DIY Adventure Preschool

DIY Adventure Preschool: How to Enrich Time Outside With Child-Led, Play-Based Education

Whether your toddler or preschooler is in school full-time, with you full-time, or anything in between, adding in a bit of DIY adventure preschool is a unique way to connect, learn, and refresh your parenting brain. When we expand the way we look at our surroundings outdoors, we can organically guide practice with basic academic skills in so many ways, while still letting our kids lead their own learning and explore freely.

Keep your academic skills practice child-led, play-based, short and sweet, and outside to show your kids a new way of learning. If this sounds like a big, stressful commitment for you as a caregiver, remember that adventure preschool can be 10 minutes of a loosely structured activity in the backyard, a weekend camping trip with lots of short spurts of academics built in, or anything in between. The fun of it is making it what you want it to be for yourself and your kids!

Education vs. Academics

When you start to think about adventure preschool with your child, consider that education is the process of gathering knowledge and is not always systematic, while academics is a side of education that is more systematic. I think of this as the difference between general learning, and skills-based learning, or things that cannot be measured vs. things that can.

Have you ever watched your two-year old follow a squirrel around the park, or watched your five-year old dig snow caves? Sure, your kid might not be showcasing obvious academic skills in these moments; there isn’t much about this that can be measured or assessed for progress. But you can trust that they are learning more in these moments than you might be able to recognize and label. Kids are always learning independently outside!

Toddlers run and explore freely.

Nature-based play and inquiry like this lay the foundation for academic education by fostering curiosity in a low-stress, low-pressure environment, perking up tired brains of kids and adults, and more . There are so many ways that you can help foster this kind of learning environment, including:

  • Slowing down! This might be the biggest one. Give your child the time and space to wonder, notice, and explore all the little things.
  • Encouraging any safe form of child-led play outside.
  • Pointing out unusual things you see outside, and paying attention when your child does the same. Then:
  • Using the phrase ‘I wonder’ often, and letting your kid wonder without immediate answers or Googling. Then:
  • Listening to their ideas about why something outside might be the way it is.

If you want to expand on your child’s natural interests outside, and add in practice with basic academics like numbers, letters, shapes, colors, and more, creating your own adventure preschool moments might be a great approach for your family.

Creating Your Adventure Preschool Moments

Keep in mind that your structured activities should only be as long as your child stays interested in them. To keep adventure preschool fun and fresh, it’s important not to let adult-led, academic-focused learning dominate time outside.

Preschoolers play at the river.

Follow your child’s lead for organic teaching and learning. Let your child’s interests, skills, and attention span lead the way completely and be there to facilitate, not be in charge of, this add-on learning during outside time. Here’s how to get started:

Think Like a Teacher Outside

As you start adding in adventure preschool moments to your time outside, get your ideas flowing by thinking like a teacher outside. While this might feel unnatural at first, the more you do this the easier it will become! Before long, you’ll start seeing ideas everywhere you go, and feeling confident to follow these ideas. You’ll notice how skills that might have felt reserved for a school setting can be practiced in fun new ways outside. This is when DIY adventure preschool gets fun! As you get started:

Know what academic skills your child is working on

For a toddler or preschooler this usually includes:

  • Shapes
  • Colors
  • Numbers
  • Alphabet awareness and beginning phonics
  • Patterns
  • Sorting
  • Matching
  • Measuring

Include essential life skills

For a toddler or preschooler this includes:

  • Taking turns
  • Building attention span
  • Body awareness and gross motor skills
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Listening and following directions
  • Fine motor skills

Be on the lookout for natural teaching materials

  • For writing and drawing: Sticks, sandy spots, mud, snow
  • For sorting, counting, and creating patterns: Rocks, leaves, sticks, acorns, snowballs, icicles

Connect with other adventure preschool parents if you can

While it may not always be possible, don’t go it alone if you can help it. Get your partner and other family members on board. Include friends or plan activities ahead with like-minded parents . Share your ideas, successes, and flops on social media. Bouncing ideas off of others will help you grow these creative adventure preschool moments.

And remember…

It’s most important to keep it fun, and don’t force it. If your child rejects your awesome idea, let it go and try again another day. If your child moves on after 3 minutes that’s okay. If your child loves what you’re doing, keep it going.

Depending on your personality, environment, and how much time you have, you can choose to focus on no-prep activities, plan-ahead activities, or a mix. Although I tend to be a planner, my start with adventure preschool came in the form of no-prep activities as I started to see the endless opportunities around us when my first child was about 20 months old. Whatever route you choose, be open-minded with what you can incorporate seamlessly wherever you are with whatever you have, keep it simple, and go easy on yourself as you get the hang of adventure preschooling.

Whether you want to enrich your backyard play and micro-adventures or your adventures further from home, here are some ideas to get you started.

Ideas to Get You Started with a DIY Adventure Preschool

Simple No-Prep Activities

  • Drawing shapes/letters/numbers in the sand, dirt, or snow with a stick (or having your child do it if able)  and jumping to them
  • Sorting games: leaves and plants by color, rocks/sticks/acorns/icicles/snowballs by size
  • Practicing letter sounds for things you see outside (T,T,Tree…tree starts with letter T)
  • Playing ‘float or sink’ with natural items at a pond or lake
  • Spotting shapes in the clouds
  • Painting, drawing, or spelling on rocks with mud
  • Noticing weather changes and patterns and connecting things like clouds might mean rain is coming
Toddler exploring shapes drawn in the sand.

