Go Outdoors and Explore: Build Upon Young Children’s Natural Curiosity

The birds are singing and little green shoots are popping up out of the ground. Springtime has arrived in Illinois. There is new activity in our neighborhoods as people are getting out and walking their dogs, pushing babies in strollers, and holding the hands of toddlers as they make their way down the sidewalk.

You might see caregivers standing and watching their toddlers crouch down to look at ants on the sidewalk. Perhaps you overhear questions from preschoolers, such as “Where are the squirrels going?” or “How did the green leaves get onto the trees?” There is so much to see in the springtime, and being outside engages a key motivator for young learners: curiosity!

When we talk about curiosity in young children, we are referring to their desire to learn about their world. Outdoor spaces are of full of opportunities for discovery. Children can explore the natural environment as well as the “built” environment. The natural environment includes items such as trees, grass, and animals. The built environment includes things that are created by people such as buildings, sidewalks, playgrounds, and roads. There are also many places where the natural environment and the built environment cross over. Some examples of these crossovers include when dandelions poke up through the sidewalk or tomato vines climb up a trellis. These crossovers delight children’s curious minds and provoke questions. A child who notices this might say, “The stems are winding ’round and ’round!”

One discovery can lead to another. Imagine a visit to the park. As they explore, children might discover that each blade of grass is a tiny plant. A conversation with an adult may help them understand that the tiny plant grew from a seed. Next, adults and children might examine individual roots buried in the soil. The children might notice that the soil and grass feel different under their feet and in their hands from the sand. They may wonder, “Why do they feel different?”

With simple tools such as magnifying glasses and empty containers, the children can investigate these differences more closely. Upon closer examination, they might discover that soil is filled with tiny insects and little bits of leaves whereas sand is made of tiny rocks. Perhaps it is time to go over to the library and find some books about soil, sand, or insects. This is one example of how following children’s natural curiosity can lead down a path of discovery.

When you open the door to the outdoors, you will discover opportunities that can engage the whole child! Curious young children are eager to use their bodies and minds to explore. As they run, crawl, and climb in different spaces, they discover the ways their bodies can move and the properties of different surfaces.

Conversations with caregivers and peers happen during these times, and these conversations are opportunities to build vocabulary and knowledge. You might find children arranging rocks, sticks, and leaves to build nests like birds and squirrels do. Children often use found materials such as pinecones, sticks, or rocks to represent their ideas and figure things out.

Outdoors, there are many chances to put curious minds and bodies to good use! Where will your next outdoor adventure with young children take you? Below are some resources to help you get started.

Rebecca Swartz

Dr. Rebecca Swartz, an early learning specialist for IEL, completed her doctorate in human development and family studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Rebecca’s research and outreach work focuses on infant-toddler care, home-based child care, and the social-emotional development of young children. Her goal is to help parents and early educators by providing evidence-based resources on child development and early learning.