Why I Built This Kit
For as long as I can remember, I have loved being outdoors. Whether exploring woods or playing in snow, walking on the beach or hiking up a mountain, I have always been in awe of the natural world. Now, I get a thrill out of sharing this world and its wonders with my young son. I hope you and yours might experience this joy, as well.
Kids are natural-born explorers. What better way to explore than getting little ones outside? Even though it can be tedious at times to remove the woodchips or grass or pebbles from a baby’s mouth for the umpteenth time, it is a sign that they are engaged and trying to experience the world around them as best they know how! Humans benefit from their experiences and relationships with the outdoors and nature both physically and mentally. However, children’s interactions with nature have become increasingly limited and/or structured within the United States. The work of Richard Louv has led to concerns about Nature Deficit Disorder. According to another significant study conducted by the Outdoor Foundation, children’s participation in outdoor activities has declined in recent years. Parents, family, and friends have the strongest influence on younger children’s participation in outdoor recreation. (“Children & Nature Worldwide: An Exploration of Children’s Experiences of the Outdoors and Nature with Associated Risks and Benefits,” 2012, p. 3) That means that we are important role models and shapers in our children’s lives. This might seem like a self-evident truth, unnecessary to actually say out loud or type out, but I, for one, am happy to have that reminder. Kids will enjoy the outdoors more if they see us enjoying the outdoors. So let’s get out in the sun, or rain, or snow, and play and learn. Let’s get little hands and little feet dirty. Not sure you want your kids tracking dirt in the house? Read “The Dirt on Dirt” from the National Wildlife Foundation. It might change your mind!
Read an overview of the study mentioned above and many others: “Children & Nature Worldwide: An Exploration of Children’s Experiences of the Outdoors and Nature with Associated Risks and Benefits,” available online through the Children & Nature Network.
Spark Their Interest
The best way to get your child interested in nature and the world around them is to take them outside, and often! Once you’re out, follow their lead to keep the experiences positive for them. This might mean actually following them – let them lead you on a walk. While their pace might be excruciatingly slow, chances are you’ll notice them making some keen observations: bending down to examine something more closely, jumping high to touch a tree, running up a hill that isn’t exactly en route to your intended destination. Following their lead might also mean adapting to their wants and needs. Some young children are more sensitive to cold than others. My toddler son doesn’t seem to be bothered by the cold unless the windchill brings the temperature below 10°F. Even if he could tolerate those temperatures, I probably would still draw the line at that point!
Outings in the winter might be shorter, but they are still fun. But I know other kids the same age that can’t stand any cold weather at all. On the other hand, my son detests rain boots most of the time, but still loves puddle jumping. So we get our regular shoes wet and make sure to pack dry socks and shoes if we’re somewhere away from home and/or there is a chill. He also has never been a big fan of a car or stroller, so we make sure to plan lots of stops and/or lots of time where he gets to run around (or, when he was a baby, just sit on his bum or be carried). I think the best thing we can all strive to do is know our children, and not try to force an interest or experience. And then, of course, try to balance that with exposure to experiences and interests we hope they will enjoy! So if your child doesn’t seem too keen to take a walk in the woods yet, but they love animals, maybe start by visiting a frog pond or farm or butterfly show. Lucky for us, there are many ways to enjoy and appreciate nature!
- Counting on the Woods by George Ella Lyon, illus. by Ann W. OlsonA lyrical poem and large color photographs takes us through the woods with a little boy. On the way we count worms, birds, trees, and more. A story that connects people and nature for even the youngest readers, listeners, and explorers.
- Pond Babies by Cathryn FalwellA mother and her young child go to the pond and match all the different babies they see with their mamas. At the end, we see the child’s toes and then hugging his own mother as she claims his as “My baby!” This is followed by a spread that illustrates children moving like all the different pond babies. Great textual repetition, beautiful paper collages, animals, and movement. What’s not to love?!
- Nest by Jorey HurleyFrom birth, to first flight, to new friend, the first year of a bird’s life is full of activity and wonder. Artist Jorey Hurley pairs vivid, crisp artwork with simple, minimal text—often just one word per spread—to create a breathtaking, peaceful chronicle of nature and life’s milestones. (Publisher)
- Green by Laura Vaccaro SeegerHow many kinds of green are there? There's the lush green of a forest on a late spring day, the fresh, juicy green of a just-cut lime, the incandescent green of a firefly, and the vivid aquamarine of a tropical sea. (Publisher)
- Billy Bunny and the Butterflies by Maurice PledgerA bunny goes looking for butterflies in this lift-the-flap board book. Pledger’s detailed illustrations of animals and nature are just fabulous. Check out some of his other titles such as Oscar Otter and the Goldfish.
