By Julie Eldridge
Early Childhood Educator at Cincinnati Nature Center
It wasn’t long ago that I could slip on my hiking boots, snap the leash on my dog’s collar and head out for a hike. The wind rustling through the trees, the gurgling water in the stream and the birds chattering all around soothed my soul and quieted my mind.
That was about 2½ years ago. Now I run through my checklist: diapers … check, wipes … check, snack … check, sippy cup … check, and when I’m really on the ball, extra outfit for falls in the mud … check. All this takes place while my eternally patient dog gives me an annoyed glare, as if to say, “Do we really have to keep this little person? He makes everything more complicated.”
Obviously, my hikes these days are not as quiet and soothing, but they are exciting in a new way. My son delights in seeing new things and checking back on what we have discovered on past hikes. He and I have share so much, I feel compelled to share some of our favorite ways for you and your baby or toddler to explore nature this fall.
Find a small tree or low hanging branch. Grasp the trunk or branch and gently shake. The leaves will tumble down all around your toddler or baby. Have the camera ready for some really neat pictures.
Stop and Smell the…
Flowers are nice, but there are many other distinct smells in nature for you and your little one. Scratch the green husk of a walnut to smell its spicy scent. Crush or tear leaves to emit a strong smell. Evergreen needles, sap or cones offer wonderful scents as well.
Babies and toddlers love to watch squirrels and fall is the perfect time to do so! Next time you see a squirrel busily collecting nuts, describe to your child what she is doing. Then pull out a squirrel puppet. Your toddler will delight in collecting nuts and giving them to Mrs. Squirrel. The puppet can pretend to bury them or eat them right away. Be sure to have the puppet talk to your child and thank her for the help. This can also be done to help your little one understand nest building. Have the squirrel collect leaves and tuck them in a low crotch of a small tree within your child’s sight. Be sure the squirrel describes what she is doing, “Here I go, up, up, up the tree with my leaves. This is the perfect spot for my house. I’ll put the leaves right here. They’ll make a nice soft bed.” Next, encourage your little one to collect leaves and give them to Mrs. Squirrel. Your toddler will love helping and learning what squirrels eat and where they live.
By simply describing to your baby what she sees, hears, smells or touches can help build her vocabulary. “This tree is big. Its branches go up into the sky.” “Those geese are loud. They say honk, honk.” “This rock is cold.” Words like big, little, rough, smooth, loud, soft, wet and dry are perfect. For a talkative toddler, ask her to describe what she is experiencing. Asking questions like, “Is the pond water hot or cold?” will easily encourage her. Be sure to give her new words to use by saying things like, “Ouch, that’s prickly. Can you feel how prickly it is?”
Find the Match
My son loves to find things that match. Often it’s that his yellow shirt matches the yellow school bus. The millions of leaves all around in the fall set the stage to play this game outside. Pick up a leaf that has fallen and ask your child to find one that matches. You can encourage her to find one with a matching color or shape.
A grass leaf, seed head or white pine needles make perfect ticklers. If your little one dislikes being tickled, encourage her to tickle you. She’ll love it!
Sweet gum balls, elm leaves, a maple leaf covered with spiky insect galls, bark or a smooth rock are all wonderful items for your youngster to touch. The variety of textures is an excellent form of stimulation for babies. However, please be aware that some plants are poisonous and small natural items can be a choking hazard.
After a large tree died in our yard, we had it cut down with specific instructions to leave as many two-foot cross-sections of the trunk as possible. We placed these “stumps” in a circle in our yard. My son has climbed round and round on these stumps hundreds of times. The circle has also turned into a place to discover wild visitors.
Our hikes these days soothe my soul in a different way, as it is good to know that my little one is connecting to the natural world, a world that will teach him so much.