Week 4, Day 3: Art in Nature

Nature-inspired art projects are frequently part of our Nature Playtime class. (Photo by Denise Matthews)

Nature has been a muse for artists throughout human history. Let it inspire you today, too!

Today we’re challenging you to get outside and make some art with or inspired by nature. We’d love to see what you come up with in today’s challenge, please share your photos!

Blog Post:

Local artist Elena J. Perez explores how she creates art with pieces of nature and how the environment inspires her art in today’s blog post.

Members of Nature Playtime create some land art using leaves and acorns. (Photo by Denise Matthews)

Craft & Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

Go outside. Spend some time getting a feel for the area, and gather natural materials that speak to you. Use them to create land art, ideally using the materials in the area where you found them. If you like, take a picture of your artwork, and share it with us! Leave the art for others to discover, and to break down naturally over time.

See some additional tips here.

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

If you already create art in nature, what better excuse to get outside and create art the best way you know how! Draw or paint the landscape, spend some time sketching in your nature journal, or whatever you prefer. Tell us how nature inspires you to make art and, if you’d like, share a photo of your work with us!

This is also a great opportunity to try out something new. If you’re accustomed to making art in a journal or on a canvas, today could be a good day to try out some land art, as suggested above, or experiment with new subjects or mediums.

Other Resources:

Share Your Experience:

Tell us how you like to enjoy nature! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Join us tomorrow to explore our trails!

Week 4, Day 2: Gardening

A member of PEEC’s Nature Playtime group digs in the garden bed at the nature center. (Photo by Denise Matthews)

Since many of us are spending so much time at home, we’re spending more time than usual staring at the state of our homes and gardens. For some of you, your gardens are getting nervous, wondering what’s in store for them this year!

Whether you have a prizewinning garden, or can hardly even keep your weeds alive, gardening is a sensory experience, a never-ending puzzle, and can be a great way to spend some quality time outside at your own house.

Blog Post:

Natali Steinberg was our featured naturalist at the nature center last year. Learn more about her in this short video.

Natali Steinberg, a veteran farmer who is now responsible for the gardens at the senior facility where she lives, not to mention the beautiful native plant bed at the Los Alamos Nature Center, shares some of her tips for a successful spring garden.


Creating painted stone plant labels are a great way for kids to help out in the garden. Start by finding small rocks outside. Then, let kids paint them different colors, representing the plants you hope to include in your garden. Add details with a Sharpie or paint them to make a face!

Don’t have a garden? You can paint stones to look like different insects, creatures, designs, or inspiring words, and then place them in potted plants, or use them as decorations around your house and yard.

Find detailed instructions here.

Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

Members of Nature Playtime show off a worm! (Photo by Denise Matthews)

Soil is the foundation of your garden. Did you know that soil contains both biotic (living) and abiotic (nonliving) components, and that these parts work together to support plant growth? Go outside and gather a container of soil. Try to find the following parts, using a magnifying glass if you have one:

  • Pieces of rock of different sizes
  • Sticks, leaves, and other plant matter
  • Insects or worms
  • Air pockets
  • Water (can you feel any dampness?)

After you’ve examined your soil, try this experiment: pour a scoop of soil into a transparent container with a lid. Fill the rest of the container with water. Close the lid, and shake the soil thoroughly. Watch what happens as the soil settles. Draw the layers you see.

For more about the parts of soil, check out the book Dirt: The Scoop on Soil by Natalie Rosinsky. From the publisher’s site you can read it online or have it read to you!

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

There’s so much more happening in soil than meets the eye. Many gardeners add organic matter to their soil to improve nutrient content and water absorption, among other benefits. Learn more about different garden soil types here and how to test your soil in this video. Take a closer look at the organic matter in your soil, or in the soil in a favorite natural area. Many of the components are too small to see with your naked eye, but try to find the following:

  • Living organisms (including earthworms, arthropods, and fungi)
  • Recently dead plant material
  • Actively decomposing material
  • Humus, the “end product” of decomposition, which makes soil black
  • Evidence of organisms eating other organisms

To learn more about the fascinating soil system, see the National Resources Conservation Service’s page about the Soil Food Web.

Other Resources:

Share Your Experience:

Tell us how you like to enjoy nature! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Join us tomorrow to learn about creating art in nature!

