Little and Big Explorers: The Motivation is the Same

Exploring makes us human 

On Columbus Day we commemorate the landing of Christopher Columbus in the New World in 1492. It was his voyage that started the exploration and colonization of the Americas. Grown-ups like Columbus have felt the need to find out what lies beyond – just like our kids feel the need to explore the world. It seems it’s part of being human, and for the little ones, a key component of a healthy development.

Same as for grown-ups, our children’s compulsion to see what lies beyond that ocean (or that closet door)—or this planet—is a defining part of their human identity and success.1 For kids, exploring means discovering their immediate surroundings, nature and the planet, and imagining going to far-away places. Our little ones are fascinated with how things work, what’s inside, and how they are built. Children learn by exploring their environment.7 

Why do humans explore? “There’s a kind of madness to it. Sailing out into the ocean, you have no idea what’s on the other side. And now we go to Mars. We never stop. Why?”1 According to anthropologists, no other mammal moves around like humans do. “We jump borders. We push into new territory even when we have resources where we are. Other animals don’t do this.”1 It turns out the answer lies within our genes. There is a mutation of a gene called DRD4, which helps control dopamine, a chemical brain messenger important in learning and reward. The variant, carried by roughly 20 percent of all humans, is tied to curiosity and restlessness.1

From a developmental perspective, literature suggests that exploring ought to be encouraged in young children.  “A toddler's interest in learning about the world encourages him to use his senses”7, while he will also sharpen his problem solving skills. It is also said to support social and emotional growth: a toddler explores her environment and returns to a parent when she needs help, thus becoming secure and confident.7 While exploring, toddlers also develop coordination in the muscles used to walk, run, climb and jump.7

The explorer spirit in our little ones can drive a healthy curiosity and learning about nature and our planet. To a great extent, this discovery takes place in the outdoors. Outside, toddlers learn to trust their bodies as they attempt more and more kinds of movement.3 Perhaps most importantly, by providing early experiences with nature, we support our children’s development of scientific and aesthetic thinking: “so they can ‘appreciate beauty, express creativity, and perceive patterns and variety in sensory dimensions of their worlds and themselves’”.2 Moreover, explorations of nature present great opportunities to introduce language and literacy. Experiencing real objects helps young children associate words with the objects they represent.4 Experts also suggest that introducing nature in the earliest stages of development, will make children more open to new ideas and skills, and will give them a greater understanding of our dependence on the earth’s physical environment.4

One step beyond is the benefit of learning about other countries and cultures through our kids’ natural tendency to explore. Children are naturally curious about maps and far-away lands. As children learn about the globe, they’ll start to recognize spatial distributions at all scales – which will help them understand the complex connectivity of people and places.8 Introducing our children to other peoples, will help them gain an appreciation for cultural diversity.9 Our children are already great explorers –with a little help and guidance from us, that natural trait will drive a healthy development and lots of learning.

There are tons of things we can do in our homes and outside to create better exploring opportunities for our little ones. Here is our list of top suggestions – let us know other creative ways in which you foster exploration with your kids.

Out in Nature

Collect natural items, such as rocks, sticks, sand, leaves, or flowers.2 Teach your child to gather them only for a good purpose (dry or press them or put them in a vase with water), but to never over-pick any plant or flower. “Teach your child to walk gently upon the Earth, taking only what she needs”.11 Observe butterflies and other insects. Compare different shapes of stones.

In the City

When walking outside, point out real-life urban examples of buses, trucks, cars honking horns, people crossing the street, vendors selling produce, etc., and people with their pets.3 Watch construction workers do their jobs; get close enough to lawn sprinklers to feel the drops. Step out when it’s raining or snowing: come back in and warm up together. Feed the ducks. Watch the clouds and the birds. Walk through a garden.3

Pick well-equipped playgrounds, preferably spaces that offer places where kids can dig holes and fill buckets.3

In the Grocery Store

Foster cultural diversity by selecting exotic vegetables at the produce section (like bok choy, for instance). Let the little investigators enjoy touching and smelling the stalks and observing the large green leaves. Get ready for a good meal!4

At Home

Baking and cooking usually involves props which enable toddlers to measure how much can fit in containers: cups, jugs, kettles, bottles, pots, saucepans, sieves, spoons, etc.5 Invite your little one to participate in the preparation of something fun. Like cookies!

Also, let your child wash plastic dishes with you. Or give her toys to play with in the bathtub (and be ready to mop up a mess!).7

Exploring the Globe

We can travel the world "virtually" via printed materials, community activities, and the Internet. Take advantage of activities in your area pertaining to other cultures, like food shows, folk dances, theatrical productions, and festivals. These are usually a lot of fun for children.9

Keep a map of the world in the house. Use it for play and education. Talking about the weather around the world is a great way to introduce kids to different countries, seasons and climates.10


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1), “The New Age of Exploration” by David Dobbs 

2), “Exploring the Natural World with Infants and Toddlers in an Urban Setting” by Alyson E. Williams

3), “Infants & Toddlers: Let's Go Outside!” by Alice Sterling Honig PhD

4), “Infants and Toddlers Meet the Natural World” by Jolie D. McHenry and Kathy J. Buerk

5), “Aistear: The Early Childhood Curriculum Framework: Exploring and Thinking” 

6), “Safe Exploring for Toddlers”, reviewed by Mary L. Gavin, MD

7)University of Illinois Extension, “Toddlers Exploring the World”

8), “Why should your children be into geography?”

9), “Exploring That Big World Out There!”, by Lana Jordan

10), “10 Tips for Raising Globally Aware Children”

11), “Children are Little Scientists: Encouraging Discovery Plan” by Tim Seldin
Jorge Gallego
Jorge Gallego


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