Nature’s Nursery: Unlocking Optimal Baby Development Through Outdoor Stimulation

Experts tell us that babies need sensory stimulation for proper sensory development as they grow.  For new parents, knowing which stimulation is best can be difficult.  With every book you read, documentary you watch, or auntie you ask, the question of what’s the best baby stimulation seems harder and harder to answer.   This post offers simple practical parenting advice to put you on the right track.

baby pushing their body up on a picnic blanket outside

Growing little people is hard work

On top of feeding, clothing, and caring for your little one (and yourself, and everyone else in the family), there are a lot of expectations laid upon you.  You need to read baby the ‘right’ books.  You need to ensure he watches only ‘appropriate’ television programs, listens to the ‘proper’ music, and plays most with the ‘stimulating’ toys.

A quick Google search found tonnes of posts on how to make babies smarter and advertisements for educational baby products.  This is obviously a popular topic in the parenting world. 

However, I also came across numerous studies showing how these ‘educational’ products don’t actually deliver the desired results.  Remember Disney’s Baby Einstein?  Well, in case you hadn’t heard, Disney was forced to offer refunds because babies were not actually getting smarter – as the products had claimed they would.

Also, it is expensive to buy these products and toys.  Not to mention that they just add clutter in the home, and eventually garbage in the landfill.  So, how are you to ensure you give your baby the best learning opportunities?

What is sensory stimulation and why should you care?

Babies and children use their senses to understand the world around them.  Every new experience of sight, sound, feeling, taste, texture, and movement (called sensory inputs) encourages a baby’s brain to form connections and grow.  It is through this sensory input that babies learn how to perceive their own bodies in relation to the world around them (called sensory development).  They also learn how to safely respond to new sensations.

If babies and young children are not exposed to a variety of sensations, they may feel anxious in older years when presented with new stimuli.  Or they may have underdeveloped use of their senses (called poor sensory integration).  Poor sensory integration can lead to a dislike of new food tastes or textures, or feelings of anxiety in noisy or busy areas.  Limited sensory exposure can also lead to delays in developmental milestones like sitting, crawling, walking, and talking.

Therefore, in order to avoid future developmental, physical, or emotional problems, it is important to give babies and young children a wide range of sensory experiences.  So go ahead and buy your babies and children those flashy plastic toys if you like.  However, a more effective (and cheaper and easier option) would be to give your children sensory-rich experiences.

What is a sensory-rich experience?

This is the fancy term for a great play time.  The phrase sensory-rich implies that most or all of our senses are being stimulated.  So, watching a television show about exploring the woods stimulates our sight and hearing.  However, the actual activity of walking in the woods stimulates all our senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste (possibly), touch, movements, and awareness.

For a baby, a simple sensory-rich experience happens every time you cuddle and rock on the porch.  They feel your closeness, the gentle rocking, the sun or breeze on their skin, and hear your singing and the sounds around them.  They can smell you and nature, see your face and the surrounding shapes and colors, and maybe taste and sense milk or fingers in their mouth.

Full sensory integration (or learning) best happens in a sensory-rich environment.  This means that the brain uses input from the senses (touch, smell, sight, hearing, and taste), muscles, and joints in order to accurately process information about the body and outside world.  

For example, the mind and body understand the activity of climbing through, touching the bark with hands and feet, feeling the muscle strain, hearing the leaves, smelling the wood, and so forth.  This is a completely different experience from just looking at a tree, reading a story about climbing trees, or joining along with actions when television characters are climbing trees.

Why do I suggest these sensory-rich experience happen outdoors?

Being outside is a different sensation for body and mind than being indoors.  When outside, children will feel the air or sun on their skin, and hear birds or sounds of the city. They’ll feel the different textures of grass, rock, and pavement, and the smells… everything from hotdog stands, to rose bushes, to cow poop (depending where you live).  But what’s most important is that their mind and body are experiencing all these sensations at once for the benefits of full sensory integration ( or optimal learning).

Another benefit to outdoor time is that nature rarely overwhelms the senses.  Children may have difficulty understanding all that is happening and become anxious, frustrated, or upset when overwhelmed with too much sensory input.  Examples of overwhelming environments might be a noisy play center, a busy colorful classroom, or a loud and crowded restaurant.

baby sitting on a sandy beach with a bucket and shovel in hand

“Nature doesn’t bombard children with too much sensory information at once, which creates a sense of chaos and confusion.”  Instead nature is a “perfectly balanced sensory experience” providing just the right amount of stimulation and opportunities for babies and children to learn and grow. (Angela Hanscom, 2016)

Your child’s mind has an easier time learning from sensory experiences in a calm environment like the outdoors.  If they are surrounded by overwhelming colors, sounds, and visual distractions, their minds have a harder time learning (processing).  Therefore, babies and young children benefit less from whatever they happen to be playing with if the surrounding environment is too overwhelming.

