Nature for the very, very young
In the wet spring of 2008, we hosted a “Sensory Walk” for some of our very youngest children, the Green Room kids and their teachers. Doing “nature” with our youngest children can be a challenge, because the Nature Trail is very far away for tiny legs, toddlers are unsteady on their feet, sensory experiences can be overwhelming, hands go into the mouth, and verbal skills are just beginning to emerge. Because young children learn primarily through their senses, we decided the best fit would be to set up a “Sensory Walk” in the Habitat Garden.
Nature laughs with raindrops
It often rains in spring, and it certainly did the spring of 2008. I have found that it works best to schedule nature activities for a whole week, or better, a whole month, rather than just one day, as it inevitably rains on that one carefully planned and scheduled day.
Nature laughs at school calendars, and I find nature programs work best when we slow down and allow ourselves to unfold, like leaves unfurling, to study nature at nature’s pace. With two full weeks scheduled for the “Sensory Walks,” despite the unusually dreary weather, we managed to squeeze a few sensory walks into the Green Room calendar. “Stations” were set up along the tiny trail in the Habitat Garden, with a teacher positioned at each station. The children were prompted to feel the soft lamb’s ears plants, dig in the potting soil box, look under a steppingstone for a bug, smell a flower, and finally, walk through a tub of warm water to make tracks on the warm cement with bare feet. We had the kids, and their adults, take off their shoes to elevate the sensory experience and underline our intent: that very young children learn primarily through their senses, and that a garden is like a giant sensory box. Indeed, walking barefoot was too much sensory input for some of the kids, and even for some of the adults, as well.
After the toddlers went through the Sensory Walk a few times, we enriched the walk with new materials and activities, and by instructing the children to walk down-hill instead of uphill, building complexity and incremental challenge into the experience as we moved forward in time. Being outdoors is therapeutic, and revealing of individual learning styles and modalities. A garden is the perfect place for parents to remember, or discover, that children learn primarily through their bodies and their senses. Additionally, parents can be alert for important clues to the child’s learning modalities, which can be discovered early in the garden. If a child is primarily a visual learner, or an auditory learner, for example, such a thing will be revealed more readily in nature than in the classroom. “Sensory Walks” can easily be reinvented in different ways for every age, in every year, still feeling fresh and invigorating in each and every reincarnation.