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July 20, 2016

You can take your child on a wonderful journey just by wandering up the street, as child development expert Gill Connell explains.

Anyone who has tried to walk down the street (or even just up the driveway to the mailbox) with a toddler will know how easily they can be distracted by things we would never have noticed: leaves, scurrying ants and even interesting sticks are endlessly fascinating to them. 

For babies and children the world is a magical wonderland just waiting to be discovered and they learn so much through their physical interactions with it. Once little ones begin to move around and explore their environment their brains take in sensory information, organising it through new neural pathways then storing it in memory for future reference. 

As parents, there are lots of great ways to facilitate these learning experiences and to join in each time your child sets off on a voyage of discovery. A simple walk in the sunshine, for instance, can be so much more than just fresh air and a change of scene.

Once your child is in their pram or pushchair they have a front row seat on the world, which provides great visual stimulation as you move through the streets or the park. But because your little one doesn’t know what they’re looking at, for them the experience is a bit like a silent movie with no sub-titles – images fly by but the story is hard to follow. This is why I recommend parents and caregivers “talk the walk.”

There is nothing more attractive and comforting to your child than the sound of a familiar voice. When you lend your voice to new sights and sounds you’re encouraging him to take it all in and begin to feel at one with the world around him. 

You can talk about whatever you see – the warm sunshine, the tall trees, the beautiful flowers, and the white fences that line the pathways. Sure, these details may be old news to you, but to your child they are new and amazing and you have become his personal tour guide. You may even discover something new when you see the world through his eyes.

Whenever you can, take your child out of the stroller and put his other senses to work: touch the tree bark, smell the flowers, listen to the leaves rustle, lie down and feel the cool tickle of the blades of grass. Take his shoes and socks off and explore the sand pit, splash in the puddles, climb up hills (and when he’s old enough, roll back down). 

Support him as he walks along the low fences or cracks in the footpath. Collect leaves, rocks, sticks, petals, pine cones and anything else Mother Nature has left for you to find. Study them and then explore where these treasures came from.

And talk about it all. Repeat the words that describe what he’s seeing, hearing, smelling, and touching. While they may just be sounds to him at first, your words are the building blocks he needs to help him find his own words some day, while he’s figuring out what his world is made of. Learning new vocabulary happens best when he physically associates his world with the words he is hearing. 

And remember, no matter how beautiful the scenery, you are his favourite thing to look at. Spend as much ‘face time’ as you can, because when he’s watching the movement of your lips and facial expressions he’s learning vital social cues about human communication and will try to mimic your actions. Not only will this give him a terrific word-filled, multi-sensory experience, it gives both of you a chance to spend some time in the sunshine... face to face! 

Make it a game

Nature offers a great landscape for discovery, so take advantage of your daily walks to introduce new concepts

  • For this game, pick a theme that requires your child to employ his senses. For instance, “What is rough?” Now, let’s take a walk.
  • As you step outside, look for things that are rough, such as tree bark, cobblestones and pine cones. Introduce rough objects one at a time, being sure to give your child time to explore each object as he sees fit. As he explores, use your words to describe what he’s experiencing. “The tree feels rough.”
  • If it’s safe and free of sharp objects, you may also like to go barefoot so he learns, through his skin, what rough feels like.
  • Rub the treasures you find gently on his feet and if he is older have him stand on one foot (supporting his weight) and help him roll things under his bare foot. Swap feet, so both get to feel “rough”.


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