Babies and toddlers may not understand science and ecology, but they are fascinated by what they see, hear and feel. Even a postage-stamp-sized backyard in the city can harbour a vivid, buzzing world of creatures and plants. The key, says Shelby Swant, an early childhood educator with Science North in Sudbury, Ont., is to “let your kids get their hands dirty. They need to touch in order to learn.” Read on for some ways to foster a sense of exploration and discovery in your child.
Sensorama Babies instinctively explore the world around them. When outside, offer leaves to crumple, twirl a blade of grass on her cheek for the tickle effect, or let him pat pies out of mud. Fragrant flowers can be a sensory experience too. Point out how the bees like the smell, and how they help the flowers grow. Talk about their colours and shapes, and the thorns that protect the rose. Then listen together for the chirp and chatter of insects and birds, as well as the jet plane in the sky and the dog next door. Try to imitate the noises.
Meltdown Demonstrate the power of the sun with a simple experiment. Freeze coloured water in ice cube trays. Then have your toddler place one cube in the sun and another in the shade. Ponder which will melt fastest and why. For added interest, freeze a small figurine in the cube to be released from its icy prison.
Bubble chemistry Make your own bubbles by mixing 4½ cups of water with a ½ cup of dish soap and 1/2 cup corn syrup or glycerin. While even a toddler may have trouble blowing bubbles, a large wand just has to be waved through the air with the help of a parent. Point out how the bubble forms a natural circle and floats away, and how the light creates beautiful colours on its surface.
Make a magic bug door If you’ve ever watched a toddler go cross-eyed studying the meandering progress of an ant on the sidewalk, you’ll know that critters are endlessly fascinating to them. To get a better viewing gallery, place a piece of plywood (or even a green plastic garbage bag) on the grass, and leave it for 24 hours or so. Bugs gravitate to moist, dark places, so when you lift your “magic bug door,” you should find a nice selection of insects to study — sowbugs, ants, beetles and centipedes. (Beware: These can bite, though they rarely do.) Capture a few in a jar for closer inspection. You don’t need to feed them, as long as you release them in a few hours, says Swant.
The name game Point out and name the sky, the trees, the grass and the creatures you see. A baby may not understand ‘sun,’” says Virendra Verma, owner-operator of ABC Montessori School in Edmonton, Alta. “but if you keep on talking to her, she’ll learn.”
Incredible disappearing paint A bucket of water and a paintbrush can provide hours of entertainment and a bit of mystery for a toddler. Have your child paint the bricks or the sidewalk with the water. Note how the water disappears as it dries. “He will notice the difference in the colour of the brick, and that will stimulate him to wonder what happened,” says Swant.
For the birds Make a simple bird feeder by scooping unsalted all-natural peanut butter into the scales of a pine cone, or hang a string of unsalted peanuts in the shell (blue jays especially love these). It may take a few days for the birds to discover your bounty but, once they do, you’ll have a steady stream. Point out the different kinds and listen for their distinct calls. There may even be some feathers left behind to examine.
Treasure hunt Take a field trip to the backyard to gather a collection of flowers, pine cones, sticks, leaves, grass and rocks, suggests Swant. Then put them all in a pile and play a game: Can you find me a feather? Can you pick out a rock? Try sorting the objects too: Can you put all flowers in a pile? Your child’s learning to categorize — one of the basic skills of science.
Suss out the seasons Explore your neighbourhood for examples of the change in the seasons. In spring, point out how the snow melts, running down the gutters into the sewer drain; examine the buds on the trees and check out the nest-building skills of birds. In summer, note how the sun’s heat browns the grass and causes the flowers to bloom. Do this on through the year.
Earth science Children learn through play, and if you set him loose with containers, shovels, funnels, a colander, etc., to use in a backyard splash pool or sandbox, he’ll figure out the basics. Corks and Ping-Pong balls bob in the water, but solid balls sink. Sponges absorb water, sieves allow water to flow through, pails are good for pouring...sand pours too, but more slowly, and mounds up. Add water to the sand and remark how the sand clumps, becomes mucky and weighs more, suggests Verma. “Ugh, this bucket is heavy now!”
Wiggly investigations Many kids love ooey-gooey things. Dig into the back garden and try to find earthworms. “Let her touch them (very gently) or hold them, and then put them back in the ground,” Swant suggests.
Good night moon Turn out the house lights, spread a blanket on the lawn, and look up at the night sky. Bring along a flashlight so he can use it as a pointer or shine it in your face, his mouth, the bushes, the cat’s eyes.... Past his bedtime? Say good night moon.