Developmentally Appropriate Nature Play for Ages 0-2
Thank you to my darling friends who shared their expertise for this post: Sarah, Mary, and Amanda M. Thank you also to the amazing mothers out there engaging their children in nature play every day who shared their photos below: Monica, Emily, Karen, Gaby, and Ashley. You can click on each photo in this post to see who shared it and how you can follow them to see more.
Just about one year ago, I committed to having my 5 month old play outside every day. I laid the foundation for why I feel so strongly about outdoor play and shared my ideas in a blog post about what outdoor play looks like for babies. The post provided a few ideas for what very young children can do when they are hanging around in the backyard. In full disclosure, we haven’t made it outside every single day since then, but we have made it a priority in rain, shine, or snow… and I’d say we’ve done a commendable job!
Now that my little one has grown a full year older and I’ve spend a full year thinking about, reading about, and experiencing outdoor play with young children, I have even more to share. Outdoor play is vital for all children, even the youngest of babies. Nature play synergizes the importance of active play with the benefits of a natural environment. Not only is nature play important for building physical, social, and cognitive development, it’s also a vital component for raising children who care about our Earth. Jacques Cousteau said, “People protect what they love,” and I completely agree. That’s why we need to teach children that they are a part of nature and not apart from it.
It may not seem like it, but there’s so much that even the littlest of children can do in nature. Children are never too young to begin appreciating nature nor too young to reap the benefits of spending time outdoors. Simple things like watching a bird fly through the sky nurture a baby’s development and begin fostering a love for nature.
I looked through developmental expectations for children from the Center for Disease Control and used it to create a list of outdoor experiences for babies and young toddlers from 2 months through 2 years old. I hope this list will inspire you with at least a few ideas for nature play given your child’s development!
Before we move on, let's step back for a second. The purpose of this list is not to compare what your child can do to what is expected. As parents, especially new parents, it's natural for us to want to compare our child to what is "normal". I fully recognize that not all children progress through milestones at the same ages and that every child is unique. Keep in mind that even if a child's motor skills are developed age appropriately, language skills emerge at different rates. Some children showcase their oral vocabulary earlier on while others take it all in without expressing their thoughts to the world. Children also accept sensory experiences at different rates; some can adapt quickly, while others may need a slower introduction to learn that new settings, textures, and movements are safe to enjoy. I recommend that you consult an expert such as a pediatrician, pediatric OT or PT, or speech pathologist if you have questions about your child's development.
Use this list to help you answer the question: “What can nature play look like for my baby?” Find where your child falls developmentally (regardless of the age listed), and read about what you can do to support his development during nature play.
At this age, you can lay your child on a blanket outdoors. If you’re a seasoned parent or daring
(which I wasn’t when Wike Baby was this age!), try laying him on the bare ground. Put him on his back to stare up at the sky, trees, and birds, or put him on his belly with some nature items in front of him to try to view. Wear your baby in a carrier while you go for a hike or take a walk with your child while he’s nestled in his stroller.
Here’s what two month olds will generally do and what caretakers can do to support their development while outdoors:
Turns head toward sounds. Begins to follow things with eyes and recognize people at a distance. A natural setting is a great place to discover sounds-- it's quiet enough that sounds like bird calls, rustling of leaves, and running water are discernible but not overwhelming. This is also a fun age to play with light: duck in and out of shadows and watch the sun flicker through leaves or bounce off water. Everything is completely new, and watching your child discover these sensations for the first time is a beautiful thing!
Begins to act bored (fussy) if activity doesn’t change. Keep moving for a change of scenery. This is the age when Wike Baby started to LOVE being outdoors—there is so much to see, hear, and feel. Let your child feel the slight breeze on his face or the sun on his head, and let this sensation change for your child as you walk through different environments.
Can hold head up and begins to push up when lying on tummy. Try tummy time outdoors. Place nature items in front of your baby to encourage him to build those muscles. If he’s resistant, like Wike Baby was, put him on your chest as you lay down on the grass for some parent-child outdoor bonding.
At four months or when your baby is able to hold his head up steadily (between 4-6 months
generally), your child is ready to face outward in your baby carrier, such as the Ergo 360 (our favorite). We tried this around 5 months, and Wike Baby LOVED it. It’s a whole new way for them to see the world. This is also when your child can sit with assistance, such as in your lap or in a Bumbo seat. Although it is certainly not recommended by pediatric physical therapists, we used our borrowed Bumbo for short periods of time, including sitting outside in our yard.
