Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Nature Experiences for Young Children

How Important are Nature Experiences?

For one of my research assignments for class, I chose to learn about how direct experiences with nature can affect child development.  I found this topic to be so interesting and relevant that I wanted to share it with you.  Among other resources, I read Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-deficit Disorder by Richard Louv.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is curious about why outdoor exploration and nature play is so very important for our children and their cognitive, social, and emotional development.

Most of us spent far less time playing outdoors during our childhood than our parents and grandparents did.  Our own children will probably spend even less of their time outside.  In past decades, children were more likely to direct their energy towards “doing farm chores, bailing hay, splashing in a swimming hole, climbing trees, racing to the sandlot for a game of baseball” (Louv, 2005).  They were also free to wander around in their backyards, exploring the fields, woods, rivers, and streams. 

Children today spend much of their time learning indoors from textbooks and machines.  Hiking, fishing, and gardening have been replaced by pastimes such as television, video games, and computer games.  Instead of challenging their brains in healthy and productive ways, children are passive recipients during these activities.

The Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle warns parents against letting preschoolers watch TV, which can contribute to concentration problems and other symptoms of attention-deficit disorders (Louv, 2005).  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends for children under the age of two not to watch any TV at all, because it interferes with their brain development.  In addition to all of this, TV and other electronics steal away precious time that children could be using to engage in active, creative outdoor play.

Montessori and Waldorf schools have a long history of advocating for children to enjoy hands-on experiences with nature.  Children engage in “endless sensory experiences that support the observation skills underlying scientific thinking and aesthetic awareness” (Torquati & Barber, 2005).  There are numerous ways that contact with nature, especially through unstructured and imaginative play, can benefit children and contribute to their development.  Some of the benefits include: greater physical health, increased creativity, reduced stress, more concern for other living things, and a greater awareness of the natural environment.

1.  Greater Physical Health
When children encounter a variety outdoor experiences, they are likely to use their bodies in different ways, which results in the development of superior physical abilities.  Studies in Norway and Sweden compared preschool children who played on flat playgrounds to those who played for the same amount of time among trees, rocks, and uneven ground of natural play areas.  “Over a year’s time, the children who played in natural areas tested better for motor fitness, especially in balance and agility” (Louv, 2005).

2.  Increased Creativity
Creativity is cultivated when children in a natural setting rely on their imaginations and inventiveness to guide their play.  Children’s minds need the experiences and the challenges that nature presents because these situations can not be recreated inside of the classroom (O’Brien, 2007).  Seeing the world through a lens, screen, or computer monitor is not the same as experiencing it in the great outdoors.

3.  Stress Reduction
Not only do children who live in high-nature environments demonstrate less psychological stress from daily events than children who live in low-nature conditions, but their exposure to nature can even “reduce symptoms of ADHD and improve children’s resistance to negative stresses and depression” (Louv, 2005).

4.  Concern for Other Living Things
In our high-tech society, many of us live in a way that separates us from the natural world and "makes it difficult for us to understand and care about the planet that sustains us” (O’Brien, 2007).  We automatically pass on these attitudes of indifference to younger generations.  Many children and adults do not value anything beyond what directly affects them on a daily basis.  “Children who have fewer experiences with the natural world become parents who are unable to share such knowledge with their children so that each generation has less environmental knowledge” (Torquati & Barber, 2005). Rather than viewing nature as an environmental catastrophe that needs to be “fixed”, or in terms of lab experiments, we should encourage our children to acquire a true appreciation for all living things.

5.  Awareness of the Natural Environment
 “Nature; the sublime, the harsh, and the beautiful; offers something that the street or gated community or computer game cannot” (Louv, 2005).  If adults step back and allow children to explore, children will be self-motivated to learn from their natural surroundings. “Without adult instruction or interference, children will interact with natural objects in a wide range of deliberative and expressive sequential processes to better understand what goes on in the world around them” (Williams, 2008). We can not expect children to feel a connection to or a true respect for the environment until they have spent a significant amount of time in the natural world.

What can we do?

A growing body of evidence suggests that contact with nature is “as important to children as good nutrition and adequate sleep” (Louv, 2005).  As parents, teachers, and adults in the community, we are responsible for providing these opportunities for future generations.  We can encourage our children to diverge from the mentality of a consumerist society.  They do not need to be “plugged in” to technology at all times.  Boredom and simplicity are not always bad things, as they can foster creativity and cognitive advancement.  Even the littlest babies can begin to love and respect the natural world. “Infants delight in the sights and sounds of nature, which offer constant variety and interest but are not over-stimulating.  These very early experiences captivate their interest and support their curiosity and comfort with nature” (Torquati & Barber, 2005).

