Kristi Gilmore, Malinda Colwell, and Charles Klein explain what outdoor learning environments (OLEs) are and how they're different from a typical playground.
Gaines: OLE is a statewide design intervention. It's being led by the Department of State Health Services. They got the idea actually from the Natural Learning Initiative in North Carolina, NC State.
Klein: The Natural Learning Initiative in North Carolina got the North Carolina legislature to change playground to outdoor learning environment.
Colwell: So, really creating different spaces where, for example, children may be able to work on their vocabulary or their language skills.
Gaines: Design professionals work with child care centers to design these OLEs: Outdoor Leaning Environments. Early Head Start is one of our locations. We have two other sites. We have also participated in the design of some sites in Austin and Harris County.
Colwell: So, the process really starts with a center expressing interests in developing an outdoor learning environment. And then meeting with the center director, the classroom teachers, sometimes also with parents of children at the center, and getting feedback about what it is they would like the see in their outdoor learning environment and why. And then that information is taken by the designers to create a plan, and try to incorporate the elements that have been identified as most important for that center. And then that plan goes back to those stakeholders that are able to provide continuing feedback.
Klein: After we did the first demonstration project, we started to apply for funding. The Department of State Health Services provided some funding. We got some funding from United States Department of Agriculture to continue to do these design workshops to show child care centers how we can redesign or revive the outdoor learning environment. There are many models for looking at children activity. This is one, and one of the only ones, that ties the physical activity to behavior setting.
Gaines: So, we're looking at incorporating natural elements into the environment. There are other things such as a looping curvy pathway. That's a very important design feature. Each site will be unique and different. We also need a large grassy area for children to play, outdoor learning space, mud kitchens. They are a lot of different features that we are looking at. It's a lot different than your typical outdoor playground.
Colwell: Part of what I hope for the future is that there is increase awareness about the importance of outdoor learning environments. And that they don't have to be done on a grand scale. They don't have to expensive outdoor spaces. Making small modifications in those outdoor spaces can have a big impact of both the children experiences at centers, but also the teachers' experiences when they are sharing that outdoor time with the children.
Gaines: We're really trying to get them to use their curiosity and use their imagination.