Sensory activities are a great way to enhance learning by introducing elements of play, discovery, and creativity into the classroom. Explore the world outside or bring the outside in with these nature-based sensory activities.
You’ll find something for every discipline, from math to science to art. Continue reading to the very end to learn how to plan activities that meet the sensory needs of all students, including those with special or diverse needs.
If you plan to try some of these nature-based sensory activities, consider using the following activities found in PLT’s Trees & Me: Activities for Exploring Nature with Young Children to help young learners ages 1-6 explore nature using their senses.
Activity 1: The Shape of Things — Children search for the shapes and colors that define both our natural and built environments.
Activity 2: Sounds Around — Children explore the sounds of nature and imitate them using their own voices and instruments that they make together.
Activity 3: Tree Textures — Children explore trees and their parts using the sense of touch.
Activity 4: Follow Your Nose — Children explore trees and tree parts using their senses of smell and taste.
Remember to look at the Group Experiences for each activity for ideas on how to get students exploring their senses through music, movement, and other activities that encourage conversation and interaction.
Adapting Activities for Students With Different Sensory Needs
There are ways for all children to enjoy nature, including students with special needs. Consider these tips to make these activities even more inclusive for every student:
- Use sound-reducing headphones for activities that may be loud for kids sensitive to sound.
- Adapt activities as needed. Some students may need more time or additional modeling to complete activities. Some may benefit from fewer steps. The objective is learning at each student’s level.
- Reward students with preferred sensory activities if they participated in a challenging activity. The reward could be time spent at a sensory wall or with a favorite classroom item.
- Consider scaffolding ahead of activities that may prove challenging for students with sensory needs. Enlist the help of occupational therapists or speech-language pathologists at your school site if available.
- Maintain a safe, inclusive space! Create opportunities for creative groupings. Students with classroom aides or paraprofessionals should be integrated with other student-led groups rather than separated.
Nature-Based Sensory Activities
Consider pairing these nature-based sensory ideas with these activities from PLT’s Explore Your Environment: K-8 Activity Guide to engage students in exploring their environment and adapt activities for different learners with differing abilities:
Peppermint Beetle — Students explore their sense of smell and discover why smell is important to animals, including beetles and humans.
The Closer You Look — though students may be very familiar with trees, they may not have thought much about the actual structure of a tree. In this activity, your students will go explore the sensations of sight and touch while taking a closer look at trees and their parts.
Make the forest sing with activities that bring classroom instruments and other materials outside for a nature concert. Create your own water xylophone that doubles as a STEM experiment and teaching tool about how water levels change sounds and pitch. Decorate a tree with small bells and cymbals, or tie the same to walking sticks that jingle when they are shaken. Get creative with ways to use nature as your instrument.
Exploratory Nature Walk
Take the kids on a scavenger hunt for different textures. Show them examples of items they may find that are rough, smooth, hard, soft, even spikey before sending them out to find some on their own. Differentiate between textures and shapes, as the concept can get confusing for younger children. The activity can turn into a fun sorting activity once you’re back in the classroom.
Be sure to keep safety in mind when exploring by touch outside. Check areas for poison oak or ivy, thorns, or anything that could scratch, prick, poke, or cause harm to students.
Tactile walls aren’t only great for sensory rooms as a tool for sensory stimulation. They’re also a great way to display items found on nature walks for continued learning in the classroom! Use them for lessons on textures and senses and to create a space where touch and physical exploration is encouraged. Leave the wall open during free-play for students to participate at their leisure.
Take the students on a nature walk and record the different sounds you hear. Play the sounds back in the classroom and see if they can identify the birds, crickets, crunchy leaves, and babbling creeks from your casual afternoon field trip. It can also serve as background noise for in-class meditation activities or periods of transition throughout the day.
Repurpose empty herb bottles or other plastic jars as smelling bottles. Put different objects in each jar, but make sure the students can’t see what’s inside. Tree bark, fresh and dry leaves, cut grass, and a variety of flowers would all work quite well. Use whatever can be found in their immediate environment. Ask the students what they smell using descriptive words. This is a great team activity if you’re working with a larger group.
Flower Petal Painting
Blend lessons on color, texture, and shapes with art in a flower petal painting activity. Use flowers that are readily available outside your classroom. (This makes an excellent springtime or Mother’s Day activity when flowers are more likely to be in full bloom.) Urge your students to get creative with patterns and color combinations to make art prints that are truly unique.
Nature Color Wheel
Create color wheels using paint samples and clothespins and have students match things they find outside to their color wheels. Make sure to choose colors that are represented in your environment, especially if you’re working with a season that may not be as colorful. A fun twist is returning to the project again when the seasons change. See if the kids can find examples of items they found from one season to the next.
Mirrors and reflective surfaces are already a great way to teach kids about self-awareness, multi-step directions, recognizing feelings, and light and reflections. Bring nature into it by placing a variety of items found in nature on sturdy, unbreakable reflective surfaces. Explore ideas like symmetry and differences with color and light with natural items.
Create sensory bags using leaves and other natural materials like wildflowers that won’t poke holds through the sealed plastic bags. For your youngest set, fill them yourself, adding biodegradable glitter or larger chunks of confetti to add color to their sensory experience. Older students may want to create their own with items they’ve found themselves, or play an “I Spy”-style game with what they see inside.
Create sensory bins that inspire imaginative play, turn-taking skills, and motor development. Limiting play to bins keeps classroom spaces tidy, too, especially if you add dirt, water, or grass to these nature bins. Sensory bins are a great way to introduce little ones to the changing seasons, too. A nature sensory bin in the spring will likely look—and feel!—quite a bit different than a winter bin.
Tap into students’ sensory skills and introduce them to basic counting and sorting concepts with these modified sensory bags. If the focus is on nature, substitute the frozen peas for seeds, small rocks, or any other objects found in their immediate environment. Mix them up for sensory sorting activities. You can even use small acorns with younger students just learning these concepts, as long as they don’t poke holes through your bags.
Barefoot Sensory Walk
Large-scale sensory walks may require some additional buy-in from school staff, but you can create mobile walks using plastic bins or tubs. Bring them outside on a sunny day for a recess activity that explores your students’ sense of touch. Traditional sensory bin materials include shaving cream, colored water, or water beads. Ditch the disposable plastic products often found in sensory bins and bump up the connection to nature with grass or turf, pebbles, sand, and wooden blocks. Have towels on hand if you’re working with water!
Many children are natural collectors. Tap into that instinct with these sensory bottles filled with items they find out in their natural environment. This can also be a good sorting activity before the leaves, rocks, sticks, and other items make their way inside the bottles. Little ones can use the finished project as a sensory tool, but older students can create mini-biomes inside to go with their science units.
Playdough Nature Art
Most classrooms have a well-stocked pantry of playdough on hand, even making their own from time to time. Inspire students to add elements of nature to their play with playdough nature art. Create leaf imprints, nature nests, or simply shape the playdough into things found in their natural environments.
Nature is the perfect classroom helper. Expose your students to activities that will get them excited about being outside, and learning more about their environment.
Check out our Pinterest page for even more ideas for fun activities for young learners.
Use PLT’s Pocket Guide: Seeds to Trees to introduce young students to nature by encouraging exploration and discovery through the lens of trees and forests using their senses. Activities include:
Shape Hike — This is like a game of “I Spy” with a mission. Children explore how natural objects, such as leaves, rocks, or acorns, have different shapes.
Nature Sounds — By listening carefully, a whole new world of sounds is revealed.
Tree Parts — Through their sense of touch, children explore different parts of a tree.
Trees in Our Lives Children — consider the many products from trees around them, from the places they live to toys to apples.