Toddlers are amazing little people. They are so ready and willing to take in their new world. So curious. So playful. So ready to explore. So exhausting!
Being a parent or caregiver to these little people is a huge responsibility. The first few years of a child’s life are crucial for intellectual, emotional, and physical development. The brain is growing at a rapid rate and the experiences a toddler has can shape how he or she grows. We say, why not bring in some help? Mother Nature can help keep a toddler engaged and learning.
In fact, nature is one of the very best places for them to learn and grow during this critical stage. It can help toddlers thrive in so many developmental areas, including cognitive, emotional, social, fine motor skills. From vital sensory information to a boost to immunity or much-needed challenges to their gross motor skills, the outdoors has it all for toddlers.
If you are a lucky parent or caregiver of one of these vivacious little people, try to take him or her outdoors as often as possible to take advantage of these benefits and so many others. A simple approach is to take indoor activities outdoors as often as possible. Read outside. Garden with your toddler. Have them gather up their teddy bears and have a picnic outdoors. Bring them to nature whenever you can and it will become a natural part of their life.
In addition, here are some of our favorite—FUN— things to do with toddlers outdoors:
1. Mud Play
Toddlers use their hands a lot! It’s their way of discovering the world around them. Touch is one of the most important senses for a toddler. And what could be more fulfilling than mud!? A great way to encourage mud play is to put up a mud kitchen. Mud kitchens can be as simple as putting out some old containers, sticks, and water or it can be a miniature kitchen complete with a double basin sink. Do what suits you and your child. You can buy one if you need one fast and easy. But it's also very easy to do it yourself. Simply place a toddler-height table or surface outside. This could be a wooden plank safely set across two buckets or even a wide tree stump (free from biting insects!). Then just collect a bunch of cake pans, cups, plastic dishes, spoons, and spatulas. Put them out with some loose dirt or sand, add a pitcher or jug of water. Voila. The kitchen is open!
What about all that dirt, you might ask? Well turns out it’s necessary for kids. From infancy on, every germ you fight off increases your ability to fight the germ off again later on. A child's immune systems really need to encounter a lot of dirt so it gets challenged and responds quickly and accurately to germs. When kids don’t get exposed to enough dirt, their immune systems start making the sort of serious mistakes that can lead to autoimmune illnesses, allergies, and asthma.
Along the dirt theme, gardening is a fantastic activity for toddlers Growing plants grow is just fun for children of all ages. How exciting to see the first seedling pop out from a seed planted and cared for by a child! And don’t forget that gardening will help your child spend more time outside, relax and take in more benefits of nature.
A super fun project for a toddler is to create a tiny, miniature garden for seedlings indoors. Your toddler can spoon some dirt into a disposable drinking cup, drop the seeds into the mix, help with watering and then watch as nature takes over! We have the easy-to-follow “how-to” right here for you!
Some days, your toddler (and you) just really need to get out on a hike. Hiking can become a saving grace to a parent with a fussy baby or toddler. While some children are overstimulated by indoor lights, sounds, and smells, something about the outdoors just settles them. And hiking can provide a necessary mental health boost to adults, helping a parent feel connected with nature, themselves, and their child. Still, getting your baby or toddler in the hiking state of mind is a wonderful thing but it can take some persistence, practice, and a few tips! Here are some of ours for hiking with youngins!
4. Nature Meandering
Hikes are great for exercise and reaching goals (even if it is going for 15 minutes without a fit!). But one of the best ways to let your toddler enjoy nature is to let them explore at their own pace. Let them lead the way to take in the outdoor world as they choose, as long as it’s safe and you’re staying close by. Let your toddler meander in a natural place like a path in the woods, a garden, or a park. As you walk alongside, be sure to point out sights, sounds, and textures. Name what you see as well to develop a young naturalist’s vocabulary.
5. Nature Ninja Time
Of course, toddlers are bundles of energy and are often just raring to go! This is when nature ninja time is needed. Nature ninja time just means using the natural elements in nature to help your toddler develop their gross motor (or physical) skills. Look for logs to climb over, small bridges to climb, tree roots to navigate. Nature provides the BEST obstacle course with ways to improve balance, orientation in space, and negotiating inclines and different levels.
Head to a natural area or maybe you even have a natural playground close by! If you are lucky enough to have your own play space, think about adding natural elements to your own space that can help develop your toddler’s physical skills. Think of features like small bridges, raised platforms, inclines, or other ways to challenge a toddler physically that you can easily add on your own.
6. Sensory walk
Help your toddler develop the very essential senses by taking them on a nature sensory walk. The outdoors naturally challenges a child's senses with its many sounds, smells, textures, temperatures, and colors. In the park, you can introduce your baby to a great variety of nature's textures. Invite him or her to feel the grass and pinecones; to touch smooth, bumpy, and grainy textures. Take it a step further and make a sensory table. Using a table or a large tub, gather different natural materials such as moss, soil, sand, clay, sticks, grass. Add one medium at a time, naming it and describing how it feels so your toddler can explore with their own senses.
You can foster nature-based play for sensory development with your child in your own backyard by creating a sensory trail. A sensory trail has a series of experiences along a route that are designed to engage the different senses and immerse us in a multi-sensory journey. You can set up a sensory trail with both natural and man-made sensory experiences.
7. Create Nature Collages
A toddler may be too young for sketching a still life of a flower but nature art is still a wonderful outdoor-based activity for a child this age. Head outside with your toddler and help them fill a basket with as many loose natural objects as possible. Be sure to help them understand that we don’t pick or pull from nature but gather objects that have already made it to the ground. They can gather pieces of fallen leaves, flowers, pine cones, sticks.
Next help your toddlers glue their nature treasure onto paper to create a nature collage. An alternative is to use contact paper and have your tot stick nature objects directly onto it.
8. Nature Scavenger Hunt for Toddlers.
What child doesn’t LOVE a scavenger hunt? Toddlers are no exception! Setting your kids off on a scavenger hunt in nature can really make the outdoors come alive for them. Being on the “hunt” for signs of nature will help develop your child’s nature observation skills and deepen their connection to and comfort level with the outdoors. We have some easy-to-follow instructions on setting up a scavenger hunt for any child. For a toddler, we’ve designed a special age-appropriate hunt that you can do in virtually any season! Download that right here!
9. Read a nature book.
Reading is not just an indoor activity. How lovely to intrusive your toddler to the practice of enjoying a good book in the peaceful outdoors. Better yet, introduce your child to the wonderful wide world of nature with a nature-themed book. Toddlers love books with bold illustrations, simple language, and great photos. Board books are always a hit. Here are some suggestions:
10. Make a journey stick
If there is one-word toddlers just love to say, it’s “mine!” let your toddler have their very own journey stick to hold outdoors. This is such a simple and fun way to help any child. A journey stick is a great activity to do with kids as it helps them focus on their surroundings, learn about nature, keeps them busy, and results in a wonderful handmade (free), customized souvenir from their trip.
You can help your toddler make their own version with our simple instructions.