Children's Museum of South Dakota

Beyond Prairie Play


Wonder and Grow

Explore at home, ideas and activities, either before coming to the museum or after your visit.


Here are some fun ideas and activities to spark interest and play at home, either before coming to the museum or after your visit.

Outdoor play holds significant benefits for children. Research studies indicate that children with opportunities for nature play showed significantly greater powers of concentration and were more resilient against stress and adversity. On tests of motor fitness, children with experiences in nature play showed greater gains over the course of the school year, especially in balance and agility.

Studies also found that children with ADD and ADHD exhibited fewer symptoms after they played outdoors. Childhood play in nature is commonly associated with recycling, buying green products, and is the choice of natural areas for recreation in adulthood.

The activities on this page can extend your family’s outdoor experiences.


Nature Play

Being outside, climbing around logs and boulders, making mud pies, and building forts are great outdoor activities.  Here are a few ideas to try in your own backyard or nearby park.

Build a fort together. 
Build it in your backyard using outdoor furniture and blankets.

Go puddle jumping.
After it rains, find a mud puddle to play in together.

Create designs out of natural materials, like sticks and peddles. 
Use Andy Goldsworthy’s books, Wood or Stone for inspiration.

Read poetry outside together. 
Try Robert Frost’s Seasons.

Go bird watching in your favorite nearby park.
There are many different types of birds at McCrory Gardens. Bring along a bird watching field guide, like Backyard Birds, by Jonathon Latimer and Karen Stray Nolting or Backyard Bird Watching for Kids, by George Harrison.

Make a plan to attract birds to your backyard. 
Consider including bird feeders and bird houses in your plan. The book, Backyard Bird Watching for Kids, by George Harrison has excellent instructions and visual plans for both.

Examine the insects and ants in your back yard. 
Do a “belly walk” together by placing a circle of string on the lawn and examining what is inside the circle of string. The book, Your Backyard with Step-by-Step Projects for the Young Scientist, In: Discovering Nature Series, by Sally Hewitt.

Go on an adventure. 
Identify the different types of trees in your neighborhood. Bring along a field guide for trees to help you in the identification process. Trees, Leaves, and Bark, In: Young Naturalist Field Guides Series, by Diane L. Burns & Linda Garrow would be a great book to assist you.

Pick apples together.
In the fall, visit an apple orchard and pick apples together.

Collect and dry flower seeds and pods. 
In the spring, the seeds could be planted in a garden.

Compare the different seed and pods that you find. 
Notice how they are the same and how they are different.

Take photos once a month of one tree throughout all of the seasons. 
Discuss the changes together as you compare the photos.

Begin a compost leaf pile in your yard. 
If you turn it over about once every two months, it will decay faster. When turning it, talk about the changes in the leaves that you see.

Go stargazing.
Watch the moon over a period of a month. Each night, go out together and notice the changes in it.  Perhaps, draw the moon each night and write the date on it – so you can compare the different drawings over a period of time.

Plant milkweed seeds in a corner of your yard. 
When they grow, they will attract monarch butterflies and later become food for monarch caterpillars.

In the fall, plant your favorite flowering bulbs in your yard. 
In the spring, watch for their growth.

Ask questions about nature together and then find out the answers. 
The book, Janice VanCleave’s Play and Find Out About Nature: Easy Experiments for Young Children, by Janice VanCleave can help support your inquiry.


Playing in and experimenting with water movement in a stream can supply hours of fascination. Here are a few more activities to extend the time outdoors.

Find sticks that would make good ‘boats’ and float them down a nearby stream. 
Often a stream in a farm field or state park works best so that you can follow the path of the sticks as they float.

Find a small stream and wade in it.
Observe the small aquatic animals you find.

Go hiking along a stream and note how the water has carved a path into the land. 
The book, Rivers, Ponds, and Lakes by Nick Baker can list other activities to do around bodies of water. 

Dam up water in a stream with stones. 
Watch how it changes the course of the stream.

Find a beavers’ dam in nature. 
Stop and look at it more closely (you may need binoculars for this).  Note how high it is and from what it is made. Visit the World Book Encyclopedia Cyber Camp online to learn more about beavers.

Look for downed logs in nature. 
Move them slightly to see what is under them. Talk about the different types of insects and creatures you find.

On the Prairie

The prairie and open spaces in South Dakota hold many surprises.  Go out and explore them with your family.

Visit nearby prairies or natural grasslands.
Try the Hole in the Wall Prairie area near Lake Benton, Minnesota.

