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We are emerging from a year that presented new learning challenges and opportunities. While learning did not cease to take place, it shifted to new topics and new locations. Looking ahead, the value of learning outdoors and true outdoor learning will continue to hold a place within the learning landscape, and may help bridge a gap within the education system. Learning does not only happen within the walls of the classroom, it takes place through engaging with the world around us, including our youngest learners.

The partnerships between the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University College of Design and a community of child care centers in the Raleigh, N.C. area exemplify the value of creating outdoor learning environments that provide a foundation for lifelong learning. I have been a long-time advocate for the outdoor classroom as a place to inspire a sense of wonder, engage in unstructured play, and connect with nature. There may not be a better time in recent history to reconsider the power of outdoor learning environments like those described in Getting Kids Outdoors As Early As Possible. 


Photo credit: Natural Learning Initiative – North Carolina State University College of Design

A research-based component of the Natural Learning Initiative, Preventing Obesity by Design (POD), helps the child care centers achieve their goal of furthering healthy human development and a healthy biosphere. Research from POD stresses the connection to nature and its positive impact on well-being, physical and mental, and the relationship between structured and unstructured play and learning. The support provided through the POD initiative permits each of the participating child care centers to develop on-site fruit and vegetable gardens, rabbit hutches, and chicken coops. These environments are uncomplicated by design. You won’t see classroom furniture or technologies. Instead, pathways provide the learners with guided opportunities to combine what they have learned in the classroom with what they are learning in nature. Wanda Davis, retired director from Childcare Network #61, describes how her center started with a path. “The playground was a steep hill, and their approach was to have pathways—it was a storytelling pathway, and the kids would want to take that adventure.”

As we learned with Oak Park Unified School District, outdoor spaces create learning opportunities around every corner. Faced with the challenge to maintain the district’s commitment to sustainability and indoor/outdoor learning during times of remote learning, the schools’ staff created simple, low-cost solutions to provide gardening opportunities to their students. Acknowledging that some students did not have an area for planting vegetables in the ground, the team provided students with detailed instructions for growing vegetable seedlings in any available containers on their patio or windowsill. Once the students are back on the school grounds, they will plant their seedlings in the school garden.


Environmental Nature Center and Preschool

The best outcomes for learning and creating a positive impact on learners’ physical and mental well-being occur when planning outdoor spaces and indoor spaces is intentional. Good planning means the transfer of knowledge permeates between the outdoor learning spaces and the indoor learning spaces. For indoor spaces, transfer of knowledge practices might show up in content; assignments; vistas to the outdoors; sustainable materials in flooring, furniture, and other environmental elements; color; and representations of nature on the walls.

It is worth taking the time to explore all of the possibilities for high-impact practices in the connection between outdoor spaces and indoor spaces – where learning and well-being intersect.