Engaging Toddlers with Nature: 16 Months

I realised the other day, when I was writing one of our weekly reports, that I have developed a standard repertoire of different ways to engage Tom with green spaces. Most of our outdoor activities are variations on these themes. As Tom grows and develops, we’ll drop some and add others, so I thought it would be helpful to have a record of what worked well at each age. Here is what we do currently:

Going on a walk is probably the first way most children will be taken outdoors. I’ve been going on walks with Tom since he was only a few days old. Obviously he wasn’t doing any walking of his own at that age though, so walks with him have changed a bit since he started to toddle. Broadly speaking, we now go on three types of walk;

1. Parent-led – these are walks that we take more for my benefit than Tom’s. He will typically be on my back in the sling or buggy, facing outwards, so that he has a good view. These are the longer walks we take, usually at least an hour long (though ideally more). I do always try to have a break where he can get down and have a bit of a run around too, but mostly he is a passive observer on these walks. I chat to him as we go about what is around us, and he has started pointing things out as well.

Christmas 2015_691

2. Child-led – these are walks where I give Tom control. Usually I will pick a spot (the Marshes, our local park or woodland) and get us there first, but after that the direction and speed are up to him, with me following along behind. The only time I interfere is if he is heading for something dangerous, like a road, or if we need to start heading home for a meal or sleep. Typically these don’t last longer than half-an-hour, involve a lot of stopping, and cover very little ground, or sometimes the same bit of ground over and over and over. They are also conducted at a frustrating slow pace – sometimes I have to run round and round him in circles to burn off my own energy and quell the urge to hurry him along. Apologies to the family I surprised in the woods a few days ago whilst doing just that!


3. Walks with a theme – more rarely, we will go on walks with more of an aim than just getting outdoors and being active. Examples include our autumn foraging walk, our bear/crab hunt, and foraging for Christmas decorations. I’d imagine we will do more of these as Tom gets older and the novelty of just going for a walk wears off a bit.

Trips and Visits
Especially when Mr Techno is home, we like to have a bit more of an outing and visit places outside our usual haunts. Sometimes the weather means that we end up going to a museum or heritage site instead, but wherever possible we head somewhere outdoors. City farms are a favourite – we loved our visit to Hackney City Farm a little while back. We also like to keep an eye out for local events, and enjoyed a great visit to Winterville before Christmas. When we get the chance, we also like to escape to the countryside to visit friends or family and explore new areas. These trips don’t always go smoothly – one day I will have to write about our failed visit to the Olympic Park in Stratford – but generally make for some great family bonding time.

I am not at all a fan of the typical, hard-top playground with static equipment. Fortunately there has been a real move away from that kind of thing in our area and the Waltham Forest and Hackney Councils have both invested a lot of money in developing natural play areas, many of which are suitable for young toddlers. Our favourite is Leyton Jubilee Park, which is very close to our flat. We visit at least once a week. Once there, I tend to let Tom potter about for a while, doing his own thing. He loves to investigate the green gym equipment, follow other kids around, and try to climb the slides. Before we go he usually gets a go on the swings and the slides, both of which he loves. My only issue with this kind of play for Tom’s age group is that he still needs my help to use the equipment, so has less opportunity for self-directed play.

Free Play
Sometimes the best times outdoors are when we head out with no agenda in mind. I find an open green space in a local park or on the Marshes, and find myself a spot to be our base camp. Then Tom is free to roam, or just to sit with me if he prefers. We take no toys or distractions with us, just use what nature provides (trees are a favourite!) I stay put at our base camp as much as possible, so as not to influence Tom’s play. The only times I interfere is if he falls and hurts himself, if he is headed for a road or other danger (which is rare as I try to pick spots away from such things, though I do sometimes have to stop him chasing dogs), or if he is about to move out of sight. I try not to worry about his distance – he always checks back to see where I am and never goes beyond where I can get to him within a matter of seconds if I need to. The one thing I do have to say is that this kind of play was easier in the summer, when I could sit on the ground without getting soaked. In winter, I recommend taking a waterproof to sit on, and wrapping up warm as it can get cold staying in one spot too long.


