Expert Opinion

Environment and Sustainability

How can I teach my toddler about the environment and important issues like sustainability?

Teaching toddlers about the environment and important issues like sustainability is beneficial for your child’s development, and also for the well-being of our planet. As parents, we have a unique opportunity to instill these values in our children from an early age. By incorporating nature play and engaging activities into their daily routine, we can foster their curiosity and encourage a deeper connection with the big old world around them.

While outdoor exploration is often the go-to for nature play, it’s essential to recognize that it can also occur indoors. This is particularly useful for those living in areas with extreme weather conditions or limited access to outdoor spaces. Indoor activities like indoor gardening can be a fun way to introduce toddlers to the concept of sustainability. Creating little grass heads using soil, grass seeds, and stockings or pantyhose can spark their interest and teach them about nurturing and caring for living things.

Drawing pictures of nature scenes is another engaging activity that can be enhanced by adding real leaves or flower petals to the artwork. This not only stimulates their creativity but also provides a tactile experience and connection to nature. Or – instead of discarding the lovely little treasures that toddlers often collect from outdoors (do we really need another stick/feather/giant leaf floating around the car?!), try displaying them indoors. This can help remind your child of fun times outdoors and inspire them to get back out there – and can also help with generalising learning from one environment to another.

Pretend play is a powerful tool for teaching toddlers about the environment. Using toys around the house you can construct scenes depicting nature and sustainable practices. By guiding their play and incorporating elements like recycling bins or wind turbines, we can subtly introduce concepts of environmental responsibility.

Beyond indoor activities, it is important to venture outside and explore natural environments. Trips to the beach, botanic gardens, or local nature reserves provide rich opportunities for discovery and learning. Engaging in sensory and messy play outdoors, such as digging in the mud or feeling different textures, not only stimulates their senses but also deepens their connection with nature. This allows for conversations to arise organically about the importance of looking after the environment.

Family activities like camping, day trips, or picnics can also be planned to create memorable experiences centred around the environment. These outings offer a chance to appreciate the beauty of nature while engaging in sustainable practices, such as leaving no trace or picking up litter.

By incorporating nature play and engaging activities both indoors and outdoors, we can cultivate our children’s curiosity, appreciation, and understanding of the natural world.

Should my child spend more time in nature?

In today’s digital age where screen time has become increasingly prevalent, this is a great question. Over the past few decades, our lives have become more sedentary, with less time spent outdoors and more time indoors. This trend has had significant implications for our children’s well-being and development.

As parents, we often worry about our children’s safety, which can lead us to restrict their access to certain outdoor environments (think: not wanting them to fall off the climbing equipment, or worrying they will fall over if they run down the slope to the footy oval). While it is natural to have concerns, it is essential to strike a balance and provide opportunities for our children to experience the benefits of being in nature.

Outdoor activities like climbing, jumping, running, and balancing help children develop their gross motor skills. Surprisingly, these activities also support the development of fine motor skills, such as handwriting, later on. By engaging in active play outdoors, children are honing their physical abilities while enjoying the freedom and space nature provides. Let them ‘burn off’ all that toddler energy!

Nature also offers a rich environment for discovery, creativity, and problem-solving. Children’s minds are constantly stimulated when they are in nature, as they encounter various situations that require them to think on their feet. Whether it’s judging the distance of a puddle they’re about to jump over, or contemplating where birds go at night, being in nature fosters cognitive growth and expands their understanding of the world.

Outdoor spaces, being less restrictive, allow children to run, jump, and be loud without being restrained or told to stop. This freedom has a profound impact on their emotional well-being. Physiological changes occur in their bodies when engaged in active outdoor play, promoting relaxation and calmness. For parents of young children seeking moments of tranquillity, spending time in nature can be a valuable source of respite!

So – time in nature is definitely helpful for our children. I recommend trying to find a balance between any safety concerns you might have and the clear advantages of outdoor exploration. By fostering a love for nature in our children, we are nurturing their overall well-being and opening them up to new experiences.