Here’s what four month olds will generally do and what caretakers can do to support their development while outdoors:
Copies sounds that are heard. Draw attention to sounds you hear by mimicking them yourself. Name the animal that made them to help your child begin to associate language with concrete items.
Uses hands and eyes together, such as seeing a toy and reaching for it. Can hold and shake a toy. This is a particularly great time to begin to lay nature items out around your baby for him to manipulate and explore: rocks, pinecones, flowers, grass, bugs, seeds, etc. Be aware that it’s also prime time for oral exploration to begin! Pro tip: if you’re lucky/unlucky enough to have a pacifier user on your hands, pop the paci in your child’s mouth before providing him with items to explore. (That’s my two cents; feel free to let your child put items in his mouth if that’s your parenting style! Judgment-free zone over here!)
Recognizes familiar people and things at a distance. Visit the same outdoor environments frequently to build familiarity. Name the items you see, and point out some of the same things each time you visit. Point out birds, planes, and critters that make noise, and watch them as they move. Point them out and follow them. When you hear something, stop to investigate what it is. Think aloud: "What was that noise?" or "Why did that tree move?" Then, together search for it. Look for the bird that tweeted or the squirrel that rustled the leaves. This lays the foundation for encouraging curiosity!
This is one of my favorite stages—your baby is becoming more and more fun! His personality is beginning to shine through, and he likes to play. Spending time outdoors together is a great way to bond, which is true at every stage, but it’s becoming even more fun for both of you at this point in your child’s development.
Here’s what six month olds will generally do and what caretakers can do to support their development while outdoors:
Likes to play with others, especially parents. Tummy time with your child on your belly while you lay on the grass, coupled with giving him an “airplane” ride (or pterodactyl ride, be creative!), can be ridiculously fun.
Responds to sounds by making sounds. Listen for nature sounds and mimic them. You may find your child mimicking them (or you), as well.
Makes sounds to show joy and displeasure. While walking with your child forward-facing in a carrier, try doing gentle hops or twirls along the way. Spinning, even with your child attached to you in a carrier, develops your child's vestibular system, which is responsible for balance, coordination and skills like head and trunk control and rolling. Your child’s understanding of object permanence is developing, so hide behind a tree and pop out to see your friends or have them do the same to you. Bounce and sing songs. What makes your child squeal with delight? Keep doing that!
Looks around at things nearby. There is SO much to see outside. Wike Baby always calmed down outside because she was taking in everything there is to see, feel, and hear!
Shows curiosity about things and tries to get things that are out of reach. When doing tummy time outside, place items just out of your child’s reach to motivate him to move.
Begins to sit without support. Break out your bubbles! When your child can sit and likes to reach for things, blowing bubbles begins to be super fun!
Around nine months is when your child may begin to show curiosity. In my opinion, curiosity is one of the most exciting things about childhood! Nurturing our children’s natural curiosities is one of the important things we can do for their cognitive development.
Here’s what nine month olds will generally do and what caretakers can do to support their development while outdoors:
Uses fingers to point at things. When your child points at things while on a walk, name the item and follow his finger to get close up and touch the item (if possible). You’ll be teaching your child how to follow his curiosity.
Watches the path of something as it falls. Leaves, snow, seeds, flower petals, rain: there’s something falling from the sky in every season. Take moments of time to stop and simply watch gravity in action with your child.
Looks for things he sees you hide. We played some epic hide ‘n’ seek with Dad behind trees while hiking at this stage. While sitting on the grass, you can also hide rocks (avoid rocks that are choking sized!) under leaves or cover items with grass or sand.
Puts things in mouth. As in everything. If you’re lucky/unlucky enough to still have a pacifier user on your hands, you can use it as a plug to keep your child from exploring nature items with his mouth. On the other hand, if you know something is safe for consumption, your child is eating table food in the home, and you know your child has no allergies, it could be a fun time to have him taste edible plants. Perhaps you’re into foraging or simply have an herb or vegetable garden. Use your discretion!
