Outdoor sensory activities are a great way for kids to interact with nature while engaging all of their senses, benefiting their health and development.
Whether or not you already realize it, your kids are likely already doing sensory play each time they go in nature, even if you don’t specifically label it as such. They’re smelling flowers, playing in sand, jumping over logs, riding bikes, listening to the wind and spotting birds in the trees. All of these can be deemed outdoor sensory activities, and all of them are beneficial! (So much more than “just play”.) So what is sensory play, and why is it important?
What is sensory play?
Sensory play can be described as play that engages and stimulates your senses.
It activates the five most well-known senses…
- visual (sight)
- olfactory (smell)
- tactile (touch)
- auditory (hearing)
- gustatory (taste)
…as well as two lesser known (but no less important) senses:
- proprioceptive (body awareness)
- vestibular (balance)
What are the benefits of outdoor sensory activities?
Sensory play has a great number of benefits for kids, from gross motor skills to mindfulness, playing an important role in a child’s health and development. It does all of the following:
- helps build language skills
- helps build social skills
- helps build cognitive skills
- has a calming effect, can help develop mindfulness skills
- helps build fine motor skills
- helps build gross motor skills
- helps children learn about and make sense of their environment
(more information here)
How do we encourage outdoor sensory activities?
Nature is rich in sensory input, and spending time outdoors naturally engages a child’s senses without any effort.
You’ll likely find that many of these sensory activities are things your child already enjoys, without setting out to do “sensory activities”. Sensory play can be simple, using things and activities you already have and do. All the materials you need (if any at all) can be found outside with little or no effort.
Many of you have heard about “sensory play” in relation to sensory bins, so you can just consider the great outdoors as one enormous sensory bin!
Outdoor Sensory Activity Suggestions
Activities for visual processing (sight)
- go on a color walk: On your next walk in nature, look for all the colors of the rainbow.
- look for signs of insect life: Walk around your backyard, local park or nearby trail. Gently lift up (then replace) sticks, rocks, dry leaves, fallen branches. Do you see any insects? (hint: try cool, damp places)
- play “I spy”: Play the traditional “I spy” game with colors (“I spy something that is yellow”), shapes (“I spy something that is round”), textures (“I spy something that is fuzzy”), sizes (“I spy something that is smaller than my head”), or a combination of all four!
- do a scavenger hunt: The options for scavenger hunts are endless, but they all encourage kids to pay more attention to what is around them, helping to develop their observational skills. I have a variety of scavenger hunts available, all of which bring an extra sense of adventure to your nature walk!
- identify trees: Identify trees by their shape and venation of their leaves, by their bark, or by their seeds or nuts. (Check out our Autumn Leaf Identification Cards for a simple way to start!)
- look for shapes in nature: Look for shapes in nature and be amazed at the connections your kids can make.
- look for symmetry in nature: Despite the wildness and perfect imperfection of nature, it’s incredible how many things have symmetry. An acorn, a leaf, a blade of grass, a flower, an insect, a shell. Where will you find symmetry next?
Activities for auditory processing (hearing)
- sit spot and listen: Find a sit spot in nature. Close your eyes and see how many different sounds you can identify. The wind? Birds? Insects? Frogs? Leaves rustling?
- go on a sound hunt: Go on a nature walk and make regular pauses. Each time you stop, listen to the different sounds around you and see how many you can identify.
- draw a sound map: From your sit spot, listen to all the sounds around you and map them out on a page. Place yourself at the center of the page and mark the location of each sound. Use big letters for loud sounds, small letters for faint sounds.
- make a wind chime: Using twine, a stick, and loose parts from nature (shells, rocks, nuts, sticks), make a wind “chime”.
- blow a grass trumpet: Put a piece of long grass between your thumbs and blow. Can you make a trumpet sound?
- listen to “surface sounds”: Listen to the sounds you make as you walk on different surfaces: grass, dirt, mud, water, gravel, woodchips, pavement, forest floor. Which surface was the quietest? The noisiest?
- make a sound tube: Fill an empty paper towel tube (or similar recyclable material) with various loose parts of varying sizes and density: sticks, pinecones, nuts, rocks, finishing with sand, small pebbles or dry dirt. What happens when you turn it over? Does everything fall to the bottom at once?
- turn paper cups into maracas: Fill paper cups with small loose parts from nature: acorns, rocks, etc. Place another empty cup on top and tape together the seam. Sing a song, do a little dance, and shake your maracas to the beat!
Activities for tactile input (touch)
- go on a texture hunt: Look for (and touch) different textures in nature. Bumpy, smooth, fuzzy, rough, prickly, etc. Check out the Nature’s Textures Scavenger Hunt printable in our Sensory Pack!
- go on a barefoot walk: Walk barefoot on a variety of surfaces: grass, dirt, mud, water, gravel, woodchips, etc. How do they feel? Which one do you like the most?
- play in the dirt: Using your bare hands, a trowel or a stick, play in the dirt. Dig for worms or pretend to plant a garden.
- play in the mud: Dig around, squish the mud between your fingers and toes, make and decorate mud pies. Don’t be afraid to get dirty! (Mud washes off!)
- play in the sand: Bury your toys, then dig them out again. Explore the differences between dry sand, damp sand, and wet sand. How do they behave?
- play in the water: Go to a body of water (ocean, lake, stream, puddle, pond) and get wet! Jump in a puddle, jump in a wave, jump across a creek. Feel the temperature of the water. How does it compare to the temperature of the air?
