How to engage your child with the natural world - TheTot
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How to engage your child with the natural world

There are lots of advantages for children who play in nature – from improved cognitive awareness and decreasing stress to improved physical fitness.

But if you’re the kind of parent who really prefers the indoors, how do you go about engaging your children with the natural world?

Boy and girl piking up leaves from a stream
Photo: Ghislain & Marie David de Lossy

Research has shown that free playing in nature (as opposed to remaining indoors or receiving fitness in structured environments like classes) has lots of benefits for kids, but how do you engage your child with the natural world from day one?

1. Your baby is an alien!
Start at the beginning – your baby has just arrived and it’s easy to forget that, unlike us adults, your baby is seeing everything in the natural world for the very first time. Scenes that adults may no longer even notice will be a source of intense fascination for your baby who hasn’t seen any of it before.

Take your baby for walks in the stroller through your neighborhood, place her pack and play underneath a tree where she can gaze at the movement of the wind through the trees or lie her on the grass and let her feel the texture of the grass with her hands and feet. Talk to her – point out birds that you see, beautifully colored leaves, bugs and flowers – your baby may not be able to talk back, but she’s listening. These activities are all very stimulating for a little baby and will help her to become engaged with the outside world.

2. Try not to fear the dirt
For babies that are crawling and putting everything they find in their mouths, every outside interaction can be a fraught experience of dirt eating and ruined clothes (for moms that is, babies very rarely care if they ruin clothes!). Try to prevent any ruined clothes by putting your Tot in old or inexpensive clothes when you know you will be playing outside so that you don’t have to curtail her freedom.

With regards to dirt and putting things in the mouth, this is actually another way in which your baby is exploring and finding out about the world. Keep a close eye to ensure that your baby doesn’t put anything in her mouth which is a potential choking hazard (e.g. small rocks), but try and be open-minded about his need to explore; seeing what a leaf or a pine cone tastes like isn’t going to cause her too much harm, it might just teach her that not everything tastes good!

If you are worried about your baby getting sick from putting things in her mouth, it is worth noting that there is a lot of research into the fact that babies actually need a lot of exposure to different environments (including dirty ones) to build a healthy immune system – the “hygiene hypothesis” even puts over-hygienic environments to blame for causing the rise in childhood allergies!

3. Become a collector
Toddlers love putting things in containers and they also love collecting things. If you have a backyard, take your toddler outside with some small containers and have a look around together – your toddler will love placing any interesting rocks, leaves or flowers in the containers and rearranging them. Even if you don’t have a backyard, parks, beaches and even a casual walk up the street together can reveal a whole range of interesting treasures for your toddler. Above all, be relaxed about what your toddler likes; maybe she just likes to collect sticks or handfuls of dirt – whatever, she’s investigating.

4. Bring nature indoors
If you live in an apartment, an easy way to involve your toddler with nature every day is to have indoor plants. Some plants are great for purifying the air, others will flower and some, like herbs, you can eat. Your toddler will enjoy caring for the plants by helping water them, moving them closer and further from the sun at different times of day, and by following the plant’s growth when it blossoms or leaves die. Edible plants are a great way to introduce your toddler to ideas about where our foods come from, food preparation (e.g. picking some basil for a homemade pizza or salad) and trying new foods.