I have never been an “outdoorsy” type of person, but all of this has motivated me to discover some new ways to spend time with Ryan outside.  While free play and exploration is ideal, it can also be beneficial for parents to gently guide their young toddlers through new nature discoveries.

I have started to compile a list of nature activities that toddlers and might enjoy.  Here's what I’ve got so far:

1.  Pick apples, berries, and other fruits/vegetables on a farm
     2.  Compare ripe and unripe vegetables
     3.  Take apart fruits and vegetables to examine the seeds
     4.  Play on “natural playgrounds” (water, trees, flowers, insects, animals, grass, stones, sand)
     5.  Play on “adventure playgrounds” (old tires, boards, tools, a variety of places to build/dig)
     6.  Look at insects of various shapes and sizes under a hand lens
     7.  Feed ducks or other creatures in a pond

8.  Plant a garden, water it, and watch it grow over time
9.  Explore sand and soil
10.  Visit a butterfly habitat
11.  Read books and poems outside
12.  Search for worms following a rainfall and observe the worms in action
13.  Visit a nature center

14.  Make a biodegradable bird feeder and put water and food inside to attract birds to your yard
15.  Jump and splash in puddles
16.  Dig in dirt or mud with small shovels, cups, and old spoons
17.  Play with a water sprinkler and hose
18.  Write or paint with rocks and mud
19.  Make nature rubbings from leaves, rocks, and bark
20.  Look for the different colors that you can find in nature
21.  Collect sticks, leaves, rocks, stones, and pine cones

22.  Make a mobile out of things that you find outside
23.  Plant sunflowers that will grow tall enough to be “walls”
24.  Make mud pies in an outdoor kitchen
25.  Visit a state park
26.  Go on a hike that includes a scavenger hunt

27.  Spend a night, or even a few hours, camping in your backyard
28.  Gaze at the stars in the night sky
29.  Build a campfire, tell stories, and eat s’mores
30.  Navigate through a corn maze
31.  Skip rocks in the river
32.  Climb trees
33.  Invent your own nature game

34.  Pick up trash around the neighborhood
35.  Rinse out old jars and bottles, then put them into the recycle bin
36.  Play hopscotch (use chalk or dirt and a stick to draw it)
37.  Visit a local farmer’s market
38.  Make homemade binoculars and then watch the birds
39.  Gather sticks, drop them in a stream, and watch them float away
40.  Collect lightning bugs and then release them
41.  Make an obstacle course out of logs
42.  Practice nature photography with an inexpensive camera
43.  Admire flowers that are in bloom

44.  Keep a treasure basket full of things collected from outside
45.  Keep a nature journal full of drawings of your discoveries
46.  Build a tree house or fort
47.  Visit the animals at a farm or zoo
48.  Describe the shapes of clouds
49.  Fly a kite
50.  Have a picnic or BBQ

This spring and summer, I hope to check some of these off my list.  I am looking for more ideas about things to do with toddlers outside.  I found these two amazing blogs that are completely focused on outdoor play:  CaroandCo and CreativeStarLearning.  Please let me know if you have any other ideas or resources!

Louv, R. (2005). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. New York: Algonquin Books.
O’Brien, L. M. (2007). Raising children who care for our world. Association for Childhood Education International, 83(5), 322-323.
Torquati, J. & Barber, J. (2005). Dancing with trees: Infants and toddlers in the garden. National Association for the Education of Young Children, 40-46.
Ward, Jennifer. (2008)  I love dirt!  Boston: Trumpeter Books.
Williams, A. E. (2008). Exploring the natural world with infants and toddlers in an urban setting. National Association for the Education of Young Children, 22-25.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Mommy's Lucky Charm

Sometimes super silly...

this little boy is always my pride and joy!  
[And, of course, my lucky charm] 

At 18 months old, Ryan is...

So smart
He knows animals and their sounds, the body parts, the names and sounds that vehicles make (choo-choo, beep-beep, etc), and how to communicate his basic wants and needs.  In this picture, he was showing us that he can to count to two!