Providing the best baby stimulation for sensory development

If you take anything from this article, I hope it is this:  young children and babies learn and develop best when offered varied experiences in the outdoor world.

Exploring nature with babies can be as easy or as involved as you’d like to make it from an overnight hiking trip to sitting in the backyard. 

READ MORE: Click for more tips and advice on exploring nature with babies here.

baby sleeping on a blanket under the shade of an umbrella
my littlest having a nap outside in the shade

For busy babies who love to put everything in their mouths, you may want to hold them in your arms when outside or lie them on a blanket.  Then, proceed to present them with safe items they can explore with their hands (and mouths).  This texture exploration increases the chances that children will welcome various textures of foods when they are older.

When your infants are a little older, they can lie on the grass and explore to their liking.  You’ll want to stay close, but try to refrain from interrupting or directing their play.  Allow them to explore at their own pace.

Often just the natural outdoors have enough for young children to occupy themselves with.  They’ll be happy playing with rocks, leaves, sticks, and other found treasures.  If you find they need an activity, provide them with just a few items.  A pail and shovel (even a bowl and spoon) can lead to a lengthy play at the park, beach, or in the garden.

Here’s a very simple list of sensory rich outdoor activities:

  • Explore a garden, greenhouse, or park.  For variety, try community gardens, botanical gardens, and provincial, state, or national parks.
  • Lift up babies so they can play with leaves and smell the blossoms of trees.  Young children will enjoy throwing a ball up into the leaves or being chased around tree trunks.
  • Spend time in areas with lots of birds or butterflies, or out in the countryside by a horse coral or ranch.
  • Dangle babies’ bare feet into water or over the grass.  Let older children play barefoot on the grass, in the mud, and shallow waters.
  • Take your little one out for walks in the stroller or baby carrier.  For an even deeper sensory rich experience, carry your baby in your arms.
  • Bring your rocker outside, have your meals on the porch.  
  • Consider putting your baby’s bassinet outside for nap time.

For more outdoor play ideas, visit the Government of Australia’s baby outdoor play page here.

Try to challenge yourself to do one or more of these things each and every day.

The best babt stimulation is just outside your door
The dry prickly grass is a great sensory activity!

Sensory development and babies… remember this:

The natural outdoor environment provides young babies and children with the perfect amount and variety of sensory stimulation.  Every moment children play outside is time spent growing and developing their minds and bodies.  Do this often enough and children will have ample opportunity for sufficient nurturing and learning.

Instead of filling your toy boxes with battery powered gadgets and expensive ‘natural’ toys.  Instead, open the door and fill your child’s day with new adventures and calming natural experiences.


*Referenced from from Angela J. Hanscom, Balanced and Barefoot, 2016

Click here for a review of Balanced and Barefoot and to learn more about the author and her teachings.

Jenn, the author of this post is a registered social worker with professional experience in mental health therapy as well as ample life experience raising her own 3 babies.

baby playing with leaves while sitting on the grass, text reads bringing your baby outside


baby's feet in the sandy water, text reads what is the best stimulation for your baby


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4 thoughts on “Nature’s Nursery: Unlocking Optimal Baby Development Through Outdoor Stimulation”

  1. Hi – I am a nature play enthusiast and have been taking my 6 year old outside as much as possible ever since she was born. I now have a 10 month old as well, and I’m taking her out every day. I am looking for more guidance though on how she can safely and freely touch and explore natural materials. I will let her touch rocks, leaves, sticks, grass, etc., but she puts everything in her mouth, of course. I’m therefore constantly interrupting her and stopping her whenever she is exploring outside. I would really rather allow her to play freely and uninterrupted, as I know that is very healthy for babies. Do you have any advice for me?

    1. Hi Patty, you’re right, it can be hard to have babies outside especially when they’re in the ‘put everything in the mouth’ phase! All babies are different, so what will work for your sweet one may be different than for others. A few things I did for my babies in that stage was use a really big blanket and encouraged them to stay on the blanket. Then, I’d give them safe items to explore on the blanket. And, yes, for many months I just had to follow closely behind with constant reminders and checks. I know that some parents find success in have a large screened tent for that stage. Again, the tent provides some limitations on exploration. I also used to choose outdoor spots that were easier to control, like a porch. Good luck! If you do happen upon a great solution, feel free to share:)

  2. Love this post! I take my little one outside every day and she loves it. In the past three years, I was outside more often than ever before and I got used to doing everything by foot!
    My best advice is to get proper shoes and clothes. (And cold cream or sunscreen) That way I can stay outside with her in almost any weather. And no aching feet later!

    Now, I sometimes really feel that I need to go outside. It’s like craving sweets. But in a good way!

    1. That’s so great to hear! You’re right, good clothes and shoes are a must! I’ve definitely forgone fashion for comfort as I became an outdoorsy mom! Thanks for your comment:)

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