Infants & Toddlers: Let's Go Outside!
Fresh-air activities bring rosy cheeks, sparkling eyes, and new windows on the world.
- Grades: PreK–K
Babies need and enjoy sensory experiences with nature.
Outdoor spaces should offer toddlers safe places to explore.
There are so many things to do outdoors. And if a baby is cozily bundled up, a nap on a screened porch is a refreshing change - even in cooler weather.
Nurturing With Nature
Seeing and smelling - such pleasing experiences for infants outdoors. In mild weather, be sure to push strollers to places where babies can see, touch, and smell flowering plants. They want to feel the rough bark of a tree, the soft brush of wild grasses or grains of sand, and explore the many textures of large stones and rocks. You can guide this sensory journey as you help them to notice their natural surroundings, like the gently swaying leaves in a summery tree.
If possible, consider landscaping your outdoors with a flowering hedge of perfumed jasmine to delight babies' sense of smell. And on a warm summer day, babies who sit well relish the experience of a shallow wading pool, where they can splash in a few inches of water while you cheer on their discovery of wet versus dry. Be sure babies wear hats and have sunscreen on exposed skin.
If you can arrange to wheel strollers to a pond, be sure to bring bread crumbs for the ducks. Babies love to be part of the ritual of feeding ducks (and fish too). One 10-month-old, whose visits to the duck pond were such a pleasurable part of daily outdoor excursions, said "duck" as her first Word! If there are flocks of birds that visit a grassy space near your program, babies will also delight in watching them swirl down to peck at seeds you've scattered for them.
Lawns and other safe outdoor spaces are wonderful places to set babies down on their stomachs so they can observe from close range ants busy crawling, grass moving, grasshoppers leaping, buttercups all yellow and dainty. This arrangement will also give babies opportunities to push up from their bellies and strengthen their arm muscles. Be sure to bring along wet wipes, as babies love to squeeze dirt in their fingers. At the same time, you can help them understand that they may squeeze, touch, and sniff but may not eat many of the earthy materials outdoors.
Even a stroll to mail a letter can be an adventure! Lift up baby so he can drop your letter into the slot. And be sure to point out interesting events along the way: "See the doggy sniffing near that fire hydrant?" "See the light turn green at the corner? Now all the cars know they can go zoom, zoom along the street." "Hear the siren wailing as the fire truck rushes to put out a fire?" The sights and sounds of an urban landscape provide so many opportunities for using new words with little ones. You'll see sights together and speak the words, such as truck or car or green light or bus, that babies will have seen and pointed to in picture books.
Outdoor play in a large sandbox is a delightful sensory experience for very young children. Sandboxes invite babies to use their fingers and hands and, at the same time, to begin to learn simple rules, such as "The sand stays inside the sandbox." Infants develop dexterity while filling and emptying pails or sifting sand with a flour sifter. They learn how sand feels dry and how it feels wet, when mixed with water. And, of great importance, they get a chance to play peacefully next to peers. This companionable side-by-side play is the precursor to more interactive play older babies will come to enjoy.
A seesaw is more fun when a peer participates. Going up and down a slide is more exciting when a few children run, run, run to climb to the top and share one another's exhilaration. Outdoor playtime provides excellent opportunities to help children learn to take turns and to share activities.
Playground equipment offers exercise that challenges growing toddler muscles - pushing on swings and seesaws, climbing steps before swooping down the slide. Outdoors, toddlers learn to trust their bodies as they attempt more and more kinds of movement. A well-equipped playground not only enhances this physical well-being but also gives children newfound appreciation of how their bodies move in space. Outdoor play helps toddlers gain confidence as their competence and agility grow.
Digging and Exploring the Earth
Most toddlers love to muck about in mud and earth. So playground space needs to offer places where they can dig holes and fill pails. If you set aside an area for planting, toddlers will be very willing helpers - making holes, pouring water in each one, enjoying giving each baby plant a better chance to grow. And every day they help, children will be learning about responsibility. Watching how a young seedling grows into a big tomato plant, a flowering zinnia, or a colorful bed of pansies is a priceless learning experience.
Toddlers have already seen many urban landscapes in the picture books you've read and heard about them in the songs you've sung together. Walking outside, be sure to point out real-life urban examples of buses, trucks, cars honking horns, people crossing at the green light, stores that sell vegetables, and people walking their pets. And don't forget excursions to the zoo. In a petting zoo, toddlers are so joyful petting an animal they've only seen in a picture book or laughed about during a fingerplay.
Whenever you can arrange outdoor experiences for your little ones, know that you are helping them experience another dimension of living - far different from indoor spaces. So give them windows on new worlds - visit a park, zoo, flower garden, or a duck pond, or even stroll to the corner store.