Hunt for wildflowers with your child. 
Bring along a plant and flower guide, like Wildflowers, Blooms, and Blossoms, In: Young Naturalist Field Guides, by Diane Burns & Linda Garrow, to assist you in identifying what you find.

In the spring, watch for birds flying with dry grasses in their beaks. 
Look around you to see if you can spot where they are building their nests.

Visit nearby prairie lakes to look for wildlife around the water. 
In the spring, look for baby ducks or baby geese. Visit them often to watch their growth.

Search for dandelions in a field or park that have turned into white puff balls. 
Pick a few and blow. Watch the seeds take flight.

Plant a garden together and tend it throughout the summer months. 
Harvest the flowers and vegetables when ready. The book, Garden Crafts for Kids: 50 Great Reasons to Get Your Hands Dirty, by Diane Rhoades can give you additional ideas about gardening and harvesting the goods of your labor.

Visit a nearby archeological or paleontology dig to see firsthand where fossils and artifacts are found. 
The South Dakota – Explore Life Website lists digs across the state.

Continue to play, explore and go…for additional activities to try at home or at school, check out the Teacher Resources.

Before & Beyond Prairie Play Gallery - Activity Guide

Pressing Prairie Flowers

Take some time to smell the flowers, examine them and preserve them as memories of your day for years to come.

What You’ll Need:

  • Flowers
  • Herb (optional)
  • Leaves (optional)
  • Large phonebook or dictionary
  • More books or heavy objects

Set Up:
After picking your favorite flowers, leaves or herbs, put them in the refrigerator or freezer to keep them from wilting while you prepare your pressing materials.

What to Do:

  1. Place the flowers, leaves or herbs on the inside fold of the sheet of newspaper. Make sure there is no overlapping of leaves, petals, or stems and fold the top half of the newspaper sheet down over the flowers.
  2. Open the dictionary or phone book and place the newspaper in the middle.
  3. Close the dictionary and place the other books or heavy objects on top. The drying process takes about 3 days. Once the flowers are pressed and dried, you can use them in arrangements, artwork or as gifts.

Ideas for More:

  • Paint the flowers with watercolors to restore their natural colors.
  • Use the dried flowers to make paper or decorate a journal.
  • Make the dried flowers into a picture and frame it.
  • Laminate the flowers and make them into bookmarks.

Length of Activity:
Collecting flowers-5 minutes to several years
Pressing flowers-3 days

Eaton, Marge, and George Overlie. Flower Pressing. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1973.

Cloud Watching

The walls of the Our Place on the Prairie Gallery have captured South Dakota’s prairie skies, much like Harvey Dunn painted the skies in his work. South Dakota skies are ever changing and cloud watching is a great way to have fun and build your child’s imagination.

What You’ll Need: 

  • Yourself and your child!
  • Blanket
  • A sketchpad or paper to draw (optional)
  • Pencil or other drawing utensil (optional)

Set Up:
Find a grassy spot on a sunny day with clouds in the sky. Spread out the blanket on the grassy spot.

What to Do:

  1. Lay down on the blanket.
  2. Look up into the sky.
  3. Point out clouds that look like different objects to you.
  4. Talk with your child about the different objects and how they change into other objects as the clouds move across the sky.
  5. Perhaps draw the objects or clouds that you have pointed out as a way to remember them.

Ideas for More:
Learn about the different types of clouds. There are three levels of clouds: Stratus, Altostratus, and Cirrus. There are many different types of clouds: Stratus, Cumulus, Stratocumulus, Altostratus, Altocumulus, Cirrus, Cirrostratus, Cirrocumulus, and Cumulonimbus. Check out the National Center for Atmospheric Research website for kids listed below.

Moon Journal

The Prairie Play gallery is always changing as the seasons change. It also looks different at night. The moon is a fascinating, ever changing object. Noticing its changes can raise lots of questions about it, the earth, and the environment in which we live.

What You’ll Need: 

  • Yourself and your child!
  • Blanket
  • A sketchpad or paper for each to draw and to write
  • Pencils, crayons, or other drawing utensils

Set Up:
Select a place where you can easily view the moon in your front or back yard which is away from yard lights or street lights. While choosing the spot, consider if you will be able to view the moon from that spot during the length of time that you choose to work on your moon journal. You will want a viewing place which you can return to each night for viewing. Then gather the materials that you will need and store them in a convenient spot.

