9 Outdoor STEM Activities That Bring Science Learning Out Into Nature

ALI Staff | Published  August 15, 2023

What is outdoor stem?

You might think STEM is all about experiments in the classroom or working with computers. But it's not just for the indoors!

STEM can be taken outside, and there are lots of outdoor or nature projects that are not as hard as you think. In fact, they can be pretty easy!

Taking STEM out of the classroom and into the outside world makes learning even more real and definitely more fun.

Being in a new environment makes learning exciting for students, ignites their curiosity, and creates memorable learning experiences.

Outdoor STEM activities and projects help students connect what they learn in the classroom to the real world.

It's also a nice change for teachers, who can show new and different things. The best part?

Outdoor STEM is not something hard or scary. It's a way to learn that fits right in with everything else you are teaching.

Various research studies have found that outdoor play, whether structured or unstructured, offers benefits to a child’s emotional state, attention span, physical fitness, imagination, and more.

Given these general benefits, it’s a natural next step for teachers to consider creating playful outdoor STEM activities that teach kids the elements of science, technology, education, and even math while satisfying their natural inquisitiveness about the world around them.

Keep reading for tips on how to make outdoor STEM work for you and your students, as well as examples of easy STEM projects and activities that you can implement in your classroom.


Students outside learning about the shapes of leaves


TIPS FOR Taking Your STEM Classroom Outdoors

With some thoughtful, intentional planning, outdoor STEM projects and experiments can increase students’ understanding of science on multiple levels. Here are some general tips about using the outdoors for science experiments and STEM activities for kids.


Planning Effective Outdoor STEM Activities

  • Select appropriate STEM projects for the outdoors: The internet seems to contain an endless number of dramatic science experiments and activities. However, many of these are just flashy demonstrations rather than projects that allow students to truly think and act like scientists and engineers. Remember that STEM learning is most effective when students have the opportunity to engage in hands-on activities that challenge their thinking.
  • Align with curriculum and educational standards: Ensure that the outdoor STEM activities and projects you select support and align to the curriculum being used in your school and classroom. A quick outside STEM activity might be an exciting hook for a later classroom lesson, or you might plan a more extensive STEM project to complement work initially done in the classroom.
  • Assessing necessary materials and resources: Consider the resources, materials, and equipment required for the planned activities, ensuring that they are available and suitable for outdoor use.


Setting Up the Outdoor STEM Environment

  • Define physical boundaries and safety considerations: When taking STEM outdoors, safety is a top priority. Teachers should establish clear physical boundaries in the space to guide students on where they should be during the activity. Additionally, they must identify and address any specific safety concerns unique to the outdoor environment, as these may differ from the safety issues typically encountered in the classroom.
  • Prepare the space for STEM activities: Create an inspiring environment that will encourage exploration and discovery. Consider the specific activities you'll be conducting and prepare the space accordingly.
  • Providing instructions and defining students' mission: Instructions should be clear and concise, providing students with guidance without stifling creativity. Then, give them the freedom to observe, collect data, and analyze their surroundings on their own.


Structuring STEM Activities and Projects

  • Plan both short-term and long-term: Include a variety of STEM activities to keep students engaged. Over time, plan a mix of short-term and longer-term projects and data-gathering activities, which might span two outdoor visits or as much as a full season or more.
  • Balance structured and unstructured activities: Consider the balance between structured lessons and unstructured exploration of STEM topics. Decide how much structure to place around these activities, and over time, provide a variety of both unstructured and structured outdoor activities.





Playtime outdoors is a great time to introduce science concepts and procedures to students and learners of all ages, but especially preschoolers and kindergartners.

Outdoor STEM activities and STEM projects done in nature can ignite the natural curiosity these young learners have about the world around them.

Natural questions students of this age ask, like “Why is the sky blue?” and “Why do some things float while other things don’t?” can easily be turned into engaging science activities outside.

Discovering science concepts through hands-on explorations in nature not only deepens a student's ability to see how science is connected to the real world but also shows how easily outdoor STEM activities can be integrated into their learning experience from a very early age.

Discovering how science is connected to the real world, which STEM is all about, is easily accomplished through hands-on activities and projects outdoors.

Further, engaging young students in intentional discourse invites them to think like scientists.

Teachers can ask open-ended questions like “What did you notice?” or “Why do you think that is?” and start learners on a path to problem-solving that will benefit them throughout their academic careers and beyond.

Many activities for students at this age can be simply structured around sharpening their observation skills and their ability to describe differences in what they notice.

For example, you may focus on the differences between sand, pebbles, garden soil, mulch, and mud.

Or you might gather differently shaped leaves and talk about the different ways to describe them and why they might have evolved to be different.

