North Carolina childcare centers strive to provide a strong learning environment for young children, both indoors and outdoors. But in recent years, regulations and funding obstacles have turned many centers’ playgrounds into uninviting, sterile areas that don’t encourage the level of learning and imaginative play that children deserve.
Dr. Karen DeBord in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, N.C. State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is part of a team working to help childcare centers make better use of their outdoor learning environments. Along with DeBord, others involved in the project are: Robin Moore and Nilda Cosco of the Natural Learning Initiative (NLI), N.C. State’s College of Design; Dr. Linda Hestnes in the School of Human Environmental Sciences, University of North Carolina at Greensboro; and Janet McGinnis of Health Directions in Chapel Hill.
Team members have developed an evaluation instrument to help child care centers assess the learning qualities of their outdoor spaces and improve them. Until now, study of outdoor spaces has focused on assuring safe environments, but little work has been done to identify criteria that ensure high-quality learning and play environments outdoors for child care programs. Knowing what makes a strong outdoor environment will allow childcare centers to maximize their outdoor time with children and avoid missing learning opportunities. The instrument focuses on five dimensions of outdoor spaces – physical outdoor environment, play and learning settings, interactions, program and teacher/caregiver roles.
The team has had many requests, nationally and internationally, for the assessment tool. The researchers are working to validate the effectiveness of the tool before its release. Once that is complete, they will provide training for N.C. Cooperative Extension professionals and others interested in using the tool for assessment as well as a self-study. In addition to looking at outdoor environments in North Carolina, the team hopes the assessment tool will be used nationally and internationally.