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Tiny Hands and Tiny Hearts: The Importance of Outdoor Play with Toddlers

By Ashley Lingerfelt

Toddlers love exploring the different textures nature provides.

In the age of technology, there has been a significant decrease in the amount of time infants and toddlers are spending outside. A recent study revealed that children spend less time outdoors than a prison inmate (Learning Through Landscapes, 2016). It’s no secret that more and more parents are relying on technology, rather than outdoor play, to inspire and engage their children. In fact, as many as 42 percent of young children own their own device, such as a smart tablet (Common Sense Media, 2017). Even though the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants under the age of 18 months have no screen time, many parents struggle to give their tots the stimulation they crave without the help of a technological device. With educational videos, silly songs, and fun games at their fingertips, how is a parent to engage their child without technology? The answer is simpler than it seems. Thankfully, a whole world of stimulation, joy, and creativity awaits outside in nature.

Toddlers need multisensory experiences to thrive. On a basic level, outdoor play gives toddlers the opportunity to experiment with different sights, touches, smells, and sounds. On a deeper level, outdoor play fulfills their need to explore, problem solve, create, and take risks. As American poet Diane Ackerman says, “Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.” When toddlers are given time to participate in outdoor freeplay, they strengthen the neural pathways that are necessary for navigating their environment and the social interactions that take place within that environment (Fisher, 1992). Using tools that are readily available outside, a toddler becomes a student of nature. Suddenly, touching a dandelion becomes an incredible tactile experience. Choosing which pile of leaves to jump into becomes a fun, yet important, risk-benefit assessment. Carefully choosing which rocks to step on while crossing a small stream becomes a unique opportunity to problem solve. No matter the circumstance, nature is the perfect playground for a toddler.

Natural obstacles, such as streams and rocks, make the perfect playground for little ones.

As an attachment-oriented therapist, I believe there is always a special role for parents during playtime with their child. Even in nature, parents are afforded many opportunities for healthy, joyful, and interactive engagement with their toddler. Parents can help their little one count and measure sticks: “Which one is longest?” They can explore different weights of pebbles and rocks: “This one is heavier than that one!” They can point out the varying colors of the environment, describing flowers, animals, and scenes: “That squirrel is gathering nuts. And he’s climbing up the tree!” In doing these small things, parents are forming lasting bonds with their toddler. Even if their toddler is too young to understand what their parent is saying, these parent-child exchanges are incredibly important and play a vital role in forming healthy attachments.

Mountains provide great sensory experiences for toddlers (and adults, too!) Beaches and parks each provide a unique sensory experience for a toddler.

For some families, it’s not a matter of how they play, but where they play, that is of concern. Many families are concerned they do not have access to locations or spaces to enjoy and participate in outdoor free play. Fortunately, there are many places in which a toddler can enjoy nature (many of them are free!). For families that live in rural areas, nature and outdoor play is easily found right outside their door. For those that live in suburban and urban areas, exploring local public parks and neighborhoods is a great option. In many cities, there are free programs, such as Free Forest School, that welcome parents and their toddlers to meet for weekly explorations into local wilderness. In addition, museums often host outdoor gatherings for toddlers to enjoy nature through specific sensory activities. Wherever the location, there is almost always an opportunity for a toddler to experience nature in some capacity. Parents just might have to get a little creative! No matter where they live, families are bound to find a nice spot to take in nature and let their little one explore. After all, toddlers have a natural desire to explore. What better playground than the outdoors!

Ashley Lingerfelt is an Associate Professional Counselor and a Play and Perinatal Therapist. She enjoys working with children and their parents in a fun, caring, and creative atmosphere. She currently helps children and adolescents heal from anxiety, depression, and life changes. Ashley is passionate about perinatal mental health and specializes in working with women during pregnancy, young children, and new moms. Children and mothers are her passion. In her work with new mothers, Ashley is a Postpartum Support International State Coordinator for Georgia, where she helps bridge the gap between families, the community, and providers by connecting those in need with professionals and spreading perinatal mental health awareness. In addition, Ashley is a certified FirstPlay Child Practitioner. She is currently in private practice at Happy Hearts Counseling and is under the direct supervision of Amy Robbins, LPC, RPT-S, CPCS.


Fisher, E. P. (1992). The impact of play on development: A meta-analysis. Play & Culture, 5(2),159-181.

Fjørtoft, I. (2001). The natural environment as a playground for children: The impact of outdoor play activities in pre-primary school children. Early Childhood Education Journal, 29(2), 111-117.

Play in dramatic decline as children enjoy as little time outside as prison inmates. (2016, March 22). Retrieved from Learning Through Landscapes website: article.php?item=308

The common sense census: Media use by kids age zero to 8. (2017). Common Sense Media, Inc.

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