Cold weather shrinks our world a bit, by putting an end to picnics in the park. Though our options for family outings are reduced during the winter months, our children’s brains don’t stop growing and learning. This means we must get creative when planning ways to expand our kids’ horizons.
Parents of kids under 36 months know this from watching their children grow: From birth to age 3, they are developing at an astonishing rate. Watching them, we see the physical changes as they happen — teeth coming in, muscles getting stronger, motor skills evolving. Suddenly our babies are walking and talking and discovering their place in the world.
There’s a lot going on under the hood, too. The brain is growing faster in this period than it ever will again, creating trillions of synapses (connections between brain cells, which is a foundational process in development) in response to the child’s early experiences. These early experiences draft the blueprint of brain development, as new sights, sounds, tastes and ideas electrify new neural pathways in these rapidly growing brains.
So, how do we connect our kids with these important early experiences when winter limits our options? When parents and caregivers are actively involved in exploring new experiences with children, almost any shared moment has the potential to build better brains for our babies.
Luckily, almost everything is new and amazing to young kids, and parents can create safe, foundational experiences seemingly out of thin air. Those picnics in the park she loves so much in summer? They can happen in your living room. Or at the Cat House Café at the Zoo, before checking out the indoor creatures like Animals of the Night. The same indoor picnic can happen at the Children’s Museum — be sure to check out the toddler room — or at the Pink Palace. As long as parents and caregivers are actively engaged with kids, helping them put words and ideas to the things they are experiencing, the setting matters less than being engaged with your child.
Kids learn about the world through play and if the environment feels safe and easy, they are free to experiment. This makes your home one of the best potential learning environments. They are learning how to be people, which is a trial and error process. Surrounded by familiar people and things, children are able to observe and participate, which lets them test out actions and behaviors in which they’ve seen us engage.
On sunny days, don’t neglect going outdoors. The changing seasons are a joyful part of life on Earth, and kids will find crunchy leaves, whispery snowflakes, or the tender sprigs of crocuses or daffodils fascinating. Perhaps your weekend isn’t planned around all-day outdoor adventures, but even a short walk from the car to the library gives you a chance to find the perfect yellow leaf on the sidewalk, or to see who can blow the biggest breath cloud.
Our role as our children’s first teachers is a nuanced one. Sometimes it demands that we teach through kind words or stern reprimands. But much of the time, we can be powerfully effective teachers by facilitating and participating in their play. This duty is constant, and the changing seasons, rather than confining us aallows us to show our children the wide spectrum of experiences we share as human beings.