When I think of nature I picture my local forest, where the dappled shadows of the beech and sycamore trees create a soothing rhythm on the forest floor and I’m instantly calm. Research has proven that nature has calming properties. Bed-ridden hospital patients with a view recover quicker. So, it’s not surprising that taking toddlers outdoors can have a calming affect on them, too.
I don’t know how many times we’ve thrown on wellies and coats and run out the door in a bid to avoid a tantrum that’s brewing. Within seconds my 21-month-old son is rummaging around to find bugs and beasties beneath the rocks. I feel my shoulders relax and my breathing slow down. We look up to see what nature’s offering us on that particular day. Will it be blue sky or a flock of birds or maybe a bee? No matter how much time we spend outside, there’s always something new to see – that’s the beauty of nature, it’s constantly changing. Nature doesn’t leave you bored. Even if you only ever visited the same small space, you would always see something different. The seasons bring so much beauty and transformation to the land you can only sit back in awe.
Being in nature seems to slow us right down. We find a new sense of rhythm in nature, a rhythm that feels much calmer and gives way to a new level of appreciation for time. Time I get to spend with my son without the distractions of the housework and bills and errands. Time that could have been easily wasted in front of a screen, mindlessly scrolling through social media. The natural rhythm of time seems so much slower outside, and in lots of ways, it’s more meaningful.
When we’re outdoors, we’re watching the trees blow in the wind, listening to the birds singing and smelling the velvety peach roses in Grandma’s back garden. We get lost in our own adventures as we fully immerse ourselves in nature.
Being outdoors brings opportunities to learn more about each other, too. We can see each other’s vulnerability, strength and enthusiasm. We’re more present in nature, so we tend to see more of each other than the usual co-existing that can happen indoors. I feel like we’re truly living when we’re outdoors. For me and my family nature is our “apple a day”. We all feel better, eat better, sleep better and live better when we spend time in nature.
Toddlers love exploring and nature offers wonderful opportunities for new discoveries. Here are my Top 10 nature activities that I use at Mud Bugs to keep them enthralled:
1. Bug Hunting – There are so many bugs and beasties to be found all around us. Find a patch of greenery or even just sit on the step at your backdoor. You’ll be amazed at what you find in such a small space. Go one step further and add a magnifying glass and a bug identity guide.
2. Nature Colour Matching – Grab a few pieces of material, coloured blocks or any coloured household items and see if your little one can find anything from nature to match that colour. Put a few different colours down on the ground in a circle or a line and let your mini explorer build up a little collection for each colour.
3. Nature Crowns – cut a wide strip of cardboard from a cereal box, tape it to fit your child’s head and then put some double-sided sticky tape or just fold over some one-sided tape to go around the whole crown. It’s your child’s job to cover their crown in bits they find in nature: ferns, flowers, grass seeds, twigs.
4. Nature Weaving – find three similar length twigs, secure them in a triangle shape using string or yarn. Wrap some more string/ yarn around two sides of the triangle to create a loom. Flowers, grass, twigs and leaves can be used to weave in and out of the string to create a nature weave.
5. Nature Scavenger Hunt – Grab a pen and paper and draw or write the names of a few things that can be found in nature: beetle, leaf, feather, shell, stone, pine cone. Leave a space beside each word or picture so your little one can tick it off. If they’re too young, perhaps show them how to make a mud fingerprint instead or they can collect the items in a basket or bucket.
6. Rock Painting – This is pretty self-explanatory. Paint some rocks. I recommend acrylic water-based paints for the most vibrant colours and why not hide your rocks for someone else to find? Check out social media to see if you have a rock community nearby, in Ireland we have #irelandrocks.
7. Tree Faces – Mix some mud and water until you get a thick, mouldable consistency. Mould a face onto a tree using your mud mixture. Use leaves, twigs and flowers to decorate your tree face.
8. Bug Hotel Making – This can be as simple or as extravagant as you wish. The simple option is to use an old pot, the kind you buy your plants in. Decorate it with string, ribbon or whatever tickles your creative fancy. Next push and squeeze as many twigs and straw and hollow tubes, such as bamboo, into the pot (all in one direction so you can fit as many as possible in). The more extravagant end of the scale is to find some old timber, bricks, tiles, broken pots and whatever else you can find to create a five-star bug hotel for your garden. Whatever scale you go for, make sure you place your hotel in a shaded, safe place for your bugs, preferably near some pollinator friendly flowers to entice some lodgers.
9. Mud Painting – Mix soil and water in a jug until it becomes brown slushy water. Get an old paint brush or make your own using some feathers or leaves tied to a stick. Paint onto an old sheet, footpath or even on paper. You can add food colouring or powdered paint for added colour, but I find it best to avoid that with toddlers.
10. Seed Bombs – Shred some newspaper (enough to fill a one litre jug when tightly packed) into a bucket or basin. Pour very hot/boiling water over the paper (enough to cover the paper), allow to cool. Once cooled, stir until it turns to mush, add one large handful of soil and another of wildflower seeds. Mix it all up. Take small (toddler sized) handfuls and squeeze out the excess water, shaping them into individual seed bombs. Leave to dry on a windowsill. Give them as gifts or plant in late spring. They’re great as Zero-Waste fillers for party bags.
Jessica O’Rourke, mother of toddler Fionn and founder of Mud Bugs, runs nature-based workshops for children in County Longford, Ireland. For more fun outdoor kids activities follow Jess on instagram @mudbugsireland or @tree_hugging_mama