On a cloudy or windy day, you might ask the students to observe and draw different cloud shapes or find ways to measure and describe how strong the wind is (tying a ribbon to a post, letting a leaf go, and watching to see how far it is taken, improvising a sail, etc.).

Or, simply use the space outdoors for a modified number-matching game, where the learners match numerals with groups of objects you have set up in advance.






1. Nature walk

If you have access to a park or outdoor area, this is an easy and engaging nature STEM (or STEAM) activity.

Simply take learners on a walk, stopping at different locations and asking them to use their five senses to observe and describe what they experience in nature.

If feasible, bring art supplies and use the stops as a chance for students to draw some of the things they observe.

Suggest that they consider animals, plants, soil, clouds, terrain, water, and other aspects of the natural world.


2. Cloud in a Jar

Though not necessarily an outdoor activity, this cool STEM project is nature-themed and allows students to practice the scientific method.

In this science activity, water vapor condenses into water droplets that attach to particles in the air within a Mason jar, creating a visible cloud.

For younger grades, this STEM activity can be paired with reading about weather and then observing, describing, and drawing clouds of different types outside.

Older students can perform the experiment themselves and try two alternate variations as part of a unit on the water cycle and observing and recording weather patterns over time.


3. Identifying Leaf Shapes

Starting inside with a lesson on leaf parts and then venturing outdoors to identify leaf shapes, this nature STEM activity encourages students to explore and understand the variety of shapes in the environment.

Younger learners may not necessarily learn the specialized vocabulary describing different leaf shapes, although they may surprise you with their ability to memorize the names (similar to their ability to memorize different dinosaur names!).

Then take a walk outside to find vines, shrubs, trees, and other plants, and identify their leaf shapes.

Older students might take photographs or sketches and create a poster demonstrating their labeled finds.

Younger learners might start with an art project where they create a set of paper leaf shapes on popsicle sticks that they can use to compare to leaves they find outdoors.


4. Soil Science: How Moist Is That Mud?

This could be a multi-day STEM project, starting with a discussion about soil structure (what soil is made of), what lives in soil, how much water is the right amount (of course, the answer depends on what lives in it), and how to measure the amount of moisture in the soil.

Students experiment with soil moisture and how this affects what grows in it, making it a hands-on outdoor STEM activity that ties science to the real world.


5. The Sun’s Warmth

Explore the sun's effects through this outdoor STEM activity designed for lower elementary grades.

This nature STEM activity invites learners to observe the different effects of sun and shade on different natural and man-made materials and ground covers.

Additional activities that dig deeper include exposing paper cups filled with different types and colors of soil, water, and pebbles to sunlight, and observing or measuring how much heat they absorb.


6. Gone With the Wind: Seed Dispersal

As a complement to a unit or scope on how and why plants disperse their seeds, this outdoor activity can be done outside on a windy day or inside using a table fan.

Students create different types of “seeds” using paper, paper clips, and other art supplies, then observe how well they travel when released into the wind.

This project could be set up as a competition, as a controlled experiment, or even as a STEAM-style activity.

And after you’ve talked about the forces of the wind, you might want to pick a windy day to go fly kites!


7. Measure the Wind with a Hand-made Anemometer

And while we’re working with wind – elementary-age students can create their own anemometers using paper cups, straws, and a pencil.

This elementary STEM project can start inside as a controlled experiment with a fan that runs at different speeds and then move outside on different days and/or in different locations.

Students can also be challenged to convert the speed of their anemometers to miles per hour using their math and geometry skills.


8. Weather Station

This cool STEM project involves creating a weather station over several outdoor sessions.

Starting with some foundational study of weather patterns, it can even be expanded into a semester-long project for older elementary students.

Students build four simple tools to collect data on wind speed, air pressure, temperature, and precipitation, then make their own weather predictions based on the science of weather.


9. Stick Towers Challenge

A hands-on outdoor STEM activity that builds teamwork; this one is always a fan favorite.

Group your students into small teams and challenge them to build the largest tower they can using only string and sticks of different sizes.

In addition to being an engineering challenge, this activity gives them practice with math skills since they must “purchase” their materials using points, and they must measure their final tower and calculate the points they gain from each centimeter of height.


Using Nature STEM activities to Connect to the Outside World

Your ability to lead these activities may depend on your access to the outside world.

However, you don’t need to take your class to a national park to observe the clouds or measure air temperature: whether you’re in an area of outstanding natural beauty or an urban school playground – you are still surrounded by the natural world, and there will be things to pique the students’ curiosity and satisfy their inquisitiveness.

Children love any opportunity to explore nature.

So, go out and explore! 



Which STEM subjects are of interest to you?

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