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Information and inspiration for parents and caregivers of babies, toddlers and preschoolers

Helping young children find nature outside the front door

Dad and baby son playing in park on the floor with leaves.

For families who want to introduce their babies, toddlers and preschoolers to outdoor play, there’s only one main thing to know: nature is everywhere.

That’s the advice from Ellen Bashor, education director of Nature Niños in Prescott.

“You don’t have to drive to a big park. You don’t have to have hiking gear,” Bashor said. “You don’t have to leave your yard or your house to access the benefits of outdoor and nature play. Young children have the ability to connect with nature anywhere. You can explore three square feet and they’ll find magic. There will always be a beetle to follow or a line of ants.”

Parents and caregivers can start looking for nature right where they are.

“You can watch the different cloud shapes and how they blow,” Bashor said. “Point out the light and shadows and the pattern. Nearby nature is the most powerful tool we all have.”

Bashor wants parents to get rid of the idea that they have to travel for nature. They give the example that a child can see a beetle either at the Grand Canyon or just outside of their apartment.

“Young children don’t have the same social expectation to arrive at a significant site or location,” Bashor said. “The significance for them is being with their caregiver outside.”

Play in an outdoor, natural environment helps engage a young child’s senses and allows toddlers and preschoolers to exercise their bodies and minds.

“There is nothing more different than nature,” Bashor said. “No leaf is the same. Every one provides an opportunity to compare and contrast to discover and create. For a child, a pinecone can be a school bus, a spaceship, a bear, your mom or dad. It challenges our brains to think and create in new ways.”

One of the best ways for parents and caregivers to get their child involved in the outdoors is to draw on their own childhood experiences.

  • Collecting is a perfect place to start. Get an egg carton and put something special in each egg spot. Use the collection as a way of noticing new things. You can base the collection on colors, the five senses, sounds, things that feel nice, etc.
  • Help your child create a small world. Use this as a way of processing and learning. You can help them make a tiny home of leaves and sticks. Bridge the outdoors with their toys. Bring out a favorite stuffed bear and make a home for that animal outside.
  • Create nature art. Scribble on nature. Make a decorative landscape using found nature objects like sticks, rocks and leaves. Put your art on a piece of paper and when you’re done, you let it go back to nature.
  • Make a fort to hide in by taking a blanket outside.
  • Watching wildlife is special and it could be looking for birds and bugs, instead of trying to find a javelina.

Even a few minutes outside can bring nature alive for young kids.

“Start with five minutes outside each day and go up from there,” Bashor said.

Ofelia Gonzalez is a public information officer at First Things First. You can reach her at ogonzalez@firstthingsfirst.org.​

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