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Access to quality outdoor play is a public health necessity


Even before the pandemic, young children already faced high rates of obesity, more time indoors and on screens, limited physical activity, compromised emotional health and a growing detachment from the natural world. Social inequities and institutional racism intensify these issues for Black, Indigenous, Latinx, other children of color, and children in families living with low incomes and low wealth. 

Now, we have an unprecedented opportunity to create healthy, safe places for all young children to spend time daily. Child care centers and family child care homes that have high-quality outdoor spaces can be a daily source of this health and safety, especially for children and families with limited access to nature. 

To grow opportunities for outdoor learning, we encourage leaders to support the $24 billion President Biden has proposed investing in early learning facilities and ensure that these funds can be used to build or enhance quality outdoor learning environments. This movement recently received a jump-start from the Office of Head Start, which is encouraging nature-based outdoor learning with funding from the American Rescue Plan.  

Now is the time to reimagine the traditional playground as an extension of the classroom. Elements like stumps and logs to walk across, places to dig and get a little dirty, shady spots for children to sit and reflect, or sensory gardens for infants and toddlers provide children with choices and inspire creativity. In these nature-based spaces, young children experience changing seasons, watch flowers bloom, and try new vegetables they helped to grow themselves, and learn about wildlife like butterflies and birds.

Research shows that young children with access to high-quality nature play are more physically active and engage each other and adults more often. When children, supported by the adults who care for them, spend time in these intentionally designed, nature-based spaces, benefits can also include improvements in self-regulation, nutrition, eyesight, academic performance, self-confidence and concentration, along with reduced stress. In addition, time in nature helps children begin to understand ecosystems, where food comes from and environmental processes. The earlier in life children experience these benefits, the better their developmental trajectory. 

Despite the documented benefits, a review of early childhood education policy frameworks at federal and state levels shows a lack of attention to using the outdoor play and learning environment to advance children’s learning and health. The Child Care and Development Fund regulations and Head Start standards that address outdoor spaces are minimal, and few child care programs receive the financing, guidance, or support to improve their outdoor settings beyond minimum health and safety requirements.

Outdoor learning environments should be a qualified use for facility funding to support young children’s physical activity, social-emotional development and cognitive function. In addition, professional development and quality improvement funding should help equip caregivers and educators with the confidence and skills needed to engage with young children outdoors.

For children who lack access to the developmental benefits of nature in their home environments, due to redlining and other discriminatory practices and their impact on the built environment, bringing nature into the quality equation of licensed child care is a way to offset this disparity. Investing in high-quality outdoor learning environments to complement indoor classrooms is a low-cost and high-impact strategy for improving child care quality, educator wellbeing and children’s overall health.

We know that affordable, high-quality child care is critical for a recovery that gives every child a fair chance for a strong future, but we also stand at a critical moment for prioritizing healthy children and healthy communities. New federal appropriations and COVID-19 relief funds provide an unprecedented opportunity to re-imagine early care and learning to support young children more fully. 

For those who own or operate child care programs with high-quality outdoor spaces, they see first-hand how nature transforms the way children experience outdoor play, learning and discovery. The beauty of these spaces is that no two days are the same. One day, children can touch and smell plants or sit and enjoy sensory areas. The next they imagine building a pirate ship from loose parts like logs and sticks. They see the changes and improvements in children’s behavior, staff interactions and even parents’ involvement with their children in these outdoor spaces. 

For many young children, time outside in the licensed child care setting may be their first and only consistent outdoor experience. Right now, together, let’s support healthy child development by ensuring that all children have the daily opportunity to thrive outside.

Sarah Konradi is the ECHO program director for the National Wildlife Federation.

Tags Child care early learning green spaces Joe Biden Outdoor education Outdoor recreation

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