Toddlers need at least 30 minutes of structured play daily and shouldn’t be sedentary longer than 60 waking minutes at a time, says the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, a non-profit organization. Outdoor playdate activities provide an opportunity for toddlers to explore new surroundings. Younger toddlers engage in parallel group play—they play side-by-side, but not together. As they mature, toddlers begin to socialize and share. When planning outdoor playdates, take advantage of the season, recommends Katherine Glenn-Applegate, assistant professor of education at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio.
Hot Fun in the Summertime
From fun in the sun to water exploration, summer lends itself to outdoor play. Intrigue toddlers with sun and shadows, suggests Glenn-Applegate. Prompt them to notice when their shadow is in front of and behind them, and when it switches. Older toddlers learn to move their bodies when asked, “How can you get your shadow in front of you?” This is an effective lead-in to problem-solving. Parents can trace the shadows and allow toddlers to color them. Water activities are inviting on a warm day. Squirt a hose and let children play water limbo by running under the stream and include music to amp up the fun. Children can also “paint” the sidewalk with a pail of water and a small broom or brush.
Leaves change colors and fall to the ground in autumn, and outdoor ball games abound. Take advantage of these natural backdrops for toddler playdates. Collecting leaves is a great way to practice sorting while also encouraging children to recognize and appreciate nature's inherent diversity, Glenn-Applegate notes. Children work together to find leaves that are a particular shape or color, or they simply choose their favorites. Gather several large, soft balls so that toddlers can roll them to one another, play catch with an adult, toss the balls into hula hoops or large boxes or roll them down child-sized slides.
Toddlers can explore the phenomenon of snow while engaging in parallel play. “Stomp out footprints in the snow,” recommends Glenn-Applegate. Play a game of follow the leader. Let children help make snowballs to set around the grounds as obstacles and lead them slowly through the obstacle course as if you’re trudging through mud. Then walk like a robot or a monkey. Traditional winter activities, such as building snowmen, sledding or creating “angels” in the snow are a hit with toddlers. Or bring out the buckets and shovels and use snow like sand and add a few drops of food coloring to water in a spray bottle so children can spray the snow and watch it turn colors.
Mother Earth comes alive in spring, and toddlers enjoy hands-on interaction with nature. Searching for bugs provides an opportunity to foster healthy risk-taking and curiosity. “Even if the insects you find under a rock secretly gross you out, model the wonder and amazement that the natural world can provoke,” suggests Glenn-Applegate. Use a magnifying glass for an up close and personal look at the bugs. Provide shovels, wooden spoons and buckets and let children dig for hidden treasures in a sandbox or patch of dirt. If you’re brave, add water to create mud—toddlers enjoy spooning mud into empty milk cartons or containers.
Many indoor activities transition to the outdoors. Painting on large shelf paper is a great way for two or more toddlers to play side by side, Glenn-Applegate says. Each child has his own non-toxic crayons or markers, but they share a large piece of paper. This helps toddlers develop comfort sharing space and materials, which is often difficult for them. A blanket, a basket of books and a shady tree is all you need to snuggle up outside for a read. Find a big box, and the possibilities are endless. A refrigerator box provides an effective means for toddlers to share space, and it’s just the right size for them. They can scribble on the inside while they’re shaded from the sun.
Safety is top priority for parents and caregivers who work with toddlers. Take note of weather conditions and air quality before embarking on outdoor activities. Follow the safety guidelines established by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission for toys and products intended for use by children under three years old.