Why you need to get your babies outside!

Why you need to get your babies outside!

adorable autumn baby blur
Photo by Janko Ferlic on Pexels.com

We all know the benefits of getting children outside but how often do the youngest children in our care get this opportunity?  Being outside is vital for young babies and even the very youngest will respond to the change of environment as the sights, smells and sounds outside will interest and intrigue them.

It is all too common to see babies, at nursery, inside whilst the toddlers run around outside.  But why is this?  Is it concerns about the cold? The strength of the sun? The effects of the wind?  Getting dirty?

Within the safety conscious, baby proofed rooms, in which young children spend a large part of their day, there are few risks but, although it may appear that there are many more risks outside, with a little bit of forethought the risks can be mitigated. Mouthing, for example, is how babies explore unfamiliar objects but we don’t remove everything from their grasp.  Instead, they are provided with objects of a particular size so that they can continue to reap the benefits of exploration through their senses.  The same knowledge of children’s developmental milestones just needs to be applied, and maybe adapted, when taking babies outside.

Of course we need to be risk aware but what we shouldn’t be is risk averse!  Keeping children wrapped up in cotton wool for fear of them ‘hurting themselves’ does little to support their growing development and means we end up actually preventing children from learning to identify and manage risks themselves.

In addition, because they live in an over sanitised world, children need exposure to the elements and to reap the benefits of getting outside and becoming dirty in order to develop stronger immune systems.

There is also a difference in the quality of light found outside. Inside the nursery, light levels remain pretty constant however outside, light changes at different times of day, when clouds move across the sky, when the sun comes out from behind a cloud or when light is filtered through the tree canopy.

Birth–6 months

It’s a common sight, inside many a nursery, to see babies laying, on their back, under a play gym with a range of hanging objects for them to reach for. Why not replicate this outside but using natural materials as a stimulus?

We need to ensure that infants are provided with a range of stimuli that can be viewed either lying on their front, or their back, until such time that they are able to roll over and can manage this more independently.  Why not place babies on a blanket, in their pram, or in a baby bouncer under a tree, as this provides for a much greater range of stimuli than a play gym.

When laid on their back, they are observing the world vertically – looking at what’s above them, such as tree’s swaying in the wind or birds flying overhead. They turn their heads to follow the sounds they can hear and will track movement of branches or birds by following them with their eyes, or by moving their head from one side to the other.

At this age babies are very receptive to differences in sound and will turn their heads to follow them. To support this, hang some wind chimes, using a range of materials such as metal, wood or sea shells to create different layers of sound.  Hang ribbons or scarves from the tree, out of their reach, but close enough for them to watch them moving in the breeze.

Strong neck muscles are the foundation for the development of all other large motor movements, such as sitting, crawling and walking.   Babies develop these when laid on their tummy for short periods each day, moving their arms to reach for objects just out of reach.

Once they are able to roll from front to back, and vice versa, and are beginning move around on their tummies, why not place a large mirror on the ground, half under a tree so that babies can view the reflection of the tree and the clouds.  They will then be able to look at the world from a different view point and will start to reach for the reflections in the mirror.  You can use safety glass or cover the mirror with safety film if you are concerned about the glass breaking.

Not all settings are lucky enough to have greenery but you can achieve the same effect by placing babies under a canopy or parasol.  The wind will still have an effect on anything that is hung from it.

Sleeping outside is a regular practice in Scandinavian countries such as Finland, which has a much lower infant mortality rate than the UK.  Parents have found that children sleep longer and are more refreshed on waking.  There are a growing number of nurseries and childminders, in the UK, that have adopted this practice which has been given the thumbs up by The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.  

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6–12 months

The outdoors is filled with all sorts of sensory experiences just waiting for young children to discover them.  Rather than planning for activities inside, let them spend more time outside and follow their lead. Let them crawl, and toddle, across rough ground as walking across uneven terrain best supports the development of proprioception (an awareness of their body in space).  Alternatively you can create a texture path of different materials such as pebbles, bark, grass, logs for children to feel, crawl and toddle along.

It’s quite common, even with babies that are sitting independently, to see them placed on blankets or mats outside as if they need protecting from the elements around them.  Why not place them instead in a patch of long grass? Grabbing handfuls of this new green, wavy stuff delights babies and  fulfils their natural inclination to reach for an object, then pass it from one hand to another. Dont be afraid of them reaching for natural materials – rocks, sand, sticks or mud – just observe and intervene if necessary.   Just think of the new vocabulary you will be introducing as you comment on their play.

If you don’t have a green space outside why not plant some dwarf bamboo and other grasses in grow bags.  As with any plants in an outside area you will need to check that leaves aren’t harmful if eaten, then place 3 grow bags in a U formation and you have an immediate garden in which, sheltered from the wind, babies can sit surrounded by the sights and sounds of natural vegetation.

