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AHA improves the health and well-being of Wake County residents by facilitating and supporting community initiatives.

Natural Learning Initiative: Healthy Childhood by Design

Munchkin Academy in Dare County: Notice how raised planting beds offer children easy access to gardening and the great taste of fresh veggies. Also take note of the tricycle rider in the background enjoying physical activity on the new pathway!

What if children could plant veggies in colorful raised garden planters, play hide-and-seek among grass mazes, and hop along pathways made of tree cookies? Thanks to the work of the Natural Learning Initiative (NLI), a research and development unit within the NC State College of Design and an AHA partner, children can play – and learn – in such environments! NLI is helping communities create stimulating places for play, learning, and environmental education to reconnect children with the natural environment.
Led by Professor of Landscape Architecture Robin Moore and education specialist Nilda Cosco, PhD, the NLI team includes landscape designers and researchers all focused on combating an increasingly electronic world where children spend less active time outdoors and more sedentary time indoors. NLI’s services include research, evidence-based design assistance, professional development, and information dissemination. 

The Green Desk

Munchkin Academy in Dare County: The outdoor space in 2009 before any updates.

Among the NLI resources available to early childhood educators, child care providers and administrators who need advice and expertise on creating high-quality, healthy, outdoor learning environments is the Green Desk. “Questions can be pretty technical,” Cosco said, “so the NLI team gathers about once a week to review questions submitted and possible answers. We fine-tune the responses after careful research and review so that we can provide the highest quality, evidence-based, technical information.”
Answers are posted online at the Green Desk as a free resource for all. Green Desk topics range from how to choose edible plants and create sensory gardens to designing sand play areas to ideas for winter and summer play that integrate the natural environment. The Green Desk is a free treasure of valuable information for child care centers, schools, and other youth-serving organizations!

Shape NC: Preventing Obesity by Design

Munchkin Academy in Dare County: The outdoor space in 2010 after Natural Learning Initiative helped the center design a new OLE featuring the new pathway, raised beds, multipurpose lawns, arbors, seating, and upgraded structures, and 25 shade trees planted by community volunteers.

The Natural Learning Initiative is working on the built environment component of “Shape NC: Healthy Starts for Young Children,” a three-year initiative addressing early childhood obesity with a focus on the child care setting. Coordinated by the NC Partnership for Children and supported by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation, Shape NC involves 1) improving nutrition and physical activity policies and practices, 2) utilizing existing programs to increase healthy movement and 3) increasing active play by creating outdoor learning environments for children attending child care centers. This last piece is where NLI comes in, and it contributes to the overall goal of a statewide policy blueprint to improve the health of North Carolina’s young children.
“We are focused on improving the quality of outdoor learning environments to create a more active and more motivating environment for children and teachers. Also important, is the current effort to create landscapes that are edible, so kids grow up surrounded by fruit trees and annual vegetable gardens. This way they understand where the food comes from,” Cosco said.
Currently in its second year, the project will ultimately involve 30 child care centers. While none are in Wake County, the plans for these centers will serve as a great model for Wake. Moore described the NLI contribution as “research and development” in the sense that NLI is engaged in creating a new, intentional model of the outdoor learning environment (OLE—the official term, rather than playground, adopted by the state licensing rules for child care centers in 2007). NLI works through a grassroots, participatory process to create a master plan customized for each child care center, based on factors such as location, site conditions, and existing playground equipment. The plan provides the centers with leverage in the community for additional funding and resources to implement OLE improvements.
Based on years of research and expertise, NLI has a repertoire of solutions that can be customized to each center. A core idea that child care centers in Wake and elsewhere could consider is functional site planning, “so that clear access connects classrooms to the outdoors, and once there, it is easy to move around and engage with a variety of play and learning settings,” Moore said.

He emphasizes the importance of curvy pathways to stimulate exploration and shade to provide protection and comfort for children and teachers. NLI has developed field-tested solutions for many types play and learning settings, including water play, sand play, multi-purpose lawns for high-energy play, mini-orchards, portable equipment to add flexible, weekly variety, and more. NLI continues to offer professional development opportunities for educators, landscape professionals, and contractors to transfer the NLI design models and knowledge base into N.C. communities. “Our aim,” Moore said, “is to create a network of professionals across the state with expertize to work in this new field of healthy lifestyles supported by landscape design.”

Breadth of Expertise

This spring, Moore and Cosco were honored as recipients of the inaugural NCCAN! Natural Initiatives Award from the North Carolina Children and Nature Coalition (NCCAN!) The award, named for the Natural Learning Initiative, is awarded to those with exemplary service to NCCAN! and to those who work tirelessly to build connections between children and the natural world.
The award highlights the breadth of NLI’s work here in North Carolina and elsewhere. Take some time to explore the variety of projects the organization has carried out and the resources available for those working to create an engaging outdoor learning environment that supports our children’s health.

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