What to Do:

  1. Choose a length of time that you would like to view the moon. Ideally, in order to capture the full cycle of the moon, 28 days or greater – like 30 days would be a suggested length of time. However, a shorter or longer length of time is fine too.
  2. Select a time on the first night to go out to view the moon. Choose a time that could be approximately the same time for future nights, so that the location and time of viewing will remain the same over the length of time for viewing the moon.
  3. While viewing the moon on the first night, each draw a sketch of what it looks like and then spend some time thinking of words to describe it.
  4. Once finished with the viewing, take some time with your child to add to your drawings in your journals by jotting down your and your child’s thoughts about the experience.
  5. Finally, choose a way to express your initial thoughts and experience by creating a visual representation of the moon, such as a crayon drawing or a verbal representation, such as a poem about your experience.

Ideas for More:

  • After viewing the moon, create a list of curiosity questions for you and your child. Think about and perhaps make a plan to answer a few of the questions at a time.
  • Write a poem about your curiosity questions list.
  • Create the moon’s shape in 3D using found items around your home.
  • Paint how the moon looked and write a poem about it.
  • Create a story about the moon, adding in bits of your experience with viewing the moon.
  • Write down “a conversation that you might have with the moon” and creatively include the moon’s responses.
  • Paint the moon and then use salt dropping to create clouds and stars around it. This is one of the many, many ideas in Moon Journals: Writing, Art, and Inquiry through focused nature study by Joni Chancer & Gina Rester-Zodrow listed below in the Resources section.
  • For younger children, read a book about the moon, such as The Best Book of the Moon, by Ian Graham, published by Kingfisher; The Moon Book, by Gail Gibbons; or The Moon, by Michael George.
  • For older children who would like to experiment with moon related ideas, Cosmic Science, by Jim Wiese would be an excellent resource.

Length of Activity:
Initial Viewing: Approximately 5-10 minutes
Initial Reflection Notes: 5 minutes
Culminating Drawing: From 15 minutes to a longer period of time, depending on the drawing or writing activity chosen.
Completing a Full Cycle of the Moon: 28 days

Resources: Chancer, J. & Resler-Zodrow, G. (1997). Moon Journals: Writing, Art, and Inquiry through Focused Nature Study. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Publishing.

Zooming In Outside

The prairie seems like a vast open area with little life, yet when one looks more closely, living creatures abound! Zoom in with your child and see what you can find together.

What You’ll Need:

  • Your eyes
  • String to make a 3 foot loop
  • Magnifying glass (optional)
  • Binoculars (optional)

Set Up:
Collect supplies and find an interesting spot in your backyard or local park.

What to Do:

  1. Take your string and make it into a fun shape like a circle, square or rectangle.
  2. Observe the different creatures, plants or unique objects are inside the string.

Ideas for More:

  • If you have a hula-hoop available you can use it instead of string.
  • Collect interesting leaves or flowers that you see and press them.
  • Bring a notepad and paper and draw what you observe.
  • Keep some of the insects you found in a jar with holes for further inspection.
  • Create a journal of different “Zooming In” experiences.

Length of Activity:
Set Up - 5 to 10 minutes if supplies are readily available

Resource: Ward, Jennifer. I Love Dirt!: 52 Activities to Help You and Your Kids Discover the Wonders of Nature. Boston: Trumpeter, 2008. Print.

Additional Resources:

Building a Backyard Fort

The Nature Area of the Prairie Play holds opportunities to build forts outside. This idea will extend fort play to a child’s own backyard.

What You’ll Need:

  • Three 4’ branches or 1” x 2” boards to use as a frame
  • Twine to secure branches or boards together
  • Sheet or blanket to cover frame

Set Up:
Collect supplies and select a spot in the back yard to build the fort.

What to Do:

  1. Use the twine to secure the three boards or branches together at one end – about 6” in from the ends.
  2. Stand the boards or branches on end and spread out so that the boards/branches balance against each other.
  3. Spread the sheet or blanket across the boards or branches.
  4. Select a doorway area for the fort.
  5. Enjoy!

Ideas for More:

  • It’s possible to make it considerably rainproof by using a tarp or plastic sheet instead.
  • Furnish your fort. This can be anything from pictures to pillows or cushions. 
  • Create a welcome mat for your outdoor fort.
  • Create a fort in a tree – this is more of an extensive outdoor project.

Length of Activity:
Set Up - 5 minutes if supplies are readily available
Building the Fort - 10 minutes to several hours