By Juliet Robertson

Here’s a few simple outdoor learning experiences and play suggestions to do that can be easily squeezed into the hectic schedules in schools and pre-schools in the run up to Christmas. No more cabin fever. Let’s get out, get more sustainable and get going with free or low cost ideas. 

If you work in Early Years, some words of wisdom from Mrs Thomson, a Visiting Teacher in Falkirk Council, “These are amazing, valuable, festive ideas. It’s important to remember that seasonal events and experiences should still be valuable, developmentally appropriate and fun for all children involved. Sometimes this can be contradicting in delivering some of the traditional events.” So keep these suggestions handy and be responsive to the children with whom you work. 🙂 

1) Decorate a tree or bush outside as a bird feeding tree

  • Smear pine cones in salt-free peanut butter or lard and dip in bird seed
  • Make strings of popcorn
  • Create birdseed fatballs to hang up

Enjoy watching quietly to see which birds come and visit. If you don’t have a tree, put a branch in a large pot filled with stones or peat-free compost. This can be useful to help children understand what food is okay for birds to eat, such as seeds and what items are best avoided such as breadcrumbs. For more ideas about creating natural feeding areas for birds, have a look at this blog post. To make the activity more mathematical, then look for bird food recipes online and adapt accordingly to whether your children are working with cups, decimal or metric units. 

2) Look for Santa’s beard

When his Santa’s beard hair falls out, it lands all over the Earth and creates lichen. Have a hunt for some in your grounds or nearby greenspace. You will find lichen growing on rocks, old wall, gravestones, trees, roofs and fences. Give the children magnifying glasses to help see the lichen better. Lichen is very slow growing so it’s best to let the children take photos rather than pick off clumps. Lichens are often missed when it comes to learning about biodiversity yet are a core part of a healthy ecoystem and can be an indicator species that tells us if things are going well … or not! There are a number of website which offer downloadable ID guides. Do an online search, e.g. British Lichens


3) Set up an outdoor nativity scene for small world play

Once children have heard the Christmas story, make animals or use toy farm animals. Buy some allergy-free hay from a pet shop. Get children to think of substitute possibilities for any animals and people you don’t have. For example, the children may enjoy creating animals from natural materials such a clay, sticks and cones.  A large cardboard box turned on its side with flaps for the doors makes a simple stable which can be easily taken outside daily by children. Sometimes it’s possible to create a large set up in a shed rather than small world. 

The learning potential is quite flexible here… it can be about empathy and relating to animals. Not all children may know what a sheep or cow is, let alone a donkey. How can you change this? Older children can use an outdoor nativity scene to adapt the nativity and change the plot, characters or setting if they know the Christmas story really well. Likewise, the best way of checking an older child’s understanding of a story is to get them to retell it in a creative way. 

4) Take your nativity play outside (and into the community)

With the impact of Coronavirus, there has been more interest in holding outdoor nativity plays. A lovely example here is from Grasmere Primary School that used their whole village as the location for making a film about the nativity story. This film is suitable for children to watch and may give them ideas for developing their own outdoor plays. 

5) A nature advent celebration

A spiritually deeper option is to go for the beautiful approach of Rudolph Steiner and Waldorf philosophy that build a nature advent display week-on-week in a very significant and deliberate way. It cumulates with a spiral walk through evergreen branches – clearly linked to the Winter Solstice traditions. Many thanks to Dr Elizabeth Henderson for letting me know about this. If you do an online search, you will find plenty of advice and photos for inspiration. All of this is easily transferable to an outdoor context, especially the advent spiral walk. 

6) Go for a Christmas light walk

This is best in a residential area where children can look out for all the Christmas lights and other decorations. Look the variety of lights, indoors and out. Compare this with lights that are used all year round (a good reason for another walk in January). It can be also good to consider how to create your own set of lights back inside the classroom – do parallel circuits or lights in a series work best? Likewise, there may be inspirations for outdoor displays. 

