Using What Nature Provides as Learning Aids and Tools

The Strong, the national museum of play, in 2008 inducted the stick into the National Toy Hall of Fame.

On their website, the Museum lists a number of reasons as to why the common stick was elevated to such stature including that “they are the original building blocks for creative play” and they “promote free play—the freedom to invent and discover.” 

As I read the basis for the induction, I noticed several terms which are part of our Early Childhood vernacular: ‘creative play,’ ‘free play,’ and ‘discover.’  As classroom practitioners, we are always looking for materials that will support and enhance deep engagement.  How inspiring to consider the possibilities which are free and all around us – natural materials.

And we don’t have to be restricted to using these materials only when we are outside with our children.  A stick is portable.  A stick can be brought inside the classroom to support any number of engagements: construction, sorting/seriation, dramatic play, etc.  Other portable natural materials can also be used. We can dissolve the walls of the classroom and bring the outdoors in.

Natural materials for the indoor environment include:

  • Twigs, branches, leaves, small logs, tree stumps
  • Stones and pebbles
  • Animal bones/skulls
  • Sand and soil
  • Plants, fruits, vegetables
  • Dried seed pods

Here are some different activities you can use in your classroom using items found in nature. 

How animals build their homes  
Bring in natural 
materials accompanied with photos of animal homes as an invitation to build.  For example, Tailorbird’s build their nests by sewing two leaves together. Have the children use wires and large leaves to stitch a nest.  Other habitats include using mud and sticks to build a beaver’ s dam or a Mud Swallows’ nest, and twigs and blue colored loose parts to build a Bowerbirds’ home.

Early Math Development 
Matching and sorting are early math development skills. Inconsistent shape and sizes of natural items including stones, pine
cones, and seed pods can be used as a higher challenge when a child has mastered store-bought, uniformly created sorting and counting objects. To help with fine motor skills, have the children use tweezers to sort to items.

 Recreate the harvest experience indoors
You don’t need an outdoor garden.  Give your children a harvest experience with purchased root vegetables and large tubs filled with garden soil.  Watch the surprise on their faces as they harvest.

Inspiring art making with natural materials
One of my favorite experiences is inspiring art making with natural materials.  Plants become crayon tools and pigment paint, 
tapestries, and mandalas.

Children are naturally drawn to the natural world.  These materials provide rich, heuristic play and can establish awareness and gratitude for the beauty of G-d’s world.  Put down the catalog and go shopping outdoors!


Heidi Kutchin
Atelierista and Pedagogy Specialist

Temple Emanu-El, Dallas, TX


January 2019