As much as I love decluttering and striving for less stuff in my home, I’m realizing that offering kids items to explore with outside adds value to their nature play. Our backyard is strewed with toys and nature tools. Often, when I decide that our home no longer has room for a certain toy or item, it becomes a backyard toy. My children can tinker in their mud kitchen for hours, piling mud into bowls that formerly sat on our kitchen shelves, or peering through magnifying glasses. I wanted to share some of our favorite outdoor gadgets with you. Some of them are toys, and some of them are tools to help your little ones dig in and really observe the beautiful world around them.
I’ve used affiliate links in this post to share some great products with you. Please my policies page for more information. This post was updated November 2018.
Stocking the Mud Kitchen
Full disclosure here: we don’t actually have a mud kitchen, per se. We have an old bench pulled over an old slab of concrete that is surrounded by dirt, or, in wetter weather, mud. This non-fancy set-up calls for some non-fancy tools. Here’s what we have:
This was a favorite indoor tea set for years, and now it’s a favorite outdoor tea set. Many mud tea parties have been held with these cute little cups!
These muffin tins can be used again and again when mud is the main ingredient.
Thanks to Tinkergarten, we’ve learned just how much fun can be had with a big old soup pot! In the warm months, we have lots of fun with water play in a big soup pot. In the colder months, it’s perfect to make imaginary, warming soups. I’ve included the link just for reference, because you can most likely find something similar at your local thrift store.
Tools For Observing Nature Treasures
As adults, a metal bucket probably is not that exciting. But nothing could be more fun for kids! If you get a high-quality bucket, the opportunities are endless. My little ones love filling their buckets with acorns, leaves, and mud, allowing them to practice observation and classification. My baby’s favorite thing to do is “stir” the imaginary contents of his bucket with a stick. This keeps him happy for at least 20 minutes! They can also be used as stepping stones, musical instruments, and goals for tossing games.
I personally believe that just the act of having a magnifying glass in hand makes little ones attend more closely. We have this Learning Resources magnifying glass, and it’s great because there’s a little stand that allows children to prop it up and look at something without their hand bouncing around.
You’re going to think I’m weird for this one, but duct tape is actually a great way for little ones to explore outside! Again, thanks to Tinkergarten, we’ve turned tape inside out and secured it around our wrists, making nature treasure bracelets. We’ve also wrapped it around trees so we could stick interesting parts and pieces of nature to it.
A jar like this, or with a magnifying lid built into it, allows little ones to observe insects without them crawling away. This is a great way to teach them to appreciate insects without fearing them.
We bought this for H’s birthday one year, and sometimes she gets it out of the drawer on her own so she can get to work observing things. The magnification isn’t very strong, but it’s enough to let young children get in the habit of correctly using a microscope.
Tools for Studying Birds
We have some audacious squirrels living in our backyard! The antagonistic little guys sit on our fence, wag their tails, and taunt our 100-pound dog in any way that they can. I thought a bird feeder would be unrealistic for us because I knew the sneaky little things would get into it. This one is perfect though, because the squirrels literally cannot get the bird seed from it. Their weight pulls the springs down, and closes off access to the food. We have this bird feeder in front of our kitchen window, and I love watching the birds have a little snack while I’m washing the dishes. It’s a great way to attract birds so that we can observe them!
On a bird watching expedition last year, a wise mom told me that using a monocular with young children instead of a binocular is a wise move. My children struggled to adjust both lenses of their binoculars into one view. A monocular requires none of that adjustment. While companies that make kids’ nature tools haven’t picked up on this yet, their are some relatively inexpensive monoculars available on Amazon.
“Fancy binoculars” aren’t the official name of this nature tool, but earlier this year, my family got me a good pair of these for bird watching. When we’re out exploring, I often find the view for my kids, and let them look through. Like I mentioned above, this works sometimes, and sometimes it just frustrates everyone involved.
I used these books as a teacher, and they were my absolute favorite! Learning the songs of birds makes identifying them so much easier, and Charlotte Mason said that knowing their songs is the key to knowledge of birds. There are two versions of this book: one for the eastern and central regions of the US, and one for the western and central regions. My area, the Rocky Mountains, are covered in both books.
Pressing flowers is so delightful! It teaches patience, and allows children to transform something fleeting into a keepsake. Of course, you can press flowers in a book, but children love the process they use with flower presses!
Miss H got this fairy garden last year for her birthday. It looked lovely all summer (although I killed the seeds and replanted pansies in it!) This doesn’t necessarily qualify as a nature tool, but we will use the pot again and again!
Garden tools like these inspire children to get digging and working alongside you. These gloves are kind of flimsy (speaking from experience here!) but the tools and little bag are great for little ones!
We wanted E (Three) to have a good pair of gloves to work in the yard with Dad. We liked this because they look just like Daddy’s gloves. They say they are for ages four to six, and I believe it, because these are currently much too big for E.
Nature Reference Books
I love books that are appropriate for all ages. This book is beautiful, but toddlers and grownups alike can appreciate it. We also have two others in this series, Food Anatomy and Farm Anatomy.
Many Charlotte Mason curricula use this book for nature study. The descriptions are thorough and beautiful, and it includes so many different things that you could observe outside. It even includes ice, which is a great thing to study in the winter. One downside: the pictures are very grainy, because they’re very old!
Take Along guides are great for little ones. We like this one specifically because it combines many of the guides into one book.
Charlotte Mason said that children should learn their cardinal directions and how to read a compass in the elementary years. We haven’t started working on this yet, but it’s probably something I should brush up on before trying to teach it! There’s also an iPhone Compass app, but I think it takes away some of the skill required for compass reading.
And of course, all of this wonderful exploring can be recorded in nature journals! You can see my post about starting a nature journal here.
What’s your favorite tool for exploring nature?
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Tell me about your favorite nature study resources!