Ask a two-year-old what they are thankful for and who knows what you may hear.
Perhaps you will hear about macaroni and cheese, Elmo or blocks. On one particular day this summer, a 2-year old boy shared with me that he was thankful for cicadas. Impressive, considering that cicadas are insects that many adults do not even know about. This little gratitude was shared in a circle at Lynn Trotta’s Mommy-and-Me Nature Immersion Class at Ward Pound Ridge Reservation.
The world of a young child, between 1.5- and 3-years-old, is an amazing place. Young children are incredibly perceptive and will soak up the world like a sponge. These are years where it is very important for children to be exposed to nature in very simple and fun ways, so that this nature connection can be used and strengthened throughout life.
If a basic comfort within nature is developed at a very young age, a person can always go back to this place of magic and excitement, even as an adult. It has been shown that children who spend their formative years immersed in nature are not only more likely to enjoy nature’s benefits as adults, but they also create strong connections with nature that lead to self confidence, empathy, mental and physical health, and eventually, a desire to care for and preserve our planet.
Although early childhood connections with nature are pivotal for development, many young children do not get enough exposure to the outdoors. One reason for this is that some parents and caregivers are not comfortable with sharing the outdoors with their young ones, because they themselves did not get nature exposure as children.
Connecting young children with nature can be as easy as letting them spend a little time outside. Even just sitting on a blanket on the lawn can lead to some major discoveries and create a comfort level in the outdoors. In that Mommy-and-Me class, I was reminded of a few techniques that help connect the very young with nature. Try some of these the next time you are outside with your little one.
1. Just Play. During our class, we made trumpets out of tree bark, wobbled on logs like tightropes, let our feet dip into the stream, and pretended that we were wild beasts in the forest. There is something to be said for just allowing a child’s sense of imagination to flourish in the outdoors. The imagination can run wild with the touch of water on bare feet, and a brand-new, positive connection is made in the brain that will remain for a lifetime.
2. Sensory Exploration. We touched leaves, smelled spicebush, listened for crow calls and searched for bugs in the grass. We listened with our ‘deer ears’ and felt with our ‘raccoon fingers.’ Using all of the senses is one of the best ways to immerse young children in nature. Young children learn by using all of their senses, and sensory play is crucial for brain development.
3. What’s alike, what’s different? This is the age where children are leaning to differentiate and categorize. Simple categories and identifications can help young children make sense of the world. In our class, we looked for maple leaves, and the children were able to pick out the different shape of the maple leaf. We also separated some homemade wooden ’bugs’ into categories: yellow bee or red ladybug.
4. Explore. During our class, a child was enthralled with a small hole at the base of the tree. Who lives there? Is it a snake, or a chipmunk? Perhaps it is a fairy house. Tiny places in nature such as holes, rotting logs, or piles of leaves can create in children worlds of imagination and wonder. The most important thing that you can do to promote this exploration is to let your child find these wonders on their own, in their immediate surroundings. When they inevitably find something fascinating, share their interest and listen to their stories.
5. Ask lots of questions. Many adults feel uncomfortable taking their children out into nature because they may not think that they can teach the children anything concrete, such as what types of trees are around or how to identify bird calls. These answers, although important to know for many reasons, are not as important for young children. The ability question is what is really important. Children need to be encouraged to find places, objects or living things that they are interested in, and they need to have an adult with them to encourage them to ask questions about their discovery and to explore it on their own terms.
If your little treehugger picks up a rock, ask them questions about it. What does it feel like, rough or smooth? What else is the same size as that rock? Can you find any other rocks like that? The ability to ask questions sets the stage for curiosity and love of learning in the future.
A great way to get your feet wet with nature immersion for the very young (literally and figuratively) is to take a Mommy-and-Me class like the one I visited. With the help of an adult who is experienced in nature immersion for young children, you can get a hands-on immersion of your own. There are many nature centers, parks, and knowledgeable teachers, such as Lynn Trotta, that offer these types of programs at a reasonable cost. For more information on Lynn’s programs, check out her website. Happy exploring!