Week 4, Day 1: Nature Play and Relaxation

Members of PEEC’s Forest Explorers club hang out in a fort they constructed. (Photo by Denise Matthews)

Welcome to week four of Take It Outside! This week, we are focusing on ways to enjoy the outdoors. Our first post is about nature play, in forms appropriate for children and adults alike.

If you haven’t already, please share your feedback on Take It Outside with us by filling out this evaluation form.

Blog Post:

Denise Matthews, PEEC’s Play-based Education Specialist, and long-time teacher of PEEC’s Nature Playtime and Forest Explorer programs, writes about the benefits of nature play and fort building for children.

In case fort building isn’t your speed, she also discusses creating a natural, quiet retreat in your outdoor space and how this can benefit both children and adults.

Craft & Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

Members of PEEC’s Forest Explorers club gather materials to build a fort. (Photo by Denise Matthews)

Go to a favorite outdoor area and build something! It can be a fort that you can fit in, or a mini-house for a fairy or a beetle or a toy creature. It could be a tower of rocks, or a nest, or a natural obstacle course. Use your imagination!

Here are some tips for getting children started playing outside:

  • Use parallel play. Sit down yourself and start to lean sticks against each other, or sort rocks into piles by color or size. Children are curious and will often start to play when they see others playing around them.
  • Use a toy as a prompt. A toy animal or doll can spark role-playing ideas outdoors, and an old wooden spoon or a recycled container can jump-start a mud-pie kitchen.
  • Make shapes with objects: Arrange sticks into a square, or pinecones into a circle. The shapes can remind children of objects they know, and the connections begin.
  • Add water. Even a small amount of water can flow down small ravines, move sand grains, or make dirt into mud. 
  • Ask questions. What would happen if … ? What kind of pie is that?
  • As children get more involved, follow their lead! You can step back and see where their imagination takes them.

Send us a picture of what you built!

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

The practice of living in the moment, often referred to as mindfulness, helps many people reduce anxiety, regulate emotions, and feel more fulfilled in their lives. Try out this mindfulness exercise in a favorite outdoor spot.

Start by getting comfortable and taking a few deep breaths. Start to look around as if you have never seen the area before, paying attention to:

  • Five things you can see;
  • Four things you can feel;
  • Three things you can hear;
  • Two things you can smell;
  • One thing you can taste.

Try picking things you don’t normally notice. This is a great exercise to rapidly bring you into a mindful state.

Other Resources:

Share Your Experience:

Tell us how you like to enjoy nature! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Join us tomorrow to explore the joys of gardening!

Nature Play for All Ages

Spending time in nature helps children learn to take appropriate risks and how to develop judgment, confidence, and self-discipline. (Photo by Denise Matthews)

By Denise Matthews

Every spring the natural world wakes up, like an old friend saying hello. The apricots blossom, the daffodils emerge, the ants begin their work, and the lizards find warm, sunny rocks. You may remember a special place where you have felt the excitement and security of this new life around you. If that special place is a long-lost memory, it may be time to find a new one. Nature has long been known to provide a place of calming retreat. In this difficult time of extended isolation, creating your own outdoor getaway can allow you daily access to the many benefits nature provides.

Research shows that time spent in nature improves physical and mental health while building up resiliency, or the capacity to cope with stress and adversity. Children and adults alike have the ability to take advantage of nature’s healing properties by finding a special place that calls to their hearts and mind. This could be a garden retreat spot, a skillfully constructed fort, a sit spot next to water, or a comfy place under your favorite tree. Wherever you choose for your refuge, it is sure to provide a place to be mindful and present with the world around you.

Fort Building With Children

PEEC’s Forest Explorers club regularly builds forts in the canyon near the nature center! (Photo by Denise Matthews)

For children, the process of building a fort is a challenge with many benefits that results in an ideal retreat spot. Taking kids outdoors to build and create with natural materials is often referred to as “nature play”. However, the phrase “play” is not to be taken lightly. When led by the child, outdoor play is considered an essential part of healthy human development. Unfortunately, in the United States, outdoor free time (separate from recess) has diminished to an average of 30 minutes per week.

Free play has been found to minimize anxiety, depression, aggression, and sleep problems. Experiencing the natural environment allows children to take appropriate risks and learn how to develop judgment, confidence, and self-discipline. Building a fort with others is the perfect combination of challenge and teamwork.

