As environmental educators interested in early childhood, we all know the importance of getting children outside from an early age. But, when you Google environmental education for babies, it’s surprising how few programs turn up. At the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona, we recently began a program for children under 3 years old called Baby Boojums (after the whimsical, tree-like succulent plant native to the Baja peninsula, and an eye-catching focal point in our garden).
We began talking about the need for a program devoted to children under 3 after having several conversations with parents from our preschool, which starts at age 3. These parents had younger children they wished could benefit from the same hands-on, nature-based experience that their preschoolers were getting. This sparked some research, and a partnership with a local music education provider who had worked with very young children, including babies.
Baby Boojums Program Pilot
In the spring of 2014, we piloted one class of Baby Boojums for children under 3 and their caregivers. Not only did we want to provide a program for the children, but we also wanted to model early childhood education best practices for the adults, so they would feel more comfortable expanding the nature-based experiences for their babies at home. The spring’s theme was based on four of the five senses: seeing, touching, smelling, and seeing (though we did have some inadvertent tasting!). The children and adults came once a week for 35 minutes to the Garden for four weeks in a row.
The class started with free play exploration of our classroom where we set up materials centered around our theme (e.g., magnifying glasses, stuffed animals, strong smelling herbs, etc.). The kids could also go to our outdoor classroom to meet our Desert Tortoises, do some watering of our raised beds, or explore our loose parts corner. When class officially started, we would ring the bell and ask the caregivers and their children to sit in a circle on our rug. (Sitting quietly and attentively in a circle is not something that this age group is adept at, so we made sure to tell the adults that it was absolutely okay for their child to be squirming or playing with things.) We then started off the class by singing the “Good Morning Song” and we would ask the adults to help their children tap along with the rhythm with the tree cookies we provided. (Our music education specialist explained that rhythm is one of the first musical principles that babies can master, and you can help them with this skill by tapping on their feet or even moving an object up and down in front of their face in time with the music.)
We then moved on to singing “If You’re Happy and You Know It” to introduce the sensory theme of the day (for example, “If you’re happy and you know it, touch your nose!” if we were focusing on the sense of smell). Before leaving the rug, we gave the children a selection of natural objects to investigate that would correspond with the theme (e.g. rocks, leaves, and bark with different textures for touch, or dried gourds to shake for sound).
We would then go for a nature walk. I encouraged the adults to transport their children however they felt most comfortable—in a sling, in their arms, in a stroller, or helping them to walk. We would explore a different area of the Garden and focus on the theme. For our sight week, we used toilet paper roll binoculars with colored cellophane over the ends to give their world a colored tint. For our touch week, we splashed in a fountain, dipping plants and dropping pebbles into the water.
Refining the Program
Our spring program sold out within weeks, giving us all the information we needed to know we wanted to run the program again in the fall, this time splitting the age groups to make the program more developmentally appropriate. In the fall of 2014, we ran two programs, one for ages 0–18 months and the other for ages 18 months–2 years. The only suggestion we had had from the spring was to make the program longer, so we extended the class to 45 minutes for the younger group and one hour for the older group.
The fall program was based on plant parts: roots, leaves, flowers, and fruits/seeds, but we kept our emphasis on sensory learning. The class generally ran as it had in the spring, except we had more time for each section. For the older kids, we added a story at the end of class.
Supporting Children’s Development
Over the past 30 years, advances in brain science have proved the importance of the first three years of life to the overall development of a child’s relationship with the world. When they hear about how important these early years are, many parents are eager (and some even feel stressed) to provide their children the stimulation they need, but they aren’t sure how. Why shouldn’t environmental education be one of the avenues that parents can pursue to provide high-quality education experiences—in the outdoors—for their little ones?
After reviewing Arizona’s Infant and Toddler Developmental Guidelines, we were able to cultivate a program that touched on all five of the developmental domains. Below are some examples of activities and results that fit in with each domain:
Social & Emotional Development
As the program progressed, the children—even the youngest—felt more and more confident in the Garden environment. They showed increased independence with exploring, trying new things, and playing with their new friends.
Approaches to Learning
As they felt more comfortable in the environment, children showed obvious signs of increased confidence, and a growing awareness of and curiosity about what was around them. They also demonstrated willingness to take on new experiences like observing our Desert Tortoises, Penny and Poppy, as they walked about our backyard classroom.
Language Development & Communication
Due to our focus on songs with repeated verses and sounds, the adults and children were able to learn and join in quickly. Their interest in songs, rhymes, and books speaks to the first stages of emergent literacy.
Because we introduced new objects and experiences to the children, they used their senses to explore those objects and how they fit into the environment. Thinking about colors, shapes, and patterns is an easy way to link to natural objects inside and outside the classroom or home.
Physical & Motor Development
We worked to have a combination of fine motor development with the investigation of small objects (e.g., bringing a sprig of mint to their nose to smell or taste) and gross motor development with the exploration of our environment (e.g., walking around the Garden and splashing in the fountain).
By focusing on exposing children to a diversity of objects, sounds, experiences, and environments—all in the context of environmental education—we are helping to build the newest generation of children who feel an emotional connection to nature and will grow up to be environmentally literate citizens.