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  • Young children are natural scientists. They spend their days making sense of the world around them using their senses to observe. There are lots of ways to encourage curiosity and discovery.

    The following activities include outdoor experiences. Each idea has links to resources to help with background information for the adults or caregivers. The key outcomes can simply be enjoyment and the conversations that arise from the experience. The article Learning science from home – ideas to deepen learning has hints about introducing new words and simple questions to use when talking with young learners.

    For homes with learners of different ages, we also offer activity ideas for:

    Peruse the other articles for engaging ideas or for extension opportunities.

    Rights: Private Collection

    Play and experimentation

    There is much to be learned through play and experimentation with baking soda and lemon juice – measurement, cause and effect, eye-hand coordination and new words for a start. Mixtures and potions like these are the early beginnings of learning about chemistry.

    Incorporate some of these ideas while out on a walk, while visiting a park and in your own backyard.

    Rights: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato

    Simple leaf shapes

    New Zealand plants are often identified using the shapes of their leaves. This photo shows five common leaf shapes.

    Observing leaves

    This activity is based on Native plant leaves – DIY classification system. The activity notes in the Word document download have ideas about how to group the leaves once they’ve been collected but adapt the experience to suit the needs and ability of the learner. Looking at plants and leaves has additional learning ideas, including a word search and art activities.

    Collect leaves that have:

    • different shapes
    • different sizes
    • different edges (smooth, spiky, jagged)
    • different colours
    • different textures (waxy, crunchy, soft, smooth).

    Enhance numeracy skills by:

    • counting the leaves
    • putting the leaves in a line (order) by length – shortest to tallest or by width – narrow to wide
    • grouping the leaves – for example, smaller than my hand and bigger than my hand.

    Enhance literacy skills by:

    • giving each group of leaves a title and writing it down
    • choosing one or more leaves and writing words that describe the way they look, feel or smell
    • taking photos of the labelled groups and creating an online scrapbook.
    Rights: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato

    Inside a tulip

    A cutaway tulip flower, with its central green female part surrounded by yellow pollen-covered male parts.

    Observing colours

    The science of colour is pretty complex, but colours themselves can be quite pretty and quite fun to observe.

    Create colour scavenger hunts:

    • Choose a few crayons or coloured pencils and go outdoors to find items that match the colours.
    • Choose a plant leaf and try to find another plant species that has a leaf of the exact same colour, then find one that is lighter or darker.
    • Gently dissect a flower to look at the colour of the petals, stamen and so on and then try to find items of similar colours.
    • Choose one of the leaves or flower petals and mix paint colours to try and match the colour.

    Remember to swap roles so children get to define the challenge and adults get to go on a hunt! Incorporate similar literacy and numeracy skills as mentioned above.

    Rights: Private collection

    Observing colours in an outdoor setting

    Observing and identifying colours help young learners categorise what they see. The skills learned when distinguishing similarities and differences in colour are the same skills children need to distinguish the differences in letters and numbers when learning to read and write.

    Creating shadows

    The activity Investigating shadows has background information about light and shadows and suggestions for exploration and play both indoors and outside.

    Here are some other ideas:

    • Take a photo of an item’s shadow and try to locate the item.
    • Take a photo of the shadow of a person standing in a certain position and try and recreate the shadow (silly is good).
    • Look for transparent and translucent items in the kitchen or in the toy box and view their shadows outdoors or with a torch indoors.
    • Play ‘Simon says’ and watch to see if everyone’s shadows are following instructions.
    • Erect a white bedsheet with a light behind it:
      • Take turns dancing behind the sheet while videoing the shadow dance. Can you identify the dancer by their shadow? How?
      • Read aloud a short story while the person (or persons) behind the sheet acts it out. Video the experience so you can watch it again or share it with a friend online.
    Rights: Matthew Bowden

    Objects and shadows

    The shape of the object determines the shape of the shadow. By looking carefully at the shadow, we can observe that the person on the right is dressed in shorts and is standing on one foot.

    Related content

    We can also help with learning at home for:

    For children who enjoy drawing, the activity Developing observational skills in younger students is an ideal way to incorporate science and oral language skills into an art activity.

    For supportive professional learning development, watch our recorded workshop Exploring science in the early years.

    Our Early years resources collection has curated resources that have either been written specifically for younger children or are resources that can be easily adapted. Find out how to make the most out of this collection in our Creating collections article.

    For further inspiration and ideas have a look at our Learning science from home or Early learning Pinterest boards.

    Useful links

    See our Pinterest board – full of activities, articles and more to help teachers, schools and/or parents setting up online learning at home.

    Visit the Learning from home government website for more activity ideas.

    Kids Greening Taupō has great ideas for getting kids outdoors and connecting with nature.

    Darwin & Newts is an animated adventure show for tamariki aged 3–7. Made with the help of specialist educators, it explores basic science and engineering principles. It has a free companion app available in reo Māori or English.

      Published 1 April 2020, Updated 17 August 2020 Referencing Hub articles
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