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

Why I Want to Be a Weird Parent

I’ve mentioned a couple of times that I’ve been really inspired by a style of parenting known as ‘RIE’ (Resources for Infant Educarers), which I discovered via the writings of early years expert Janet Lansbury. It is a way of relating to babies and toddlers that really focuses on respect, connection and trust. Among the guiding principles of RIE are natural motor development, self-directed play, and accepting and acknowledging feelings.

The trouble is, I think parenting this way might be making me a little…weird. I can see other mums in the playground giving me sideways looks as I let my fifteen month old happily toddle along by himself, without me following a few steps behind or directing him towards the play equipment. A few weeks ago, a mum actually sent her six year-old over to ask me to come and get my baby (he was happily poking a tree and was absolutely fine).


The trouble with Tom being my first is that I don’t currently have much experience to back up my convictions. Tom seems to be a happy, confident and well-adjusted child, but who knows if that is my parenting approach or just how he would have been regardless?

But despite the questioning looks of other parents and the occasional wobble in my belief that we are taking the right approach, I fully intend to carry on embracing the principles of RIE. Trusting Tom to play and develop in his own way, at his own pace and pursuing his own interests, has been a revelation. I get so much from watching him conquer new challenges and meet new milestones, knowing that he completely owns all of his achievements – I haven’t pushed him along, but have just stood back and given him the space to succeed.

Sometimes you just have to go with your gut. And RIE feels like the best approach for our family. So I’m going to embrace being a weird parent all the way.

Anyone want to join me on the weird parent wagon? Let me know what ‘odd’ approaches you have taken to raising your kids.

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Barriers to Wild Time #3: Play Inc

Play Inc is all about the comercialisation of childhood; the idea that rewarding play can only come from bought toys or experiences. To be honest, I was feeling pretty smug about this one. After all, Tom is only one. He doesn’t watch tv, so no adverts, and has only a limited number of toys (mainly of the wooden, educational kind, so of course he doesn’t play with them).

But closer examination reveals that a bit of commercialisation has sneaked in. Despite my general desire to avoid ‘brand’ items, Tom actually has a number of items of clothing with popular tv characters. Even worse, several of these depict Mickey Mouse, showing Disney really do get a foothold everywhere (the damn mouse is on two pairs of pjs and his dressing gown, all part of a bundle I got on eBay and didn’t check properly before bidding). He also has a couple of Thomas the Tank Engine things, an inevitable consequence of his name.

I guess I didn’t think these things would be a problem. A few months ago, Tom showed no signs of recognising symbols and I thought he’d grow out of the clothes before they could have an influence. But already he’s beginning to put stuff together – he pulls out his highchair when he sees me getting his plate out, for example. How long will it be before he starts to recognise the mouse from his pjs on items in shops?

I know that, no matter how hard we try, Tom is going to spend his life exposed to all sorts of advertising and brand names. But I’ll try to limit it as much as I can. First step? Those damn Mickey Mouse pjs are going to the charity shop.

At least there are no bulletin boards in the wild!


Developing Gross Motor Skills Naturally

I’m sure I’m not the only parent of a first-born who keeps a mental list of things I would do differently with my (so far still theoretical) future babies. Near the top of the list is committing more fully to letting those gross motor skills – things like sitting, crawling, and walking – occur naturally and in their own time.

This is actually an idea I heard of relatively early in Tom’s life, when he was about two months old. I discovered a brilliant parenting website by a lady named Janet Lansbury, who is a proponent of the ‘RIE‘ (Resources for Infant Educarers) style of early years care. This approach to raising children follows the principles laid out by Hungarian early years expert, Magda Gerber. At the heart of the RIE approach is respect for the baby/child; all other principles stem from there.

Janet Lansbury’s website was a life saver in those early months. It’s a method of parenting that just really chimed with me. It focuses on trust, respect, and seeing babies as capable little people – dependent but not helpless. I can truly say it revolutionised my growing relationship with Tom, took a lot of stress out of being a parent, and is one of the first steps that I took on this journey to bring up a ‘Wildling’ (there’s a lot of focus on creating safe, outdoor play spaces for young babies)

One of the core principles of the RIE approach is that babies should be allowed to move freely and develop their gross motor skills naturally. This means no tummy time, no propping babies to sit, no using walkers, jumperoos or ‘walking’ babies along, and, wherever possible, encouraging babies/toddlers to climb down from high places by themselves, rather than lifting them down. The argument is that babies who are allowed to navigate these milestones by themselves are more in touch with their bodies and more in tune with their physical motions, making them more graceful and less likely to fall. As a result, it’s actually a safer approach than placing them in situations they can’t get out of themselves. And it is more respectful, as it allows the baby the freedom to move naturally, rather than being dependent on an adult to place them in a particular way. There’s a whole host of articles on Janet’s website, so I recommend starting here with the main principles of RIE, if you are interested in learning more.

