With this comprehensive guide, you will learn how to create a fantastic seasonal nature table that will set your kids’ curiosity on fire! At the bottom of this post, you will also find a wonderful set of classification printables that you can download completely FREE. These nature printables are perfect for helping kids hone their observational skills and dive deeper into their nature table explorations.
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How to Create A Nature Table
As teachers and parents, we’ve read the studies. We know that fostering a deep connection with nature is a great way to help our kids develop crucial academic and social-emotional skills. But, sometimes it’s too hot. It’s too cold. It’s too wet. Sound familiar?
While there is absolute value in venturing outside for “bad-weather” excursions, some days we just don’t feel like weathering the storm. Thankfully nature tables are a great way to bring the outdoors in!
What is a Nature Table & Why Should I have One?
A nature table is a space that features a collection of nature items and exploration tools. These can include any items you might find on a nature walk, or at the beach, or anywhere really. The exploration tools can include things like a magnifying glass, tweezers, sketching supplies, and more.
Nature tables encourage kids to observe and explore, which fosters not only a deeper connection with nature, but crucial science and reasoning skills that will be used throughout their lives.
Setting up Your Nature Table
Let’s get real. Whether at home or in the classroom, not everyone has an entire empty table just waiting to be filled with a bunch of random sticks and flowers. Most of us can only dream of having that kind of space.
Compartment trays or serving trays are a great storage solution that can keep your nature items organized and tucked away when not in use. Simply place the tray on any available table when it’s time to explore, then place it back on the shelf when you’re finished. This method works great for us.
Items to Include in Your Nature Table
The best way to find items for your nature table or tray is to spend time in nature. Take frequent nature walks and allow your kids to keep (at least some of) the natural treasures they find along the way.
These free outdoor finds are exactly what you need to create an inviting and sensory-filled nature table. This is also a great way to keep your nature tray fresh and exciting because you can update some of the old tired items with new ones, each time you venture into nature.
Below you will find a list of basic supplies and filler items listed by season. All of these ideas are completely optional. You may even have to experiment a little to find the set up that is most interesting and engaging for your child.
Tools of the Trade
- water droppers (we have these)
- magnifying glass
- dry bristle brush
- nature books
- sketch book
- test tubes
Spring and Summer Nature Objects
- edible wild mushrooms
- whole or sliced veggies
- whole or sliced fruit
- seasonal flowers
- immature fruit
Fall Nature Objects
- leaves in a variety of fall colors
- dried Indian corn
- seasonal flowers
- corn husk doll
- corn husks
Winter Nature Objects
- pine needles and small branches
- winter bird feathers
- evergreen leaves
Nature Objects for Any Season
- live animals/insects kept in an appropriate indoor habitat
- natural fibers (alpaca fleece, cotton, dog hair, yarn etc.)
- smelling jars with ground spices, fragrant flowers, etc.
- non-poisonous dried seed pods
- live house plants
- animal pelts
- wood slices
- natural clay
- snake skins
- pine cones
- nut shells
Be sure that all items you include in the nature table are safe for children to handle, especially since kids tend to put things in their mouths. If you find something outside and you aren’t 100% sure that it is non-toxic and/or safe, please do NOT include it in you nature table.
Even plants with editable fruits can have poison hidden throughout it’s non-edible parts. For example, the stems and leaves of all apple tree varieties are toxic to humans.
Always make sure kids avoid putting their hands in their mouths during the play/exploration session and wash their hands promptly when finished.
Contact your local agricultural extension for more information about identifying safe plants, animals, fungi and more! You can also download various apps for your smart phone or purchase a field guide for additional assistance.
Printable Classification Mats for Your Nature Table
- printer paper or card stock
- laminator or write and wipe pockets, optional
- Printable Classification Mats, below
How to Incorporate the Printables into Your Nature Table
Because nature items are often covered in dirt, I do recommend laminating the classification sheets or using the write and wipe pockets to protect them. We didn’t for the photos, due to glare.
After the pages are printed and laminated, simply include them as a resource on your nature table. These sheets should be looked at as a fun tool, not as a chore to be forced on the kids. Make them available, and the kids can use them as they please. Although different fonts are used to provide a visual representation of each category, younger learners may still need a little help to get started.
Science Skills – Both the nature table and the classification printables will help kids develop basic science skills such as observing closely, classifying, and recording observations.
Fine Motor Skills – Manipulating the nature items and exploration tools can help hone crucial fine motor skills.
Adapting for Special Needs
Muscle Tone – Kids with grasping difficulties can use a handled kitchen measuring cup (dry) to hold smaller nature items.
Sensory Needs – Nature has a wide variety of textures, many of which may be off-putting to kids with sensory needs. Be patient with kids in these situations by providing respectful encouragement.