Getting Outdoors in New Mexico with Babies and Young Children
The weather is getting nicer (mostly, kind of, depending on the time of day) and that means more opportunities to play outside. Spending time outside has many benefits for kids, including relieving stress, encouraging physical activity, and supporting improved concentration.
But getting your baby or young child outside can be intimidating, especially if you didn’t grow up in an “outdoorsy” family or if you don’t have a yard. But fear not! No matter where you live or how comfortable you are with dirt, there are ways to tap into the benefits of nature for your little one. We spoke with Allison Martin, Program and Partnerships Director for Environmental Education of New Mexico, about some tips for getting started.
Nature can be close to home
Don’t feel like you have to pack up survival gear and head for a mountain. Young children can get the same benefits from a patch of grass at a local park as they do from a big camping expedition. Allison said that in a 10-minute walk with your little one, you can point out different types of plants and animals you see. Even if you live in a very urban environment, you might see a squirrel or check out your neighbor’s shrub. You can ask questions out loud to your young child, even if they don’t fully understand you yet, like “I wonder how old this tree is?” or “I wonder if this type of tree ever has flowers?”
Even very young babies can benefit from outdoor time. With babies, Allison said to focus on the five senses and talk to your child about what they’re seeing or touching. Setting a baby in a patch of grass allows them to feel the texture of the grass, smell the outside air, and listen to the sounds of birds or airplanes overhead. They’ll try to explore with their sense of taste, too, so keep an eye out for any small rocks or bugs that could become questionable snacks.
Exposing your baby to an outside environment helps them make new connections and learn about the world. Plus, time outdoors has benefits for grownups as well, and taking a walk or a break to sit in the grass may help you recharge your patience for the next time your toddler makes direct eye contact while rubbing snot on your shirt. Speaking of toddlers …
Let’s face it, a toddler is not going to sit still in the grass and listen to you talk about the sound of the birds. They’re on the move, and you can bring that energy along with you for outdoor chores. Allison said toddlers love to help, and letting them be involved in outdoor tasks is a great way to model responsibility while getting them outside.
Do you have chickens or other livestock? A garden? Some weeds that grow out of the cracks in your walkway? If you have any chores to do outside, let your toddler tag along. Will they actually help you? Obviously not, at least at first. But you can start by giving them something to carry and talking to them about what you’re doing and why. Over time, they’ll learn your routines and be able to pitch in, all while getting the benefits of time outside.
Once children are about three years old, you can start adding more complex activities to their outdoor time. Allison recommends nature journaling, which can be as simple as having kids draw a leaf or a flower that they see. Older children who have started to write can practice writing the names of things they see, or you can help them write short notes about what they are seeing, hearing, smelling, or touching (again, ideally not tasting unless you have a garden).
Kids this age are also old enough for more active games, like a scavenger hunt for common outdoor items they might find in your area (for example, a twig, a feather, or a black rock). You can use these Bosque Bingo materials for inspiration. Although they are developed for areas along the Rio Grande, you can make your own bingo card or scavenger hunt for your child based on items they might find near you.
New Mexico’s environment can be tough. Make sure to put sunscreen on your child and use a sun hat to protect their skin from the summer sun. For children 12 months and older, offer them water so they don’t get dehydrated. And if you’re doing a longer walk or a hike, be sure to pack snacks and layers of clothing in case the weather takes an unexpected turn.
If you’re going somewhere you haven’t been before, Allison recommended calling ahead and asking the rangers in the area what to expect and how to prepare. This can help ensure you and your child have fun and that your child forms positive feelings about nature.
Choose outdoor activities that you like. If you hate gardening, don’t feel like you have to plant things with your child. Tossing or kicking a ball, playing hide-and-seek, drawing with sidewalk chalk, collecting cool rocks, and blowing bubbles are all fun ways to spend time together outside. If you don’t like those, some other big lists of outdoor activities for kids can be found here, here, and here. Whatever activities you choose, your little one will be learning new things and developing important skills while exploring their world.