You undoubtedly know that play is critical to your baby or toddler’s growth and development. Play is how little ones make sense of the world, absorb new experiences, test hypotheses, communicate observations, and acquire knowledge via the scientific method, trial and error, or just plain good guesses.
But in addition to play in general being great for kids, outdoor play contributes massively to your baby’s growth, development, and first few introductions to lifelong learning.
Outdoor play, say experts, promotes creativity and problem solving in children. It also boosts baby’s curiosity, confidence, grit, and social and cognitive skills, including speech and language development. And that’s true whether that play occurs smack in the middle of nature or somewhere on the periphery, and whether you are soaking up the warm rays and gentle breezes this summer or the wet snow and icy cold winds next winter.
The Hard Science You Never Knew Existed
Recent studies on the benefits of outdoor play have focused largely on its effects on school-age children. But experts agree that even tots derive huge benefits from consistent, age-appropriate, unstructured, closely supervised outdoor activity. In fact, experts say, the earlier you engage your child in outdoor play, the better it is for his physical, emotional, and intellectual development. Studies have found that outdoor play in childhood can:
- Cut the risk of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes
- Boost kids’ agility, balance, and coordination
- Lead to higher standardized test scores in school-age children
- Hike little kids’ reasoning skills and powers of observation
So, with another few months of longer days and awesome weather still ahead, use these tips to create exciting, age-appropriate, fresh-air experiences for your outdoor-loving little one.
For your infant to 9-month-old. Grab a blanket or a play mat, and a few favorite toys. Then, set up camp outdoors on a grassy patch in the shade, or on a covered porch or patio. Place your baby on her back to enjoy the sights, smells, and sounds around her. Does she seem to notice the blue sky, wispy clouds, freshly mowed grass, flowers, chirping birds, children’s voices, car noises, and airplanes in the distance? Point to each and name it. Flip to tummy time. Encourage her to exercise the muscles in her neck and back, as well as her little arm and leg muscles—give her a hand if she needs it. She can scurry across the blanket to grab her playthings if you leave them just beyond her reach. Join her as she plays with them.
For your 10- to 16-month old. Now’s the time to boost the challenge for your future nature ranger with a few outdoor activities that are, frankly, much more active. Take a stroller ride around town, down the block, or through a park and point out the small pond, flowers, shrubs, bushes, trees, trucks and buses, parked cars, windows, doors, pets on leashes, large buildings, little shops, and people going in and out of them. Imitate noises you hear and teach baby how to replicate them. Try Vroom. Beep-beep. Screech. Honk, honk. At the park or back at home, help your child explore the world of nature beneath his bare feet or sneakers. Is that a worm? An ant? Play peek-a-boo with leaves. Blow soapy bubbles or roll a ball or two in his direction. Can he catch them?
For your 17- to 24-month-old. Add water play now. Head outdoors. Fill cups and let her empty them—who cares if she gets muddy? Show her how to make mud pies and mud dinners; she can use leaves in place of lettuce. Together, make a “picnic table fort” or line up sturdy lawn chairs to form a tunnel. Dine alfresco, dig, collect rocks, water flowers, build a birdhouse, squirt a hose, check out wildlife, or feed your family’s pets and critters.
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