Tips for Experiencing the Outdoors with Young Children

The lovely spring weather is here to stay in the Washington DC area and that means that people are spending more time outside.  The benefits of the outdoors are numerous, and their benefits extend to even the youngest children. Whether your family lives in an apartment or surrounded by nature these tips can help you engage the children in your life in the wonder of the outdoors.  

Try Gardening 

No matter where you live or how much space you have you can be a gardener. If you don’t have a lot of space try just growing plants that offer a sensory experience to young children, like pungent rosemary or fuzzy lamb’s ears. For older children try building on their desire for autonomy by giving them a pot or a small garden plot that is theirs to plant and water, they will likely love the new responsibility as well as being able to make choices about what to plant. Combine creating amazing soil for your garden and caring for small creatures by setting up a worm bin in your garden!  They are relatively easy to care for (even in a small space) and can help teach young children about caring for living things as well as reducing and repurposing waste.  

Take a Walk  

It sounds simple but taking a walk is an easy way to see nature wherever you live. Try choosing something that you are looking for on each walk, like flower buds, birds, or sticks. How many of those things can you count?  Track how things grow on your walks by taking a daily or weekly picture of the same plant or natural area.  Compare the pictures to see how they’ve changed over time!  

Be a Local Naturalist  

Investigate and observe the natural features of your backyard or local park.  Flip over stones and logs and observe what you find underneath. When children find worms and grubs encourage gentle touches and putting things back where you found them. Try creating a nature journal or other record of the wildlife you encounter. Your child could contribute drawings or dictate their observations to an adult to write down. 

Creating Nature Spaces  

You can invite birds into your yard or to your windows with bird feeders and bird houses.  A small water feature helps so many “backyard buddies” – if you can add a small water pump to recirculate the water you’ll attract more animals because they are attracted to the sound! If you have a backyard, consider leaving part of it “untamed” and bushy or planting native plants to create habitats for local wildlife. To attract monarchs and other butterflies try planting some of their native favorites like dogbane, asters and goldenrod. Coral honeysuckle is one of our only native, noninvasive honeysuckles and hummingbirds love it!  Many of these native plants are also easy to grow and low maintenance. You’ll be amazed at the wildlife you and your child will be able to see up close!  

Engage Babies and Toddlers  

It can be intimating to introduce very young children to the natural world, especially when they love to touch and taste everything. Start by creating sensory rich experiences for these children, such as introducing them to plants with strong scents, colors or textures.  With preverbal children draw their attention to these sensory experiences and narrate what you are seeing (or hearing or smelling!).  When allowing them to touch different living things whether it’s a plant or a worm emphasize gentle touches by gently touching your child as you do this or guiding their hands.  

Safe Space  

 Going out in nature can feel risky with children who put everything in their mouth.  For the most part accidently eating a little grass or dirt is unlikely to cause great harm to children.  Do some research on what plants in your area can be toxic or harmful to your child so you can steer clear of them and put your mind at ease.  Also, avoid bug bites by controlling your local mosquito populations.  Tip out old water that collects in outdoor items and try using mosquito dunks and bits to treat other standing water, they do not hurt other local insects like fireflies and butterflies!   

Whether it’s feeding a bird on your windowsill, digging up worms on the playground, or getting out for a nature hike you can experience nature and the outdoors where ever you are.   What learning experiences will your family discover?