Wednesday, March 4, 2015

16 Ideas for Animal Play

Play is an essential part of learning! I host a regular Nature Play session, but have also been thinking more about how children learn about animals in their backyards and communities. I've done field trips with 5th graders wondering what an opossum is or not knowing other basic animals, like a raccoon. There have also been studies about how young children can identify over 200 logos yet fewer than 10 flora or fauna in their backyard. That's disturbing. However, we can give children opportunities to learn more about the natural world around them!

Knowing children learn by play, I rounded up a few ways that I help children engage in animal play.
  1. Puppets--I encouraged finding funds for puppets as one of the first things after starting volunteering at a local nature center. Thankfully a great friend helped out with that. Folkmanis Puppets are a good quality, realistic puppet. The Folkmanis finger puppets are much less expensive, though the larger ones are of excellent quality. I have also found inexpensive plastic insect finger puppets that have suited our needs well as they are inexpensive, portable, and allow room for play. We also make our own stick puppets with paper printables.                                                                            
  2. Costumes--There is something about a costume that transforms us! Dramatic play is an excellent way to engage in animal play. When we lived near Indy, we had a few places, such as Zion Nature Center and the Children's Museum of Indianapolis that had costumes to help children engage in make believe play as animals. We often incorporate this in our nature programs through making a simple hat depicting the animal. Beyond formal costumes, scarves and fabric pieces can be used to create endless possibilities of animals. Masks are also simple and effective.

  3. Stuffed Animals --I admit, I am not a big stuffed animal person, as they take up a lot of space, though our children do have a few that are special ones they take to bed with them every night. The stuffed animals I do still have from my own childhood are a big vinyl whale my grandma made and a huge snake that dangled from our bunk beds. I discounted stuffed animals as part of animal play until I found my 2-year-old walking around with Daddy and Baby fox from Ikea all the time. These have become a part of his regular routine and are realistic enough for me to accept them. He loves them and plays with them. We also like the Audubon Plus Birds. They even make the call! They can be a springboard for discussion on how animals live and act in the wild. When we develop a relationship with an animal like this we can have the capacity to take action to protect it in the future. I LOVE this realistic looking stuffed turkey vulture. My three year old tells me all about his features, like a head with no feathers, a weak beak, white under the wings, and weak feet. He shows me how the fly and tells me what they like to eat! Having a simple prop like the stuffed animal is a great way to allow him to share what he has learned about the animal.
  4. Games--There are a few games centered around animals. We bought The Sneaky, Snacky Squirrel Game for our youngest for Christmas. It's been a favorite we all play, even though it's very simple. We learn about squirrel behaviors while playing, as well as taking turns, rules to games, and how to interact with others. Read my review here. I also have a set of animals with strings attached to go around a child's neck. I use these in larger groups to play a "Who am I?" game. For older children, I have an information sheet in a folder, playing 20 questions to learn the animal.                                                                                             
  5. Vinyl Animals--Plastic animals are not cheap; however, we have added to them throughout the years, tucking them in Easter baskets or stockings at Christmas. I recently purchased many as I do various nature programs. I search for Forest Animals or North American animals as I want animals local to our area. Watch for reviews and details on what we like coming soon.  My favorites are the Safari Incredible Creatures line. They are a larger, realistic animal with good print tracks, fits well in a child's hand, and is easy to find (I loose many of the tiny ones).             
  6. Stick or Natural Animals--I met a delightful advocate of getting outdoors on Facebook. She has been building stick animals and other items outside in her area. What great inspiration for exploring animals with natural items, Take 'em Outside! Similar things could be done on the sides of trees with clay and natural items. There are other possibilities with a little glue and found nature. See how we did our insect here.
    from Take 'em Outside
  7. Wooden or Fabric Animals--I find cute animals at craft bazaars from time to time. These can be a great way to support local craftspeople and to play with nature. Additionally, I've seen wooden blocks painted with chalkboard paint. Draw animals on these and they can be used however you might like. 
  8. from Sew Much Stuff by Kris
  9. Felt Animals--Yet another loose part, we found that we've really liked these felt boards. It's amazing how our youngest will play with the animals, naming them all, and acting out various activities on the felt board. I like this set, Forest Camping Adventure Felt Set .
  10. Magnetic Animals--We also found a similar magnetic option. This is great for taking to church to keep a little one quiet. I put the pieces in a sturdy plastic baggy to keep them altogether. We had similar items in both felt and magnets for the older boys in knights, construction, fire trucks, etc. I'm glad we are adding animals to the mix! We like this set, Magnetic Forest Animal Set. You could also make them yourself with laminated animals from below and magnets.
  11. Laminated Animals--Recently, I pulled out story props from The Mitten and started using them in our play dough adventures. I found this to be an inexpensive and easy way to have more animals for play. It also gives us access to some animals that might not be available in the plastic sets.  Find these printables here.                                                                                                         
  12. Animal Action Cards--I often use these with preschoolers; however, I will be honest that when I use them with older children (and even some adults) they usually enjoy them as well. Here are insect action cards.                                                                                   
  13. Edible Crafts--I cohost a nature preschool program with another volunteer. We're always finding fun ways to include snack in our theme, making spiders (two body parts, eight legs, lots of eyes), foxes (pointed nose and ears), and more!                                 
  14. Arts and Crafts--Arts and other craft projects can be a fun way to explore animals, such as this spider, or the more open ended mud painting with plastic worms.  Endless possibilities!      
  15. Books--Books are often a basis we use to learn about animals. We can then act out the story, using props or costumes if desired. The Mitten is easy to act out, though this Snow Tree is excellent as well. We have many favorites, such as Vulture View .  Read my review here.                                       
  16. Puzzles and Pattern Block Activities--Giant floor puzzles and smaller pattern block activities can help us notice details and interact with animals. We've also cut up a larger picture of an animal to put back into order.                                                                
  17. Using Tools to Explore Animals--In the summer, we love taking out the bug jar, magnifying glasses, and nets to find insects and other critters. Read about exploring tadpoles here. Be sure to observe and then return the animal back where it was found. Macroinvertebrates are another fun organism to observe like this. We like this magnifying bug jar and these nets for older kids and for younger kids.                                                                      

How do you encourage children (and adults) to learn about animals? Do you use play as part of the process?

Watch the blog! I'll try to go into more detail on some of these topics in the coming months.

Here are programs I have hosted or attended around specific animals, incorporating play with the younger children:
Nocturnal Animals
Animals in winter
Animals Underground

Beginning Bird Books and Activities

This is shared with Outdoor Play Party. There are so many cool outdoor activities people are sharing! Check it out!

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