Children will feel the calming benefits of nature while experiencing the season through play in their hideaway. They may collect materials and make “soup”, create natural art, or decorate their surroundings. All of this imaginative play builds socio-emotional, physical, and cognitive abilities. Over time, encouraging children to journal and quietly observe can provide a much-needed stillness in their busy lives. Learn more about the benefits fort building can provide from the Children and Nature Network.

Building an outdoor fort may seem intimidating at first, but it really can be as simple as finding some good, strong, long branches and laying them up against a large log or rock. Start small, no need to use nails or hammers. Let kids experiment with balance and stability. As time allows, forts will evolve. Let children be the architects! Find ideas on how to get started on your fort here. 

Fort Building Is Not Just for Children

Spending time outdoors is just as beneficial for adults as it is for children! You can find nature in your yard or the area around your home. (Photo by Denise Matthews)

“Go outside and play,” is something many say to children, but recently doctors have been writing prescriptions for adults to go outside as well! Spending at least 20 minutes outdoors each day, in a park-like setting, has been found to improve mood, reduce stress, and lower blood pressure. Receiving the benefits of nature doesn’t mean you need to leave your yard.

A personalized garden retreat spot serves as a sanctuary to take in the natural world, practice mindfulness, and gain awareness for seasonal change. Don’t have a garden? Your “garden” can be a potted plant or can take advantage of the natural features in your yard. When creating your garden retreat spot, think about textures, sounds, smells, colors, and comfort.

Features to consider:

  • A balance between hard and soft structure. Mix natural volcanic rock with smooth rocks or sand and provide a living “forest” element with a potted or natural evergreen tree.
  • Allow for native grasses to grow long and sway for calming movement.
  • Select shrubs or flowers that have varied blooming times and are colorful or scented.
  • A comfortable place to sit, possibly a cushion, hammock, or swing.
  • A bamboo screen can provide shade and a sense of security. 

Make sure to spend time in your special place throughout the year. As seasons change, nature goes through diverse cycles that sustain life, inspire observation, and provide relief to the senses. Have fun getting outside to play! 

Check out today’s Take It Outside challenge for ideas on how to get started practicing mindfulness. 

Thank You, 100+ Women Who Care!

The Pajarito Environmental Education Center wishes to give a big thank you to 100+ Women Who Care for supporting our Nature Playtime program at their quarterly meeting in February!

“Thanks to the generosity of 100+ Women Who Care, we’re halfway to the amount we need to keep Nature Playtimes free for all who wish to attend. Because of their generous support, children will be getting outside to exercise their bodies and minds as they have fun, play, and learn all about the nature in our backyards,” PEEC’s Executive Director Katie Bruell said. “We’re so grateful for 100+ Women Who Care and all the good work they do in our community.”

Nature Playtime is consistently one of PEEC’s most popular programs and serves hundreds of children annually. The class meets every Monday morning (except holidays) from 10 – 11 AM by the Rotary Treehouse at the nature center. PEEC Educator Denise Matthews has taught this program for four and a half years.

“Nature Playtime provides a unique resource in the community where families with young children can come together over a love of nature,” Denise said. “The class allows children time to lead the way when exploring the outdoors, while also incorporating interactive learning opportunities that help children build a sense of place within our canyons and mesas.”

The class meets year-round and allows children to experience the joy and wonder of seasonal changes on the Pajarito Plateau. Kids might dig for worms, make flower crowns, sort fall leaves, or sled in the snow during this program.

“Families often comment on how excited their child is to come and explore with Nature Playtime friends. Parents are happy to be included in a community that shares their desire to get outside,” Denise said.

Nature Playtime is designed for children ages 0 – 5 and their caregivers. The program is free to attend and no registration is required. Find out more here.

Photo: Enterprise Bank & Trust Los Alamos Market President Liddie Martinez, Katie Bruell, and Nature Playtime parent Desta Parkinson with her children McKindrey, 7, and Calise, 5. Desta, McKindrey, and Calise helped Katie deliver the presentation on Nature Playtime to 100+ Women Who Care. (Photo by Kristen Carmichael/Los Alamos Daily Post)

Nature Playtimes Garden

Our Nature Playtimes program, designed for toddlers, preschoolers, and their caregivers, has a new way to connect with nature this summer, through gardening. On Monday, May 22, kids and their caregivers planted the raised bed and painted a sign for the garden.

Over the summer, Nature Playtimes will watch the plants grow and continue to learn about plants. Here are photos from May 22:


Nature Playtimes meets on Mondays, except holidays, and is free thanks to support from Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Mexico.