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outdoor learning environments
The outdoor learning environment (shown above) designed by the Natural Learning Initiative features a tire scramble, and lush vegetation that children are encouraged to interact with and explore. Photo courtesy Sarah Konradi

Creating Better Outdoor Learning Environments in Colorado

Transformations of early childhood and childcare center playgrounds aim to connect young children to the positive influences of nature.

Michelle Dalbotten noticed that when the children of Step by Step Child Development Center in Northglenn walked to a nearby park to play, their interactions there were “100 percent different” than at her childcare facility’s well-equipped playground.

At the park, youngsters romp on the grass, touch a soft cattail, or pluck a dandelion for mommy. At the center’s playground, which occupies a fenced-off section of a shopping plaza parking lot floored in safety foam, the dominant play structures limit opportunities for what the owner/director calls “messy play,” gardening, exploring, and imagining. Behavioral issues crop up there because kids eventually lose interest in the fixed features. “Large equipment doesn’t change,” she says. “A child might think, ‘I’ve gone down this slide 20 times. Now I’m going to throw things off it or jump off it.’ ”

Dalbotten and her staff have long believed a more natural playground at the center would bring out the best in their young clientele. But, she says, “It’s hard to imagine nature here.”

Amy Ogilvie, executive director of Longmont’s Wild Plum Center for Young Children and Families, shares Dalbotten’s desire for a naturalistic playground. “It is critical that our outdoor environments provide children with a balance between learning, play, and exercise,” says Ogilvie. “We’re opening a new center and really want it to have a natural play environment rather than the ‘big hunk of plastic’ that most playgrounds have. We like it when our children get close to nature, get dirty, and learn about the environment.”

These early childhood professionals represent a growing number of educators, civic leaders, urban planners, pediatricians, parents, and others who recognize the positive influence of nature experiences on healthy child development and are working to incorporate nature time into children’s daily routines.

Nature Deficient Kids

In his influential 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Children & Nature Network cofounder Richard Louv defined nature-deficit disorder not as a clinical diagnosis but as the societal cost of our lost personal connection to nature—particularly among children, who spend less and less time outdoors. Digital gadgetry, jam-packed schedules, safety concerns, and urban environments all can minimize a child’s free time in green spaces. Researchers have associated this disconnect from nature—among many children and adults—with a range of physical, emotional, and behavioral problems including obesity, depression, and attention disorders.

The “children and nature movement” Louv helped launch has since gathered momentum, thanks in part to continued research documenting the beneficial effects of time spent in nature or naturalistic play spaces on children. For example, a 2017 study maintains that free play in vegetation-rich “nature playscapes” can enhance preschoolers’ executive function skills, meaning goal setting, self-regulation, cognitive flexibility, and focused problem-solving. As Louv writes in Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life, research strongly suggests that nature time bolsters kids’ self-confidence and immune systems, relieves attention-deficit disorders in some kids, and can help reduce depression, anxiety, obesity, and myopia. He adds, “Time spent in nature may also improve social bonding and reduce social violence, stimulate learning and creativity, strengthen the conservation ethic, and even help raise standardized test scores.”

A Partnership Rooted in Colorado

“Reconnecting kids with nature should be a priority for us,” says Chris Broda-Bahm, Ph.D., regional engagement coordinator at the National Wildlife Federation’s (NWF) Rocky Mountain Regional Center. Last year NWF partnered with Qualistar Colorado and the Natural Learning Initiative (NLI) at North Carolina State University to launch the Early Childhood Health Outdoors (ECHO) program. “The goal of ECHO is to improve the lives of Colorado’s children by ensuring that high-quality outdoor learning environments are a normal part of all early childhood programs statewide,” she explains.

Grounded in a decade of NLI’s research and experience installing outdoor learning environments in several states, ECHO considers natural features as central to the quality of an outdoor learning space and children’s experiences there. The ECHO team collaborates with Colorado childcare centers and publicly accessible sites to naturalize their playgrounds, helps them plan educational programming around the new spaces, and encourages the community’s long-term stewardship of the outdoor learning environments as well as the natural world.

The ambitious Denver-based partnership will award $912,000 in grants over the next five years to implement the ECHO model at 500-plus childcare centers and publicly accessible sites in Colorado, reaching approximately 16,000 children. Within five years, ECHO plans to expand to early childhood centers in up to 10 additional states.

ECHO targets children from birth to age six because healthy habits begin early and a rich sensory environment stimulates young children’s brain development. Many kids of this age spend long hours at early childhood centers, which may offer children from low-income families or other vulnerable populations their only access to green spaces. ECHO prioritizes centers that serve this demographic.

“The outdoors is perfect for developing minds and bodies,” says ECHO program director Sarah Konradi. “Nature is unsurpassed as a teaching environment. Grassy patches, small meadows, and container gardens provide immersive experiences, engaging and challenging children physically, socially, cognitively, and emotionally. Rain, wind, birds, grass, sand, leaves, spiders, and ants—all spark curiosity and provide opportunities for multisensory engagement.”