7) Sing Christmas carols outside

If you haven’t time to organize a visit to a community group, then brainstorm with your class to find songs to sing in different places, e.g

  • Deck the Halls in the hall or a corridor
  • The Holly and the Ivy beside a holly bush, if you have one in your grounds. If you don’t, find the thorniest bush instead or one with berries on it.
  • Oh Christmas Tree!, near an evergreen tree, etc.

This can be a really interesting experiment – often singing sounds and feels different outside. Find out if any of your children have ever participated in a carol singing event outside. 

8) Light cubbies and candle lanterns

Make the experience even more of an occasion by creating little torch or candle lanterns to take with you. A lovely example of building light cubbies can be seen on this video from Upper Sturt Primary School in South Australia which extends the learning throughout the primary stages and may be relevant for other religious festivals of light. 


9) Follow the star

Set up a cardboard star trail around the school grounds. Children have to look for the stars hung in different places and complete the activities written on each star, e.g

  • Do 10 star jumps
  • Touch the grounds six times
  • Walk backward 5 paces, etc.

Better still, the children could create their own ideas for a star trail. This works for all ages. Older children can create trails for younger children to follow. This is a useful way of being physically activity and children realising how to keep warm outside. 


10) Create natural decorations and hang outside

It is possible to create simple stars from sticks and other natural materials. It can be useful for practising tying ribbon, weaving and other fine motor skills. Think about where would be a good place to put the decorations and who would want to enjoy seeing them. If you have cold weather, then use the opportunity to create ice decorations.

If you want to consider the maths opportunities of natural decoration, then check out this blog post for ideas. These are surprisingly challenging to do! 

11) Go on a present hunt

Wrap up a box in used gift paper or some material (waterproof stuff is ideal for damp, wet days). Take turns at hiding the box in different places outside for other children to find. Children can give clues such as “getting warmer” as a child gets closer to the box and “going cold” if a child moves further away or in the wrong direction. Your class may enjoy make their own gift boxes and deciding what free and found treasures should go in them. With older classes, this can be adapted to create a more complex hunt with clues and instructions. Alternatively, you could undertake a simplified version in French or another language. 

12) Re-use unwanted decorations

If your children love the glitzy look of Christmas decorations, then reuse old and unwanted Christmas decorations outside. Be aware that tinsel can shed and some decorations have glitter that can fall off – so only use decorations which do not pose a risk to other species or the land. 

  • Use Christmas ribbon and shiny material to decorate the features of your outdoor area. Weave ribbon through fences, around hanging baskets and tubs. Just ensure the material won’t dissolve in the rain and wet weather. This could be part of the fun, deciding which materials will work best. If a child does choose materials that go soggy then, let them and observe what happens. Most children learn experientially.
  • Hang plastic baubles on the fences and washing lines. Sorting, ordering and making patterns can arise through this sort of play.
  • Using guttering, roll plastic baubles down the guttering. See what happens when water is added. Use baubles of different shapes and sizes for comparison.
A welcome wreath at Oban Stramash Outdoor Nursery

13) Create a grotto for Santa outside

This is an adaptation of a den building challenge. You need to provide children with materials for den building but add in unwanted baubles and other items to make the grotto look interesting, e.g.

  • It needs to be big enough to house Santa sitting on a seat, a child by his side and lots of presents
  • It needs to provide Santa with shelter from the weather: wind, rain, snow
  • It needs to look inviting for children both at a distance and close up. What can you do to create an attractive entrance and pathway leading up to the grotto?

14) Have a special Christmas outdoor snack

Provide warm drinks such as warm spicy apple juice and warm foods such as mince pies outside. They do seem to taste extra good outdoors. Check out some more warm outdoor snacks and food options in this blog post. What Christmas food is possible to cook outside? Likewise, if your school or nursery celebrates other traditions, think about which traditional recipes work could be cooked on a campfire or made and eaten outside. 