Crawls, pulls to stand, sits without support, and stands holding on. Your baby is on the move! Find safe outdoor spaces for your child to practice these skills. Remember that “clean dirt” (soil without chemicals) is healthy and comes off in the bath! This is also a time when your child may begin to play with push toys—why not bring them outside?
1 Year Old
At one year, your child increasingly interacts with the world around him. Hopefully he is stronger now, so you can be outside experiencing the elements in rain, shine, or even snow. If you haven’t yet put your baby on your back while walking about or hiking, definitely try it now. At one year, Wike Baby loved being on my back while snowshoeing, and she especially loved being pulled in a sled on the snow. This is also the time when your child may begin to be even more mobile; embrace it, and let him build his skills on the varying terrain outdoors.
Here’s what one year olds will generally do and what caretakers can do to support their development while outdoors:
Explores things different ways, like shaking, banging and throwing. While hiking with your child on your back, pass things such as dandelions, cattails, or sticks back to your baby to hold and explore. Stand along the shore together and toss rocks in to the water. Show your child how two sticks or two rocks knock together to make a sound.
Looks at the right picture when it’s named. If you’ve been naming what you see outdoors since he was tiny, now he may be able to find an item (such as a flower or bird) when you say the word. Vocalize interesting things you see using the name (such as, “Look at the beautiful flower!” or “Do you see the pretty bird?” without pointing, and follow your child’s gaze as he interprets your words.
Puts things in a container, takes things out of a container. Wike Baby happily did this for hours on end. Bring a small bucket or bag with you on your outdoor adventure. When you locate a place with rocks or small sticks, show your child how to put them into the bucket. Watch as he then takes them out and puts them back in again. Over. And over. And over again!
Pokes with index finger. Encourage this! Poking at trees and feeling their different types of bark can be an interesting sensory experience for a one year old. Build oral language by naming the textures he feels.
Pulls up to stand. May take a few steps on own. May stand alone. As soon as your child starts to crawl and walk, let him experience different terrain. Walking on grass, sand, or snow outside is much different from the hardwood floors inside. You cannot replicate outdoor terrain indoors, and the outdoor terrain will help your child naturally develop balance, core strength, and spatial awareness. Allowing your child to walk outdoors without shoes is a physical and occupational therapist suggested activity that supports your child's development of balance, sensory processing, and proper muscle development in the feet.
This is just about where Wike Baby is right now, and let me tell you how fun she is at this stage! She is able to engage herself in free outdoor play, she loves to climb, and she’s beginning imaginative play. She wants to walk on her own, but we don’t get too far while hiking because her goals are different from mine. At 18 months, letting your child take the lead outdoors should be priority number one.
Here’s what eighteen month olds will generally do and what caretakers can do to support their development while outdoors:
Likes to hand things to others as play. Let your child explore nature items he comes across. When he hands something to you, such as a stick, thank him, hold it, and hand it back. Engage in play by handing him things you find as well. As always, name the items with which you interact in full sentences to promote language growth.
Follows 1-step verbal commands without gestures. Practice this when you get ready to go outside by telling your child to get his socks. Then tell him to get his shoes. Then tell him to get his jacket. When you’re outdoors, there’s plenty of opportunity to use 1-step commands during play. “May I have the stick please?” “Walk over here.” “Look at that bird!”
Plays simple pretend, such as feeding a doll. This can be a good time to bring out the mud kitchen! You can fashion one yourself using old wood pallets, visit a nature play area or even a sandbox nearby, or simply bring some bowls and spoons outside for playtime. Finding nature items to put into your concoction is part of the fun. Remember that this is also the age when children follow 1-step demands, so be mindful if you stir up a beautiful dish of sand, crushed leaves, and grass and you say, “This is delicious! Try it!” Your child may actually take a taste! Not that I know from experience…
Explores alone but with parent close by. I can get so much yard work done now! She happily plays in the sandbox, picks up sticks around the yard, or goes down the slide on her own—as long as I’m nearby. I put a fort out in the yard for her to play in, and she loves bringing things inside, sitting in there for a while, and then coming out for more things. I know someone with a child this age who actually reads a book under a tree while her son plays on his own. Milk it, Mama.
Says several single words. Engage in conversation every time he says a word that corresponds with what he sees in order to encourage his language. If he points to a bird and uses the word, then tell him all about the bird, its colors, and what it is doing. Engage. Encourage.
