Outdoor cognitive activities for toddlers are engaging, sensory-stimulating ways to build essential thinking skills. Here are dozens of outdoor cognitive activities based on the cognitive skills:
Types of Outdoor Cognitive Activities:
Outdoor play has a significant impact on cognitive development for early learners. Toddlers begin learning about the relationship between themselves and the natural world.
Parents and educators can create opportunities for toddlers to explore and engage in sensory-rich play. These activities build executive function skills and establish a foundation for more complex learning in preschool and beyond.
What is an example of a cognitive development activity?
For toddlers, most play and activities have a cognitive development component. Toddlers are constantly learning about their environment and the objects in it.
Here are some examples of easy cognitive development activities for toddlers:
- Reading books
- Throwing a ball over and over again
- Pouring water from a cup in the bath
How can I help my toddler develop cognitive skills?
- Plenty of open-ended play.
- Developmentally appropriate toys and activities that are fun and a little challenging.
- Sensory learning activities.
- Reading daily.
- Process art activities.
- Use open-ended questions.
- Outdoor play.
- Risk-taking play.
Outdoor cognitive activities for exploration and discovery
- Exploring and investigating to understand self, others, and objects.
- Using knowledge of cause and effect to influence social and physical environments.
|Water Pouring Station
|Toss + Splash with Wet Sponges
|Water Soup: Stir leaves, stones, twigs, flowers, and even a couple of drops of food dye or liquid watercolor into a bucket and stir.
|Spend time outdoors in various weather conditions like wind, rain, or fog. Take time to talk about the weather and what you are experiencing.
- “I can hear the rain and my arm is getting wet.”
- “Our cheeks are red because the air is so cold.”
- “The tree branches are shaking in the wind.”
- “The air feels warmer in the sun than under the tree.”
|Take an evening walk with flashlights and explore shadows.
|Try some creative nature scavenger hunt ideas.
Loose Parts Play
This open-ended play experience helps toddlers learn everything about objects, both new and familiar.
Nature-themed loose parts:
Find more in the ultimate guide to loose parts materials.
Outdoor cognitive activities for imagination and creativity
- Observing and imitating sounds, words, gestures, actions, and behaviors.
- Using objects or symbols to represent something else.
- Using pretend play to learn about culture, environment, and experiences.
|Blanket or tarp forts
Take all your toddler’s favorite dramatic play toys outside.
- Baby dolls and accessories
- Stuffed animals
- Pots and Pans
- Play food
- Table and chairs
- Picnic supplies
- Broom and dustpan
There are some beautiful, elaborate mud kitchen ideas. However, you can make a simple mud kitchen. Try just a couple of these materials at a time (or create a crate of mud kitchen supplies to keep outside):
- Pie pans
- Muffin tins
- Silicone cupcake liners
- Measuring cups and spoons
- Plates + bowls
- Butter knives
- Rolling pins
Want more ideas?
100 Ice Play Activities
Frosty & frozen art, nature, pretend play, and more!
Toy animals or Cars
|Add new toys to a sandbox or sensory bin
|Use sidewalk chalk to create lines for roads or shapes for animal homes
|Toy animals can climb rock mountains, explore twig forests, or burrow into holes
|Construction vehicles can scoop and dig in sand, gravel, or mud
|Cars can roll down hills and slides
Toddlers are still building fine motor skills to create more detailed art. So they need more space for big, sweeping arm movements and giant scribbles. In fact, the recommendation is: the younger the artist, the bigger the paper.
Taking art outside is perfect for toddlers. You can create giant art canvases by spreading out large pieces of paper, bedsheets, or cardboard. Toddlers can paint with water or use chalk to create masterpieces on driveways or sidewalks.
Outdoor cognitive activities for emergent math
- Developing a sense of numbers and quantity.
- Learning about how objects move through space.
- Matching and sorting to learn about similarities and differences.
Throw + Toss
Toddlers learn about trajectory and gravity by exploring throwing, tossing, and even catching.
|Different sports balls
|Construct with sticks in the mud
|Bring blocks outdoors
Sorting Loose Parts
Before toddlers can learn to sort and classify, they need to be familiar with all the characteristics of objects. Through repeated exploration using all seven senses, toddlers figure out that some objects are similar and some seem similar but are different.
|Themed Treasure Baskets
- Heavy + Light using feathers, leaves, and rocks
- Smooth + Bumpy using textured sensory balls
- Throw + Toss using balls with scarves, balls, and beanbags
- Sink + Float using toy boats, sponges, sticks, and stones
- Discover more treasure basket themes
|Invite older toddlers to sort loose parts using:
- Muffin tins
- Small buckets
- Hula hoops
- Draw squares with chalk to sort objects into
Toddlers can learn how their bodies move through space by running, crawling, scooting, and rolling up and down hills.
Outdoor cognitive activities for memory
- Recognizing differences between familiar and unfamiliar people, objects, actions, or events.
- Recognizing the stability/permanence of people and objects in the environment.
- Using memories to create more complex actions and thoughts.
|Follow a familiar path on walks or bike rides and point out landmarks for your toddler to learn
|Let your toddler try to lead the way home (you might be surprised how well they do!)
|Explore a nature trail
|Walk or bike down a new street and investigate new sights or sounds
Playing I Spy outside will help your toddler become familiar with their environment. They will also use their memory to search for objects or places.
|Take books outdoors for a sensory-rich reading experience
|Take photos outside to use in a DIY toddler book
|Set out a basket of books for your toddler to look at when they need to rest
|Read nature books outdoors and make connections between the stories and the environment
Stories about Outdoor Play
Later in the evening, talk with your toddler about what they did earlier while playing outside. They can share their memories and listen to yours.
Outdoor cognitive activities for reasoning and problem solving
- Learning to use a variety of strategies in solving problems.
- Using logic and planning to solve problems.
Along with all the incredible benefits of risk-taking play, toddlers learn to use their minds and bodies together. Even a task like climbing the ladder of a playset takes problem solving, logic, trial and error, and building muscle memory.
|Climbing stumps, playsets, stairs
|Climbing up the slide
|Balancing on balance beams, sidewalk edges, low retaining walls, parking blocks
|Carrying large or heavy objects like branches, rocks, crates, buckets
|Running, jumping, spinning, swinging, hanging
|Chase or rough-and-tumble play
Gather, Fill, and Spill
Toddlers naturally love gathering, filling, and spilling. They learn the best ways to gather, scoop, rake, dig, pour, and lift through this activity. Here are some different fill + dump materials:
- Buckets and cups of water
- Sand, mud, potting soil
- Pine needles
- Nuts and seeds
- Shovels and pails
- Toy construction and farm vehicles
*Cognitive skills based on the Head Start Early Learning Outcomes Framework.
Looking for more ideas? 8 Engaging Types of Cognitive Activities for Toddlers.
What are the Signs of Cognitive Developmental Delays in Toddlers?
Talk to your pediatrician if your toddler is:
- Not pointing at items
- Losing skills once had
- Not searching for items they saw you hide
- Not learning familiar items
- Not mimicking others
- Not able to follow simple instructions
This is not a comprehensive list of potential delays. While checklists like the CDC Milestone Tracker help, there is no replacement for intuition. Always reach out to your pediatrician if you have any concerns about your child’s development.
For those in the United States, you can also contact your local early intervention services for an evaluation.
Closing Thoughts on Outdoor Cognitive Activities for Toddlers
Outdoor play is essential for toddlers’ physical, emotional and cognitive development. The activities suggested in this blog post will help your toddler build creativity, memory, reasoning, and problem-solving skills. If you have any concerns about your child’s development, be sure to talk to your pediatrician.