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Nature Study with VERY Young Children

I had an email from Dana and she has a one year old. She was asking for some tips on how to get started with nature study with very little ones who are prone to putting things in their mouth….she lives in Tanzania, Africa and is worried about bugs and poisonous plants.

I have been thinking about her situation and decided that it isn’t any different from those of us who live in other parts of the world. Having a young toddler and providing an opportunity for nature study is pretty much the same anywhere. When children are very young, it is only natural that they want to explore in a way that is meaningful to them and sometimes that means putting things in their mouth. Our job as parents is to provide a safe environment for them to explore. Just like you baby-proof your home to ensure your toddler can play and learn in a safe environment, you can baby-proof an outdoor area for your child as well. The space doesn’t need to be large. It could be a blanket on the grass or sand, a patch of grass or weeds that is near where you hang laundry or tend a garden, even a spot on the patio with a few potted plants and natural items to explore.

“As for the baby, when he is put down, he will kick and crawl and grab at the grass, loving every minute of his freedom as he takes in nature in his own way. He should be dressed in something comfortable that can handle a bit of dirt and play.” Charlotte Mason, Volume 1, page 45

Nature study at this age is something you will want to do together to spark interest and to start the process of learning to be a good observer.

“..the mother must not miss this opportunity of being outdoors to train the children to have seeing eyes, hearing ears and seeds of truth deposited into their minds to grow and blossom on their own in the secret chambers of their imaginations.” Charlotte Mason, Volume 1, page 45

What does this mean in a practical way? Our yard has lots of things to explore so many times we would just walk around our own backyard together. There were rocks to turn over and look at what was hiding underneath…..ants and spiders and crickets. There were plants to smell like roses, thyme, and lavender. There were trees to touch and leaves to gather. It is fun to have a few items that they can take on their walks like nets, buckets, pouches, binoculars, or magnifying lenses. We kept our outdoor tools in a crate outside the back door.

We always had a vegetable garden so the little ones would accompany us outside to water, weed, and harvest. I tried to make sure that there were things growing that they liked to eat so they could harvest and eat the veggies right out in the garden….peas and beans were some of their favorites. They almost always had their own “garden” where they were free to dig and explore under my supervision. Most little ones have no fear worms and spiders so it is the perfect time to nurture their love for those sorts of things.

Digging in the dirt is great therapy for children and adults as well. The fragrance of damp soil and fresh earth leave imprints on our minds that last into the winter season. As we would weed, I would point out the plant parts like roots and stem. Even if all you have is a pot or two on your porch or deck, this will provide a great start to learning more about the plant world.

Once you decide you want to venture out of the yard, the stroller is a great way to get the little ones out but still let them be a part of our nature time. You can point things out to get them started but soon they will be looking for clouds and birds on their own. Be flexible. I have one child that would rather push the stroller than sit and ride so I would tell him that he had to keep a hand on the stroller as we walked along at his pace. This kept him from running too far ahead and I could interact with him as interesting things caught our eye. This gave him a little sense of freedom but I could be in close supervision.

Have you ever smelled the sulfur/rotten egg smell of a mud pot? This photo was taken in Lassen National Park and the looks on their faces tells you that it is not a pleasant smelling place….except for maybe Amanda and she has always been a smiley girl no matter what.

From a very early age, we included the little ones along on our family hikes. The baby backpack was our best friend and the boys both loved riding along on dad’s back as we hiked. We trained them to ride in the backpack and then gradually shifted them to walking on their own.

From the age of three, we geared our hikes to allow the littlest ones to hike as much as possible on their own. This meant a slower pace and a shorter distance but it was very enjoyable to see the trail from their eyes and to follow their lead from time to time.

“Adults should realize that the most valuable thing children can learn is what they discover themselves about the world they live in. Once they experience first-hand the wonder of nature, they will want to make nature observation a life-long habit.” Charlotte Mason, Volume 1, page 61

Nature study at an early age is about exposure and a growing awareness of what is surrounding you at all times. Your enthusiasm is so crucial to capturing your child’s interest. Think about what interests you about the outdoors and then come up with a way to involve your children.

Here are some ideas that I have used over the years:
One of our favorite daily activities when the boys were very small was to let them use a small watering can to water our deck plants each morning. We would observe the flowers and play in the water a little but they began to have an appreciate for growing things. Growing marigolds in a pot is something we did a lot when the boys were little.

The boys also have always loved helping to fill the birdfeeders. This would get us outdoors and talking about the different visitors we had that ate the seeds. Scooping seed was a favorite toddler activity as well.

Collecting things to bring home and organize is a great toddler activity. I have one son that always had a pocket full of acorns every time he went outside. We collected them in a coffee can each day and he enjoyed spilling them out on the deck to count and sort through on his own.

Rocks, feathers, sticks, and shells can all be kept on a nature table. Many times these natural items were mixed in with their imaginative play. Block cities had acorn people and Hotwheel cars rode over stick bridges.This was another way to have them enjoy their time outdoors.

Two very dirty little boys having the time of their lives on a hike.