Scribbles on own. Time to introduce sidewalk chalk! Sidewalk chalk is endless fun. On hot days, you can also “paint” on pavement with water and watch it disappear. Show your child how some rocks can be used to write on other rocks. We had a blast writing with shale when I was a child.
Walks alone. May walk up steps and run. Let your child take lead on “hikes”. I put “hikes” in quotation marks because you should set your expectations accordingly. You will not be traveling far with an 18 month old taking the lead. Wike Baby likes to go in the opposite direction of my goal. That’s fine. Embrace it. This is also a good time to encourage safe climbing. Climbing stairs, fallen logs, or natural rock formations is a worthy obstacle for an 18 month old.
2 Years Old
This is where we are headed in my house, and boy do I have ideas. I’ve consulted friends with two year olds or recent two year olds to ensure my suggestions are appropriate. I welcome your ideas, as well! Share them in the comments below.
Here’s what two year olds will generally do and what caretakers can do to support their development while outdoors:
Copies others, especially adults and older children. Playing in nature with other children (especially older children) will give your child lots of ideas of things to do. This is the perfect age to start attending a mixed age nature play group near you, such as Free Forest School!
Points to things or pictures when they are named. When you see something interesting, tell your child. Don’t point to it, necessarily. You can foster language development this way by saying things like, “Let’s run to the big rock.” “Where is the red bird?” or “I see a gigantic puddle!”
Finds things even when hidden under two or three covers. Playing in sandboxes is a great experience to introduce now if you haven’t already done so. You can hide nature items like pinecones, flowers, and rocks in your sandbox and have your child find them. If you’re feeling particularly "Pinterest-y," there are tons of similar sandbox activities out there to try. For example, you can make “fossils” with plaster of Paris, hide them in your sandbox, and give your little paleontologist a shovel, paintbrush, and magnifying glass to help him excavate.
Begins to sort shapes and colors. There is so much to sort outside: leaves, rocks, sticks, and flowers are just a start. Use small bags or buckets for sorting or simply draw circles with chalk for a spot to place the items. When hiking, hunt for specific things like big pinecones and small pinecones. Support your child’s language of colors by naming the colors of things all around you—including the trail markers! We love to high-five all the “yellow dots” along our favorite trail.
Plays simple make-believe games. A twig might become a phone, a rock may become a steering wheel, you might pretend to fall asleep outside on a comfortable looking boulder. Engaging in imaginative play with your child is one of the finest things in life.
Builds towers of 4 or more blocks. Try building towers of flat rocks together or take your blocks outside. You can also cut wood for an outdoor block set or create a Waldorf-inspired block set like the one on this blog post.
Follows two-step instructions. Practice two-step directions when you’re getting ready to go outside. Say, “Get your shoes and jacket, so we can go outside.” When you’re out and about, there’s plenty of ways to practice this. “Give the big stick and the little stick to Daddy,” for example.
Names items in a picture book. It doesn’t have to be in a book; at this age, children can name some items they see in general, such as after you hike to the top of a mountain and look out. That being said, reading is SUCH an important experience for young children to have, and I would be remiss if I didn’t use this opportunity to encourage reading! Bring your books outside, especially your nature books. Bring your book Some Bugs by Angela DiTerlizzi outdoors while you explore and capture insect, or bring Over and Under the Pond by Kate Messner to the lake with you and see what you can find that matches the book. Bringing your books outside can really make nonfiction come to life!
Stands on tiptoe. Kicks a ball. Begins to run. Climbs onto and down from furniture without help. Walks up and down stairs holding on. Again, you cannot replicate outdoor terrain indoors. Even playgrounds do not give your child the opportunities for physical challenge that natural settings provide. Let your child climb on rocks, trek through puddles, roll down hills, and balance on logs. The natural terrain will help your child naturally develop balance, core strength, and spatial awareness
Throws ball overhand. If you haven't yet taught your child the pleasure of throwing rocks into giant bodies of water, now is the time. Big splashes are encouraged!
Some of the ideas I shared are super simple and some are more complex. Maybe just knowing that the simple things you’re doing outside with your baby matter and are contributing their development will support your efforts to get outside. Your child is never too young to start appreciating nature and never too young to reap the benefits of being outdoors!
Which ideas have you already tried? What is this list missing? What will you try tomorrow when you’re outdoors with your child?