Tuff trays are a great way of providing, and containing, sensory experiences outside. such as handling damp sand, gloop or paint.  If you dont have a mud patch then create one in the tuff tray!  Research has shown that children exposed to dirt are healthier and succumb to fewer illnesses.  Tuff trays can also be used, in warmer weather, for babies to experience water play.  They are better than paddling pools, which pose greater danger as they hold more water and are difficult for babies to independently climb in and out of.  They provide just enough water for investigation and exploration and allow for greater independence and mobility as babies can choose how and when they engage with the elements.

Water of any depth can be dangerous for young children so why not invest in a small water feature. This way you are providing for the touch, taste and sound of water, as it bubbles up out of a globe, for example, but without the worry of having standing water in the vicinity of very young children.

It is rare to see babies outside when the weather is really cold but as they say in Scandinavian countries – there is no such thing as bad weather – only bad clothing!  As long as babies are dressed appropriately with lots of layers then there is no reason why they can’t go outside in the snow or on a windy day.  If clothing is weather proof they can sit in the snow for a short time or be pulled around in a sledge for longer.  I regularly took my children, and grandchildren, outside in the snow. It provides for a great muscle work out as they attempt to walk or crawl in this new element.

Sit babies under a large transparent plastic umbrella, or plastic cover, when it’s raining. They will be fascinated by the sound and the sight of the raindrops running down sides.  Even more so if you add some paint at the top as they can watch as the colours change when they interact with the rain.

Create low music walls, on tree’s or fences, which babies can crawl, or toddle, over to, to make a range of sounds.   You can follow the same principle for attaching guttering low enough for them to pour water or roll balls down for endless fun.

Large cardboard boxes make for great tunnels for babies to crawl or toddle through. Add strips of material at either end to enclose it a little or cut out head sized holes, of different shapes and at different heights, through which they can play peek a boo!

Source a range of logs of different sizes, as these are great for supporting babies as they first start to pull themselves up and, when placed on their sides, to crawl over.

toddler standing and leaning against log
Photo by Craig Adderley on Pexels.com

12– 18 months

As soon as children are fully mobile, possibilities for exploration and investigation are expanded as they are now able to seek out opportunities themselves to explore the world around them, and the development of their interests and schemas become much more apparent.  Toddlers will consciously begin to explore what happens when materials, such as soil and water, are mixed.  Materials are transported from one place to another and for many children there will certainly be a lot of moving and dumping going on.

Toddlers need to be provided with opportunities for movement, to support and develop balance and upper body strength.  Start with planks laid on the ground that they can crawl and toddle along then, as they become more proficient, lay long lengths of logs, of different heights, for them to crawl/climb over..

Unfortunately, children are growing up in an overly safety conscious, synthetic world  where, in some cases, grass has been replaced by soft surface so they don’t often come across uneven ground.  Encouraging toddlers to travel across uneven surfaces really strengthens their muscles and core development. Even better if they can go barefoot as it gives them a greater sense of proprioception as well as having other benefits such as providing for a more integrated sensory experience.  Walking across uneven ground also develops resilience as it is likely they will fall over more often and have to get up and try again.

If you have an outside area that is covered by a soft surface, or artificial grass, and doesn’t provide this sort of variety, why not make a sensory pathway for babies to crawl and toddle along?  You can find a whole selection of these on Pinterest. Alternatively, why not create an obstacle course designed for little one’s from the ideas above. This can be changed regularly to add challenge as children become proficient in mastering each section.

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18 – 24months

By this stage children are much more mobile and can be out for extended periods of time.  They are much more independent and able to confidently problem solve ways of negotiating different levels such as climbing down backwards or bumping down on their bottom. They are beginning to negotiate space more effectively to climb onto raised planks or logs and are developing a greater sense of balance. They are becoming more proficient in grasping and using one handed tools such as watering cans and spades.  Large motor movements are practised as children learn to ride tricycles and scooters and use sticks and other implements to make marks in the mud or on vertical surfaces.

The beginning of early mark making is rooted in physical play and is best done outside, as children have space and large surfaces on which to make large marks.  Vertical surfaces are key in developing the large motor muscles needed for writing.  Tape large paint brushes to sticks and allow children to paint a wall, or shower curtain, with water. Alternatively, paint a large section of wall or fence with chalkboard paint, for the same effect.

If you have any doubt as to the importance of getting children outside, the video below demonstrates exactly why there is a need to provide children with outdoor experiences, as the sheer delight at the first sight, smell, touch, sound or taste of each new experience  is beautiful to behold and just cannot be recreated inside!

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Written by jackieslaughter1

I have over 20 years experience in teaching and leading the Early Years Foundation Stage, as well as supporting other settings through training and school to school support. I have recently set up a training and consultancy service - Early Years Outdoor Learning - to offer support and training on all things early years but with particular emphasis on outdoor learning.
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