Nature Play for Babies and Toddlers

I have just finished reading the very interesting paper published (open access online on 28th May 2021) by Nicola Kemp and Jo Josephidou in the journal Early Years, titled Babies and toddlers outdoors: a narrative review of the literature on provision for under twos in ECEC settings. This is from the first phase of their Froebel Trust funded research project, which we’ve been following on this blog (here and here).

It was the significant lack (in fact, almost complete absence) of published academic research on babies outdoors in particular that caused Nicola and Jo to call their first project report ‘Where Are The Babies?’  So I was encouraged to find that Kimberly Smith had recently written a post for her Hygge in the Early Years blog, confirming the interest practitioners now have in getting babies outdoors as well as toddlers and older children – just as we found in our collaborative seminar back in March (the recording of which can be found on the Froebel Trust website).

Kimberley is a passionate believer and advocate for young children experiencing a life outdoors, as her previous ECO blog post Friluftsliv: living well with nature shows, and she is very active in supporting educators to develop their own approach to working with the outdoors.  Her hour-long online short course ‘Nature Play for Babies and Toddlers‘ explores: “the benefits of outdoor play for babies and toddlers, creating your nature based play environment, how to create a shared ethos of working outdoors with parents and simple activities for babies and toddlers in nature.”

Kimberly has also developed an extensive 52 week ‘Wanderlust Child Nature Study Programme‘ which is currently 50% off and she is currently preparing her forthcoming Hygge in the Early Years Online Conference where the theme is ‘Sparking Curiosity Outside’.  Information will be available soon at – or sign up for her newsletter.

I’m pleased to be able to share Kimberly’s thoughts for our blog post this week – thanks so much Kimberly.

Nature Play for Babies and Toddlers by Kimberly Smith

“How about if they have to sit on the ground and get dirty?”

“What if my child falls?”

“What if they try to put sand in their mouth?”

“But my baby will get sick being outside?”

“I’m too busy in my day to get outside with my baby”

Taking babies outside offers many benefits on all areas of their development and the earlier they get used to being outside, the sooner their love for nature will develop.  It is though their first hand sensory and movement experiences that they learn to make sense of the world and develop key connections in their brain.  In order for us to place a greater emphasis on the outdoors in our practice with babies and toddlers, we must understand that the outdoors offers a richness that isn’t available inside.  We don’t want to just take out indoor resources and put them outside – we must use the nature around us!

Yet many parents and early educators lack the confidence to make nature based play with babies work, with worries around risk, dirt and over-scheduled days being some of the key barriers.

Children experience the world with their whole being – body, spirit, energy, minds, hearts, compassion, tears, laughter, anger, pride, learning, understanding, love, and soul.  Children play, grow, and feel the world around them intensely. (Rusty Keeler, 2008)

Less opportunities for movement

Many young infants are experiencing delays in key movement skills that can be caused by a number of reasons, such as global development delay, genetic disorders, autism, cerebral palsy, born pre-term, joint hypermobility, low muscle tone and Down syndrome.  However, they can also be delayed by having a lack of opportunity to freely move, crawl and explore their environment and being part of what can be referred to as the ‘indoor generation’.  Many babies find themselves moving from cot to highchair, to pram or car seat with few opportunities to practice and refine their early movement skills.  With many adults living such fast paced lives and finding themselves rushing from one activity to the next, it can often be easier to pick the baby up and transport them to the next thing rather than encouraging them to move themselves.  Even taking a toddler on a regular walk to the shops can provide so many valuable learning opportunities as well as developing muscle strength in their legs; learning about the regular places that are walked passed, the seasonal changes that happen and taking the time to stop and dawdle while noticing a natural curiosity.  On a busy day when a toddler may be in a pram they are speedily moving passed all these moments to notice and learn.

Think of some ordinary, boring, everyday walk, the couple of blocks to the local 7-eleven store.  Taking that same walk with a two year-old is like going to get a quart of milk with William Blake…  The trip becomes a hundred times more interesting, even though, of course, it does take ten times as long. (Gopnik, Meltzoff & Kuhl, 1999: 211)

Occupational therapist Angela Hanscom writes ‘kids of all ages should get at least three hours of free play outdoors a day’ but on average most children spend 4-7 minutes a day outdoors.  Lack of movement opportunities in babies can lead to low muscle tone and it can impede on the development of a strong vestibular system (balance).  When babies are learning how to crawl they not only develop healthy two-sided brain development, but have a strong shoulder complex and build the foundations of basic co-ordination patterns.  The impact of missing these opportunities can be seen in Primary-aged children as they move through school.  Hanscom describes that, ‘children are frequently falling out of their seats in school, running into walls, tripping over their own feet, and unable to pay attention’.

