Conventional wisdom in the U.S. is to bundle babies up and keep them indoors. But research and long-held wisdom around the world tells us that infants and toddlers in well-designed outdoor spaces benefit from access to a wide variety of sensory stimuli the likes of which they just can’t experience indoors.
The first months and years of life are a “critical period” in which the brain develops more than any other time. To the parent and educator in me, this can feel like both an incredible opportunity and an overwhelming responsibility. Adults, especially parents, are born ready to support their babies as they grow. But, it can feel hard to see that, especially as we are trying to learn to parent a brand-new human, and there is so much advice and expertise tugging at us.
One easy way to play your role as #1 supporter of a baby’s development is to provide an ideal learning environment. Since babies are born with the instinct to explore, a natural setting is a wonderfully stimulating environment for them to grow. The benefits of nature to babies abound, and to follow are a few of our favorites:
- Because of the variety and richness of the sights, sounds, textures and smells in nature, the outdoors offers increased chances to expand a baby’s understanding of the world.
- The more we learn about the brain, the more it makes sense that greater sensory opportunities like those in natural settings also support synaptic development in the brain—the defining work of the baby’s brain during this period. On average, the human brain grows synapses from around 2,500 to 15,000 in total in the first 2-3 years of life.
- As babies grow, the outdoors offers surfaces and objects that are ready-made for baby to use to challenge him or herself on the next gross motor achievement, and that gives feedback to help baby increase strength and balance. This means enhanced physical and motor development.
- Exposure to the microbes that live in natural environments boosts immune system development, leading to a healthier childhood and even adulthood. Research from around the world and dating back to the 1900s shows that young children who spend more time outdoors are less likely to get sick.
- Reduced stress and anxiety for both baby and treasured adult and increase in positive emotions and limit the stress that we know can deter healthy development across domains.
- According to research, knowledge of the natural world gained by young children through direct experience leads to greater respect for and love of nature. If we want our children to connect to nature for a lifetime, infancy is a prime time to foster that connection. Infants and toddlers have not yet formed a fear of nature—a fear which, according to experts including Richard Louv and David Sobel, is increasingly present among older children and adults and is associated with lack of experience and/or knowledge of the natural world. Because the adults in an infant or toddler’s life have a tremendous influence over that child’s experience of the world, we can offer them this direct connection and set them on a path of stewardship from the start.
- Perhaps best of all, research from the Journal of Sleep shows that time in nature even helps babies establish healthy sleep patterns. The more babies can rest, the more resources they have to learn, and the better they can solidify their cognitive, emotional, and physical development. Plus, as any parent of an infant knows, getting baby sleeping regularly is worth gold!
Here are a few simple things to try to help provide the benefits of nature to our babies:
1. Spend even more time together outdoors. It sounds simple, but there are barriers that keep us indoors—weather, gear, nap schedules, and worst of all, fear. But, there are ways around it all. Babies have so much to learn, and the sensory stimulation that natural settings provide supports so much learning.
2. Walks are a super starting place: If you are just getting started, focus on taking longer and longer walks outdoors with your baby. Whether you are wearing your baby or pushing them in a stroller, your baby will benefit from the sunlight, the fresh air, and the myriad sounds, smells, and sights that come with being outdoors.
3. Get on the ground with baby: If you are already getting around outdoors with your baby, try getting down and giving your baby lots of direct contact with the earth. If going right onto the dirt or grass feels like a stretch for you or baby, start out on a blanket and watch your baby play with her hands and feet or with a few objects from home or nature that support exploration. Just moving the play you might do indoors outdoors offers baby the benefit of the sensations, sights, and sounds of being outdoors.
If you’re ready, start to have daily tummy, seated exploration, or crawling time right on the grass or dirt. There’s so much to discover as a baby feels and tugs at the ground cover.
If your baby is already crawling around or walking, get a low box or bin and fill it with natural treasures. Some of our favorite treasures for babies include pine cones, smooth stones (greater than 2” in any direction), edible herbs like basil, edible flowers like violets, and bunches of grasses tied with twine. Watch how your baby explores these objects and enjoy exploring them yourself right alongside.
4. Gear up: Read more about how to dress baby for when the weather is wet or cold. Remember, you’ll be on the ground too, so you may want gear that will keep you comfortable too.
5. Mud Play! When you are ready for it, water, dirt, and mud make for wonderful play for baby. It will be messy, and some mud will likely make it into the mouth. But, the free, joyful exploration and sensory are so worth it! Read more about the benefits of messy play at any age.