by Arlene Sprague, Ph.D.

As every parent of a toddler knows, toddlers are into movement and exploration. These “walk-about” babies are busy finding out about their environments through their own actions and senses. Physically, toddlers are working on body control, learning to stand on their own two feet and to get from here to there efficiently. It should be noted that some children begin walking as early as nine or 10 months while others don’t walk independently until 16 or even 18 months. In most cases, this is simply a reflection of differences in the biological timetables that children’s development follows, all of which are within the “normal” range. So, we’ll consider toddlers to be somewhere between the ages of one and three years.

Once walking is underway, children are free to explore the world in new ways. Their eyes are now 20 inches or more off the ground instead of the baby crawler’s nine inches or so, adding to the toddler’s ability to explore visually. Their hands are free to touch, grasp, manipulate and carry objects in ways the crawler can’t. As body control continues to improve and independent walking becomes more assured, toddlers will focus less on their own movement and more on their surroundings.

Language and interaction add dramatically to the young child’s understanding of his world. Although your toddler may not be producing sentences, or even many single words yet, toddlers are able to understand a good bit of the language they hear. All the way through infancy and early childhood, children’s understanding of language is far ahead of their production. If parents are careful to use short sentences, simple vocabulary and clear enunciation, youngsters will take in a great deal of verbal information. (Even earlier in infancy, talking to babies is extremely important, because it provides the data infants need to begin to pick apart the sounds of their first language and to begin to recognize its structure.)

Nature walks take advantage of all of the toddler’s developing abilities and provide appropriate means for using and expanding exploration skills. Taking your toddler on a nature walk can mean going to a park, or it can be as simple as walking around the back yard with exploration in mind. Be sure to take a magnifying glass and a collection bag. A cleansing wipe for exploring fingers might also be helpful. The final thing to take along is your own sense of wonder and excitement at finding nature’s small treasures so close to home.

Let your toddler lead the way, within safe bounds. Once some walking or running around just for the joy of moving has been taken care of, begin to point out things you notice. Remember to communicate your own excitement and wonder. You can help your toddler use most of his senses.

“Listen, did you hear that? What made that sound? Was that a bird?”

“Touch this tree. Feel how rough it is. That’s the tree’s bark. It’s like the tree’s skin.”

“This tree has long skinny leaves. They’re called needles. Notice how good they smell when I break one.”

Once you begin pointing out small things, your toddler will likely begin to do the same. Toddlers delight in finding sticks, pebbles, dandelion blooms, bugs, clover leaves, and other small bits and pieces of the natural world. Using the magnifying glass makes each item even more fascinating. Your youngster will delight in placing some of the found items in the collection bag to take home.

Having brought home some of your toddler’s found treasures, you can extend the fun to include an art project — making a Nature Shadow Box. This art activity will include some fine motor activity, sensory input and lots of language as you review and manipulate the small bits of nature you’ve retrieved. Keep in mind that very young children are interested in process, not product. It’s the involvement in the activity of making the box that matters to them, not so much the beauty or perfection of the finished product. So, this is a simple project, which will provide a reminder of your outdoor fun together.

Nature Shadow Box


  1. Cut the sides of the box down to about 1 1⁄2 inches.
  2. Cut a window in the top of the box leaving about a 1⁄2-inch border to frame the opening.

    With your child:
  3. Paint the box, inside and out, leaving only the bottom of the inside unpainted.
  4. Glue a piece of the colored paper, cut to fit, to the bottom of the inside of the
  5. Select the nature items for the box.
  6. Glue each item in place on the colored paper.
  7. Glue the box lid in place. If tacky glue was used, give the project plenty of drying time.
  8. Place the box on a shelf where your child can see it, and enjoy reminiscing with your child each time the box reminds you of your nature walk.

Dr. Arlene Sprague has a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from the University of Tennessee. She currently teaches as a full professor of psychology at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tenn.

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