Young children love to explore nature, but have you ever really explored and learned through play with a nature table? We all love to learn about the world around us, and a nature table is one way to foster that appreciation! Today, we’re taking the concept of a nature table a bit further and dissecting the skill development that you can also foster with a nature space: fine motor skills, object manipulation, tool use, self-regulation, executive functioning skills, empathy, and more!
Be sure to check out our nature adventure for a starting point.
What is a Nature Table?
The idea of a nature table is to provide children with a physical connection to the natural world around them and it provides a curated space that represents the local surroundings and seasons. It essentially represents the diversity of life that exists in the local environment and gives hands-on interaction to the natural landscape.
A nature table can be an indoor activity or an outdoor activity.
Essentially, a nature table is a play space that allows children (and adults, any age can explore a nature space, really) to explore nature using primarily their senses of sight, touch.
- A nature table can be as simple as a picnic table loaded with pinecones, acorns, leaves, twigs, and pebbles!
- Other spaces can include a large bin and small creatures like potato bugs, caterpillars, or toads and a makeshift environment with leaves and grass (followed by release of the creatures back into the wild.
- Or, a nature space can be brought indoors to explore and learn through play.
Through this nature examination, children can foster a love for their environment, as well as various skills:
Appreciation for nature: The table can help a child explore what is naturally in their surroundings and it can give them the opportunity to learn respect and admiration for what is found in their local environment.
Sensory Exploration: They utilize all their senses while engaging with the elements on the table making it a true sensory experience ideal for the therapeutic setting. Nature items bring easy engagement while providing a natural sensory experience while targeting considerations such as tactile discrimination or other aspects of sensory touch.
Beyond the tactile and other sensory inputs that exploring nature up close allows, we know that the research tells us outdoor sensory play has many benefits.
Fine Motor Skill Work: Exploring items from nature is a natural and motivating way to foster fine motor dexterity needed to hold and explore items from nature. Think about the poking, prodding, and manipulation skills needed to manipulate nature objects and materials.
If you add in tools such as tweezers, a magnifying glass, microscopes, scissors, or other items, the motor skills compound.
Social Emotional Skills: This might not be an obvious benefit of playing at a sensory nature space, but if you think about the social and emotional connections, they are huge benefits of nature play! Playing with and exploring nature has calming and self-regulating aspects and this can be monumental when it comes to interacting with others.
Additionally, exploring nature offers opportunity to interact in objects from the world around us, giving a chance to develop empathy and consideration for our environment.
Despite the obvious fun that a nature table brings while exploring the elements, it is a wonderful way for children to begin finding a greater connection to the world they live in and to the environment that surrounds them.
How Do You Create a Nature Table?
As an occupational therapy practitioner, think about a nature similarly to a sensory bin. How many different elements can you add without being overwhelming to the child. If you do not have a free table- top, its ok, just use a tray, a box, a plastic bin, or even a blanket or rubber mats on the floor!
- This sticks, sand, and stones sensory bin is one idea. We used a water table filled with various items to explore.
- Another idea is to create a toddler or baby-friendly version, using items to manipulate like our felt leaves in this autumn sensory table for babies.
- This Fall water table added leaves, acorns, and pinecones to water for more exploration.
- And, we loved to explore crystals and sand in our crystals nature table.
- You could even add a dandelion activity or other weeds to a nature sensory table or nature bin.
Basically, a nature table offers a space to learn and explore nature. It is really that easy!
Find items to put on a Nature Table
Want to take a fieldtrip into nature? Summer is the perfect time to take a nature walk and visit some trails in your area! Do not have a trail nearby? That’s ok try finding a park instead. Just simply get outdoors and start a seek and find activity with kiddos. Go outside and find all the different objects in nature that could help build a nature table for hands-on exploration.
You can even grab a nature scavenger hunt (inside the Member’s Club for Level 2 members) to help guide you in your hunt.
But keep in mind that ANY change in seasons is always a great time to refresh a nature table with new explorative elements.
Nature Table Tips
- Nature tables can come in many different forms, but the primary thing to keep in mind is not to overcrowd the table as this creates visual clutter making it visually overwhelming for some children.
- Place items with good separation and variation.
