual observations. Help your youngster put these observations into words by using prompts such as “I noticed…” or “It looks like…” Be sure to have a magnifying glass on hand for close up inspections.
Don’t Stop Now!
Now that your little one has started to develop a love for the natural world, it’s time to support that natural curiosity. Scour the internet and your local library for age appropriate books and videos. Your little one will also benefit from more than one opportunity for guided exploration. Give them multiple opportunities to engage their senses in the natural world. Do the same activities focusing on different senses.
The garden is alive with sensory experiences that children of all ages are itching to explore. Whether you have enough space to plant a small backyard garden or a simple window garden, all young children will benefit from the opportunity to explore and manipulate different aspects of the garden, such as plant life, soil, rocks, seed pods, and other natural items. With a plan in place you can give your youngster the opportunity to explore, and use those explorations to springboard into valuable teaching opportunities.