Natural playscapes, like this simple labyrinth at the Raleigh School in Raleigh, North Carolina, support group and social play. Photo courtesy Elizabeth Gileman

Out with the Plastic, In with the Mud Pies

ECHO has awarded Step by Step and Wild Plum its first $10,000 grants to build or renovate their playgrounds into ECHO demonstration sites to showcase to other childcare providers. The centers’ families contribute their time, skills, and money too, making the project a rallying point.

“The degree to which the program brings out the best in people is heartening,” shares Konradi. After hearing an ECHO presentation, a group of mothers began planning a tamale fundraiser for their center’s outdoor learning environment. Konradi recalls, “It was amazing to witness the spark, the instant realization that this was what they wanted for their children, and the motivation to spring into action to start making it a reality.”

When Step by Step completes its playground transformation, children will feel “surrounded by nature,” describes Dalbotten. Imagine grass, dirt, plants, trees, hill mounds, trike paths, and plenty of shaded decks. Distinct areas will serve infants, toddlers, and ages three and up. For instance, wooden noisemakers will appeal to babies’ senses, stairs and a ramp will occupy toddlers, and older children will hone skills such as riding trikes, dramatic play, and construction. A covered side porch will become a year-round outdoor classroom featuring a butterfly garden and places for cozying up with a book or for active play. “We’re excited to be able to take indoor learning outside whenever possible,” Dalbotten says.

ECHO spaces nudge children to take safe risks while testing their budding abilities, provide shade from the sun, and offer parents places to linger. Fruit trees and vegetable gardens change with the seasons and teach kids where food comes from. Grassy areas for games and looping paths for wheeled toys get kids moving. Konradi notes that changes to existing playgrounds need not be drastic or expensive. “Fallen leaves, stones, smooth logs, and sticks—basically loose materials—will encourage creative play in ways that fixed or manufactured features cannot.”

Konradi describes the greening of educational spaces: “Landscape architects, childhood development experts, and other thought leaders are really re-envisioning what outdoor learning environments could and should be. We are seeing a resurgence in the use of natural elements, loose parts, and design for full sensory immersion.”

Reimagining the Playground Has its Challenges

Outdoor learning environments are a novel concept, so challenges and misconceptions exist, reports Stacy Buchanan, vice president of programs at Qualistar Colorado. One challenge is that, in some programs, parents and teachers don’t want children to get dirty at childcare. Misconceptions include the assumption that early education licensing requirements preclude nature playscapes and that bringing in natural elements makes the outdoor space more dangerous.

In assessing licensed early education sites throughout the state, Buchanan’s colleagues have observed far more high-quality indoor learning environments than outdoor ones. “Largely, regulations and quality standards for outside environments focus on safety. It’s almost as though, if there aren’t any head entrapments, it’s considered a good outdoor space! That’s such a missed opportunity,” she believes. To better fit kids’ needs, Qualistar and its ECHO partners are looking to improve the planning and communication that go into designing, building, and licensing outdoor areas for young children.

Logistical barriers include ensuring children wear adequate clothing and sunscreen. Buchanan says weather can render an outdoor space unusable. A couple feet of snow can bring a licensed childcare program out of compliance with the regulation pertaining to fence height. A freeze-thaw pattern can create drainage issues that lead to unsafe ice patches or degrade the wood mulch under play equipment.

Sometimes early childhood professionals think they can only meet curriculum requirements through indoor activities. They view outdoor time as simply unstructured physical activity. By developing trainings that help teachers infuse subjects such as math and science into outdoor time, Buchanan notes, the ECHO initiative is “trying to change the idea of a ‘playground’ into the idea of an ‘outdoor learning environment.’ ”

ECHOs Across Colorado

This March, ECHO will announce four additional demonstration site grant recipients and will begin taking applications for 25 seed grants at sites statewide. Seed grantees will receive $5,000, design support resulting in a schematic site plan, and technical assistance to naturalize their outdoor area.

Interest in ECHO is rippling across Colorado. Last fall, the program held its first Early Childhood Health Outdoors Annual Summit at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Organizers anticipated 50 participants. However, high demand more than doubled that number and resulted in a waitlist. It was a happy dilemma for ECHO’s Konradi, who delights in “how deeply this program resonates with people and how we’ve been able to connect with so many ambitious and motivated childcare providers who see the value in extending their classrooms beyond traditional walls.”

Nature Time = Prime Parent-Kid Time

Conservationist Rachel Carson said it best when she wrote, “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder…he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” Whether you’re cavorting in the mountains or lazing under a tree with your kids, direct experience with nature makes the strongest impression on children—so let them get their little hands muddy. Find nature programs at parks, botanical gardens, nature centers, natural history museums, and zoos, and further inspiration here:

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