Does your kid spend all day, every day glued to electronic gadgets?
You're not alone in this. Phones, iPads, tablets, TV screens (less so) – there are screens wherever you look.
(Some of them even look back at you. But that's another story, for another post.)
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? The 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 in 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!
Related post: Cheap STEM Activities with Household Items
Outdoor STEM Activities
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. But that's AFTER they've spent the whole afternoon (or five) outside.
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
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.
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 color outline of different parts).
If they’re particularly keen, perhaps suggest writing down their observations or sketching what they see as early preparation for recording information as scientists in lab notebooks
These are great family items. 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.
Time again for the space nerds to get keen! With their first telescope, kids can view stars and planets in greater detail and get inspired by the fun and variety. Because you’ll need the full dark to be able to see anything, this activity is better for older children who can 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 step in and provide some adult help!
It's not like I'm reinventing the wheel now, but the kids will be astounded that they can suddenly see far more stars than with their naked eye. 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.
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 create 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 DIY small motors that you’re able to attach to your “custom-design” boat and create a motorized 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.
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 support). From then, smaller branches and twigs can fill in the gaps better so as to create a strong wall.
If you want to make it waterproof, large leafy branches (such as palm fronds or other large leaves) piled up can lend some ability to protect against water. However, waterproofing does require practice and many afternoons of playing around with different ways of doing it with whatever “materials” are around in your area.
An 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. That'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 get 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 largely originates in hands-on observation and tinkering.
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!