The outdoors offers novelty and opportunities for exploration and discovery that cannot be duplicated even in the richest indoor environments. Through sensory stimulation and a multitude of materials, nature feeds your baby’s brain with experience and keeps her alert and focused as scenes and surroundings change. Nature gives her a world of fresh elements to examine. Simply digging in the dirt with a stick or listening to a bird sing can be fascinating for your baby and stimulating for her brain. A routine of spending a portion of each day outside benefits your child’s brain development in multiple ways.
Being in nature is a way of getting in touch with the world. Nature is physical and tangible, yet it is also mysterious, inspirational, and full of abstract beauty. In nature your child can connect with herself by experiencing her senses, and she can find freedom, fantasy, and creativity. Outdoors, she can find peace, harmony, and a sense of relationship in nature’s order and patterns.
Robin Moore, a professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University and an international authority on the design of children’s play and learning environments, leads the university’s Natural Learning Initiative, whose purpose is to ensure that every child has access to a natural learning environment every day. Moore says that being in nature involves direct experience of the senses as opposed to the secondary, one-way experience of electronic media. Young children live and learn through their senses, and nature provides sensory-stimulating experiences.
Children can experience and learn from nature directly through their senses by touching sand, rocks, and water; smelling flowers and herbs; looking at a beautiful butterfly, rock, or sunset; listening to the rain, wind, or crunch of autumn leaves; smelling the ocean or the forest; and tasting wild blueberries.
The rhythms and patterns in nature can feed your child’s soul and spirit. Let her hear the sound of waves in the ocean, feel the nourishing warmth of the sun, or witness the birth of a kitten. Nature can surround her with its support and calm her confusion, stress, and tension. Time spent in nature with your family can establish connections and improve the quality of your relationships.
In my family, walks in the woods, days at the beach, camping trips, and outdoor picnics brought us together. On outdoor excursions, [my daughters] Emi and Mari were free to get dirty and to explore, and we had time to enjoy each other as a family. Because we were on a tight budget in those early years, our family getaways consisted mostly of camping. Being out in the woods together gave us the quiet and the space to strengthen our connections to ourselves, to each other, and to the natural world.
Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, says that the child in nature is an endangered species, yet the health of children and the health of the earth are inseparable. He believes direct exposure to nature is essential for a child’s healthy physical and emotional development; further, nature is healing for a child. In nature, a child is relieved of the pressures of society, and she can find the freedom and the space to examine both her inner world and the world around her.
According to Robin Moore, because children learn through their senses, through discovery and free play, and through autonomous interaction with their environment, the multisensory experiences in nature help build the cognitive constructs necessary for sustained intellectual development. They also stimulate imagination. Time spent in nature nourishes a sense of flow and presence through being while doing.
You can support your child’s connection to nature by helping her develop her naturalist intelligence. You can also share this experience with her by getting in touch with your own connection to nature. Your enthusiasm and sense of discovery can be contagious and inspirational to your child.
Activities to Promote Interest in Nature
- Read or tell nature stories that stimulate the imagination.
- Help her detach from electronics and get outside.
- Take a discovery walk in your backyard or in a park. See what you find.
- If you have outdoor space, set up a sandbox, swing set, or tree house.
- Collect sticks, rocks, and shells, and arrange them in your child’s room.
- Get a pet. Pets teach children about the needs and rhythms of animals.
- Grow a plant in a pot or in your yard.
- Go on a hike, or go camping.
- Go on an excursion to a local nature center, zoo, or aquarium.