Digital tools help childhood educators envision nature-based play spaces
By: Norman Martin
Muntazar Monsur, an assistant professor within Davis College's Department of Landscape Architecture, was recently interviewed by Timothy Schuler for Landscape Architecture Magazine concerning high-resolution, interactive virtual tours of exemplary natural play areas. Here's part of the takeaway.
When Muntazar Monsur and his wife emigrated to the United States from Bangladesh in 2011, they enrolled their then 18-month-old daughter in childcare for the first time. They were both starting PhD programs at North Carolina State University, and the childcare center their daughter attended was an early demonstration site of the Natural Learning Initiative, established in 2000 at NC State to demonstrate the importance of nature in children's development and play.
“She went to that childcare center for three years, and I was one of the parents who saw how the daily life of my daughter changed,” says Monsur, now an assistant professor of landscape architecture at Texas Tech.
Since then, Monsur's work has focused on improving the environments in which millions of children younger than five years spend the better parts of their days. His latest project is creating high-resolution, interactive virtual tours of exemplary natural play areas to help childcare providers see what's possible.
“It's so challenging to take childcare people to demonstration sites. They're so overwhelmed,” Monsur says. This was true before the pandemic, but now providers are stretched thinner than ever. According to the Center for American Progress, the childcare industry lost 88,000 jobs between 2020 and 2022, with only three out of four prepandemic positions currently filled.
The strain this burden puts on an already fraying system is among the biggest barriers to building more healthful outdoor spaces for kids, Monsur says. But another is a lack of references. “It's difficult to [explain] what the change would look like,” he says.
To give providers easy access to tangible ideas about how to inexpensively and incrementally improve their outdoor environments, Monsur, who directs an extended reality lab at Texas Tech, piloted a method of documenting health-oriented play spaces through virtual reality technology.
Using a Matterport Pro2 3D camera — often used for virtual walk-throughs of houses and apartments — Monsur built navigable, digital simulacra of each play area. Using either a virtual reality headset or a simple web browser, users can view the space as a plan or 3D model or explore it “on foot” à la Google Street View. The technology allows other media, such as video, to be embedded into the tour.
CONTACT: Leehu Loon, Professor and Chairperson, Department of Landscape Architecture, Texas Tech University at (806) 834-5251 or Leehu.Loon@ttu.edu
0206NM23 / Editor's Note: to view a full text version of Timothy Schuler's news article for Landscape Architecture Magazine, please click here
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Editor: Norman Martin
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