Just imagine it – a shady canopy of trees, dappled light as the golden sun breaks through to the winding paths, and supportive adults who understand what a strange few years we’ve all just been through and know that children need time in nature more than ever before.
Doesn’t that make you want to head straight to the nearest outdoor school?
You are never too old or too young to learn from being in nature. The beneficial effects of being in nature on our brain chemistry (Biophilia) are now well documented. The dopamine hit we can get from being outside in natural light is also the antidote to too much screen time.
So what are you waiting for?
We have two outstanding courses for parents or schools to best use outdoor activities with their children. Outdoors on a Budget will help you set up a wonderful (but inexpensive) outdoor activity area. Urban Forest Environments will let you create a natural environment without the space and trees you normally think of!
Keep things simple and allow your toddler time to play the games below in a forest setting, and they will reap the benefits of the simple joys of being outdoors in nature, relaxing, and having fun.
1. Toddle and sensory explore
This is a lovely way to introduce your toddlers to the forest school. Simply allow time to walk around the forest school site so the children can see where the forest boundaries lie and experience the different features of your forest site. You can do this activity in any weather, so don’t put it off just because it’s raining.
Make sure you use all the senses:
Touch the gnarly bark of old trees, the damp earth, twisted roots, the feathery ferns, or the smooth sensation of acorns as they pop out of their prickly casing.
Listen quietly for birdsong, the rush of the wind, or the fluttering of leaves.
Smell the grass, the perfume of pinecones, and the fresh air.
Look up at the wide sky, the tallest branches, and the birds and squirrels.
Taste toasted marshmallows from the campfire or warming vegetable soup on a colder day
2. Splashing in puddles
Most toddlers have an innate desire to investigate water, and they love to explore and experiment with splashing and to jump in puddles. As adults, we may take for granted the way that water behaves when we pour it, stir it, or drop objects into it, but for a toddler, this concept is brand and endlessly exciting.
If you already have natural puddles on your Forest site, there is no need to do anything to them except let your toddlers explore them.
To create puddles, choose an area of the earth that is naturally hollowed, if possible, and add a water source. A hosepipe or a couple of buckets of water is usually enough to create large puddles for toddlers to jump and splash about.
You can introduce lots of lovely new languages as they are exploring:
- Splish, splash, splosh
- Stamp tap stomp
- Whoosh, we’re wet!
- Soaking, sopping, dripping
You can add sticks or pebbles if you have puddles large enough to make a big splash. Toddlers love to explore the nose they make when they hit the water, or you can add some natural food coloring to your puddles and watch it swirl around as you stir it.
This is probably the best fun you can have as a toddler. Before you start, check out the weather and ensure your toddler is covered in a good waterproof suit. There are several ways to create a mudslide in the forest.
- You can use an existing mound of earth and pour water down it to create a slippery slide. A hose or bucket of water can be used here.
- If you only have flat ground, you can use a muddy patch, place a long tarp down, and cover it in mud and water.
- When your slide is ready, shout Ready… Steady… Go!
This is a great way to encourage physical activity and confidence in young children, and you can also introduce turn-taking.
4. Call the Birds
When the toddlers have had a chance to explore the forest site and use up some energy, ask them to come together and sit with you, if everyone is dressed in full waterproof clothing, you could all lie on your backs on the ground for this activity.
Look up at the sky and notice the clouds and how they move. Remind the children never to look directly at the sun as this could damage their eyes. Spend a little time contemplating the clouds and any shapes or pictures you can see, and then tell the children that you will call the birds.
Use a wooden whistle to make a low woodwind calling sound, and then just wait. As birds fly past overhead, the children will believe you have called them, and it will be a magical moment. Repeat the call several times.
This activity encourages stillness, listening, awe, and wonder of the natural world.
For further Forest school ideas, try these activities.
5. Listening jewels
This is another lovely activity encouraging toddlers to be still and listen. Many young children struggle with this skill, but this activity creates magic and can calm even the most hyperactive toddler.
Call the children to you and show them a little bag or pouch. I use a small red velvet bag as it looks so special, and I tell the children that it is a listening jewel inside the bag. When you hold it up, they must be very quiet and listen to the sounds in the forest.
I use a large emerald from some old costume jewelry for the jewel, but you could use a glass pebble, a metal stone, or anything that looks “jewel or gem-like.”
Hold the jewel to the sunlight and put your finger to your lips. If they want to, the toddlers can close their eyes as they tune into the natural sounds around them.
Walk a little bit further and see if the sounds are different.
Allow a few moments of silence, and then ask them what they heard.
Walk a little bit further and repeat.
As a variation, you can give each toddler a listening jewel of their own, but be sure to set the right atmosphere first – this is a special listening moment!
6. Treasure bag
Tell your toddlers that you are going on a special treasure hunt to collect nature’s treasure from the forest floor and need their help.
- Give each child their bag. This could be a small paper bag or a material bag or pouch.
- Explore the forest together, putting anything of interest in the bag – acorns, conkers, pebbles, feathers, colorful or unusual leaves, or seed pods.
- Come back together and tip out the treasure to talk about all the wonderful things the toddlers have found.
- Use every opportunity to develop the toddlers’ language here. Introduce them to new words, colors, textures, patterns, and names.