- On the Day You Were Born by Debra FrasierOn the Day You Were Born written and illustrated by Debra Frasier, is considered a modern children's classic. The lyric text welcomes each child to the every day miracles of planet Earth, the Sun, Moon, North Star, wind, rain, tides and the circle of people awaiting each child. (DebraFrasier.com)
- In the Tall, Tall Grass by Denise Fleminglf you were a fuzzy caterpillar crawling through the tall, tall grass on a sunny afternoon, what would you see? Beginning as the sun is high in the sky and ending as fireflies blink and the moon rises above, this backyard tour is one no child will want to miss. (Publisher)
- The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss, illus. by Crockett JohnsonA little boy’s unwavering faith in the carrot seed he has planted is rewarded when a big carrot grows. A perfect introduction to the patience and care that nature can sometimes call for.
- Big Bug by Henry ColeBig, bold illustrations and spare text make this creative introduction to the natural world and the concepts of scale and size a winner for the youngest readers.
- Wave by Suzy LeeLee's wordless picture book captures a child's day at the beach. Followed by a flock of seagulls, a girl runs delightedly to where waves break on the shore. She surveys the sea, chases it as it recedes, runs from it as it surges, splashes in it when it calms, taunts it as it rises, and finally succumbs to it crashing down upon her and discovers what treasures the waves can bring. A panoramic trim size supports the expansiveness of the beach, and Lee uses the gutter to effectively represent the end of the shoreline—until the girl crosses that line. (School Library Journal)
- Old Bear by Kevin HenkesOld Bear lumbers to his cave to hibernate till spring. In his dreams, he is a cub again, exploring the seasons—summer, fall, winter, and spring. When he finally awakes, Old Bear is so happy to find the outside world waiting for him, just as beautiful as in his dreams. (KevinHenkes.com)
- All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon, illus. by Marla FrazeeA series of rhymed couplets narrate a young family through a day of discovering that "all the world is wide and deep." Prismacolor pencil and watercolor illustrations depict the family as they dig in the sandy shore, choose a tree to plant at a farmers' market, sightsee, and are caught in a thunderstorm. They dry off and have dinner in a restaurant, then return home as the sun sets. Family members gather for a musical get-together and mutual enjoyment. The message of pleasure in the world around us is clearly stated: "all the world is everything. Everything is you and me. Hope and peace and love and trust / All the world is all of us." (Children's Literature) A story that shows the interconnectedness and depth of the world and our place as humans in it.
- Hippo SeasonsHippo Seasons, from the young Scottish company, Hippotrix, is an “experiential toy” which gently enhances learning about the cycle of the four seasons for preschoolers. The quiet crunch of rolling a snowball in the Winter scene, brushing aside fall leaves, and poking a finger into the extremely lifelike pond of spring water are only a few of the many ways to interact with the vivid interface, and the complete absence of speech or on-screen text makes this app a great choice for kids with a variety of needs. (Cool Tech Mom) The freestyle of play and self-discovery in this app is perfect for the youngest users.
- The Very Hungry Caterpillar & Friends Play & ExploreThe charm and vibrancy of Eric Carle’s animal characters comes through in this app, along with some trivia about the animals in real life. The combination of beautiful animation, information, and fun games is sure to win kids over.
- The Animals of Mossy ForestA hide and seek story with woodsy animals that includes fabulous narration, music, and illustrations. The simple interactions are perfect for young children who will be captivated by it all.
Watch, Listen, and Learn
The Sound of Sunshine (Disney Nature Earth Day Song)
An upbeat song about nature accompanied by great footage of chimpanzees in their natural habitat. Sure to get little ones bopping along.
Another song, this time with children singing, and animated with childlike animations.
The two muppet friends take a walk in the woods and Cookie Monster laments that he can’t smell any cookies, but he has plenty of reminders anyway!
An alphabet that goes through images of various animals and parts of nature. A video shows the lower half of a woman’s face (which isn’t as creepy as it sounds) pronouncing each letter multiple times.
Create an outdoor kitchen for your child by selecting a few items that will tolerate some rain and mud from your own kitchen or purchasing them inexpensively at yard sales or thrift stores. Some ideas include bowls, muffin tins, loaf and/or cake pans, colanders, measuring cups, measuring spoons, and some serving utensils. A watering can is also a great tool to add. Read more about the fun and benefits of mud kitchens here. Set up a bench, small table, or empty crates as a work surface for your child. Mud is the main ingredient in an outdoor play kitchen, but having some natural materials like twigs, pebbles, leaves, and flowers around is helpful for decorating the chef’s creations, as well. If mud isn’t readily available, fill a dishpan with some dirt and use the watering can to make your own mud! Get messy and have fun!
