Your baby will probably take her first really good look at the wonders of nature from the seat of a stroller. She can see, hear, and smell a lot from that vantage point, but that's not enough -- don't discount a child's curiousity. Children need to touch, prod, poke, and fondle, too. The best way for that investigating to take place is from ground level, during walks, which you can start taking as soon as your baby can walk reasonably well. Here are some ways you and your child can explore the natural world together.
Family nature walks. Your first excursions into the natural world may be in your own backyard, where an attentive parent can help find a great deal to explore, but soon you'll want to go farther afield. At the changing of the seasons, if not more often, try to take walks in the woods where there is a stream, where plants and animals you don't see in your neighborhood grow and live, and where there are few, if any, people around.
When you take the baby for a ride in the stroller, you can decide just where you'll go and how long you'll be gone, but walks are different. You can't set time or distance goals because your toddler won't necessarily keep to the straight path you choose and alternates bumbling along at a good clip with stopping completely. Every leaf and twig requires inspection, every insect and every object on the ground, appropriate or not. Everything in the world is new and interesting and needs minute investigation. You'll ruin the whole experience if you try to set a steady pace and accomplish anything at all.
Take along a few simple supplies on your nature walks: a small pail for pebbles and other finds, a magnifying glass to examine the ground and everything in or on it in detail, a jar with a lid for a bug or a worm, and perhaps even a pair of garden clippers, if you'll be where taking a blossom or a branch is allowed. The items your child brings home from a walk are very important to her, at least for a little while, and some may be the beginning of collections of a lifetime interest. When you get home from any woodsy place, bathe your child, in case she has managed to get into poison ivy or poison oak. It is best to launder clothes, too.
Summer. The toddler who lives in a climate where she can experience all four seasons is fortunate, for each season has its special attractions. Two of summer's most enjoyable aspects are water and sand. A small plastic swimming pool with about six inches of lukewarm water in it or a backyard sandbox with a supply of sand, plus an assortment of unbreakable cups, bowls, and utensils for pouring and measuring, keep the most restless toddler occupied for long periods of time. For safety's sake, a child in any amount of water must, of course, be closely supervised. Since a portable pool must be emptied every time it's used, a small one is easier. For a very small child, a plastic bathtub is suitable. And for your own convenience, use fairly coarse sand in the sandbox; the beautiful and more expensive white sand is very difficult to brush off damp skin. Sunburn is a real danger for delicate skin. Put a hat on your child, use a sunscreen appropriate for a child, and reapply it frequently, especially if the child is playing in water.
Winter. Fluffy new snow is as attractive to a toddler as a pool of water. Show your child how to make angels in the snow and roll up snowballs big enough to make snowmen, then give a little science lesson. Pour a very little water in a flat pan outdoors on a cold day and watch it freeze. Continue to add just a little more and see it freeze, layer by layer. (If you like, you can add a little food coloring to the water so the layers are different colors.) Let your child prove each snowflake is different from every other by examining flakes with a magnifying glass. Melt some snow to see how little water it makes and how dirty that water is. Your toddler probably won't be out so long you have to worry about frostbite, but you can prevent chapped lips and cheeks by applying a coat of petroleum jelly. If it's too cold to go out at all, bring a big pan full of snow inside and let your child stand at the sink on a sturdy chair to play in it.
Plant a seed. Most children like to watch plants grow if they grow quickly. You can almost see a tablespoon of birdseed sprout on a wet sponge in a dish. Mung beans begin to sprout in 48 hours in a screw-top jar of water, and they are edible in a week. If you roll up a dampened paper towel or piece of blotting paper inside a glass jar and put a lima bean between the paper and the jar, your child can see roots reaching down and shoots growing up. When your child has developed a little more patience, let her watch the top of a carrot grow in a dish of water or a grapefruit seed grow in a paper cup filled with potting soil.
It's alive! Living creatures of all kinds are endlessly attractive to children. When yours can understand some pets aren't meant to be cuddled and none can be eaten, you may wish to try some pets other than dogs or cats: fish, gerbils, or birds from a pet shop; an ant farm you can order through the mail; earthworms, hermit crabs, or even crickets from outdoors. The best feature about those you bring in from the yard or garden is you can return them to their natural environments when your child tires of them.
Always supervise your child's investigations of animals; undomesticated creatures could hurt your child -- and your child could harm them! Teach your child she is a part of -- not master of -- her environment. Show her how to smell, feel, look, and listen to the world around her. Teach her to respect living organisms, plant and animal, and never to destroy them intentionally (don't stomp on the flowers, never pull the wings off insects, don't pull the kitten's tail). Some accidents happen -- but explain that, in general, one should try to be gentle and careful.
The wonders of the great outdoors will fascinate children for years, so encourage them to explore nature from an early age. Take advantage of the learning opportunities in nature and enhance the experience with books on nature or museums with wildlife exhibits. On the following page, we will discuss various learning opportunities for gifted and talented children.
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