Outdoor Learning Equipment

While there are a myriad of ways we want to go outside, bringing a scientific perspective gives us a new take on our favorite places. Nature is one of the best places to do science we could possibly ask for. It’s constantly changing and gives us innumerable things to observe and measure.

Many other mamas here have written awesome resources about this as well; check out all of our outdoor education and exploration resources!

Whether you’re involved in homeschooling or just want to slip a little learning into your current outdoor adventures, doing science outside is possible for everyone. With a handful of science skills and a few pieces of outdoor learning equipment, we can engage in learning more deeply about the world around us.

And kids are incredibly well-suited to do science while they’re outside! They’re constantly experimenting, asking why, engaging in the world wholeheartedly, and using all the senses (whether or not it’s appropriate!). Science is really about noticing what’s around us, asking questions, and using observations and data to answer our questions.

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What Does It Look Like to Do Science?

An activity I did a lot with my high school students early in the school year was asking them to describe or draw what it looked like to “do science.” Often, I got back images of old white men (usually with crazy hair) wearing lab coats, standing behind a lab bench, mixing colorful chemicals in beakers and flasks. Less frequently, I got back images of someone wearing khaki and holding an exotic animal.

While both of these images are technically correct, they are also just two facets of the many, many ways we can experience doing science. Anyone can do science, and we can do it anywhere! We don’t need exotic locations or lots fancy equipment to use science to learn about the world around us.

What Counts as Science?

As my high school students pointed out each year, we all carry around a picture of science that probably only represents a small part of what science actually is. Doing science means using handful of general skills that you might recognize from “the scientific method.” And…that’s it! There is no required location, equipment, or type of person you need to be in order to do science; it’s an incredibly versatile skill set that allows us to understand our world in a particular way.

Anything that uses those science skills counts as science. So what are those skills? They include things like asking questions, testing a hypothesis (sometimes with an experiment), gathering and analyzing data, and building explanations. There are other scientific skills too! But these are good ones to start with.

A few definitions, for those of us who have been away from science for a long time! A hypothesis is a possible explanation for why something happens. I often gave my students sentence stems to fill in that looked like this: “If I do ________, then ___________ will happen because _______________.” It’s that last blank after “because” that’s the most important, and the hardest to fill in!

Data is also a word that can be mentally limiting. Data doesn’t have to be quantitative, or a set of numbers, although it often is. Data can also be qualitative, meaning it’s based on observations and descriptions. As an example, check out this photo:

Three Indian Paintbrush flowers
Three Indian Paintbrush flowers I found on a bike ride; my husband was very patient with my wildflower pictures that day!

One observation you could make is “I see three red flowers.” In just this statement, you have both quantitative data (three flowers) and qualitative data (red flowers). One good way to think about data is that it’s information we can gather through our five senses, or by some kind of measurement.

One of my favorite moments of doing science based on qualitative observations is from teaching seventh grade. A student came in and asked me, “Why is it that when you cook meat it gets hard but when you cook pasta it gets soft?” What an excellent observation!

Rather than just giving the student an answer, we tried to brainstorm other foods that got hard (eggs, fish, and chicken all featured, while cheese was hotly debated) or soft (vegetables, fruits, rice, beans). When we analyzed these observations, we saw a pattern; proteins got hard and carbs got soft.

This allowed us to talk about what was happening to various kinds of chemicals bonds when our food got hot and all of a sudden my whole class period was gone and we hadn’t done anything we were supposed to. But we had done some science!

Who Does Science?

The short answer is that everyone participates in science at some level! We are all asking questions about the world around us, gathering data, and building explanations based on that data.

Kids are inherently talented at doing science. Young children especially are good at noticing things around them; have you tried taking a toddler for a hike lately? They’ll stop to examine anything and everything! Kids also ask LOTS of questions, as any parent who’s hit the “why” phase can confirm. And they’re constantly trying to explain their worlds and revising their understanding.

A quick, silly, but very real example: my just-turned-two-year old loves our cat Hobbes. And for the last year or so, ALL cats have been “Hobbes,” including the tiger at the zoo! His mental model of the world was that Hobbes = cat.

A toddler cuddles with a grey tabby cat
Hobbes tolerated this for about three minutes, which was longer than I thought he would!

It’s only been in the last several weeks that he’s learned the word cat and can apply it to all cats. He now uses the two words mostly interchangeably, but he always calls our cat “Hobbes” and he’s slowly starting to call other cats “cat” before “Hobbes.” While I miss how cute it was that any cat was a Hobbes, it’s also exciting to see how he’s revising his mental model of what a cat is.