I say I would commit more fully to this with future babies. That’s because my adherence to this principle with Tom has been a bit patchy. Before I found out about RIE, Tom spent most of his time either in my arms (feeding) or propped up in a bouncy chair. Once I had read some of the articles, I started laying Tom down on his back on a blanket or fleece on the floor instead. I’d surround him with toys, and was quickly surprised by how much he was able to move, simply by pushing with his feet and creeping (very slowly) about the floor. Later, once he learnt to roll, he could scoot about on his tummy fairly easily.

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I have to confess, once Tom was about five months, we did occasionally sit him up on the floor surrounded by cushions. It was a fairly rare occurrence, but it did happen. This was at least partly because I hadn’t adequately explained the reasoning behind not doing this to Mr Techno – for some reason I thought he wouldn’t support it, which was daft because he did place Tom on his back to play most of the time, even without me explaining why I had started doing that. I also justified it because I knew we would take the ‘baby-led weaning’ approach to weaning Tom, which requires babies to be able to sit up before they start solids. I now realise I could have only sat Tom up in a high chair for meals, rather than on the floor for playtime.


By 7.5 months, Tom was crawling (arms first, then legs too) and it was logical to carry on letting him play freely on the floor, without restraining him in any way. It was noticeable that, contrary to my mum’s predictions, Tom could get into a crawling position from his tummy. He didn’t need to be sitting up first. In fact, it wasn’t until he was 10 months that he could get into a sitting position by himself and even now he gets onto all fours first, rather than sitting up from a lying down position. For him, that is just the natural way of doing it.

Tom has been in a walker precisely once in his life (at my in-laws, when I wasn’t around). He has pushed his buggy around in the park a bit, or our office chair around the flat, but, in both situations, worked out he could do so himself rather than us encouraging him too. Another confession; we did sometimes (though rarely) let him hold our hands and walk along before he could walk by himself. Usually though he just cruised along the furniture.

Buggy pushing

I’m definitely not saying that any of this has made Tom reach milestones any sooner. It hasn’t. He was an average age crawler and a very slightly late walker. But he has done both these things with great confidence. He’s only been walking about two weeks, but already his nursery key person has commented on his control – apparently toddlers usually struggle to regulate their speed at first. As soon as he could walk, he could stop and stand still, change direction, and bend to pick something up off the floor. He does take the odd tumble, but far less than I expected.

He also meets challenges well. In the park the other day, I watched a two-year-old girl reach a slope and hold out her hand immediately for her grandmother’s hand to be helped to walk down it. Tom reached the same slope, got down on all fours, turned round and went down it backwards, without a single comment or helping hand from me. Because that’s how we taught him to go down stairs.

Sorry, terrible photo. He was in motion!

Tom has proved to me that this way of letting babies develop is better, safer and more respectful. So if we ever have another child, I’ll be making sure Mr Techno and I are on the same page from day one and let motor control develop naturally.

Happy Mama Happy Baby

Free Play: A work in progress

The government have recently published a report on play in childhood, which is a great indication of the growing understanding of the value of play for development and well being. I’m also taking part in a FutureLearn course on play, so its a topic very much on my mind lately.

Experts agree that for young children, like Tom, the best play is free play: child-led, unstructured, no expected outcome. For the most part, this is the kind of play that comes naturally to our household. As parents, I’d say that one of Mr Techno and I’s strengths is our ability to let Tom explore freely, without interfering or imposing our own agenda.


A major weakness though (of mine at least) is my inability to back off and let Tom handle social situations on his own. I’m a bit of an introvert and, as a first time patent, have yet to work out the finer points of playground etiquette. Is it ok to let my toddler poke younger babies? Should I interfere if he’s bugging an older kid?


A lot of the time, I simply avoid the issue by spending time in wild areas with fewer kids. But I know that’s not a long-term approach. So we’ve been making more forays into the playground, where I’m falling back on the ‘less is more’ parenting philosophy and letting Tom handle social situations himself. I’m always watching attentively, just in case, but I’m getting better at holding back my natural inclination to interfere. As a result, Tom has recently played with children from (estimated) 2 years old to 10 years old, with no tears, injuries, or visible clashes*.And I’ve had a chance to realise that other parents have no more idea how to handle these interactions than I do.


It’s something I still need to work on more. But every time I suppress my urge to grab Tom away from a situation, take a deep breath, and watch to see how he works it out, I am surprised by how well things go. He’s far more capable than I would ever have imagined. And I just need to learn to trust him.


*I have no photos to share of these playtimes, as I don’t feel right putting pictures of other people’s kids online. You’ll have to settle for more photos of Tom engaged in some free play.

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