- As you feel the need to add items once first presenting the table, replace old items with new ones which will keep the table remaining fresh and open for an inviting appeal to children. It is an invitation to play so to speak.
What Items Do You Include on a Nature Table?
What exactly can you put on a nature table for exploration? If you are like many people building a table with a theme is always fun, but you do not have to do that just go outside and grab what you see to add to the table.
Here are some fun ideas:
- Tree bark
- Empty birds’ nests
- Pine needles
- Branches or twigs
- Snail shells
- Flower petals
- Fruit/veggies (be aware of any poisonous fillings that a fruit or veggie might have)
- Live insects in bug catchers or vented jars
Nature tables are a great way to not only explore things with use of the senses, but toss in a few fine motor tools and you’ve provided a fun way to build important hand skills too!
Nature Table Supplies
The previous was a brief list of natural items you can present on a nature table, but let’s take a look at basic supplies and filler items that you can add with your OT eye that really looks at tools of the trade for our profession:
- Water droppers
- Tweezers or tongs for sorting or counting
- Scissors for cutting petals or cutting leaves
- Recycled cardboard tubes to create a memory game or just for exploration
- Paint brushes for painting
- Magnifying glass to look more closely
- Recycled egg cartons or ice cube trays for sorting or creating a nature treasure box
- Paper with pencils and crayons for tracing, drawing, writing, or rubbing
- Themed craft or prop items (fake plants, toy accessories, etc.)
- Clips for clipping or picking up items
- Rubber bands for wrapping around items
- Sticky tape or glue for table creations in play
- Cardboard for nature pictures or drawing
- Essential oils and nature sounds or music to enhance the experience
- Sticky contact paper for collecting nature
- Plastic needle and string for pattern threading
- Hoops or frames for weaving with yarn or string
- Containers with different ways to open and close
- Twist ties and baggies and plastic baggies for storage
- Play dough or clay for creating fun impressions or building of animals, etc.
- Spoons, scoopers, spatulas for creative use
How Do You Extend the Use of the Nature Table?
Once items begin to age or it becomes time to change out the table with new elements, consider allowing children to be creative and use some of the items to make fun creations that they can take home or even display in the classroom or therapy clinic. Look at some of these fun and creative ideas:
- Nature collages or even sensory boards
- Stick letters for letter formation practice
- Nature weaving frames or cardboard critters
- Leaf auditory processing activities
- Leaf crafts and activities
- Leaf rubbing art
- Nature wands
- Nature self-portraits
- Nature mandalas or dioramas
- Mobiles or suncatchers
- Rock paintings or other rock activities
- Leaf critters
- Nature names
- Rock letters
- Nature puzzles
- Clay rocks
- Leaf lines for pre-writing skills
- Make a calming nature sensory bottle using items from the sensory table.
These provide kiddos not only a tangible creative product that can be gratifying for them to complete and call their own, but the creations provide for even further skill development such as hand skills, tool use, visual skills, and problem-solving.
Following play at the nature table or prior to engagement at the nature table or even both, consider having kiddos walk the fun forest sensory path that provides the opportunity for them to perform gross motor, deep breathing, and crossing midline activities with a fall nature-type theme.
A Final Note About Creating a Nature Table
As a special note or warning, please consider items that may be unsafe for any child to handle or to play with during table exploration. Keep in mind that some items may have pieces that could break off making them unsafe for little ones or even pets. Some items do look like edible food, but they can be dangerous if consumed, please consider this when creating a nature table for kiddos who put things in their mouths. Also, keep an eye out for rotting items like gourds, pumpkins, berries, and more. Always have children wash their hands following engagement at the table and it is always best to provide adult supervision while children are interacting with the items on the table to be very aware of what each child is doing.
Regina Parsons-Allen is a school-based certified occupational therapy assistant. She has a pediatrics practice area of emphasis from the NBCOT. She graduated from the OTA program at Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute in Hudson, North Carolina with an A.A.S degree in occupational therapy assistant. She has been practicing occupational therapy in the same school district for 20 years. She loves her children, husband, OT, working with children and teaching Sunday school. She is passionate about engaging, empowering, and enabling children to reach their maximum potential in ALL of their occupations as well assuring them that God loves them!