- have a leaf party: In the fall or winter, gather dry leaves and crush them into “confetti”.
- plant a garden: Get involved in gardening! Turn over the soil, poke holes for seeds, dig holes for seedlings, prune your plants, take out weeds. Get some dirt under your fingernails!
- excavate in ice: Freeze items into blocks of ice, then carefully chip away to get to them. Try melting the ice with your hands, or put it in the sun and see how long it takes to melt.
- water sponge tag: On a hot day, play a more eco-friendly (and sensory-rich) alternative to a water balloon fight with Sponge Tag. Soak sponges in water and (gently) launch them at each other. Have a source of water nearby to re-charge, and use them over and over again.
Activities for olfactory input (smell)
- play a smelling game: Choose a few items from nature and try to identify them by their smell. Working with a friend or family member, close your eyes ask them to put one of the items near your nose. Take a big sniff (or more) and see if you can figure out what it is by its scent. Choose items that might have recognizable scents: pine needles, flowers, etc.
- smell a tree: Find the parts of a tree that have the strongest (or best) smell: the bark? the leaves or needles? the branches? What else might have a smell?
- test out flowers’ perfume: Smell different flowers to see which ones have the strongest (or best) scent.
- make an herb stop: Plant strong-smelling herbs in your garden touch them each time you pass by. Who doesn’t love the smell of thyme, rosemary or lavender when you rub it between your fingers?
- go on a scent hunt: On your next nature walk, see how many different scents you can find. Consider some of the following:
- mustiness of dirt
- sweetness of a flower
- something stinky
- something that smells fresh
- something that smells like the forest
Activities for gustatory input (taste)
- go to a pick-your-own farm: Find a local farm that does pick-your own and enjoy a harvest of berries, peas, beans, peaches, apples, etc.
- grow a vegetable garden and enjoy the spoils: Start with the planning and enjoy watching them grow! Our Garden Planner is a great way to get started!
- forage for edible goodies: With input and approval from a knowledgeable adult, try different edible berries, flowers and plants (double-check with them before tasting).
- make pine needle tea: Steep needles from an Eastern white pine and make tea! This should only be done if you’re 100% certain that you have chosen the right tree, as the needles from some evergreens are toxic to humans. If you want the experience but haven’t yet mastered tree identification, you can purchase the pine needles commercially.
- grow and taste edible flowers: Add edible flowers to your kitchen garden! Nasturtiums are a great option, as they also help draw harmful insects away from other crops. Their spicy flavor is unexpected!
- take your snack outside: Have snack time outside for a few more minutes of fresh air!
Activities for proprioceptive input (body positioning)
Proprioception is defined as “the perception or awareness of the position and movement of the body” (Oxford Languages).
As explained by the Cleveland Clinic, “Our proprioception sense refers to awareness of one’s body. It helps us know where body parts are relative to one another and tells us how much force we need to exert when holding, pushing, pulling or lifting objects”.
Activities that engage the proprioception include:
- climbing: Climb a tree, a ladder, or a rock wall. (Have a spotter ready when appropriate.)
- carrying: Carry big rocks, large sticks, or buckets of sand.
- pushing: Push a wheelbarrow, or a large boulder of snow.
- climbing over: Climb over a boulder or a log.
- walking on all fours: Walking like a crab or another favorite animal.
- throwing/catching: Practice throwing and catching a ball. In the winter, do target practice with snowballs and a tree or a wall.
- shoveling: Shovel sand, snow, dirt, or mud.
- riding: Ride a bike, a tricycle or a scooter.
- jumping: Jump in or over a puddle.
- crawling: Crawl into a lean-to or tent. Crawl under a log.
- rolling: Roll a log or large rock across the ground.
- stomping: Stomp through mud, water or snow.
Activities for vestibular input (balance)
The vestibular sense also known as our movement or balance sense.
Movements that engage this sense and involve balance include rolling around, swinging, jumping and hanging.
Outdoor sensory activities that promote a sense of balance include:
- rolling: Roll down a grassy hill (one that is clear of rocks). Do a somersault or cartwheel in the grass.
- skipping: Skip around your yard or down a trail. It’s a great way to express our joy of being outside!)
- swinging: Swing from a swing or a rope.
- riding: Ride a bike, a tricycle or a scooter.
- jumping: Jump on one foot while playing hopscotch. Cross a creek by jumping from one rock to another.
- balancing: Balance on a log, walk from one end to the other. See the difference it makes to hold your hands close to your body vs. holding them outstretched to the side.
- sliding: Go down a slide or a snowy hill.
- hanging: Hang upside down from a branch or a swing.
After reading this long list of suggestions, did you realize just how many outdoor sensory activities you’re already doing? Use this list as a basis for outdoor activities in general or consider choosing to focus on one sense, having a theme for the day. (Today, we’ll focus on our sense of smell!)
Remember too that sensory play can be done just outside your door; you don’t have to go deep into the wilderness to enjoy all of these activities.
Engage your child’s senses with these outdoor sensory activities and bring a new element to your time in nature. It’s called sensory play for a reason — it’s fun!
Don’t miss our Outdoor Sensory Pack, full of resources and scavenger hunts to help focus your sensory activities and give you even more ideas for outdoor play.
And for more outdoor activity ideas (all of which engage the senses!), check out our season-specific lists:
- Winter Outdoor Activities
- Spring Outdoor Activities
- Summer Outdoor Activities
- Fall Outdoor Activities