Making something of nothing

3 free and easy outdoor play ideas that using what you already have (or are likely to have)

Cloud gazing

And sky watching (all ages)

Set up

Outside with a cloth on the ground and even some pillows if you are feeling fancy. Ideally in the shade of a tree out of the main play space in a bit of shade if it’s hot. Clear blue sky is perfect! Don’t wait for a cloudy day.

Anxious children benefit from this activity, and to help them participate find a location near walls or put up a barrier so they can relax and watch the clouds go by without worry that they will be stepped on.

You might need to demonstrate this one! Just make sure supervision is covered and enjoy.

Why Cloud gaze with children?

We all spend a lot of time looking at screens and looking into the mid-distance. This gives our eyes a different focal length to support eye health and as we lay still on the earth, our breathing will slow and we will (hopefully!) relax a bit, letting our wound-up nervous systems have a little break.

Looking at clouds or into the wide blue sky brings new perspectives. It is not unusual for children to offer insights into their lives and seek support from educators when they participate in this activity.

When children’s lives are super busy and they are overstimulated with media, social interactions, activities in care and without and everything else young people have to deal with, slowing down is vital, as this constant stress inhibits healthy growth and development.

I normally set this up for a week or more at a time, so children have a chance to observe, compare the sky between days and begin to predict changes, as well as get used to an activity that is still and asks for imagination. This is also wonderful in light rain, don’t be afraid to get a little wet!

Most importantly, did you know that the vagus nerve, which controls your parasympathetic nervous system and other essential functions can be activated with gentle relaxed eye movements, particularly those focusing on the far distance? Exactly like watching clouds, right!? You might like to do this at home, we definitely do. Indications of vagus nerve activation include deeper breathing and a feeling of contentment. Don’t we all want more of that!?

Potential provocations:

Ask about clouds-shapes, colours and speed. What would they see here in the dark? What can they not see? For example I wonder why I can’t see the stars when the sun is out? Does it look like it will rain/be sunny/get windy?

Links to Early Years Learning Framework (Australia’s EYLF)

In my mind this is an outcome 1 activity, as it is great for new students and quiet reserved students, linking particularly to 1.1 children feel safe secure and supported. However, it is literally connecting physically with the earth and sky (outcome 2.4) and is a sensory exploration (Outcome 4.3 and 4.4). Sky gazing can become a wonderful area 5 activity, with listening, sharing and communicating being key to exploring and belonging to the earth and to the group.

What’s next?

Consider using white wax crayons on paper to make clouds and painting over with blue watercolours, or bring some numeracy into the experience by recording temperature and clouds on a chart. There are thousands of ideas, let us know if you or the children in your care come up with better ideas!

Leaf, stone and flower mandalas

Bringing outside inside (ages 4 and up)

A personal note from Karen: When I first started in early childhood, fresh off my cert 4, I worked in a room that had so much respect and reverence for the natural world that children were stopped from picking leaves and flowers. And they really wanted to! It was such a beautiful garden. These children learnt to break the rules if they chose to continue their learning, which makes me feel so sad for them now. If only I could go back and have a word with my younger self!

My opinion now is that your entire outdoor space is a classroom for children.

Over time, as I learnt more from children and less from adults, I came to realise that children required direct sensory access to plant materials to create a connection to the natural world. Yes, sometimes that looks like ripping up and destroying, but this is one of the ways young people conduct research. Children can learn that bees need flowers, that butterflies won’t visit if we pick all their flower-food or that lemons wont ripen if we pick them green and throw them around, for the most part the garden should be an open invitation to learn!

Set up

Create a treasure hunt for children. Ask for green leaves, brown leaves, flowers, rocks and feathers. This does not need much explaining, whatever you have in your garden will work! If you don’t have an outdoor space with enough leaves, stones and other objects that is ok, you might be able ask children to bring some in from home with their parents help. And maybe bring in a few extra flowers and leaves if you can. A labelled basket, paper bag or a box will be helpful if you are not creating patterns right away

Ask children to bring their collection inside ready to create patterns using the collected treasures. You can create communally or individually, sticking them down with glue on paper or moving them around to see what other patterns you can create.


Many children love direction and clear outcomes, as well as action and adventure. I am sure you can think of children who fit this description! Frequently these are the people who like to build rather than participate in fine motor activity. We have found that once they have their own collection of leaves, rocks and other hard-won treasures, they are more likely to sit with them and spend some time exploring them and developing a connection.

Covid19 and the increased pace of life has impacted how much time children are able to spend in outdoor spaces and away from screens, and this can mean that free imaginative play is harder to access. This activity is a stepping stone to getting down and dirty in the garden and really seeing the tiny worlds that exist under our hedges and between the pavers.

Links to the Early Years Learning Framework

In order to meet outcome 2.4, children need to have a personal connection to the environment. Using natural materials in a quiet space children also increase their sense of wellbeing (3.2) by engaging in gross and fine motor activity. Patterns and counting of course bring maths concepts (4.2) and early literacy gets a look in too, as we offer symbols to translate into physical collections (5.4).

Rock grinding.

Risk assessing and geology (ages 4 and up)

If you live in Sydney or other coastal areas, this one is for you! This one requires a few materials that hopefully you will have around the place.

You will need

Small sandstone rocks of different colours and a surface to grind them on

Small play buckets

Clean dustpan and brush


Small glass jars labelled with names

Old crayons or beeswax

Part one:

Where to get the sandstone, I hear you ask. Identify sandstone here. Perhaps your services garden has some sandstone lying around? Avoid collecting sandstone from natural areas such as the beach or national park, however once you start looking, you will most likely see them everywhere! If you have sandstone in your service, chances are your children already do this activity.

Using concrete or a large rock as a grinding surface, demonstrate to children how to hold the rock without scratching theirs or other’s fingers and to grind the sandstone up and down on the surface into sand. Collect the sand into buckets with the dustpan and brush, keeping the colours as separate as possible. It can take many play times to get enough sand for part two, however the really good part is the learning children are engaging in while they grind!

Part two:

Using funnels, children can carefully tip the sand into the jars, changing colours as they like. Tap the jar gently on a surface to settle the sand and add more if possible right up to the top. Educators to seal with old melted crayons away from children or cotton wool (or anything that will apply pressure under the lid to stop the sand moving).


This is a wonderful opportunity for children to develop strength, dexterity, spatial awareness and to assess risks for themselves. For those who need a lot of sensory feedback and repetition, this is a great activity to have available all the time, if supervision allows.

Children go on to manipulate funnels, pouring sand and holding jars in complex ways and can see first hand how sedimentary rocks are formed. Some children need a little help looking after other people around rocks and taking care not to knock fingers, so a little shadowing will be a good idea!

What’s next?

Geometry studies if children have questions and interest! In my experience, children love to extend this themselves to making natural rock dust paints by adding water and painting leaves, buildings and each other! Contact your local indigenous community and see if they can put you in touch with Indigenous educators who can bring indigenous perspectives to extend children’s knowledge and understanding of Australian culture and heritage.

Links to the Early Years Learning Framework:

You might see other things when doing this with your class, but to me this is outcome 4.2 all over: manipulate objects and experiment with cause and effect, trial and error and motion.

Follow, like, comment, join our community…there are so many ways to support EarthConnect Education! We would love to hear from you through any of these forums <3 Karen

Legal Disclaimer: While these ideas are as old as time and well used by children and educators around the world in free play already, Earthconnect Education is not responsible for any incident, injury or accident as a result of any of this information, experiences or ideas.  Speak to your director and educational leader before implementing and together create risk assessments before bringing them to your classroom

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