Outdoor and Environmental Education: A Toddler’s Guide

Outdoor and Environmental Education sounds so formal…but it doesn’t have to look or feel that way. Over and over I’ve talked about embracing “science moments” as a way to make the science come alive for young children, without being overwhelming and intimidating for you. Kids and nature go naturally together, all you have to do is introduce them to the language and help them discover how they problem solve.

Most of the people I talk to who say they “can’t do” science really are saying they feel like they don’t have the vocabulary or the ideas (or energy) for complicated experiments. Luckily, that doesn’t matter and the real foundations for your toddler are when you take the time to explain to them what is happening and what they are seeing.

For example, my son picked up an acorn the other day and asked “What’s this Mama?” Instead of just saying “an acorn” I told him it was an acorn, which was a type of seed and then point out the oak tree to talk about what that seed could grow into. Only a few extra steps but now he knows that much more about it. LucyAceMaggie 003

If you don’t know the answer to something, tell them that! Maybe you can collect the item and look it up when you get home (we watch a lot of YouTube videos on everything from nebula to anthills). Or, you can just speculate together about what it might be and look for clues that give you an answer. Not knowing is OK since the process of discovery and problem solving is an important science skill!

Need a few more examples to get you started? May I present a picture gallery of outdoor/environment education…the toddler’s version.

Easter2015 053A place to dig doesn’t have to be fancy, and a garden doesn’t have to be big. Our small backyard gives us enough room to plant a few vegetable seeds to see how things grow. Containers also work great, as does a seed in a sandwich bag taped to the window. You can work with whatever space you have. (This year we left half the garden open for “digging” so that the plants stand a chance!)

Water…dirt…sticks…what else do you need? I think the trick to exploring the outdoors is being OK with a mess. When they are “messing around” in the dirt or building piles of leaves and sticks, remember, what it really shows you is the problem solving they are doing.  What happens when things combine? How do I move things where I want them to go? What if I do this?

ErdmansNats 005STEMECE 002

Of course, one of the biggest benefits of being outside is the chance to learn about nature and how to take care of it and respect it. Whether you have exotic wildlife visiting your backyard, or just the chance to observe some bushes as they start to grow leaves, you can have conversations about the world around you. We watch the bees (and talk about how to be safe around them), rescue worms from the sidewalk and put them in the garden, track the growth of our plants…all from the steps of our house.

LucyAceMaggie 010 STEMECE 005 STEMECE 003

I promise, I am just as busy and tired as you. I’m not trying to set you up for more work. It might take a little practice until it feels natural, but you can slip these moments into your everyday life. So, forget Pinterest and the carefully curated nature experiments. Don’t worry about whether you have “enough” or the “right” kind of nature nearby. Let go of any doubts you have about whether you can “do” science.  Just tell yourself that for today you are letting them take another step towards learning how to observe, discover and problem solve. Then, open the door!

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