My toddler doesn’t like getting their hands dirty and wet but I want to encourage outdoor play – what should I do?

If your toddler doesn’t enjoy getting their hands dirty and wet, but you still want to encourage outdoor play, there are a few strategies you can try. Firstly, it’s important to understand that some children may have sensory issues that make them uncomfortable with certain textures or sensations. Acknowledge your child’s discomfort and provide a no-fuss solution, such as wiping their hands if they get messy. By validating their feelings and offering a simple solution, you can help them stay calm and problem-solve.

To gradually encourage outdoor play, start with environments that are less messy or dirty. Choose play areas that your child can enjoy without feeling overwhelmed by sensory stimuli. As they become more comfortable, gradually introduce situations that are slightly more challenging. This progressive approach allows your child to build confidence and slowly acclimate to different textures.

Another approach is to incorporate sensory experiences in a fun and controlled manner. Engage your child in activities like cooking or baking where they can use their hands, such as kneading dough or pouring ingredients. Start with simple tasks that are not overwhelming and gradually increase the complexity. This way, your child can experience the sensory input in a familiar and enjoyable context.

If your child continues to struggle with sensory aversions, it may be beneficial to seek support from an occupational therapist who specialises in sensory needs. They can provide targeted interventions and strategies to help your child overcome their challenges and develop a greater tolerance for different sensory experiences.

Remember, every child is unique, and it’s essential to respect their comfort levels while gently encouraging them to explore the outdoors. With patience, understanding, and a gradual approach, you can support your toddler in developing a positive relationship with nature and sensory experiences.

I like taking my child to the park, but they always have meltdowns when it is time to leave – what do I do?

Dealing with meltdowns when it’s time to leave the park can be challenging for both you and your toddler. In fact, most transitions are particularly difficult for toddlers they’re required to switch their attention from one activity to another and engage in planning ahead, which are complex cognitive skills still developing in their young brains.

As a mum myself I’ve found it helpful to connect and engage before leaving the playground. Enter their world and participate in imaginative games or play chasey together. This connection will make the transition easier for them.

If (or when!) your child shows distress at leaving, try to be empathetic. Let them know that you understand how much fun they’re having at the playground and that it’s okay for them to feel sad about leaving. Offer strategies to help them cope, such as playing a favorite song on your phone as you head to the car or discussing when they can see their friends again.

A fun way to redirect or avoid distress is to incorporate play into the transition process. For example, if it’s safe, have your child “chase” you to the car or continue a game you were playing at the playground during the ride home.

Some children respond really well to countdown warnings, such as letting them know that they have a specific amount of time left to play. Offer choices and rewards, such as allowing them to choose between going on the swing or the slide before leaving or rewarding their calm behaviour with a sticker or a stop at the ice cream shop on the way home.

Every time we practice transitions, they become easier so by working through the emotions you can help your child navigate the transition from the park more smoothly while fostering their emotional well-being and maintaining a positive connection with them. Remember to approach the situation with empathy, patience, and understanding, as transitions can be challenging for toddlers, and meltdowns are a normal part of their development.

About the author

Amanda Abel is a paediatric psychologist, mum, and founder of Northern Centre for Child Development (NCCD) and Hawthorn Centre for Child Development (HCCD) – multidisciplinary paediatric practices in Melbourne. Working directly and indirectly with hundreds of clients each year, Amanda’s mission is for every child to achieve their best outcomes by equipping families and educators with the tools they need to help kids thrive.
Amanda draws on her own experiences of being a parent along with her extensive training and well-honed skill set to get families thriving. Having worked with families for almost two decades, as a psychologist for the past 11 years in a variety of settings, and a valued board member of the Autism Behavioural Intervention Association, Amanda loves building the confidence of the adults in the lives of children so that they can connect meaningfully, help them reach their full potential, and live a life that reflects their values.
Often appearing on Channel 7 and 9 News and regularly featuring in print media, Amanda is on a mission to make the world better for kids through her clinical work, consulting to some of the biggest global toy manufacturers and educating the digital media industry about making the internet safer for kids.
Photo by Lukas