Even though his feet wouldn't reach the pedals, Ryan attempted to ride this "big boy bike" for at least ten minutes.  (I'm so glad that the older kids at the park are good about sharing!)

and Adventurous!

Ryan climbs to the highest point that he can find whenever we go to a park.  I think that he just wants to scare me.  He is good about trying new things, but only when he decides that he is ready. Ryan has definitely become more outgoing this month, and his vocabulary has more than quadrupled since last month.  I have been telling everyone that his is absolutely, 100%, my favorite age (so far)!

You may have noticed a lack of blog postings lately, and it is because grad school work has been stealing away all of my free time.  This next month is going to be pretty intense with my assignments. Luckily, I will take small break to go out and celebrate one of my best friend's birthday tonight, so that will be fun.  Happy Birthday, E!  And for everyone else...

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Raleigh Mini-Vacation

We had a short but sweet vacation to Raleigh this past weekend for the Get Your Rear in Gear 5K Run/Walk.  It rained pretty much the whole time, except for during the actual race.  Since we had Ryan with us, we knew from the start that we were just going to walk.  (Although, I would maybe like train for and eventually run a 5K later this year.  Anybody who knows me knows that I am not a runner at all, but it seems like a good way to challenge myself.)  We stayed at a hotel called The Renaissance, which was only about a fifteen minute drive from the event.

We arrived at Fletcher Park on time, but we didn’t realize that we would have to park our car two miles away from the actual starting line.  Because of the minor parking dilemma, we started about ten minutes later than everyone else.  We still managed to catch up to the other parents with strollers/children, including a little girl in a wagon who sang songs to us the whole time.

The walk was such a great way to start off the morning, and the exercise felt so refreshing that it has motivated me to want to start exercising regularly again.  I'm glad that it is almost spring time, so there will be many more opportunities to get some exercise outdoors in addition to the gym downstairs (which I haven’t even used in a year).  Now, I just want to make sure that my body as healthy as it can possibly be.  I feel like this is because I can truly appreciate having strength and energy again, after dealing with the extreme exhaustion that lasts for many months during and after chemo treatments.

Most importantly, it felt wonderful to honor my mom and to feel like she was proud of me while watching down on us.  I feel like I need to at least do something to make a difference in the lives of others who are battling cancer.  (Of course, I would still like to do much more).  While on this trip, my mom visited me in a dream for the first time since she passed away.  It was the first night that I didn't have nightmares for as long as I can remember, and I woke up in such a good mood.

After the race, we had lunch in Raleigh at The Remedy Diner, a cute little alternative place with plenty of interesting and unique menu choices, including vegetarian, vegan, and meat options.  I got the Eastern Carolina BBQ and the Tempeh Tantrum and shared them both with Ryan.  Both tasted delicious and almost exactly like the real thing.  I was surprised because I am usually not a fan of mock meat, but these were amazing!  I only wish that I would have tried the black bean nachos, which looked very tempting, aside from the fact that we already had way too much food on our plates.

On the left, you can see Ryan's little hand reaching for the bread before I could even take the picture.

That afternoon, we went to Marbles Kids Museum, where Ryan spent a few hours running around, climbing, and exploring.  One of the families in our Friday playgroup was actually in North Carolina that same weekend, so they met us at the museum.  The toddlers played non-stop while I visited with S.  It was also a great chance for the dads to spend time with our active little guys.

I think that everyone had fun, and we were so tired by the end of that day that our little family of three collapsed in our hotel room and ordered room service instead of going out for dinner (yes, we felt that lazy!)  We also fell asleep early, which is a rare occasion for me.

We had such a busy trip that we almost stayed and extended our stay an extra night just because it went by too fast.  But we decided to go ahead and drive home on Sunday, as scheduled.  I really love taking road trips, and I am happy that Ryan seems to enjoy spending time in the car too.  He was either sleeping, talking, or singing to us the whole time, and was not even fussy at all. 

Lately, Ryan has been making me laugh because he says the funniest things at the most random times.  When his stroller gets stuck, he says “beep beep” to try to make it go. He pats his head and requests his hat before he is ready to go "bye-bye".  He likes to try to stick his hand in my mouth, then puts my hand in his mouth, says “teeth”, and laughs.  He loves to brush his teeth, and also brushes the teeth of his toy animals.  The other night, I was able to catch this on video:

We recently put up a new canvas picture of him in the living room, and Ryan's expression is so proud when he points it out to our visitors and says “Ra Ra” (and randomly throughout the day, to anyone who will listen).  Last week, he was obsessed with bananas and this week he is crazy about bread.  Ryan has also learned how to answer “yes” to some questions and has even willingly shared some of his things with me.  I feel like we are finally able to communicate with each other more clearly, and this makes us both much happier and it makes our days run more smoothly.


