We know that fresh air is good for our toddlers (and us!) and playing outdoors helps with sensory and social development, fine motor skills and self-regulation. But it can sometimes take a superhuman effort just to get your stubborn tot ready to go outside, and once you’re there, you’re at a loss for what to do. We spoke to registered early childhood educator Suzanne Feltoe for her tips on how to keep your toddler engaged outdoors.
1. Make a mural
Tape an old bedsheet, sheets of paper, or a paper compost bag to the ground, a wall or a fence, and tape together two or three crayons or washable markers of different colours to make them easier to handle and create interesting patterns—then let her have at it, colouring to her heart’s content. If you’ve got a big cardboard box hanging around, let her decorate that and then use it to play peekaboo or make a house out of it for some outdoor pretend play.
2. Paint the town
Fill up a bucket of water and hand your toddler some mini paint rollers, brushes or spray bottles to “paint” on concrete, a fence or a tree. “Toddlers can experience cause and effect this way—how something can go from wet to dry,” says Feltoe. The cleanup is minimal, and afterwards she can help you “feed” the plants with the extra water.
3. Get your groove on
Bring a blanket out with you and spread it out with some homemade instruments on top, like pasta inside an empty water bottle to shake, or metal bowls or tins with wooden spoons to bang like a drum. To encourage dance, hand your toddler a ribbon or scarf to twirl around while he’s moving.
4. Have fun with parachute play
Bring a bedsheet or blanket out to the backyard and have your tot hold on to one end while you grab the other. Flap the sheet up and down or hide underneath it and play a game of peek-a-boo. “If you have a playdate or go to the park, you can all try keeping a ball in the middle of the blanket, or sit underneath it for an instant tent,” says Feltoe.
5. Go for a walk
It sounds simple, but walking outside with your tot is great for exploring the outdoors and learning. Bring a plastic bag to collect any items that your kid shows interest in along the way, like a pinecone, stone or leaf. Snap a photo on your phone of objects that don’t fit in the bag, like a tree or a car. To take it a step further, at the end of your walk, take pictures of the objects your kiddo has collected, print them, and make a booklet to revisit later.
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6. Make the park an experience
When you go to the park, bring along a bag of goodies—pails, shovels, dollar store strainers, wooden spoons and yogurt containers—and get busy playing in the sand. Feltoe recommends letting your kid take off her shoes to feel how rough the sand feels, how soft the grass is, or how bumpy the bark of a tree might be.
7. Play in the rain
On a rainy day, take some empty pie tins outside to let your kid hear what the rain sounds like on them, or use the tins to collect water. Feltoe suggests adding food colouring so that when the water hits, the colour changes dimension.
8. Decorate the snow
After a snowfall, put food colouring and water in a spray bottle and go to town decorating the white snow. Use more than one spray bottle with different colours for a rainbow effect.