Nature Rocks a wonderful organization with a focus on getting kids outside for education and fun. We are very pleased and proud to be Ambassadors for Nature Rocks. They asked us to take the reins of their social media for a week with a focus on the theme of learning. It was a great exercise for us to think, discuss and organize our outdoor parenting and teaching practices into an accessible series of six posts. We thoroughly enjoyed the challenge. What you will find below, for the most part, is the content we posted over a period of a week for Nature Rocks. We've added and modified some transitions, and added or modified content to accommodate for information we found difficult to include throughout the week.
Gaining and Maintaining Active Engagement From Toddlers
We take our 19-month-old daughter on hikes as frequently as possible. As a family, it's one of our absolute favorite things to do. Our hikes usually start out with her walking, climbing and stumbling for as far as she can and/or wants, then looking up with big bright blue eyes asking to "ride" in the kid carrier for the rest of the way. (Truthfully, we kind of loathe the thought that a day will come when she will either not want to ride in the carrier and/or cannot ride in the carrier anymore. It's a beautiful experience to feel her against our backs as we walk through the world. We're going to enjoy it as long as we possibly can. We digress.) Whether she's hiking or riding, we put a lot of effort into making sure she is engaged and actively learning to the most fulfilling extent possible. We've identified some ideas and themes for gaining and maintaining active engagement that we have found work well for us while we hike, camp, zoo, play, etc. Before we can build on those we have found that a few outdoor ground rules are required - for her and for us parents.
1) Stay on the trail / with us
2) You can carry some things with you, but we'll probably have to leave them before we go
3) Have fun!
1) Instead of saying "no", we redirect behavior
2) Set goals
3) Be consistent
4) Don't worry about "messy"
5) Be aware of limits; child's, mine, each other's
6) Have fun!
As you can see we have many more rules for ourselves than for her. We're very aware that she can and does learn without us, however we are also keenly aware that she will learn more efficiently and effectively if we help guide her with consistency and understanding. It's a team effort all the way around, and we're proud to say that we have a pretty great team.
Of everything we do for our daughter's naturist education this may be the among the most important. We allow her to explore, but with boundaries. Unstructured play doesn't mean without boundaries after all. We prompt her to stay on the trail when hiking. It doesn't necessarily mean she has to stay with us, but it does mean we have to stay with her. We encourage her to encounter new and/or confusing things. She will have trepidations and the occasional toddler stumble (which we usually react to minimally), but we are very aware of her limitations and are trying to allow her to learn to recognize those for herself. Exploration is a cornerstone of our parental philosophy; we employ this from the school we have her enrolled in to the activities we engage in at night and on the weekends. There are many ways to foster exploration, but there are two general themes we can boil those down to:
We watch her and when she engages in something new, responds to something with confusion, becomes anxious or excited, etc. we talk to her about it in a reassuring and confident way. There will be more on talking to toddlers about nature in a bit.
We do our best to help her be independently successful and to independently make mistakes. The way we interact with the world is mostly trial and error anyway, and really, what better way is there to learn? Errorless learning is theoretically possible, but it would require us to anticipate and/or set-up each learning opportunity. Yikes!
When we watch our daughter in natural and contrived environments, allow her to be independently successful and make mistakes, and talk to her about what she is/has experienced we feel confident that we are fostering exploration. Here are a few ideas for encouraging thoughtful interaction with (and exploration of) the environment.
Carry the Trail (Temporarily)
We keep a little bag or bucket in the car so we can have it whenever we end up being outside while away from home (kid chalk bags for climbing work great, they strap right around the child's waist). Our daughter will put anything she wants into this bag that she collects from the ground. She has an affinity for ground debris, and it's remarkable to watch her examine objects and decide which ones to take with her. It really helps to keep her moving too. She will stop frequently, which is fine, but it makes redirecting her back to a hike or other outdoor activity a little easier. At the end of the trails or activities we will typically say that we need to put these things back, and say "bye bye sticks, bye bye rocks, bye bye leaves". This really helps her to let the items go. We don't tend to run into many problems when we perform this little goodbye routine, primarily because we're sincere and consistent with doing it.
A great way to help foster exploration and learning opportunities is to incorporate friends into your outings. We are very close to another family that has a child around the same age as our daughter. They go to school together and see each other frequently on the weekends for hikes, zoo trips, swimming, etc. Having friends join you in nature is great for kiddos and parents. We often help communicate with and teach each other's child, and are able to take "teaching breaks" (I may be talking casually with one of our friends, while Nea and the other parent walk and talk with the kids). When both of the little ones are riding in their kid carriers, we will frequently walk side by side with them. If one is upset, having the other close by is often calming. The best is when they reach out for each other and smile and laugh together. Not only does having friends along make things easier, but the learning opportunities are increased dramatically. The power of social interactions cannot be overstressed, especially when they are in the context of new and interesting activities and settings.
Talk, Talk, Talk!
As we discussed previously, we believe that fostering exploration takes communication and independent action at the very least. We are certain that we can effectively foster exploration if we can effectively communicate about the opportunities we are helping to create. Here are two simple ways to talk to children about nature, particularly toddlers.