Of course, older kids have more complex models of how the world works and ask more sophisticated questions. And as we get even older, sometimes we get stuck in a particular model of how the world works; we stop noticing the things around us, stop asking questions, and stop gathering new data.

This isn’t all bad; it means the world is much less exhausting than if we were constantly taking in everything! But it does mean we adults might need some practice to slow down and reengage in the process of science with our kids.

Where Does Science Happen and What Do You Need?

Most people picture a lab with all sorts of fun glassware when they picture science. And it’s true, that is one place science can happen! But as you’ve probably noticed, science can happen really anywhere.

My 7th graders and I did science while sitting at desks, without any supplies, in our classroom. Science happens all the time in the kitchen, bathroom, or garage. All we need is something to spark some questions, a way to observe or measure it, and the time to think about what we learned and how that teaches us something about our world.

After a lab, the outdoors are the second-most-common suggestion for where people do science. Often, we’re thinking of someone in khaki doing field work with exotic animals. But you don’t need exotic animals (or khaki!) to do science outside. In fact, it’s my favorite place of all to do science.

How Being Outside Enhances Science

I think that being outside is perhaps the best place to foster science practices. It’s just so rich in things to observe! Think of all the plants, rocks, dirt, bugs, and other animals you can find even just in your backyard or along a sidewalk.

And it’s always changing! Different times of day, different seasons, and different years all show us new aspects of our natural environment. We see different weather. We see more or less of a certain population; we’re overrun with grasshoppers in Utah this summer, for example.

Being outside allows us to make observations at different scales, as well. We can consider a couple of ants for a couple of minutes. Or we can consider the amount of rainfall over a couple of years! We can get to know a small area (like a local park) really well and we can also make comparisons across large areas if we get to travel.

What Learning Equipment Do Kids Need to Do Science?

Our Senses

All observations start with our five senses: sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste. (You do have to be somewhat judicious with taste, although it can be one of the most fun!) This post describes how to help kids (and ourselves!) engage our senses while we’re outside.

Enhancing our Senses with Outdoor Science Learning Equipment

But sometimes it would be nice if we could see a little farther a way, or a little closer up. Or if we could put a number to the temperature we feel. Or if we could replay the sound we just heard. That’s where tools of science come it; they enhance and expand our senses so we can gather even more data about our world!

Outdoor science learning equipment DOES NOT need to be fancy or expensive, and also don’t need to live in a lab. All of the science tools I list here are things I’ve used myself, with students, or with my son. And they’re almost all things you might already have at home or could pick up at a Target or a Wal-Mart.

Enhancing Vision

Humans rely extensively on our site; over a third of our brain is dedicated to directly or indirectly processing visual information! So it makes sense that a lot of pieces of outdoor science learning equipment enhance our vision.

One easy way to enhance our vision is to make small things bigger. Loupes, hand lenses, and magnifying glasses are all good ways to do this! I used these loupes from Private Eye with my high school students because they are particularly simple and durable.

I also recently got this extra-large bug loupe from Carson Optics’ kids line. My two-year-old son and I both love it! I like how the plastic walls allow you to trap a bug for look at for a longer period of time, and it’s incredibly durable. My little boy can carry it himself, although he needs some advice on what to look at. We’ve had fun looking not only at bugs but at bits of bark, flowers, leaves, rocks, and our own hands!

A toddler looking through an extra-large bug loupe, a piece of outdoor science learning equipment
There was a rolly-poly (also called a pill bug) in there!

If you want to really magnify something tiny, a microscope is your best bet. And it is, in fact, possible to find a microscope to take outside! Carson Optics has several different options, of which I’ve tried out two.

This X-scope pocket tool has 7 different functions, one of which is a 30x microscope. It also includes an 8x telescope, 9x fold-out magnifying glass, LED flashlight, signal whistle, directional compass and digital clock. It’s incredibly small and lightweight, which makes it easy to throw in a backpack. I will say that each function then has to be pretty small, which can make it a little tricky to use, but I was impressed by how well each function worked given their size.

For a slightly more powerful and more adjustable microscope, I was very impressed by Carson Optics’ pocket microscope. It can magnify things in a range from 20x to 40x, which at the high end is actually strong enough to see chromosomes in cells! This means you can recreate the traditional high school biology onion root tip lab at home. (A quick Google search will give you all sorts of resources for setting this up.)

