Building things with natural materials is a great way to connect with nature that provides many opportunities to learn science. And it’s an activity that children from toddlers to teens can joyfully engage in at their level with appropriate scaffolding (i.e., help from you).
For toddlers, just collect natural material with them including small sticks and rocks and sit on the ground with them and play. You can arrange rocks in patterns (geometric shapes including circles and spirals are fun) or stack them to build walls and more complicated structures. Sticks can be stacked log cabin style or stuck in the ground to form walls. You can push two forked (i.e., branched) sticks into the ground and put a stick across them to serve as the support for a lean-to. If your feeling adventurous you can weave twigs or grass between the stick poles you stick in the ground. Your toddlers can also join in any of the activities described below for older kids with scaffolding as long as their “jobs” are selected to be within their learning zone (i.e., things they can do with help). This activity is also a great jumping off point for early-elementary aged kids.
Early-elementary aged kids also often take delight in building fairy houses. When I build fairy houses with early-elementary aged kids I introduce the idea of planning before doing by talking with them about their goals for their fairy houses. I ask them what their goals are for their houses and follow up by asking them questions like: how many fairies would you like to be able to live in your fairy house? How big are the fairies that will live there? Do you want to have a garden? and I talk with them about what resources they will use (e.g., sticks, stones, leaves). I also talk with kids this age about the idea that different structures have different functions. For example, sticks tend to be long and thin. This makes them good for serving the function of being a post stuck in the ground. I also start talking with kids this age about structural patterns like fibers, tubes, sheets, bundles, layers, branching, symmetry, and spirals (see my earlier note about patterns that connect). If your feeling adventurous you can introduce string (I use jute string because it is a natural material) and teach them to tie knots and using lashing to hold sticks together to make tepees and floors and roofs. This activity is also a great jumping off point for upper-elementary aged kids.
Upper-elementary and middle school kids enjoy building practical structures including forts and gardens. This week’s assignment for the kids in my upper elementary nature-science class is to come up with a design project that can be a fort or a garden or any other achievable outdoor building task and to describe that project of: (1) Goals to be achieved, (2) Resources to be used, and (3) an Action Plan for completing the project. I have also asked those students to list and describe any structural patterns that are part of their design (e.g., sheets, tubes, fibers, bundles, layers). In our Zoom meeting next week, we’ll go over and fine their assignments.
As always, please post questions, suggestions or other comments below.