As Spring struggles to muscle its way into the Midwest, my one-year-old and I were blessed with an opportunity today to put on sunglasses and capris (or for her to let her pants look that short on purpose since she’s getting so tall) and enjoy some time outside. I threw a book, a few toys, a blanket, and some Mommy Juice (Mountain Dew) into a bag and we ventured down to our apartment complex’s playground.
I spread out the blanket and we sat down and pulled out our book: a collection of nursery rhymes written with dinosaurs. Reading books with children even as early as infancy is a big deal developmentally. It fosters the relationship between the caregiver and the child, lays a foundation for speaking as the child hears language, promotes literacy as experience with books is gained, and encourages emotional intelligence through the pictures and characters on the pages as well as the inflections of the reader. This particular book has a lot of words for a one-year-old, but she’s been exploring it over the last couple of days and stayed snuggled in my lap despite the novel outdoors after such a long winter inside. We didn’t get each poem read as she practiced working the pages, but it was a lovely little story time anyway. Besides, letting her call the shots helps her develop her independence, confidence, and sense of control.
My daughter has what is known in child development as a “secure attachment”: she’s confident enough to venture out to explore so long as she knows she can come back and check in with Mommy. When we were done with the book, she did one of her textbook demonstrations of this. She would step off of the blanket and into the grass, walk a circle around me, and then plop back down on the blanket with me. Every two or three laps, we’d have to put a shoe back on because the velcro is wearing out a little bit on her favorite blue shoes that she’s going to outgrow here pretty soon anyway. Since we’ve been indoors for so long—and since walking is still a fairly recent development—her steps through the grass were pretty wobbly, but she had a blast working those new gross motor skills anyway. For me, I still haven’t quite pegged what is so flipping cute about my little human on her two little feet, but it’s just more adorable than my heart can comprehend sometimes!
Even though she would’ve been perfectly content to spend our entire time in the grass, you just can’t go to the park without playing in the sand, so I headed over toward the playground while my securely attached baby toddled along behind. Our playground has a PVC piping border that was a bit more than she could step over, but when she saw me pick up a first fistful of sand, she was more than ready to get her hands dirty, bending over the edge to thrust her little fingers in. When I picked her up to put her entire little self in the sand, she giggled. While I know that getting her hands dirty helps her developing immune system, I still do what I can to draw the line at eating dirt, so every time she tried to put something in her mouth, I would tell her “no” and shaking my head at her. After the first time or two, she started grinning and shaking her head back at me. Boundaries and communication, baby style. Besides just being adorably hilarious.
She worked her fine motor skills in the sand and picking up the rocks and a pinecone we found. She practiced pouring schemas with the measuring cups we’d brought with us. I even let her explore the old zip tie she discovered. She ultimately decided it was a brush and tried to get it stuck in my hair. Imaginative play, self-help skills, social skills. Then she toddled back over the the PVC border and found a hole in it to explore—and promptly got her finger stuck in it. That was one of the only two times she cried today (the first being when I took the TV remote away from her this morning).
I panicked a little bit when I couldn’t get her finger out as easily as I wanted to and her cry got more and more scared, but really it didn’t take much for me to get the right angle and wiggle it free and save the day. I picked her up and she immediately snuggled her head into my “snuggle button”: that place between the shoulder and collar bone that can reduce a caregiver to a puddle of love and affection in an instant. “It’s okay,” I told her, “we got it, you’re okay. That smarted, didn’t it? Aww Man, that didn’t go like you wanted, did it?”
We’d been out for a while at this point playing hard, and being tired coupled with the trauma of getting her finger stuck signaled to me that it was probably time to head in, but I wanted to end our adventure on a good note, so I brought her over to the swing set. The last couple of times we’d been outside she’d decided that the bucket swing is scary, so now wasn’t the time for that challenge. Instead, I sat on one of the normal swings with her snuggled into my lap, arm wrapped around her and the chain and using my foot to get just a little bit of motion, and she started cooing and chatting about this new, fun little game.
I spent a total of a decade in childcare before my little rainbow was born, the majority of that time with one-year-olds. This is the age I’m most experienced with, most comfortable caring for, understand the best. That’s how I can dissect a trip outside into a detailed list of developmental categories achieved. I’ve done this for a living for many, many kiddos.
But this time, she’s mine.
I didn’t clock in, plan this little baby-venture, fill out a table of educational domains to post on a classroom door, then hand the child back and clock out at the end of the day. Her playing and growing and learning is naturally woven into every moment of every day that I get to spend with her. I’ve always been proud when a kiddo learns something new, excited when they explore, or concerned when they cry. But when this baby who had to learn to breathe and eat the day she came out of me takes those wobbly little steps, I want to jump up and down and throw her a party. When she shoves her hands into the cold sand and drags them back out again to feel and see the grains against her soft little baby skin, I relish the experience as much as she does as I wonder what other amazing things those hands will touch some day. And when crocodile tears seep out past her crazy long eyelashes, it tears at my Mamma heart.
And when she hits that snuggle button, I am nothing but honored to be the one entrusted with guiding and watching all of the exploring, learning, and growing that she gets to do.