by Sarah Benton Feitlinger – Outdoor STEM activities for kids are all around us and sometimes easier than you ever thought. Getting outside in nature is always a learning experience in one way or another. There are the obvious links to learning like the biology and ecology of flora and fauna, geology and geography. However, you may not have ever considered that outdoor STEM activities for kids are a great way to incorporate physics, engineering, math, and even technology into your outdoor adventures.
Below are 26 excellent outdoor STEM activities for kids that engage them in crucial educational disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). You can also view our STEM projects guide which includes 20 more engaging, outdoor STEM activities. Try one out next time you and the kids venture into nature.
Engineering Outdoor STEM Activities: Build a Nature Sculpture
When children design and build structures, they are using the same process an engineer does: identify a problem/challenge, design a solution, test the solution, and finally redesign as necessary. Fun engineering STEM projects provide challenges using natural items can be done just about anywhere in the outdoors.
Building nature sculptures is one of many great outdoor STEM activities to get kid’s creative juices flowing. Wherever you find yourself outside you will have just what you need to build some clever and aesthetically pleasing artwork.
Just remember that sticks, leaves, rocks, etc. are parts of natural ecosystems and habitats as you collect art supplies, so you may want to return them to where you found them when finished. Challenge kids to use natural materials to meet specific building criteria. Try these engineering challenges:
- Design and build a sculpture that can hold water
- Design and build a sculpture made of round rocks, stacked at least 4 rocks high
- Design and build a woven sculpture
- Design and build a sculpture that is an inverted pyramid- where the small pieces are on the bottom and the large ones are on the top!
- Design and build a sculpture made of leaves.
- Design and build a wall either of sticks or rocks that is sturdy enough for you to sit on.
- Design and build a tower made of sticks that can hold a rock the size of your fist on top.
- Design and build a sturdy log cabin structure.
Engineering Outdoor STEM activities: Harness the Power of the Sun!
Where would we be without the sun? It warms the planet and lights our way. Did you know you can cook with the sun? In many parts of the globe, solar cooking is a vital and sustainable option.
You can turn solar cooking into a variety of outdoor STEM activities that feature engineering design challenges for kids. The most important rule for this activity is: DO NOT look up how to build a solar oven on the internet! Kids will have more fun and really put their thinking caps on if they are challenged to build an oven on their own.
Here are some potential supplies you will want to gather before you start to build:
- Aluminum foil
- White office paper
- Packing peanuts
- Black construction paper
- Plastic Wrap
For safety reasons, you might want to ban the use of glass, magnifying glasses, and sheet metal. Have kids consider ideas like insulation and reflection. What might they use to hold in heat? After the oven is built, test it out. Place the oven out in a sunny spot and you can try to make nachos, s’mores, or even heat a hot dog!
Math Outdoor STEM Activities: Golden Ratio Scavenger Hunt
Many math concepts can be explored through nature STEM projects, in a fun and engaging way. Whether your kids find math in school easy or challenging, they will enjoy these new ways to use their math skills!
The “Golden Ratio” is a concept familiar to mathematicians, but also to those who study patterns in nature. Regardless of their age, kids can go on a math-inspired outdoor scavenger hunt to find these special patterns and shapes in flowers, pine cones, seashells and more.
Mathematically, the Golden Ratio is expressed as: a/b = (a+b)/a. Although this may sound complicated, this applies to anything in the shape of a pentagram, pentagon or star. Go on a scavenger hunt to find flowers, leaves or other structures in these shapes.
Math Outdoor STEM Activities: Nature Fractal Sun-catcher
Beautiful mathematical patterns called fractals can also be found throughout the natural world. Fractals are never-ending patterns that repeat themselves over and over. These gorgeous patterns are found in fern fronds, frost, lightning, tree branches, vegetables like cauliflower and even the rings of the planets.
Kids can find these patterns in nature and then create suncatchers to bring back indoors.
You’ll need the following supplies to create fractal suncatchers:
- Tracing paper
- Colored pencils or markers
- Dark colored cardstock
- Digital camera or device to snap photos
Head outside to find a fractal pattern. Once you have found what you are looking for, sketch the pattern on tracing paper, or snap a photo. If you use photos, you can print and then trace the pattern onto tracing paper later.
Add interest to your design by rotating it and drawing the pattern again, only this time sideways, or in a different color. Once the design is complete on the tracing paper, cut out a frame from dark paper and tape it around your design. Stick it on the window so that the light can shine through!
Science Outdoor STEM Activities: Construct a Butterfly Feeder
You’ll no doubt run into plants and animals wherever you go in nature. Here are some outdoor STEM activities to add a little extra oomph to your outside observations. Build a butterfly feeder and observe who comes to visit with engineering and butterfly science STEM projects like this one.
You’ll need the following materials to complete this project:
- canning jar (mason jar with lid)
- colorful stickers or ribbon
- sugar solution
Use the hammer and nail to poke a hole through the metal lid of the canning jar. Cut a strip from the sponge and carefully feed it through the hole. You may find a pair of tweezers helpful. It should be a tight fit.
Decorate the jar in bright colors to attract butterflies. Reds are an excellent choice. Tie the string around the jar in order to make a hanger. Your jar will hang upside down when it is finished, so be sure to keep this in mind when you create the hanger.
Mix a sugar water solution of 9-parts water, 1-part sugar. Pour it into the jar. Screw the lid on tightly and turn upside down. The jar should not leak, but you may see the sponge begin to drip. Hang the feeder in an area where you’d like to attract butterflies. Observe to see who visits!
Looking specifically for more experiments like this? Check out our larger list of 50 science experiments for kids here!
Technology Outdoor STEM Activities: Create a Yard Map
Perhaps you have always wanted your kids to grow a better understanding of the types of plants they see when out in the yard or on a hike, but are not too confident in your own identification skills. Yard mapping STEM projects are a great way to use free plant identification apps to map out the species in your yard, local park, or other location. A great way to learn plant identification as a family!
You’ll need the following materials to complete this project:
- Device to run the plant identification apps (i.e. smart phone or tablet)
- Free Plant Identification App (try: GardenAnswers, IdentifyTree Lite, TreeBook, Leafsnap, Pl@ntNet, and Google Goggles)
- Colored pencils
- Kid-friendly plant field guide
Learning to use a plant field guide is an important, yet sometimes frustrating skill to learn. In this project, one of many extremely valuable outdoor STEM activities, kids can utilize technology to get started, and then double check their work using a traditional field guide.
Choose an outdoor area that you would like to map. Your yard, local park or nature trail are excellent choices. Use the apps for phones or tablets indicated in the supply list to help identify the species of plants in the area. Double check your findings with a traditional plant field guide if you have one.
Make notebook entries about the plants you find. Kids might even want to carefully collect a leaf sample and tape it into their notebook. Once you have identified several plant species, create a map that indicates where you found them. Include a key to the map. If you have older children, you may even want to challenge them to draw their map to scale!
Sarah Benton Feitlinger is a science educator with over a decade of experience teaching in museums, nature centers and the science classroom. She now shares her passion for teaching science on her blog, Share it! Science. She loves exploring the outdoors with her family in rural New England.