This microscope comes with two slides and coverslips, or you can remove the base and just hold it up to anything you want to see. I took it to a friends’ house and the kids (11, 9, 6, and 4) were incredibly creative in what they wanted to look at! We looked at some pond water for paramecium and other single-celled organisms, sourdough starter, salt, lemon pulp, dead and live leaves, pieces of sidewalk chalk, and a hair.

A girl uses a microscope as a piece of outdoor learning equipment to look at paramecium in pond water
Focusing any microscope is always the hardest part, but with a little guidance (start all the way zoomed out on both focuses!) these kids figured it out really quickly!

Another way to enhance our vision is to bring far-away things closer using binoculars or telescopes. It’s important especially for younger children to make sure binoculars fit their smaller hands and faces; Carson Optics also has a pair of these in their kids line.

It’s a little harder to take a telescope hiking, but I’ve definitely taken a small one car camping before to look at stars. The trick to a telescope? The bigger it is, the more you can see…but the heavier it is, the less often you’ll move it! A smaller telescope can actually be more useful, especially if you’re going to take it outdoors.

Sometimes our eyes would be just fine on their own if only we could get whatever we’re looking at to hold still for a moment! In this case, there are a few tools like the extra-large bug loupe that can be really helpful, particularly with insects and small fish or amphibians.

If you’re planning on exploring a water-based ecosystem, carrying a small fish net and a clear container can be really helpful to examine aquatic invertebrates, tadpoles, and minnows! There are specialized containers designed for this purpose, some of which have a magnifying glass built into the wall of the container, but I usually just use mason jars, old pill bottles with the labels removed, or Tupperware containers.

In this kind of science practice, please be careful not to hurt or damage your animal in any way, and always practice catch-and-release! Taking a picture or making a sketch of your animal before releasing it is a good way to “keep” it forever without harming it.

All the pieces of outdoor science learning equipment so far have been to help us with qualitative observations, but sometimes it’s really nice to be able to compare some numbers. In terms of our sight, this means measuring the length or distance!

Depending on what you want to measure, there are different ways to do this. A clear plastic ruler (especially one with metric units too!) is great for measuring things that range from really small up to the length of the ruler (usually either 6 or 12 inches). For longer distances, kids can carry a premeasured piece of rope or string and add up how many times they had to lay it out to get somewhere (laying out a five foot piece six times means 30 feet total; yay math practice too!). Kids can also estimate a distance by measuring a normal stride and counting how many steps it takes to get somewhere.

Enhancing Our Other Senses

Of course, we have outdoors science learning equipment that we can use to enhance and quantify our other senses too!

For touch, it can be very helpful to quantify the temperature of something by using a thermometer. Most thermometers are designed to be inserted into the material we want to know the temperature of, such as water, snow, or soil. I like this environmental thermometer from Flinn Scientific because it has a case to protect the thermometer specifically while using it outside! If we want to know air temperature or the temperature of a surface, there are other types of thermometers that can measure those.

For hearing, the most common tool I use is a recording device so I can play back whatever I’m hearing. I typically use my phone to do this. In general, I’m recording birdsong to listen to, and in that case it’s fun to use the Merlin app! It can identify birds based on their songs or based on pictures you submit.

Smell and taste are two senses we need to be a little more cautious with in a science setting. In general, I don’t use any outdoor science learning equipment to enhance my sense of smell.

A toddler stops to smell a yellow rose
No need to enhance the smell of the roses in the backyard!

But there is a way we can actually measure something we normally taste, and that’s pH! pH measures how acidic or basic (the opposite of acidic) something is, and we can actually taste this in our foods. Things that are sour, like citrus fruits, pineapple, and tomatoes, are acidic. On the other hand, things that are bitter like dark greens are basic.

The pH of a liquid can be measured very easily with pH paper. The paper is dipped into the liquid briefly and then it changes color! Each pH kit comes with a color range to tell you what each color means; it varies based on which paper you use. pH paper is fun to use with our foods, and it can also be used to do very simple water testing in creeks, ponds, and puddles.

pH paper is often included aquarium or hot tub kits, but I like this pH paper kit because of its plastic case and the ability to tear a piece as big or as small as I need. When using pH paper, note that any number less than 7 is acidic, 7 is neutral, and numbers larger than 7 indicate basic. It’s good practice to take a sample of whatever you’re testing away from the source (get some creek water in a cup, for example) because the dye in the paper will eventually dissolve out into the sample.