Getting into nature with babies

The child is wonderfully prepared for active learning from birth.  Children approach the world with all senses open, all motors running – the world is an invitation to experience.  Their job is to develop and test all their equipment, make sense of the confusing world of people and things and unseen mysterious forces and relationships, like gravity, number and love.  Toddlers are furiously becoming … these restless, mobile characters have a drive to take apart the existing order and rearrange it, by force if necessary, to suit their own whimsically logical view of the universe.”   (Jim Greenman, 2007)

With new babies comes the excitement from many parents to join many different types of indoor sensory classes.  Many of these can be highly engaging and provide wonderful sensory opportunities to learn.  However, we must not forget the richness of ‘just being outside’ and the free sensory benefits this has on a baby’s early development.  Every season brings a unique opportunity for babies and infants to get outside and experience the natural elements first hand.  From learning to crawl outside they have the opportunity of feeling the change of temperature on their skin, the breeze on their face, the sounds of the birds in the trees to the fluttering of the butterflies.  When learning to crawl there is the naturally curiosity that spotting something in nature has to get them moving and wanting to discover more.  Then there are the sensory opportunities that come with the different colours of the season; the vibrant reds and oranges of Autumn to the sea of blues and greens in the summer.  As adults we can use this time to talk about what we can hear, see and feel with babies and toddlers, which is a key way of supporting language development.

Consider the weather

From a very early age in Scandinavia young children are taken outside to sleep, play and explore, learning how to live and experience the extreme climate here.  If they always waited to go outside until the sun was shining then there would be very little opportunity to learn outdoors.  Making sure we have the correct clothing and equipment for babies and toddlers is important.  That way we don’t spoil the child’s natural curiosity to explore the outdoors.

Simple activities for babies and toddlers

We don’t need to spend hundreds of pounds on fixed climbing equipment for babies and infants.  Having balance beams and uneven ground (grass) creates enough challenge for them.  The most importance resource when it comes to taking a baby or toddler outside is your quality interactions with them through tuning into what fascinates them, their facial expressions and babbling and offering a commentary about what’s happening when appropriate.  Author Ainsley Arment reminds us that, ‘extraordinary lives are formed in the ordinary moments of a relationship-rich childhood.’

  • Set up a blanket for young babies to lay on outside and look up at the sky.  Talk about what they can see, hear and see and the contrast of the colours.
  • On a walk with a baby, hold them in your arms and give them the opportunity to feel and smell the lavender you walk passed or the crunch of the Autumn leaves in the tree.
  • Attach mirrors to your fence at baby and toddler height to encourage them to stand up and look at themselves.
  • For the crawlers, set up a sensory pathway of grass and carpet tiles and a tunnel to crawl through.
  • Invite babies and toddlers to work with balls of different sizes.
  • Set up an obstacle course for toddlers to move along with balance beams, hoops to jump into, tunnels to crawl through and something to climb over.
  • Have a collection of ride on toys and doll’s pushchairs to practice pushing, pulling and filling up.
  • Set up a stage and bring the musical instruments outside, allowing children the opportunity to dance, jump and twirl to the music.
  • Set up a tuff tray with water, pots, pans, spoons and sponges and watch how they interact with the natural medium.
  • Visit a stream with a baby and listen to the sound of the water flowing over the rocks.  Throw a pebble in and watch what happens to it.

Very young children have a very special way of relating to the outdoor world. It is of enormous interest to them…  They have an inborn affinity, curiosity and fascination with the natural world: sky, wind, rain and shadows; plants, trees and leaves; sticks, pebbles and rocks; water, puddles and mud; dogs, birds and beetles and people.  Children use their whole body and whole self to engage with, explore, dismantle and think about the world – and this is very apparent when young children are in the real, outdoor world. (Jan White, 2009)

Things to consider

  • How much time are the babies and infants spending outdoors each day?
  • Are there ways you can reduce the amount of time indoors? For example, taking baby sensory outside into nature instead of always attending a class inside?
  • Are any routines stopping you from getting outdoors?
  • Can you get out and about into nature (or even your local town) and talk to the baby about what they can see, hear and feel?
  • Is there a wild nature space that can be created or accessed outdoors where babies can crawl and walk barefoot on the grass?


Arment, A (2019) The Call of the Wild and Free: Reclaiming the Wonder in Your Child’s Education: A New Way to Homeschool, Harper One

Gopnik, A., Meltzoff, A. & Kuhl, P. (1999) How babies think: the science of childhood, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Greenman, J. (2007) Caring Spaces, Learning Places (2nd Edition), Exchange Press

Hanscom, A (2016) Balanced and Barefoot: How unrestricted outdoor play makes for strong, confident and capable children. New Harbinger

Harrison Y. The relationship between daytime exposure to light and night-time sleep in 6-12-week-old infants. J Sleep Res. 2004 Dec;13(4):345-52. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2869.2004.00435.x. PMID: 15560769

Keeler, R. (2008) Natural Playscapes: creating outdoor play environments for the soul, Exchange Press

White, J. (2009) Outdoor provision for very young children, Early Years Update 66 March 2009

All photographs supplied by Kimberly Smith and sourced from Unsplash – the internet’s source of freely -usable images.



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