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AHA fosters and supports community efforts to make healthy eating and physical activity the way of life in Wake County.

Playing and Learning by Design: Transforming Playgrounds into OLEs

NLI staff led child care facilities staff through this brainstorming process of identifying who the users are (what age ranges for children and other audiences, such as teachers, community helpers and others) and what activities could take place in the OLE. These tend to be words ending in -ing- and showing action by little ones! With each of the facilities identifying their own needs and interests, NLI staff worked with them to create design plans.

NLI staff led child care facilities staff through this brainstorming process of identifying OLE audiences (children of various ages and other audiences, such as teachers, community helpers and others) and what activities could take place in the OLE. These tend to be words ending in “-ing” and showing action by little ones! Jumping, pouring, digging, and rolling are just a few examples. With each of the facilities identifying their own needs and interests, NLI staff worked with them to create design plans.

I spent much of Thursday last week learning about and watching an amazing process unfold. Experts from the Natural Learning Initiative (NLI) at NC State’s College of Design led staff from four child care facilities in Wake County through its Outdoor Learning Environment (OLE) Design Workshop…an exciting step towards transforming their playgrounds into productive and engaging learning environments!

Thanks to a three-year grant from the John Rex Endowment and in partnership with the Center for Environmental Farming Systems and Wake County SmartStart, NLI is assisting these centers in addressing the obesity epidemic by creating active, edible OLEs that will benefit children during several growing seasons. NLI has put this work and expertise into action in other communities, and now these four sites (and several more to come over the grant period) will be transformed and will serve as demonstration sites here in Wake County.

A Paradigm Shift

What’s a playground? I suspect many of us think of it as a place with a manufactured climbing structure with a slide and perhaps a tunnel or two. Thanks to NC’s Division of Child Development and Early Education (DCDEE) redefining playgrounds as OLEs in its regulations, we are starting to see a shift in the thinking about playgrounds. NLI is helping these child care facilities envision and plan an entirely new setting that promotes child development, because, according to NLI Director Robin Moore, playing in natural areas builds kids’ awareness of their physical abilities, helps children learn the cycle of life, improves their ability to concentrate, and teaches children where food comes from—the earth!

In a hands-on 2-day workshop with child care facilities staff at NC State last week, NLI and their partners helped design a master plan for each of the facilities. They addressed everything from the type of pathways to having multiple “behavioral settings” or play/learning areas. The child care centers are now equipped with amazing design plans customized for their centers and training on how to raise funds within the community to incrementally transform their OLEs. They also will continue to have support from the NLI team through the Preventing Obesity by Design –Wake grant. (Learn more about NLI and its grant from these earlier articles on AHA’s web site.)

NLI shared images of  "behavior settings" that incorporate best designs for OLEs and foster play, movement and learning.

NLI shared images of “behavior settings” that incorporate best designs for OLEs and foster play, movement and learning.

OLE Best Practices

The transformation of these outdoor areas puts evidence-based principles into place. NLI shared these best practice indicators during the design workshop:

  • Diversity of trees and shrubs
  • Shade
  • 10 settings or more
  • 5- to 6-ft wide looped or double looped pathway
  • Grassy area, big enough for a group of kids
  • Vegetables, fruit, trees, fruiting vines and nuts within play areas
  • Designated vegetable garden
  • Natural materials—stones grasses, bark, sticks, seeds, etc.
  • Outdoor toys
  • Settings for a variety of gross motor activities

While these transformations will take place over time as funds and resources allow, this group of child care facilities can begin to make a real impact in the lives of the young children they take care of and teach each day. We look forward to sharing their progress with you, but in the meantime, visit AHA’s Facebook page for more photos from the design workshop.

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