Measurements for Things We Can’t Sense

A close up of the compass on a green multi-use optics tool
This compass is part of Carson’s multi-tool, but compasses come in all shapes and sizes. Just make sure you don’t have it near anything else that’s metal!

There are some fascinating phenomenon that humans can’t sense directly; the one we use all the time outside is magnetism! While there is some evidence that migratory birds and whales can sense and use magnetic fields to navigate, humans don’t have this in-built capacity. A compass needle uses the Earth’s magnetic field to tell us which direction north is.

Beyond the very important navigational uses of a compass, there are other reasons it’s helpful to know what direction we’re facing. For example, a south-facing slope gets more direct sunlight and is therefore warmer and drier as compared to a north-facing slope, which stays cooler and wetter. This means we’ll see different vegetation and animal populations on the two slopes. This is an example of noticing patterns in the outdoors that can lead to all sorts of interesting science questions to be further investigated!

Bringing Information to the Outdoors

A faded red cover of a field guide for weeds, showing several familiar plants like cat tails and thistles
Because weeds are fairly common, they’re a good place to start with identifying local plants.

Sometimes it’s helpful to have a little background information with us as we start to explore the outdoors through a scientific perspective. One great outdoor science learning tool is a dichotomous key, which is a small book that helps you identify species in your area. These books are also sometimes called field guides.

When I was growing up, my mom had a whole series of dichotomous key books for the alpine ecosystems in Colorado. There were books for flowers, weeds, mushrooms, trees, bugs, small birds, and mammals. (I liked the flower book the best because of all the pretty illustrations!)

A woman and a toddler examine lichen on a rock
Or, if you get to go hiking with my mom, you don’t need a dichotomous key because she can already identify everything!

Depending on where you’re adventuring to, we also have the power of the internet at our fingers. I mentioned the app Merlin earlier, which identifies bird photos and recordings of bird calls, and there are several out there for identifying plants. I’ve used iNaturalist, Seek, and Google Lens. I especially like Seek (which is run by iNaturalist) for kids because it doesn’t require registration or collect any user information. iNaturalist, on the other hand, allows users to contribute their observations to larger pools of data and participate in citizen science projects.

While some kids get really excited about naming and “collecting” different species, other kids aren’t that interested. In that case, let them identify and make up their own names for what they’re seeing!

Taking Information Home

Most of the time we don’t want to take samples or souvenirs home from our outdoor adventures. In some cases, such as within a National Park or on state land, we aren’t allowed to! Taking a rock, stick, or flower can limit the experiences of people who come after us and can also spread harmful invasive species without us realizing.

But sometimes it would be really helpful to be able to take some information home with us! One great way to do this is to capture an image with a camera or a sketch. Taking photos is great for things that move quickly, while sketching allows kids to really sink into a particular place and experience.

Sketching can feel really intimidating, but my favorite part about science sketches is that it’s perfectly acceptable, and even recommended, to label them! This is very reassuring to me with my rudimentary sketching skills; if the sketch doesn’t come out the way I want I can always make a note of what it was supposed to be.

For particularly artistic kids, you can help them make a miniature paint palette with an old Altoids tin and a mini ice cube tray. John Muir Laws has a ton of resources on nature sketching, including a short how-to for putting this together!

In some cases, it is ok to pick a few plants and press them. This is particularly true for leaves from large trees or bushes, common grasses, and only occasionally for flowers. In general, it’s not a great idea to pick wildflowers because they wilt so quickly and because the flower part of the plant is so important for its reproduction. But other flowers, such as those in our yards or growing along sidewalks, can be very fun to pick and to press!

It’s possible to press flowers using paper towels and a stack of large books, but I found a simple flower pressing kit to be really helpful. They include paper specifically designed to absorb water from the plant and straps around the press to apply pressure without a tippy tower of books. You can find these kits at Wal-Mart and on Amazon; while I haven’t bought my own in a long time, this plant press is very similar to what I used as a kid.

Simple Outdoor Learning Equipment Makes All the Difference

Anyone, anywhere, can do science. But if I had to pick my favorite place to do science? It would be outside and with kids of any age. The varied and ever-changing nature of the outdoors and the genuine curiosity and inquisitiveness of kids is a perfect combination for practicing science! And science helps us understand and love our favorite outdoor places in a whole new way.

Having one or two pieces of outdoor science learning equipment can help engage kids in new ways in exploring their world! And the best part is that it doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive in order to be really useful and, most importantly, fun! This list barely scratches the surface of ways to engage in science and learning more generally in the outdoors; check out this gift guide for more awesome ideas.

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