Indoor props could come outdoors to be played with in their dirt cities. I had a tub with a few things like plastic animals, toy cars, spoons, cups, scraps of fabric, and anything else that could serve as accessories to their imaginative outdoor play. They would add in leaves, cones, seeds, and other bits to make pretend villages and cities. On hot days we would include water in our play in the form of a bucket or tub.

Start to look at the outdoors as an extension of your indoor life….a really big play room. Include your little ones along with your outdoor activities. The simple act of taking a daily walk together will provide more than enough fuel to start the nature study engine. Take it slowly and enjoy seeing the world through your little one’s eyes.

Note to readers: All the photos in this entry are of my kids when they were very, very much younger than they are now. This was a great photo scanning project and it brought back so many nature related memories. Don’t waste time…get started with nature study as soon as you can with your little ones because it is a great way to build your family and your relationships.


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16 thoughts on “Nature Study with VERY Young Children

  1. Great post 🙂 Thanks so much! Q

  2. I can describe you in one word..


    what a wonderful post !

  3. This brought back memories of when my children were very, very young too, a heart moment.
    Now I can give that memory back to them so that they might connect with their own children in the same way. Childhood is such a precious time.

  4. Lovely encouraging and inspiring post! It makes me want to stop what I am doing and just get outside! This was wonderful… I needed to read this!

  5. We walk down to the post office most days to collect our mail. My older two (aged 4 and 2) often bring their plastic magnifying glasses to have a close up look at things we discover. They can name many of the plants that we see in other people’s gardens and know lots of plant words (seed, seedling, root, shoot etc.). We kept tabs on the larve development of ladybugs by checking a certain climbing rose on the way this summer. We know all about clouds, rainbows and snow by keeping an eye on the mountains accross the paddocks. We are priveledged to live in a rural area so we watch the cows and calves, sheep and lambs, harvesting and planting over the fence. We do all of this while getting exercise and doing our regular errands. With four kids under 5 time is of the essence so the fact that “nature study” can be combined with a walk or hanging out the washing is invaluable to me! Study of all kinds is all about creating that habit of enquiry and love of learning that you are always talking about – the learning of facts and figures naturally follows imo 🙂 Great post, thanks!

  6. WONDERFUL post. I wish I had started earlier with Kathryn, and if we ever have younger ones, we’ll be doing these things from a very young age.

  7. Thank you, Barb, for such such a personal yet practical look at nature study with the very young. I so enjoyed seeing all the pictures of your lovely family as well!

  8. Thanks everyone for the really nice comments. I had a lot of fun writing the post and finding photos to go along with it.

    I am glad that it was encouraging.

    Barb-Harmony Art Mom

  9. I love nature study with babies! It’s not easy–not at all!–but it’s so fun. One tip that I’ve learned with our third baby is that the pacifier is our best friend. 🙂 My other babies didn’t take them.

    Also, just be really vigilant. My littlest one is never more than a step away from me outside. Sometimes it gets frustrating, but I have to remind myself how valuable it is to have her out with us.

    They can learn very early not to put things in their mouths. I remember being shocked that at age 1, my daughter knew the difference between two types of red berries. There was a non-edible kind that she loved to collect in her bucket. Just after I taught her not to eat them, we visited friends who had edible red berries. Raia sat by their bush and ate as many as she could. I anticipated trouble when we went back to just collecting the other kind. Nope. She knew the difference!

    The Charlotte Mason quotes that you gave here are some of my favorites.

  10. This is really neat…seeing your kids when they were younger.
    I never used the backpack, but I did use a double jogging stroller.
    It had big wheels to stroll my kids everywhere!

  11. Keri,

    Can you believe how blond boys were when they were little? I forgot about that.

    We used the backpack more than the stroller because of the terrain. I also had one how really, really hated being in the stroller but didn’t mind riding on dad’s back so it worked better for us.

    Barb-Harmony Art Mom

  12. So very, very lovely! It already makes me feel nostalgic about when my Amie (now 3.5 years old) will be 17/18… Reading this post has made my day and I’m going to share it with Amie tomorrow.

  13. Thanks for contributing this post to the CM Blog Carnival.

    Grace & Peace,

  14. Posts like this are what keep your blogs on the tops of my RSS Feed Reader. I don’t usually take the time to comment, but there has been so many times I came away inspired after reading here.

    I have four children, ages five and under, and they all LOVE the outdoors! I’ve just started trying to do some more organized nature study. I’m shocked at how much information they’ve already learned just from asking questions. My husband is a born teacher and is constantly pointing out things on our walks.

    Anyway – just wanted to say a big THANKS! I have so many things from your blog printed off to reread. And this post is one of them!

  15. Gina,

    You are very *welcome*! I really, really love this entry as well. It was a labor of love for my readers as well as for my children to read as we look back on our growing up times together.


  16. Hi Barb, I am on a journey to teach y kids (And myself) about nature and am finding this post very helpful. In tomorrow’s nature walk i will bring plastic animals – wonderful idea!

    The Mom and Dad Academy

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