7. Collect sticks
A forest school floor is usually littered with small sticks and twigs, ideal for kindling to start a campfire. Call your toddlers and tell them you need their help to collect as many sticks as possible so that we can build a campfire. Give them a central location point to return their sticks when they have collected them.
Child-sized wheelbarrows are great to use in this activity if you have them, as they develop your toddlers’ pushing and pulling muscles and can also encourage them to balance the wheel. Watch the pile of sticks grow as the toddlers run back and forth. Give them lots of encouragement.
If they find any very large sticks or fallen branches, you could set them a problem of how to get it to the stick pile. Show the toddlers how to tie a rope around a branch so we can all pull on it together. Pushing and pulling are key skills in developing good gross motor skills.
Lighting a campfire with the kindling the toddlers collected is the perfect end to this activity. Always ensure you have the appropriate risk assessments before you do so.
8. Bird hide
Make a den using a camouflage tarpaulin or an army net in a secluded corner of the forest site. Make sure the toddlers feel disguised and hidden when they are inside. Leave a little space so the children can see up and out into the forest, and provide them with an outdoor seat or bench and a couple of pairs of children’s binoculars. Encourage them to be very quiet and to look up into the trees to try and spot the birds.
You could also introduce notebooks and pencils so they can draw anything they see. I like to use a laminated sheet of local birds so the toddlers can look out and recognize them against the pictures.
Here are some more ideas on how to build a den.
9. The sound of rain
It is important to use the forest in all seasons and weather to build up children’s resilience and confidence and deepen their understanding of what happens in nature throughout the year.
Waterproofs are essential for this activity. If you are lucky enough to catch a rainstorm when you are out on a forest site, hold out a tarpaulin between all the adults and children and listen to the rain splashing as it lands on the sheet. Let the water collect in the center, and then all lift the tarpaulin together, a bit like a parachute, to shake off the water.
This is a good activity for building new vocabulary and giving the words meaning.
Use words like:
Swish, splash, wash,
It sounds like such a simple activity, but it is surprising how many toddlers miss out on this vital stage in their development.
Our western culture means we constantly transport our babies and toddlers from high chairs to pushchairs, car seats, and baby walkers. The result is that our babies and toddlers are spending less and less time on their backs and tummies. Learning to roll over and crawl is vital to develop all the core muscles that allow this.
There has been a recent increase in laxative medication in the under 5’s in the UK. Although research is still inconclusive, it is thought this may be because children aren’t having enough physical time on their tummies to develop their core muscles.
The antidote is lots more physical time where we encourage toddlers to roll, crawl, push, pull and swing; the forest is the perfect place to do so.
A raised mound of earth is perfect for allowing the children the freedom to roll down, but if you don’t have a mound, you can still encourage your toddlers to roll across the forest floor. You can also help them to pull on their waterproofs and show them how to roll about under the branches of a large tree.
For the same reasons as above, young children need opportunities to crawl to develop their core muscles properly. If you can provide natural tunnels on your forest site in bushes and trees or willow tunnels, this will be incredibly exciting to a toddler, but if you don’t have these, providing toy tunnels will also help their development.
Swinging develops the muscles in the hands, arms, shoulders, and core. These are essential muscles for writing successfully as toddlers get older.
Provide a rope or a tire swing by tying a rope over a sturdy, well-established tree branch, and just let your toddlers play.
You may need to show some children how to swing back and forth by supporting them at first, but once they’ve got it – you probably won’t be able to stop them!
13. Leaves, leaves, leaves
Like the treasure bag activity, you can use baskets, bags, or cardboard boxes. Explain to the toddlers that you will collect as many different kinds of leaves as possible and go on a search together around the Forest site. Try to notice leaves of different sizes, shapes, and colors as you look together.
Bring the leaves back to a central point. A tarpaulin on the ground can be useful for looking at what everyone has found and talking about what each toddler has found.
Autumn is a special time to do this activity but be sure to repeat it in other seasons to talk about the changes in leaves in the different seasons.
14. Rolling in leaves
Simple pleasures are the best. Show your toddlers how to kick up autumn leaves, throw them into the air, collect them in wheelbarrows and then tip them into leaf piles for hedgehogs and other forest creatures to make homes in.
15. Mini-beast hunt
A great activity to encourage close exploration, build confidence, and teach care and respect for the natural world.
- Give each toddler a bug finder – a clear plastic container with a magnifier built into the lid.
- Go and explore the Forest site together.
- Turn over large stones, boulders, and old logs and look between old tree roots.
- Look at the mini-beasts in detail through the magnifiers, counting their legs, spots, or antenna.
- You could encourage the toddlers to paint or draw their mini beasts when back inside.
Always replace the bugs where you found them and put the logs and stones back to how they were original. Explain to the toddlers that the mini-beasts need a home like ours.
These activities are a good place to start with young children, but there are countless more ways to enjoy a nature site. Be creative and let your toddler’s ideas guide you and inspire you.
The most important thing is to make time to visit the forest and to keep visiting it regularly and in all weathers. Children who use a nature site regularly build confidence, personal and social skills, emotional resilience, and perseverance.
They also have a lot of fun.