She’ll Find Her Own Grand Canyon

Few outdoor experiences for a child could be more majestic than to stand at the base of a Giant Redwood in California. Or to see the brilliant fall colors of New Hampshire and Maine. Or to experience the immense expanse of the Grand Canyon.

Yet this is nature writ large; visual drama that excites us as adults. Young children are different than most adults in the ways they engage with nature. They are probably more excited by nature writ small, child-sized; nature they can touch, manipulate, feel, smell, build with, use in fantasy play, and explore directly.

We adults think of packing up and visiting a National Park, or a ski mountain, to experience nature on a grand scale. A young child thinks of explorations in a local park, a backyard, or in her Nature Explore Classroom at school. Everyday nature is usually easy to find nearby. For a young child, a back yard, a local park or a Nature Explore Classroom can offer worlds of exploration.

Young brains are programmed to learn how the world works. Young children are always eager to explore.

Nature is the flip side of the indoor world. Indoors, the child is bounded by walls and surrounded by toys, electronic devices, furniture, books, parents, siblings, etc.  Indoors, nature comes more in the form of houseplants and pets; both of which can provide valuable information and lessons about the natural world.

But consider for a moment the difference in experience, for a preschooler, between typical indoor nature and outdoor nature. Tropical fish can teach color, responsibility (feeding and caring for the aquarium environment), numbers, fish behavior and much else. Experiencing fish either indoors or in nature is food for the young child’s learning. But experiencing fish in a pond or river involves a far wider context of learning opportunities. Weather, standing close to the water (or looking down from a bridge, or over the edge of a boat), searching for fish, luring them to the surface with breadcrumbs, and much more. The smells and sounds of the environment meld with the sensations afforded by temperature and wind. All the child’s senses receive information simultaneously, and her attention, variable as it may be, filters the experience down to what is important to her at the moment. And she is learning.

In fact, everything in the young child’s environment, indoors and out, can help the child learn how the world works, and her place in it. Some activities deliver more information than others. Even playing a purely recreational video game sharpens eye-hand coordination. Yet all the artifacts of the indoor life, like clothes, will someday be outgrown.

Not so with nature. A child can move away from spending time in nature as she ages, yet nature will be there when she returns. Nature will always be available, with a variety of potential experiences rarely matched elsewhere in life.

Connecting a young brain with nature, even a baby’s brain, is to feed it nutrients essential for the child’s development. No age is too young to start accompanying children outdoors. The textures, colors, odors, the wind on the skin, the warmth of sunlight—all happening together is a feast for the developing brain.

Set your preschooler free in a natural environment; park, backyard, Nature Explore Classroom. Remain close for safety and engagement. She’ll find something. It could be an anthill, some leaves, a bug, some sticks to build with, a rock to climb—she’ll find it. Then watch and participate with her as she explores her own Grand Canyon.