From birth, infants and toddlers naturally want to explore their world and see what all is in it. They soak up every noise, every sound, and every experience that they have. So not only is being outside enjoyable for infants and toddlers but it’s critical for their cognitive development.
Setting up the Outdoor Environment
Because infants and toddlers are exploring their world, they often taste it first, which results in more germs and choking hazards. Therefore, make sure all choking hazards are removed and that you stay close by so that you can remove unwanted objects from their mouths, if necessary. Make sure to have a surface where they can easily move around. It should provide comfort, as well as tactile experiences and be able to protect from a fall. Make sure that you have surfacing material around any equipment children will climb on that’s over 18 inches tall.
The outdoor equipment should challenge children but also be realistic based on what you know your children can and can not do. Young toddlers are just learning to walk. They don’t need any equipment that is high or has ladders to get up because they still haven’t mastered taking large steps. Walking across a low bridge or balance beam may be just the challenge they need, without being too much. Riding toys, tricycles, push toys, wagons, and balls is just as interesting as a structure for them to climb on. For infants, grass, balls, tunnels, and ramps for crawling are as stimulating as having a slide or baby swing. “A playground should be like a small-scale replica of the world, with as many as possible of the sensory experiences to be found in the world included in it. Experiences for every sense are needed. The list is inexhaustible and the larger the number of items included, the richer and more varied the environment for the child“(Greenman, 1988).
Now that we’re outside, what do we do?
- Infants birth-3 months
Provide a blanket for the baby to lay on. Point out the leaves moving, let them feel the grass, and point out the sounds that they are hearing.
- Infants 3-6 months
Keep them on the blanket but allow them to explore on their tummies. Bring toys outside for them to grasp or books to read. Continue pointing out all the sights and sounds in nature that they may be experiencing.
- Infants 6-9 months
Bring out tunnels, balls, and safe sensory tubes. Create a sensory path on the blanket for the baby to crawl along and explore his senses while increasing his gross motor skills.
- Infants 9-12 months
Bring outside simple push toys to encourage your early walkers. Attach musical toys, activity centers, and mirrors along your fence. This will encourage your early walkers as well as your crawlers who may be encouraged to pull themselves up to a stand. Provide balls, bubbles, and any other toys that will be sturdy enough for standing against.
Continue adding materials to match their developmental levels. Bring out riding toys, wagons to pull, baby strollers, large trucks to push. Bring materials outside that would let them dance to music and see how the wind interacts with their materials. Allow for jumping and dancing. Set up simple games or obstacle courses. Provide an outdoor garden that the kids can explore the soil and plants and learn about care taking.
Important Take Away…
Anything that can be used in the classroom, can also be brought outside to turn the outdoors into a classroom, learning environment. Remember, their time outside with you may be the only opportunity they have in the day to explore the outdoors. If children learn to love the outdoors when they are young, it will help to teach them to take better care of our world as adults.