Simple Plan-Ahead Activities

  • Create a nature-scavenger hunt or print a basic one from online
  • Bring old measuring cups to a body of water and play with different quantities, or use them to make a ‘nature soup’ by adding in other materials
  • Hide sticky notes with letters/numbers/shapes/colors on them in the backyard for a scavenger hunt. Depending on your child, you can also guide them to matching the sticky notes to corresponding items (Put the letter ‘G’ on the grass, or the color red on a red flower)
  • Read outside. This can be books focused on skills you are working on like alphabet and numbers, books about nature, or any book at all.
  • Match a quantity of natural items to their corresponding number.
An adult works with preschoolers outside on number recognition and counting.

Need more ideas, structure, or guidance? Consider a nature-based home-preschool curriculum. There are lots of great options to meet your family’s needs and desires for creating adventure preschool moments. Just as you can without a curriculum, you can choose what works for your family. This might be a curriculum to follow fully, or one that works for picking and choosing what excites you and your child.

Ready to Go Beyond the Basics for Preschool?

So, you’ve created lots of awesome adventure preschool moments and your family is loving it. It’s working and you want to expand even more. Here are some ideas to do just that.

Include Environmental Learning and Stewardship

For some families, this is part of adventure preschool from the beginning. As your child starts to deepen their connection with nature and their own learning, you can use this as a chance to raise a young nature- protector. Sure, your toddler or preschooler might not understand the complexity of the big environmental issues facing us, but you can start by:

  • Picking up trash during outside time. You can bring a bag, or use one you find (this happens surprisingly often!) to collect trash wherever you are. I steer clear of trash like tissues and bathroom items for safety reasons, but bottles, wrappers, and bits of string abound even in the cleanest environments.
  • Noticing and talking about weather and temperatures.
  • Making respect for nature a family norm. In my family this means giving animals space, watching where we walk so we aren’t stepping on wildflowers or other growth, and encouraging gentleness with all living things. Yes, I stop my kiddo from banging on trees with sticks because that tree is alive, but banging on rocks to make nature music is totally okay with me.
  • Starting a garden and/or visiting Farmer’s Markets, and talking about food origins.
  • Reading books about nature and the environment.
Toddler waters a garden at home.

Include Outdoor Skills

We might think of outdoor skills as things like using maps and compasses, but there is a lot we can do to incorporate these skills into adventure preschool with our youngest learners.

  • Once your child can carry a small backpack, help them start packing the basics for time outside in their own pack: water, snacks, hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, and gloves can be great starters. As they get older, work up to the 10 essentials.
  • Help your child check the weather for appropriate dress before going outside, and keep an eye on changing weather while outside.
  • Help your child notice their surroundings, man-made or natural markers on your route, and how to get back to a starting point.
  • Start pointing out poops and prints when hiking and camping and learning about the wildlife in your area, from squirrels and birds, to bear and elk.

Use Bigger Adventures to Expand Knowledge

If adventure preschool has become a norm, and the ideas are flowing, it can be so fun to bring your favorite parts into adventures further from home, like camping trips, boat trips, ski days or whatever your family loves to do together.

  • Point out letters, words, numbers, and symbols on signs, at trail heads, or any natural area you happen to be.
  • Point out the numbers on chairlift poles and chairs as you ride up, and count as you go.
  • Talk about the basic physics of uphill, downhill, and curves while biking.
  • Let your child help decide the best way to set up camp for sun protection, level ground, and privacy.
  • Let your child help cook camp meals with age-appropriate and safe tasks like following a picture recipe, measuring, stirring, or chopping with kid-safe nylon knives and your help.
  • Incorporate any of the above no-prep or plan-ahead activities.

Join or Create a Nature School Co-op or Playgroup

If you have found the element of connection to be super satisfying or essential to your adventure preschool journey, or if you feel like more of this support would benefit yours and others efforts, consider creating a nature based co-op, school, or playgroup.

This can be as casual as a post on your local mom’s group saying you’ll be in a certain place outside at a certain time each week, any season, to let your kiddos explore nature and you’d love buddies to join. Or it can be collaborating with friends to switch off planning and leading activities weekly or bi-weekly.

If you are ready to take on more, you can collaborate to create more of an outdoor-based curriculum, or request permissions from the creator of an existing curriculum to use it in a co-op setting.

For a nature-based homeschool curriculum for preschool age, check out Blossom and Root Early Years, Exploring Nature with Children, or Kinder Nature Beginnings by Chickie and Roo. Have older kiddos to include too? Check out Wild Math, Blossom and Root, or Add the Wonder nature curriculum.

If you love adventure preschool so much that you want this for yourself, your child, and your community you can even look into starting a nature preschool.

Children play in their nature school space.

However you go about adventure preschool with your child, remember that it can be as much or as little as works for your family, make it your family’s own, and enjoy the journey of enriching your child’s education in the outdoors.

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© 2023, Tales of a Mountain Mama. All rights reserved. Republication, in part or entirety, requires a link back to this original post and permission from the author. 


  • Cece Romanyshyn is a Colorado native currently living in Baker City, Oregon with her husband and two sons. She grew up camping and skiing with her family, and kept adventuring through adulthood. She has enjoyed camping, hiking, skiing, and boating in the western United States, hiking in Ecuador, DIY safaris in East Africa, boating on the rivers of Southeast Asia, and exploring nature and culture during Peace Corps service in Mozambique. She loves connecting with her little family on all sorts of adventures from daily walks and river play to ski days to camping road trips, boating, and hut trips. With the confidence, joy, and well-being brought about in these spaces, time outside together has become a parenting power tool for her.

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