Exploring outdoors: Sensory Experiences at your fingertips

Josh crawling at Googleplex

5 min read

The outdoors are abundant with endless sensory experiences. You can use all your senses when outside. Therefore, outdoor exploration is a must for all. Hence this blog post is about exploring the outdoors. So where can you go? Everywhere! Parks, playgrounds, beaches, forests or going for a walk around the block. Anything that takes you out and lets you feel that fresh air on your face.

My family loves the outdoors so much that we spend most of our day exploring. We try out new parks, take walks around the block, play in the puddles or dig holes in the dirt. At 15 months Josh (my son) loves to explore. He currently loves to push and pull things. His favorite cart goes with him on most of our outdoor adventures. Besides pushing his cart, Josh loves running around collecting dandelions, swishing his hands through dirt or leafs to see what happens to them. He also loves to climb onto or into things and slide down grassy hills. What’s your child’s favorite outdoor experience?

Parent’s role when exploring outdoors

Things to keep in mind:

  • Be aware as you don’t want anything unsafe landing in your little ones mouth.
  • Be patient! It can take you an hour to walk around the block as your little one stops to observe and experiment.
  • Have wet wipes handy. Just in case your child picks up something nasty!
  • When possible get them out of the strollers, carriers and onto the ground to explore.
  • Allow your child to get messy.
  • Allow your child to take safe risks. Doing something that is challenging but safe enough so they don’t get hurt.
  • When you see your child over stimulated or tired it’s time to take a break.

Child’s role when exploring outdoors

  • Have fun!
  • Be curious!

The outdoors can target every sensory system through many sensory experiences. These experiences help to build foundations for strong body and mind.

The opportunities are endless. Below is an overview of each sensory system and what your child can expect to benefit from.

Sensory systems

Vision/Visual Sense

What is it?Sensory Experiences
This isn’t only about clear sight. It is also about visual processing, which affects how visual information is interpreted and processed.When we are outside there is so much information that our eyes can process. Your child can go searching for the marching ants on the ground. They can try counting all the red cars driving by. Or even scan the playground to find their sibling. They all help in the development of stronger visual skills.
Exploring outdoors: Josh playing with Dandelion.
Josh playing with Dandelion.

One of the things that Josh loves doing is scanning the grass for dandelions.

Hearing/Auditory Sense

What is it?Sensory Experiences
This sense is about hearing through our ears and interpreting speech and sounds in the environment.Sound can also be explored outside. Your child can experience quiet noises (buzzing bee) to loud noises (train passing by). They will also get to hear your comments or directions. All this while a wealth of other distractions around them come streaming in. Many playgrounds have musical instruments within their play structures that your child can play with and explore their sounds. Over time, your child will learn to block out the non important noises such as a dog barking, while paying attention to the important ones like the mother’s voice.  Hopefully!

Smell/Olfactory Sense

What is it?Sensory Experiences
Olfactory sense is where the information is inhaled through the nose. It helps us recognize whether smells are dangerous, strong, faint, pleasurable or foul.Your child can expand their sense of smell while playing and exploring the outdoors. Your child might get to smell different foods at a picnic: smell the grass or the flowers. There might also be different smells of animals or the ocean.
Smell/Olfactory Sense

Taste/Gustatory Sense

What is it?Sensory Experiences
The tasting (gustatory) sense is connected to the smelling (olfactory) sense. The information is taken in through the tongue, in the form of flavor such as salty, bitter, sweet, and sour.Josh got to taste quite a lot outdoors. He got the chance to taste sand, grass, flowers, sticks and stones(yuk!). If your child is older he may not need to learn so much about his world through mouthing anymore. So tasting the outdoors might come in a form of food that you might give him for a snack or lunch.
Taste/Gustatory Sense

Touch/Tactile Sense

What is it?Sensory Experiences
Tactile input is when the information is received primarily through the skin. That is the skin covering your whole body and inner linings of the mouth. It also includes temperature, pressure, vibration and pain.Anything that your child touches helps to develop their tactile system. Remember, it’s not only about your hands. It includes your whole body. So let your child take off their shoes and walk on the grass or in the sand.
Touch/Tactile Sense - Josh touching tree
Here are a few other things you can encourage your child to do: They can play in the sand or in the water. Collect sticks, rocks, flowers, acorns, leaves etc. Pet an animal or hug a tree. Let your kids get DIRTY!!! Let them play in the dirt, in the mud or in the puddles. I know it can be hard but just take a deep breath and repeat after me: “This is helping him develop a strong and healthy tactile system!”. You can look away if you need to.
Josh playing in Australian ocean
Josh playing in Australian ocean

Vestibular Sense

What is it?Sensory Experiences
The vestibular sense is located in the inner ear. It provides information about gravity, balance and movement. It coordinates how the child’s head and body is moving through space.
Josh on a swing in Mountain View, CA
Activities that promote the development of a healthy vestibular system is anything related to movement. There are so many fun things that can be done outdoors. These can include: running, skipping, jumping games. One of my all time favorites is rolling down the grassy hill. To this day I enjoy doing it! Swings are so fun and great for movement. See if your swing goes in other directions besides front and back. Maybe it can go side to side or around in a circle. Going down the slide, playing on seesaws. There may be things you can bounce on or spin around on. Hanging upside down on playground equipment. When I was a child climbing trees was another one of my favorites.

Proprioceptive Sense

What is it?Sensory Experiences
The proprioceptive sense receives information from muscles and joints to provide an awareness of our ‘position in space’. i.e. where we are in relation to other objects, people and environment. It’s all about the muscles and joints stretching and contracting. It helps to coordinate movement of our arms and legs so we can play without paying active attention to what we are doing. This sense is stimulated through activities such as pushing, pulling, lifting, carrying and movement against gravity.So lets wake up those muscles and get playing outdoors! Try carrying heavy buckets of sand from one side of the sandpit to the next. Or maybe those buckets are full of water. What about climbing all those amazing playground structures. There are rock walls, ladders or climbing nets your child can choose from. Maybe they have a favorite tree to climb. Then there are also monkey bars that you can hang from, or crawl under and over different parts of the structures. For the younger ones maybe pushing/pulling a baby stroller or a cart around. My son Josh at 15 months loves pushing his little cart around. We would walk around and he would try to find the heaviest rocks and toss them into the cart. Then he’d push them around until he decided that their free ride is over and would unload them in another location. If you have a blanket or a beach towel you can get your kids pulling something or someone around. Maybe your child would enjoy gardening. There is lots of heavy work with that. All that digging around and watering the plants.

These are just a few activities that hopefully will spark other ideas of what your kids can do outdoors. Just remember that every new sensory experience is helping your child’s growth and development!

~ Urszula

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