Nature-Based STEM: Engaging Children Outdoors at the Chippewa Nature Center

Chasing butterflies through a meadow. 

Flipping logs to discover worms and centipedes.

Catching a frog.

Building a fort. 

These are the things of an idyllic childhood spent exploring the natural world. It’s easy to dismiss these playful things, but these experiences play an important role in shaping tomorrow’s scientists and in creating healthy and happy children today. 

As a child growing up in the Chicago suburbs, my daily exposure to nature was a postage-stamp backyard with four trees and a swing set. However, on a couple of summer weekends each year, my family would head two hours west to a small camp ground. In the mornings, I would rise early and walk with my dad, listening to the birds, asking about the tracks in the mud, checking out the leaves of the trees, and finding super bizarre caterpillars. The days were spent swimming in the pond, running through the meadow, and building homes for toads and ants. This time spent exploring, learning, and discovering motivated me to study biology in college and follow that up with a Masters in Conservation Biology from Central Michigan University. As a child I was given the opportunity to play, explore, ask questions, and make mistakes along the way, and this gave me the tools I needed to become the science-minded person I am today.

Children have a natural sense of curiosity and, if provided time, space and materials that can be moved and repurposed (think rocks, sticks, dirt), they will do the hard work of learning through extended play and exploration. For many children, the realness of the outdoors leads them to solve real problems – If I want to catch a frog, how am I going to get across this wet spot without getting muddy? Or, if I want to build a fort that all of my friends can fit in, how big do I need to make it and how do I make sure it won’t fall down on us? The natural world provides an abundance of opportunity for children to put the engineering process into practice. And it’s this creative problem solving that our corporations are clamoring for as they seek innovative, curious, and solution based employees.

Nature also opens the door to experimentation and the scientific process. Several years ago a group of Nature preschoolers wondered if the garter snake they caught could swim. The teachers helped them formulate their questions, devise an experiment to test their ideas, and then evaluate the results. Those students, now in 5th grade, still remember the results of their experiment (spoiler alert – they can swim!), because it was relevant to them and they were fully engaged throughout the process. Nature is the perfect learning lab with a million questions just waiting to be asked.

How can you engage children in Nature-based STEM?

EDUCATORS:

PARENTS:

  • Find a natural space where your kids can play and give them the space and time to do it. CNC’s The Woods Nature Play Area is the perfect place to do this!
  • Spend time outside as a family and let your kids take the lead. Let them decide where to hike, when to stop, what to build, and what questions to ask. Feel free to point cool things out, but let them wonder and explore and see where it leads. 
  • Attend a program designed for children that will pique their interest, and then follow up with other activities, books, and experiments. Check out CNC’s calendar for Families in Nature, Story Hour, or Live Animal programs. https://chippewanaturecenter.doubleknot.com/event/calendar/2941

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