For most preschoolers, few things are more fun than getting to play in the dirt: It's messy, full of "icky" things, and, best of all, it's something you usually tell them not to do. Dirt and garden activities let your preschooler explore outdoors, learn some simple science concepts -- without even realizing they're learning -- and create things with their own hands. And you don't have to get fancy, either: Water and sticks are all your preschooler need to transform dirt into mud pies, and empty margarine and yogurt cups make perfect "bricks" to build a dirt castle.
Yes, Go Play in the Dirt
Playing in the dirt is just plain fun, from your preschooler's perspective. He doesn't care about developing his sensory or fine motor skills -- he doesn't even know what these are. But you can feel good about letting him be a messy monster outdoors, knowing he's experiencing different textures in the dirt and mud, as well as developing his fine motor skills by pulling out worms or digging for bugs. Let him use a wooden spoon to dig and poke tunnels for the worms or make little mountains of dirt for bugs.
Make a Garden
If you're a garden aficionado, your preschooler's garden isn't likely to meet your aesthetic standards, but it can be an entertaining, ongoing activity for her. Help her dig out a patch of your garden that's just for her. Pick out some seeds or plants together and let her arrange them any way she wants to. Encourage her to be creative, perhaps decorating her garden with a border of small rocks or drawing little signs to put in the garden to show what she's planted. Help her water the plants and encourage her to check on them as they grow to see them develop.
Dirt and garden activities aren't limited to outdoors. If it's too cold to play outside or plant things, bring the garden inside. Give your preschooler some small clay flowerpots and paints or markers to decorate them. When they're dry, let him plant flower and vegetable seeds in them. If you can't stand the idea of having dirt indoors, make a pretend garden. Turn a piece of green styrofoam into a yard or a brown one into a garden. Help your preschooler cut flowers out of craft foam or construction paper and glue them to craft sticks stems or green pipe cleaners. Let him "plant" them in the styrofoam base.
Dirt and Garden Play with Food
You've probably had to remind your preschooler not to eat her mud pies or put her dirty hands in her mouth when she's playing outside. Why not give her a chance to eat some "dirt" projects you make inside -- just make sure she knows the difference. Make cupcakes with brown "dirt" frosting and gummy bugs on top or baked inside. A boring cup of yogurt becomes a cool dessert treat when you let her sprinkle crushed chocolate cookies on top and stick in a couple gummy worms. If you're feeling really creative, make cutout cookies in flower shapes and let your preschooler decorate them with colored frosting and sprinkles.