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Helping Toddlers Safely Explore Natural Environments

I started my teaching career in public school kindergarten and first grade classrooms. When one of the schools where I was working received a grant for an Even Start program and wanted to staff it with fully certified teachers, I made the move to preschool. After 4 or 5 years of owning a nature-based preschool, I decided to include a caregiver-child session for toddlers.

As I have progressively moved to working with younger and younger children, I have had to understand a new set of developmental levels, needs and ways of interacting each time. Hint: It’s not simply about making everything “first grade lite” or just doing the same activities “smaller.” And working outdoors, in nature, brings its own special challenges. Which is why I was excited to attend Cara Mia Duncan’s (from the Hathaway Brown School in Ohio) session on Toddlers and Trees at the World of Wonder conference. At the same conference, I also discovered Claire Warden’s little gem of a book, “Nurture Through Nature.” In posts over the next few months, I’ll be focusing on toddlers, nature and what I have learned (and am still distilling) from these two resources.

In many ways, toddlers and the outdoors are a perfect fit. Children this age find joy and wonder in just about everything, and they are especially in tune to the sensory stimulation of nature – breezes blowing on their faces, cool grass beneath their feet and small creatures to watch. The outdoor environment naturally provides rich stimuli without an adult needing to enhance it to make it “educational.” Nature presents young children with an intuitive way to learn about gravity, boundaries, and cause and effect, to name a few.

At Wildwood Nature School, we have a caregiver and child class for toddlers ages 1-3. In a lot of ways, the basic tenets of working with toddlers in a natural setting are the same as working with preschoolers. I believe that children benefit from extended time outdoors, from child-led, authentic experiences, and from opportunities to make their own discoveries. Appropriate challenge and risk are a part of this discovery. However, toddlers are less able than preschoolers to notice risks in their environment or to understand their strengths and limitations within that environment.

A toddler’s openness to the new can cause adults to be nervous about the possible risks to exposing children this young to an essentially “wild” environment. However, rather than treat this openness as an excuse to keep toddlers out of the forest, there are precautions teachers, parents and schools can take to allow children the freedom to discover while ensuring they are safe.

Dress for the Weather

We are lucky in much of Oregon to have a rather temperate climate year round, but we do get rain, snow and the occasional very cold day. The best precaution against the weather is to wear the correct gear. Caregivers attending our Tiny Seeds are asked to accept that children will want to experience water in all of its glory and to bring rain pants (or snow suits) and boots to all sessions. Part of creating a connection to nature is learning how to adapt to it. Warden recommends mitten clips that pass through both coat sleeves to keep mittens handy and prevent them from getting lost.

Keep Objects Out of Mouths

Young children learn with all of their senses, which includes tasting and feeling things with their tongues, lips and teeth. One possible solution is to use a semi-cultivated outdoor space – an organic garden or lawn where the adults know nothing poisonous grows. Another solution is to visit a more “wild” space prior to bringing children there, to check for and remove poison oak, stinging nettle, mushrooms or other hazardous plants. I concentrate on varietals that grow close to the ground as they are the ones most likely to be grabbed by toddlers.

The most important solution is to increase the adult to child ratio. We are lucky in that Tiny Seeds is a caregiver and child program, with a one to one adult to child ratio. But the preschool program has a lower ratio than state licensing for similar safety reasons. Any childcare program wanting to spend more time in wild woods with toddlers needs a lower ratio than what is generally recommended for indoor programs.

Preventing Falls and Other Injuries

Most toddler falls are incredibly minor, causing more scare than actual injury (especially if an adult reacts to the fall). But climbing trees, balancing across logs, jumping over or crawling under natural obstacles are challenges to toddlers who are just finding their balance. With both toddler and preschool age groups, I like to encourage children to assess the risks involved in the activities they choose. Of course, toddlers have very little prior experience to draw upon when assessing risks and may not understand their own limitations. However, toddlers also do not need much for something to be a challenge. Walking across a 6 inch diameter fallen tree on the ground can be as much of a balance challenge to a toddler as that same tree laid across higher supports would be for older children.

A good rule of thumb is to offer challenges to a child, but never push him or her to go beyond the comfort zone. We also make a distinction between “spotting” a climber and actively pushing, carrying or pulling them to a higher perch. Honor what each child can do on his or her own and offer gentle and minimal support to get them to the next step, if that is where they want to go.

Most nature school programs do formal risk assessments, which specifically names an activity (for example, walking across a fallen log or playing with water in a creek), lays out the developmental benefits of the activity, lists the possible risks and then specifies actions taken by staff to eliminate or control for those risks (a really good example of such a form can be found at Early Learning HQ’s website).

Risk is a part of many childhood activities – indoor and outdoor, but carefully managed risk shouldn’t be a reason to avoid nature all together. With proper attention to the risks, children should be able to explore and challenge themselves safely with adult support.


Warden, Claire. (2012) Nurture Through Nature.

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