As long as we’re talking mud, let’s add mud painting to the mix. Get out some paper, cardboard, or fabric like flour sack, a couple of paintbrushes in different sizes, and a tub of…you guessed it…mud! Let your child paint with the mud. Use this activity as an opportunity to learn about the Senufo people living on the Ivory Coast in West Africa. You can make this “lesson” as simple as explaining that there are people who use black mud to create art. Often they paint images that reflect the animals around them on loosely woven cloth called mud cloth. Find out about one such artist here. When you finish painting, ask your child to tell you a story about what they have painted, or make up a tale yourself! Live in the city? Like with the mud kitchen, make your own mud (and maybe lay some newspaper down if you’re on a balcony!)
Before taking a walk in a park or the woods, wrap a piece of masking tape around your toddler’s wrist with the sticky side facing out. As you explore, help your little one place some of his discoveries onto the tape to create a bracelet: leaves, small twigs, acorn caps, flowers, etc. all make great additions. When your child is ready to take the bracelet off, use scissors to cut it and display it on the fridge or a bulletin board! Another idea that allows you to collect bigger items is to make a nature sensory board, great for tots or babies!
Help your baby or toddler really see the wonder of a spiderweb by holding a black piece of construction paper underneath it. The contrast is stunning. Practice saying words such as " web" and “spider” really let your kiddos hear the sounds of the words as you pronounce them, even if they cannot yet say the words themselves.
I love this idea for making a collage of leaves using clear contact paper attached to a wall or table and glitter. What a beautiful decoration, and easy for even young toddlers! Describe the colors you see in the leaves as you create your collage, and if your tot is old enough, ask them to identify the colors on their own!
Create opportunities for your little one to observe nature in action. For example, plant a butterfly garden or hang a hummingbird feeder. Take walks to different types of habitats with your tot on their feet, in a backpack, or in a stroller. Describe the weather around you and how it affects the landscape. Bird feeders and potted gardens are a great option for city dwellers, too! Talk about the things you see, their names (“that’s a butterfly!”), their actions (“see the butterfly folding its wings?”), what they look like (“the butterfly is orange and black!”), their size (“the butterfly is smaller than a bird, but bigger than an ant,”) etc.
Don’t forget about the simple, classic pastime of making animal sounds with your baby or toddler! This has been one of the primary ways we are able to distract my son in almost any situation. Go beyond barnyard and pet animals to woodland, pond, jungle, ocean, and other types of animals! It doesn’t matter if your child can’t yet identify animals, they’ll still absorb the information. My son began to make animal noises long before he could say animal names. And my spouse and I have given each other some good laughs over our attempts to produce accurate animal sounds!
In addition to playing in the snow, sledding, skiing, etc., try activities such as freezing bubbles or making an ice sun catcher. To do the latter, have your child gather some “treasures,” like twigs, leaves, acorns, stones etc. Put them in a bundt can with water and stick it all in the freezer. What you’ll end up with is a beautiful sparkling ice creation that you can hang outside a window in the winter to catch the sunlight and your child’s imagination. This activity was suggested to us by National Geographic’s Jennifer Emmett –hear what else she had to say about getting outside during her Zoobean Expert on Air Chat!
Museums, Libraries, and Parks & Rec Departments
Check with libraries, museums, and the parks and recreation department in your area to see what types of children’s programs they have geared towards nature or learning about nature, and get involved! For example, many children’s museums, even if they are in urban areas, have exhibits and/or programs that will get even the youngest kids thinking about the outdoors. Parks and Audubon societies often have organized hikes, birdwatches, boating trips, stargazing, or other such activities for the youngest kiddos, too. If you’re striking out and not finding an activity that meets your family’s needs, tell these types of organizations you’re looking for these types of experiences! Chances are, they’ll welcome the feedback and might just plan something that’s right up your alley!
Greetings from central Maine! Things you should know about me: I am the mother of an inquisitive, active toddler who keeps me on my toes. I work in a small, independent children’s bookstore where I get to help kids, teens, and their grown-ups find books that will keep them up reading all night long. Just kidding about that last part, they go to sleep eventually, I swear. Well, I don’t swear, but I assume. But matching people and books? My favorite way to play matchmaker! Before moving to Maine I worked as a historical researcher for American Girl, where I learned about everything from steamboats to wars to parrots. I am also a children’s book author myself, with my first picture book due to come out in 2015! When I’m not knee-deep in books or blocks or a sandbox, I bake a lot, avoid cleaning at all costs, and try to spend as much time outdoors as possible. For the record, I would love to be a neat and orderly person, it just doesn’t seem to be my style. I’m working on it.