Finding STEM in Nature: Low-Cost Outdoor Activities for Kids

A toddler girl playing with a tree

STEM gets a lot of attention. Science, technology, engineering, and math skills are seen as critical for the 21st century work force. At Bright Horizons, we are committed to preparing children for the future, but we’re also concerned with where they are now. We know that STEM activities (which usually include two of the four STEM elements) introduce children to the wonder and joy of learning about the natural world and the universe. These teach children the value of investigating, asking questions, and finding new solutions. They build children’s curiosity and frankly, they’re a lot of fun.

For parents at home, the natural world offers one of the best laboratories for exploring STEM principles. Here are a few of our favorite outdoor STEM activities:

  • Nature Identification
  • Fractal Hunt
  • Rock Sculptures
  • Planting a Family Tree
  • Keeping a Nature Journal

Most of them require few or no purchased materials. Best of all, they build a conservation mindset while introducing STEM concepts.

Nature Activities for Kids with STEM Components

Nature Identification. We give time and attention to those things we care about. If we want today’s children to become adults who care about the planet, we must give them ample, intimate knowledge of nature. Go for frequent nature walks with your children. Depending on your situation and location, this might mean a ramble through a rural field or a hike in the hills. In urban areas, it might mean visiting a local park or simply strolling through the neighborhood. Use an app, such as the Audubon Bird Guide or Plant Finder, to identify the flora and fauna in your area (incorporating both science and technology). Other ways to help your child participate in nature identification? Volunteer to be a nature surveyor (documenting the animals and birds you see in your area) for a local park service, or input your observations to a database or website, such as The Great Bird Count at the Audubon Society. Any of these nature identification activities help children understand that we are all connected and that individual efforts matter.

Fractal Hunt. Fractals are repeating patterns in which each small part resembles the larger whole. An example would be a stalk of broccoli: the tiny, individual florets mimic the whole stalk. Take a walk through your neighborhood to hunt for fractals. Consider flowers, such as yarrow or Queen Anne’s lace, deciduous trees, or even mountain ranges. To learn more about fractals, read Mysterious Patterns: Finding Fractals in Nature, by Sarah C. Campbell; photos by Richard P. Campbell. Learning about fractals and patterns involves science and math.

Rock Sculptures. How about using the natural resources at hand to explore engineering concepts? Find smooth, flat stones of various sizes. Try stacking them to make sculptures. Roll acorns and pebbles down ramps made from boards and sticks. Make nature people and creatures from sticks, leaves, acorns, pebbles, shells, or other natural materials, all of which immerse your child in science, math, and engineering.

Plant a Family Tree. Warren Buffet said, “Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree long ago.” Planting a tree as a family, which integrates science and engineering, has both short-term and far-reaching rewards. The act of planting a tree itself is highly satisfying. Watching it grow and change is nothing short of miraculous. Thinking about its long-term impact helps children begin to see that actions have consequences. The Arbor Day Foundation offers free trees with a membership (science, engineering).

Keep a nature journal. The most critical skills for any scientist to master are those of observing and asking questions—key elements of science, or the “S” in STEM. Keeping a nature journal can help facilitate both. Provide your child with a sketchbook and consider getting one yourself to model the art of nature journaling. As you spend time in nature, take time to slow down and observe minute details. Record these details in your nature journal with both illustrations and written documentation. One day you might record a ladybug or butterfly you saw. Another day, you might document the first yellow leaves of fall. For more information on nature journaling, read Keeping a Nature Journal, by Clare Walker Leslie, or visit John Muir Law’s comprehensive website, which includes detailed tutorials, lesson plans, games, and activities.

Conservationist Rachel Carson said, “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” We hope you enjoy these nature-based STEM activities with your child.

Learning at Home Activity: Nature Collage

For more activity ideas, check out our Nature Collage video below or visit

More on STEM for Children:

  • Explore the benefits of introducing STEM to your child at an early age, activities, books, and games that can help, and how to use STEM to set your child up for future success.
  • Discover some simple outdoor activities for kids that can help nurture a love of the natural world and keep your child healthy.
  • Our Growing Scientists resource page contains information and ideas to help you, as a parent, identify science activities in daily life and turn them into meaningful learning opportunities that inspire the scientist in your child.
A toddler girl playing with a tree
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