Outdoor STEM Activities – Fun Screen-Free Activity Ideas

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It’s fairly common to see kids of all ages glued to electronic devices – phones, iPads, tablets, TV screens and so on. Compared to a generation ago, these kids are reared by apps that do everything you could ever want, from educating and navigation to relaxation and games, instead of going outside and exploring the world. 

Want to identify plants? There’s an app for that. Launch a rocket? Same deal applies. Build a boat, train, plane, or house? Surf the internet and you’ll find how it’s done! 

So how can you involve kids with outdoor STEM activities? Here’s a compilation of some fun and not-too-difficult ideas to get them off their devices and out into nature to develop their love for STEM!

Plastic Bottle Launcher

Aquapod Water Bottle Rocket Launcher - Launch 2 Liter Soda Bottles Up to 100 ft in the Air - The Cool Backyard Toy Gift that makes Outdoors Fun for Kids, Teenagers, and Adults

Got a budding space engineer in the family? A Plastic Bottle Launcher would be the perfect beginning. It uses some basic physics, applying force (in the form of pressure) until that force exceeds the restraining force (the attachment to the pump). 

But beyond that, there’s plenty of room for exploration. Does adding a nose cone on the top assist it in gaining height? What would adding fins do, and what shape or size should they be? Experiment with different bottle shapes, sizes and weights! You can even bring in the technology and try Googling ideas to then bring into practice. 

Best of all, your ideas won’t work all the time. While it can be discouraging, it’s a vital part of a STEM career because new things will rarely work. In brainstorming solutions, you’re developing great problem-solving skills and a healthy response to a “failure” in a design.

Magnifying Glass or Microscope

Educational Insights GeoSafari Jr. Talking Microscope, Featuring Bindi Irwin - Microscope for Kids

These ones will allow children to see more detail that they couldn’t previously see. A magnifying glass or a microscope makes tiny things big, unlocking a world of adventures! 

For younger children, a magnifying glass is a great start. It allows them to see the world that they’re familiar with differently, like looking at insects and being able to identify body parts in greater detail. While we may think a microscope is more exciting, it may be too disconnected from their world to actually pique their interest. So a lesser magnification may be all they need to pave the way.

A magnifying glass isn’t as delicate as a microscope, which is great when they’re still a little too young to be careful all the time. If you are keen to get them started on microscopy, you could look at options that are specifically designed as a first microscope for younger children.

For an older child (mostly ages 8+), a proper microscope may well be in order. By this age they’ve often heard about cells and tissues, or at least have the ability to grasp the concept and become interested. 

MAXLAPTER Kids Microscope 40X- 640X with Science Kits Beginners Microscope Includes Slides Phone Adapter for Student Children

 

Maxlapter Microscope For Kids is a great option with a phone holder included to be able to save photos of whatever they’re investigating. 

Whichever option you pick, they’re now ready to start exploring. Explore under rocks to find all kinds of insects and bugs, or take a look at some pond water samples under the microscope (it’s fascinating, trust me). Investigate the local fungi or run around after different flowers, leaves and stems (you can do the celery staining experiment, and then take a cross-section of the stem to see the colour outline different parts). If they’re particularly keen, perhaps suggest writing down their observations or sketching what they see as an early preparation for recording information as scientists in lab notebooks

Binoculars

binoculars on top of an open book

These are a great family item. Whether you’re out on a mountain hike, or taking a trip down to the local park, kids love peering through the lenses. They’re quite iconic tools of birdwatchers, and you can easily complement this particular present with a bird identification guide appropriate to your local region or country. 

Telescope

kid using a telescopeTime again for the space nerds to get keen! With a first telescope, kids can view stars and planets in greater detail and get inspired by the fun and variety. Because you’ll need full dark to be able to see anything, this activity is better for older children who are able to stay up later. It can also be somewhat difficult to identify objects and focus the telescope, so it’s definitely best for a late tween/early teen or someone younger if you’re willing to provide some adult help where needed! 

You will find when you use it that you can suddenly see far more stars than previously. That’s really cool, but it also makes it particularly challenging to find exactly what you were hoping to view (a particularly elusive planet or star). With this in mind, it can be a great idea to use a telescope in co-ordination with a stargazing app such as Night Sky (available in App Store) which can alert you to constellations or planets that are nearby, as well as optimal weather conditions for your stargazing.

Toy Motorboats

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Perhaps you were one of the kids who “sailed” sticks down streams to see whose stick would travel the fastest. Or maybe you went the extra mile to rig up a small sail or created a paper boat. These are great and fun outdoor STEM activities, but today you can do even more.

In terms of boats, you can start with a STEM Build-a-Boat Electric Motor Boat or you can go with DIY small motors that you’re able to attach to your “custom-design” boat and create a motorised boat activity. This is a great opportunity to get familiar with how to attach and secure the motor to the boat. It might sound simple, but these basic construction and practical skills will stand kids in good stead wherever they end up going in their careers.

Fort Building

Lakeshore Ultimate Fort Builder

Build yourself a cubby, treehouse or secret fort with Lakeshore Ultimate Fort Builder. It’s amazing fun, and is a great precursor to engineering! 

Alternatively, if they’re building from scratch, you’ll need a “supply” of sticks or other materials. Kids have two main options for this activity: building it entirely from what they can find or getting out tools, nails, wood, tarp and the like. Generally, a few stronger branches can form a good base (hint: it can be helpful to build around trees to provide some natural supports). From then, smaller branches and twigs can fill in the gaps better so as to create a strong wall.

If you’re wanting to make it waterproof, then large leafy branches (such as palm fronds or other large leaves) piled up can lend some ability to protect against water. It is possible to waterproof this way. However, it does require practice and many afternoons of playing around with different ways of doing it with whatever “materials” are around in your area. The easier option for waterproofing is using a tarp of some kind. They still need to work out how to secure it well and cover the area effectively, and it’ll make a great adventure to sit out under it while it’s raining and stay completely dry!

The other option is to build using planks of wood and a tool kit. This’ll probably be a combined adult/child project, but it’s just as effective at developing their hands-on ability with tools and will create a more lasting and permanent structure. And this will definitely better if they want to build a treehouse. 

Both of these options could get kids to learn a feel for what makes something strong. Which angles of support are strongest, what designs fall apart, how to secure something effectively. While they don’t know any of the theory, when they do start studying physics or engineering later in life, they’ll probably be able to look back and realize why their best way of doing something actually worked best.

What are the best outdoor STEM activities?

STEM is largely originated in hands-on observation.

Biologists began as naturalists, taking a detailed observation of the flora and fauna surrounding them.

Chemists had their beginnings as alchemists, experimentally mixing compounds together and observing the outcomes. They were in search of gold or an elixir of life which they never found, but they discovered many useful elements and compounds along the way.

Engineers build things and kids can learn intuitively what makes a strong structure just by doing the same – constructing their own creations out of building blocks or heading out with their tools and nailing together a somewhat rickety fort.

These are just some ideas that you can start with. Now, get out into nature, have fun, and learn about the world around at the same time because that’s the basis of STEM!

Arwen Nugteren is currently studying Chemistry at an Australian university. She balances work as a lab assistant with science writing. You can read more of Arwen’s work on her blog – https://scientiapotentiaest.blog