Thursday, March 1, 2012

Florida Vacation

We spent last week visiting Barry's parents in Florida.  We were lucky to have gorgeous, sunny weather in the upper 70's and low 80's the whole time.  It rained just once while we were there, and the sun came out immediately afterwards, so we were still able to go outside.  This vacation was super relaxing, as we did not make any plans at all for once. We just did whatever we felt at the moment, which was a nice change.  But I'm sure that next time we visit, we will plan to drive down to Miami and Key Biscayne like we usually do.  We love to spend time on the beach where we got married!

Ryan has really overcome his shyness lately, and he is very animated and fun to be around.  I love that other people are finally getting a chance to see Ryan's true personality.  He is extremely active, has a great sense of humor, and loves to show off his dance moves and act silly.  He is beginning to put two words together like, "mommy car" and "more wawa" to express himself.  I lost track of keeping a list of all the words he knows because there are too many new ones every day.  

At the same time, Ryan will respond with no to any question that you ask him, and he will scream loudly if anybody tells him no.  Not so fun.  I know that the terrible twos start early, and this is part of a normal development stage that is actually very important for all children to go through.  It helps them to develop their sense of independence.  I am definitely still trying to teach Ryan manners and discipline (we have been somewhat successful with "please" lately) and I never take it personally or let myself get upset when he acts this way.  I still enjoy every moment that I get to spend with my sweet little guy.  Here he is having a great time playing catch and dancing to his own song:

Ryan sure does love his daddy... they are like two peas in a pod.  I love that they are super close!

I think that we went to the swimming pool every single day that we were in Florida.  Although Barry's parents have a pool in their backyard, we also decided to visit the neighborhood pool, which we had pretty much to ourselves on the weekdays.  Ryan had not been swimming since he was an infant, and I'm not sure if he even remembers that.  It was so cute to watch him splashing around and being excited talking about the "wawa".

This playground was conveniently located right next to the pool, so of course we let Ryan explore it whenever he wanted to.  He pretty much loves all parks and playgrounds, and this was no exception. Of course, he didn't like it when the camera came out, so I couldn't capture him having any fun.  Well, there's always next time!

I think that seeing these ducks was seriously the highlight of the trip for Ryan!  It's the little things, I guess!

We went to the mall with Barry's mom and had dinner at one of my favorite restaurants where you can make your own stir fry.  I like to fill mine up with tons of veggies, rice noodles, and peanut sauce. Barry's mom bought Ryan a new outfit (complete with a hat) at Gymboree while Ryan had fun at the toddlers' mini movie theater.  We never let Ryan watch TV or movies at home, so it is a very special treat when he gets to see them while we are out.  Ryan has started calling Barry's mom "mee-ma" because "grandma" is still too hard for him to say.  

On Friday night, Barry's mom watched Ryan, so that we could go out on a date. (Thanks for baby-sitting, S!)  We went to a car show/cocktail party (Barry's pick) and it actually ended up being fun because we were provided with unlimited gourmet food and drinks, and we got to see the insides of fancy boats, exotic cars, and private jets.

The cars themselves reminded me of real-life versions of the little matchbox cars that Ryan likes to play with.  I don't know anything about cars, but my favorite was definitely the colorful one on the bottom left!

It was really nice to spend a night out instead of staying home like responsible parents for once. (Thanks to Barry's dad for getting us tickets!)  We were going to attend another car event on Sunday, but we decided to stay in and watch movies instead.  You know, just sticking to the whole "super relaxing" theme.

We flew back home on Monday, and we will be leaving again for North Carolina this weekend for the 2012 Raleigh Get Your Rear In Gear 5K Run/Walk.  Thanks to our wonderful family, friends, and blog readers, we have raised over $1K in donations to benefit the Colon Cancer Coalition in memory of my mom.  Thank you all for your support!!!!!  For anyone who would still like to donate, it is not too late! Please visit my site:  Strides for Sue.  

I will blog about our experience at Get Your Rear in Gear and our time in North Carolina after we get back next week.

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