Messy/Water Play
This typically takes place in our little patch of garden, as I am not organised enough to pack supplies to take with us elsewhere. Muddy play is the usual favourite, and we also did a lot of water play when it was warmer. High on my wishlist for our garden are a mud kitchen and a proper water table, but for now we are just using plant pots, or an old washing up tub for water. Gather together some containers, scoops and pourers, plus mud or water, and off you go. Some mud always gets eaten, but doesn’t seem to have done any harm…


Playing with the Weather
Although I don’t always manage it, I try not to let rain or wind keep us indoors. We’ve had a great time in the past playing in the rain, splashing in puddles, and experimenting with different materials in the wind. This is definitely something I want to do more of as Tom gets older and begins to understand the principles more. There have been some great ideas mentioned in the ‘Whatever the Weather’ linky (hosted by two lovely ladies – Jenny at Monkey and Mouse  and Chloe at Life Unexpected) which I fully intend to steal in due course.

When I was first looking for outdoor playgroups in our area, I was disappointed to find that most started from 2 and up, which was no good for my little 1 year old. Fortunately, our local Forest Nursery have started a 0-3 nature club, which I have signed Tom and Mr Techno up to. They are starting in a couple of weeks and I’ll let you know how they get on. For those without a handy outdoor nursery (which I guess is still most people), some branches of the Wildlife Trusts run clubs for under fives. You could even start your own – I’ve recently been in touch with another local mum who is trying to start a sort of picnic club in one of our local parks come spring time. Assuming it gets off the ground, there will be more details in a few months time.

Nature Based Arts and Crafts
I am not very crafty, but I enjoy it all the same. Tom is really just getting into painting and drawing, so we recently experimented with making our own Christmas decorations. Since these were a success, I’m planning more nature based crafts in the future. This is another area I expect him to get more and more into as he gets older.

That essentially covers the range of activities we do to engage Tom with nature. What activities does your family enjoy?

Life Unexpected

11 thoughts on “Engaging Toddlers with Nature: 16 Months

  1. Great list of outdoors inspirations. I think most days I just goes out with no agendas in mind. I think I will be starting to make an agenda walk next time as this will combine fun and learning at the same time. Thank you for sharing. #LetKidsBeKids


  2. Walks with a theme are always a favourite of ours! We go hunting for dragons and visit imaginary castles! Sometimes we find witches in the woods as well! Great suggestions x #LetKidsBeKids x


  3. Great list of things. We love walks of different kinds and usually the children find their own adventure on each walk. I am also a big fan of art and craft with nature, which is great as it involves getting outside and then a craft too.
    Thanks for sharing with #LetKidsBeKids


  4. I am so jealous you have a forest nursery near you. I wish we had one close to us. Thank you so much for the mention!! I love this post so much. I never realised we do similar things with Evie, all different themes but outdoors. At the moment though, we’re noticing more and more our walks being mostly child-led. Evie has become so stubborn and independent and wants to take us around instead haha. It’s so good that he has a love of outdoors. I hope you enjoy the forest nursery! Thank you so much for linking this to #whatevertheweather. xx


  5. Thank you very much for the mention! Lots of great advice for ideas to get outdoors and help get kids interested in nature and their surroundings. I especially love the freeplay, it’s my favourite thing for the boys to play. Thank you so much for linking up to #Whatevertheweather 🙂 x


    1. Free play is my favourite too. Learn so much about the toddler in the process. Plus, no prep required and costs absolutely nothing – win on so many levels!


  6. I love to see kids playing outside, and like you I have always tried to give my kids the freedom to explore. My kids are older (8 and 10) so they are now allowed to play in the fields unsupervised around our house. Although I do still feel anxious when they are out and about on their own, I know that’s its important for them to learn some independence and take responsibility for themselves. It has to be said that they still love the things that toddlers do – splashing in water, bashing things with sticks, climbing and playing in mud lol


    1. Great that you give them that independence. The thought terrifies me but im hoping I will be able to overcome that by the time Tom is old enough!


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