We verbally label as much as possible for our daughter. For example, if she walks to and looks at flowers we might say a combination of or all of the following: "the flowers are yellow", "the flowers smell good", "we're gentle with flowers", etc. Research suggests that babies/toddlers who are frequently spoken to by adults will acquire verbal language more quickly. On top of that, it keeps us all involved in what's going on around us. It's fun to see her experiencing new things and helping her form a foundation of verbal understanding around those events. So, we talk...a lot, and guess what! So does she. She is beginning to speak up to 5-word sentences, and it's really fun to hear that little voice say so much all at once. Since she is speaking consistently now, we try to focus on repeating (with clear enunciation) the words she speaks as much as we focus labeling new things for her. That repetition has seemed to really reinforce those words in context for her.
Our biggest bit of advice for keeping babies/toddlers/kids engaged in nature, whether on trails or elsewhere, is to talk WITH them. Label vegetation, wildlife, natural events, sensations, etc. and then be sure to ask your little ones' questions they can answer. This seems to really help our daughter remember names and descriptors, as well as initiate and respond to communication about the environment. When she responds to a question we repeat her correct response (if incorrect we just give her the correct response instead) with clear enunciation and reassurance. If she were to ask a question we would respond to it by including the main point of the question in the answer.
Talk About The Five Senses
To take the idea of "talking" just a little bit further we thought we would wrap this all up by discussing the five senses. Keeping all of our daughter's senses engaged throughout hikes or other outdoor activities is important otherwise she gets all toddler-ey, or worse, misses great learning opportunities (i.e., we miss providing great learning opportunities). Here are a few simple things, which revolve around the five senses that we try to consistently do to keep her actively engaged while out in the world .
This seems pretty easy right? Mostly, it is. We suggest pairing anything you verbally label, especially with toddlers or younger, with a finger point (e.g., "moth" while pointing to the moth). This helps kiddos focus on a specific object or event and begin to pair the auditory cue with the visual. It also helps foster joint attention. Joint attention is the sharing of an experience via an eye gaze or point. When our daughter points to the moth, then looks at us she is engaging in joint attention. It is a valuable means of social and functional communication for toddlers who are not efficient verbal communicators yet, or anyone who is not an efficient verbal communicator for that matter (e.g., children or adults with autism).
There are so many new things going on for little naturists outside that it can sometimes be overstimulating for them. There are lots of new sights, sounds, smells, not to mention sensations. As she has begun to get a little older, our daughter is starting to experiment with sensations more and more. Again, we try to label all of these for her that we can, e.g., "that water is wet", "the rocks are cold", "the mud is slimy", "the wind feels good", "that tickles". Notice that we typically identify the object or event first, then the sensation. There has been research that shows children learn visual concepts, such as colors, quicker when a familiar or semi-familiar item is labeled first, followed by the descriptor, e.g., "the leaf is green". This makes perfect sense from a learning standpoint, so we apply it to almost all of our language with her.
We've found that we need to watch and listen to our daughter closely to be able to teach her sounds. When she hears something new or interesting, she'll look at the sound source or look around to find the sound source, then she'll typically look to us (joint attention). When she does, or even if she doesn't, we try to label that sound source and the actual sounds for her, e.g., "the birds are chirping", "the wind is rocking the trees", "the water is moving fast", "the deer is running". We'll also ask her questions about sounds, e.g., "what is that?", "do you hear the squirrels playing?", "I hear an owl, where is it?"
Apparently, the very first sense to develop is smell, and it develops in the womb. Interesting, right? This doesn't mean that babies or even toddlers can sniff to accentuate and "collect" smell, but once they can a whole new world opens up. Directing physical and cognitive concentration on a smell seems like a fairly complex teaching task, and we'll be honest to say we have no idea how to do it other than presenting frequent models and allowing for practice. Our daughter sees us smell flowers, leaves, dirt, each other, the dog, etc. She has recently begun to lean over and place her nose to objects for longer periods of time. When she does, we verbally label the common descriptor, e.g., "the flower smells good", "this does not smell good".
Bring snacks and/or breastfeed in nature! That's the easy part. Our daughter is not much different than most other little ones with regards to natural debris; she puts a lot of stuff into her mouth. We've fished out rocks, sticks, dirt, leaves, etc. We try not to freak out unless it's something we cannot identify or something we think is toxic in any way. Fortunately, we haven't run across that particular issue. As with the other senses, we verbally label what we can, but we also try to redirect to other uses for the item, e.g., "we can draw with sticks (in the dirt)", "we can put leaves in our bag", "we can stack rocks". If we were to say, "don't put that in your mouth", chances are it is going straight into her mouth. When we redirect to other uses for the item, she is more likely to try that new thing out.
There are some really great bloggers dedicated to being outdoors with kids. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but it really is a growing and resourceful online community. Please see the list below and visit those pages. We often draw inspiration from them. You can find most on Facebook and Twitter as well. We are fairly new to this community (we started Family Wilds about 4 months ago in mid-May 2011) and know that because of our newbie status we have missed or not found many other wonderful bloggers and sites. Please add to the list below in the comments section and we'll post a more comprehensive list with descriptions soon. We need to give a special thanks to the folks below for providing us with so much to enjoy and strive for!
Well, we never intended for this post to be so long, but there it is, all 2,521 words of it. If you read it all, skimmed most of it, or even pretended to - THANK YOU! Please share your ideas with us now! What do you do to help keep your little ones actively engaged while outside?
-Pablo and Nea