15) Reindeer prints

Look online to find the pattern and spacing of reindeer hooves. Create a set of prints in the ground that disappear. Wonder with the children about where they have gone to, how they landed and so on. This is especially exciting after a visit from Santa and a good invitation into creative writing for older children. Likewise it could be a gateway activity into looking at different wildlife tracks. 

16) Find out about outdoor traditions, stories and plants associated with Christmas

Many plants are associated with Christmas… holly, ivy, fir trees, etc. Find out more about holly here. The Woodland Trust have a lovely idea for a nature Christmas scavenger hunt for traditional natural items as well as advice about looking out for UK wildlife which could be seen around Christmas. 

17) Winter solstice

This is a lovely celebration with lots of outdoor potential. Have a look at the Slow Family blog by Suz Lipman for an explanation of the Winter Solstice and some relevant traditions which could be explored by your class.

18) Create a “Giving Back to Nature” Advent Calendar

This idea was proposed by Emma Halley who established The Nature Nursery. Each day of advent has a wee box. The aim is to fill each box with an item that benefits nature in some way. Naturally the children will have their own ideas and it could be a scavenger hunt in advance. Alternatively, the boxes could be filled by staff and then used as a wee learning moment as each day another box is opened and used. 

19) Create your own count down calendar. 

Count downs to the holidays do not need to be about chocolate or religion. There’s lots of daily outdoor ways of celebrating such as:

  • In 2021, Plantlife Scotland released a daily native flower video celebrating the Gaelic name and other facts about our native plant species. 
  • With your class, develop a list of 24 outdoor or nature based experiences to undertake. 
  • At its most simple, hang a decoration outside on a tree and enjoy counting the collection as it grows. 

20) A spidery Christmas

Spider’s webs are wonderful to look at on cold winter’s days or nights when the frost hangs from the webs. Go looking for them. This is nature’s original tinsel: sparkly, beautiful and a gift of freezing cold weather. You are extra lucky if you find them on fir trees – nature’s original tree decorations! Can you find the spiders too? 

21) A stick Christmas tree

These are very absorbing to make and useful for children still learning the concept of long, longer, longest. Alone, in pairs or groups the children collect an agreed number of sticks lying on the ground. These have to be laid in order from smallest to largest to create a triangle. “Decorations” such as little leaves, berries or other natural found objects can also be added. If you only have an asphalt playground, then consider collecting or asking for donations of sticks in advance of the activity. Teach your children to be aware of the value of dead wood and to leave lichen-covered or rotting sticks in situ. 

22) Junk Christmas trees

No Christmas tree and no money? Fear not! Use what you’ve got. Ask your children to find or source items that can be safely stacked on top of each other to create junk ones. In the photo below, Stramash Elgin Outdoor Nursery secured the cable drums once the children had painted each one. Check out the choice of decorations too which could be added to … or removed! It is magnificent! 

23) Nature bunting

It’s very simple – attached leaves, threads of berries, pine cones, wooden discs and any other natural materials to twine to hang up between trees. The beauty of nature bunting is that it is adaptable to any religious or non-religious celebration or event. 

Disclaimer: I have bunting up all year round when the inclination takes me! 

24) A festive Daily Mile

If your class is undertaking the Daily Mile, then why not make it a festive fancy dress occasion. There’s no need for to buy costumes – they could be tricky to run in. But just attaching a plastic bauble to a hat or wearing something green, white or red could make the occasion a bit special. 

25) Play on the Darkest Day

This is a wonderful non-religious celebration of play. You will need to check your dates and sunrises and sunsets to work out precisely which day this is, but usually it is around 21st December. It is a wonderful way to wrap up term and prepare for the holidays ahead. For play in the dark suggestions, see here


I’ve a few more Christmas posts worth browsing from previous years. Check out: A Christmas Tree Enterprise for starters. Always remember to tidy up sparkly man-made items that wildlife may find appealing. The tiny fragment are hard to tidy up outside and quickly becomes litter that is not okay for wildlife to ingest, edible or otherwise.Try to avoid using glitter, tinsel and similar products as much as possible.