From the first hour of life, when a baby stares into the eyes of his new parents, he is learning all about this brave new world. Babies try to make sense of what they see, touch, taste, grab, hear, hold, and squeeze. Think of a baby clutching a hunk of ripe banana, slowly squeezing it, and watching in wonder as the yellow, creamy fruit slithers between his fingers.
Babies are born primed to learn how the world of people and objects works. That is why they love exploring their outdoor surroundings. Every bug, animal, or bird that your baby sees is a brand-new experience — especially because babies spend so much time indoors. When at the park or in your yard, don't be surprised if your baby wants to touch a nice earthworm as she inspects the grass at the edge of her blanket. Many babies love to feel a caterpillar crawling on their arms.
Natural experiences should come in doses that are understandable for your baby and in ways that keep your baby safe, of course. Babies are forever exploring, whether trying to poke a finger into an electrical socket or attempting to tip over a stand so that they can pull at and maybe taste the shiny green leaves of a plant. Babies are often unaware of dangers, and toddlers can climb with agility and fearlessness into hazardous situations. Be aware of the way your baby or toddler thinks. You might have a very gentle cat, but many a young toddler has pulled a cat's tail and received a strong scratch from the indignant cat! Social skills, such as decentering (taking the point of view of another) to consider the feelings of a peer or a kitty, are in short supply in infancy.
You might be surprised at how encounters in nature bring out a toddler's gentleness. Some will cry if you squash a Japanese beetle underfoot after you've seen the damage that beetle did to your rosebush leaves. Others will cry and protest if you clip the driveway bushes that are overhanging and scratching your car. Little children believe that moving things are alive. The bushes move and dance with the wind; your toddler thinks that maybe they are alive just as he is alive. Little children need a long time to learn about living and about death.
Opportunities to experience nature up close stimulate infant senses, provide loveliness for him to appreciate, and encourage you to label objects — flowers, plants, and animals — and to explain their characteristics. The following suggestions provide great ways for you and your child to safely experience the outdoors and will lead to rich learning experiences.
Observe animals in their natural habitat. As you walk with your baby in a pack on your back, point out sounds she can listen to, such as a bird chirping or crow cawing at the top of a tree. Point out the insects crawling, the doggies running around sniffing, and the squirrels climbing up trees. As your baby begins to use some language, she may call your attention to a bird flying up and settling on a tree branch. Rejoice with her excitement. The world of animals and birds is a new kind of discovery for her.
Encourage touching. In the park, you can introduce your baby to a great variety of nature's textures. Invite him to feel the grass and pinecones; to touch smooth, bumpy, and grainy textures.
Talk about the weather. Lure your little one to a window to notice light raindrops, driving rain, and the way thunder rolls and booms after you see a jagged lightning streak. Encourage her to listen to the wind make its howling noises as it rushes by. If there is a rainbow, take your toddler outside to see this awesome arc in the sky. As your child spends time outdoors, she will become a better observer of nature, including of weather patterns.
Your child might whine if she can't go out to play due to bad weather, but if you point out different patterns — of rain, lightning, hail, or hot sun — to your little one and explain that sometimes playing outside is not safe, then your child will be aware of the weather rather than think you are making up an arbitrary excuse about why she cannot go out.
Visit the zoo. Wheel your stroller close to an exhibit and point out what your baby is looking at, whether it's a seal splashing in the water or a monkey swinging from a branch. You have been reading animal stories to your little one from early on. Now, at the zoo, he gets to see all those creatures that were in the storybooks. Let your toddler tell you that he is watching Horton the elephant lift up his trunk!
Stroll through a garden. Flowers and plants offer your baby sensory and aesthetic pleasures. She will be sensitive to, and admiring of, the colors, sights, and sounds. Trees, flowers, and plants provide opportunities for talking about rough bark, delicate blossoms, and perfume smells. Some flowers are lovely to look at but don't have a smell when you sniff them. You can also pick up your baby to show her a butterfly nosing about to get nectar. (A butterfly bush in your garden will attract more of these beautiful "flying flowers!")
Grow plants. Planting is a wonderful way to generate toddler enthusiasm. When you serve orange or grapefruit slices for a snack, remove the seeds for planting. Citrus fruits, including lemons, make small, lovely plants with shiny, dark green leaves. Your toddler can spoon some dirt into a disposable drinking cup and drop the seeds into the mix. Water the plant every few days and soon two little leaves will sprout. These plants grow slowly, but they are precious to watch. Your child will learn that not only can he enjoy eating the fruit, he can make a plant grow from the fruit's seeds. How empowering for him! (Note: Flowers are lovely to adorn a home, but some plants have poisonous leaves. Be sure to keep only plants that are safe for children.)
Introducing your child to all aspects of nature will help her with language development, and will give her an appreciation for the needs of other creatures and a sense of pride at helping wildlife flourish. Enjoy these experiences together!