Texas Tech University

Coalition for Natural Learning Impacts Texas Communities through Design of Outdoor Learning Spaces

Ashley Brister

January 26, 2022

Natural Learning Impacts Texas Communities through Design of Outdoor Learning Spaces

Department of Design’s Coalition for Natural Learning Brings Together Students and Faculty for Interdisciplinary Collaboration

The Coalition for Natural Learning in the College of Human Sciences' Department of Design (DOD) attracts students from diverse backgrounds across Texas Tech University. Graduate student Nazia Afrin is a student in the Landscape Architecture department who collaborates with DOD faculty on its ongoing projects. The coalition receives federal and state funding to support multidisciplinary initiatives and research opportunities, encouraging cross departmental collaboration.

“The purpose of the Coalition for Natural Learning is to bring together stakeholders in a variety of disciplines, as well as community organizations, to promote aspects of natural learning for children,” Afrin Trina said. “We work to design outdoor learning environments for young children and early childhood educators that help them to engage in their outdoor spaces to promote children's development.”

“Our coalition allows for interdisciplinary collaboration and for students and faculty to engage in outreach and engagement, along with their research,” Founder of the Texas Tech Coalition for Natural Learning, Kristi Gaines, Ph.D., said. 

The coalition sets out to develop multidisciplinary partnerships to advance research, teaching, outreach and engaged scholarship associated with natural learning, with students like Afrin Trina. Afrin Trina says she looks forward to learning from experts like Gaines and Malinda Colwell, Ph.D. who both believe that the experience will set her up for success in becoming a successful researcher. 

“The overall goal of my multi-disciplinary research is to design for people of different abilities (instead of disabilities), creating equitable spaces,” Gaines said. “I integrate this approach into my teaching and service at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. Students in my classes have contributed to this body of knowledge through participating in-service learning projects, winning design competitions, and completing M.S. and Ph.D. work involving this subject matter.”

Findings from studies at the coalition have been published in prestigious peer-reviewed journals and helped Gaines author the book, Designing for Autism Spectrum Disorders, in 2016 which won awards from respected organizations such as the Environmental Design Research Association, the American Society of Interior Designers, the Interior Design Educators Council, and the International Interior Design Association. 

The Coalition for Natural Learning's co-founder Colwell focuses on researching preschool children's socio-emotional development within the context of their relationships with teachers, parents, and peers. Students receive opportunities to participate in research by helping with workshops conducted with childcare centers, collecting data, helping organize events, and participating in community meetings and events. The research done by Colwell, Gaines, and students not only impacts the academic community, but also the local ones that surround the university.

“The Coalition for Natural Learning has worked with childcare centers in our community, as well as around the state to design outdoor learning environments to best meet the needs of children and provide them with spaces for natural learning,” Colwell said. 

In 2016, 2,432,640 Texan children ages zero through five spent the majority of their days in childcare centers. There are 8,824 licensed childcare centers in Texas. The work done by the coalition helps provide environments that promote health and wellness and will impact millions of lives across Texas. 

The OLÉ! Texas initiative, put together by the coalition, is a statewide evidence-based design intervention that works to improve and naturalize childcare in Outdoor Learning Environments (OLE!). The outdoor learning spaces have been found to increase children's physical activity, food awareness, and enhance education through natural outdoor spaces in Texas. In October, the coalition unveiled the OLÉ! Masterplan—with plans to design 5 childcare center OLEs in Texas over the next year. 

The coalition positively impacts the development of children across Texas and offers students the opportunity to get involved and make a difference with the research they conduct. For graduate students like Afrin Trina, who works with children and their learning environment for her thesis, the experience she gains at the coalition is vital to her career path.

“It's offering a platform for me to get involved with a bigger community,” Afrin Trina said. “I can facilitate the surrounding community with my hard work and experiences.”