Guest Post: How to Teach with Nature Trays

nature learning for kids

Editor’s Note: I knew I would raise my child to enjoy classic, wooden toys and open-ended learning – before I was a Mom. It’s so easy, in reality, to look around one day and realize life has become plastic playthings and online games. I know simple toys make the best teachers, but how?

I’ve been fortunate to connect with Carleen Kirksey of Austin Nature Works this year. She’s a female business owner who hand makes many of her learning toys, as well as a former teacher. Her wisdom and expertise not only on the why of the benefits of nature learning but how to integrate it into modern family time has been so impactful for me. We love her kids flower press and bird call at home, while I have Congress Bridge Bats puzzle picked out for my nephew this Christmas and am ordering these Bedtime Mindfulness Cards for my girl’s stocking this year. Thanks to Carleen for sharing how to start using nature trays for learning play at home! Don’t miss the discount code she’s offering for Open Hearted Home readers on her flower press at the end! – Lilly

Hi! My name is Carleen and I’m the creator of Austin Nature Works. After years in the classroom, I felt there was a disconnect with our children and the world around us. I was inspired to create toys that would excite children and spark their interests in nature, so that they may develop a mindful relationship with our planet. That’s why for every toy purchased from Austin Nature Works, one tree is planted.

Today, I thought we could talk about one of my favorite things; creating Nature Trays at home.


What is a nature tray?
A nature tray (or shelf if you are really advantageous) is a tool used for intuitive learning, that allows the natural behaviors of nature to be observed indoors. Intuitive learning is independently making connections; ie. patterns, relationships, and process.

What are the benefits?
There are a plethora of educational opportunities for lessons in math, relationships, color, change, and more. But, these tools also enable the child to form a closer connection to nature and moments to slow down and observe. Mindfulness is an invaluable lesson.


How do we get started?
We begin with our search for objects outdoors. You might prepare by bringing a sack, bird whistle, binoculars or magnifying glass to facilitate getting a closer look outdoors. After you and the child have both chosen interesting materials, the child can sort them in a tray. Later you might create opportunities for different kinds of sorting depending on the lesson, but it’s important for them to make the first observations.

How do we choose the lesson?
I enjoy making a new tray weekly, but if you are making a table or shelf it might lend itself to a monthly seasonal theme. First, take a look at what objects are chosen, then think about the conversations that were had. Did the child express any observations on the nature walk? For example, the child might have said, “Is that a lady bug?” or “It’s windy.” These statements or questions are indicators of where their interests currently lie, which will be key in them wanting to play with the tray.

kids flower press

Putting it all together.
Once we have chosen the lesson we can make our tray. Choose a tray and tools that are easy for the child to manipulate. Sharp objects like rocks or any loose materials might be placed in a bowl or small felt bag on the tray. Next, depending on the age of the child decide if words or pictures would be helpful to your lesson. Add something interesting to invite the child to the lesson! Ie. Something colorful, dinosaurs, or paints… And voila you have your nature tray.

A looser approach.
There is another approach which is much more hands off, but still provides the child with the same benefits, and that is a table or center. On a table you might place objects; feathers, wooden animals, shells, or wooden trees on a table with an overarching theme. Next, the child will place their nature walk finds on the table and play open-endedly. Just be sure the child didn’t bring in any unwanted creatures!

My favorite nature toy
One of my favorite 3 step tools for a nature tray is using a flower press. All you’ve got to do is nature walk, press flowers, craft! You might already have one at home, but it probably has small parts like screws and bits which are a little nerve racking to have with a child around. This was always the case in my 3 yr old classroom, so I decided to make a child-friendly press. Check out Austin Nature Works online and use our code OPENHEARTED for a special discount of 15% off on our flower press!

Thanks Carleen for joining us! We’re happy to have Austin Nature Works as a way to shop small this holiday. Do you have ways you incorporate nature learning at home? I’d love to hear in a comment below!

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