A statewide model for outdoor learning; ‘Summer Summit’ attracts visitors from 20 counties



ud cafés, bird sanctuaries, cornstalk gardens, nature tails, tire tunnels, tee pees, bike paths, amphitheaters, digging areas, vegetable gardens, musical fences and fairy gardens.

Chances are, this is not what comes to mind when you think of traditional “playground” equipment.

That is because early childhood programs across Randolph are taking the lead in reimagining their outdoor areas by replacing large paved surfaces and traditional playground equipment with vibrant, intentionally-designed learning and unique play opportunities. The new outdoor areas feature safe, ready-made access to green places and engagement with nature. Best practice design of outdoor learning environments incorporates trees, shrubs, vines, flowers, grasses, edible fruits and vegetables—to connect children with nature and diversify their outdoor experience.

This innovation has led to Randolph becoming a statewide model for outdoor learning environments.  

In conjunction with the Natural Learning Initiative NC State University College of Design and local early childhood programs, the Randolph County Partnership for Children hosted the third annual ‘Summer Summit’ on Thursday, July 24. Participants toured the outdoor environments at four child care centers and learned how more than two thousand children at 28 different sites are embracing healthy eating and enjoying outdoor, natural play. From as far east as Dare County, this year’s Summer Summit brought nearly 100 people from a total of 20 counties.

So, what makes these outdoor learning environments different from traditional playgrounds?

Each element provides unique learning opportunities to foster basic skills such as language, social-emotional and motor development. For example, the amphitheater can inspire dramatic play. A classroom may read a storybook, and the amphitheater can become the stage where children can act out and recreate the book using their imagination. This promotes the development of self-esteem, confidence and memory. Vegetable gardens in outdoor learning areas allow children to grow their own food, taste new vegetables, and learn about eating healthy. 

Teachers value their play spaces  as an extension of their classrooms and believe that the quality of outdoor settings is a critical factor in assuring a healthy, developmentally appropriate environment.

Integrating innovative features like rock gardens, totem poles and rain barrels, provide an engaging environment where children learn through play in a natural environment. Spaces also have anchor items such as bike paths, raised flowerbeds and vegetable gardens to keep children active and healthy.

“I am absolutely in awe of what is underway at the child care centers here,” said Julie Moye, a child care director in Wake County.

Dr. Nilda Cosco, Research Associate Professor and Director of Programs at NC State University’s Natural Learning Initiative, led a lunch-and-learn segment addressing how well-designed outdoor environments are combating childhood obesity by connecting children with more opportunities for physical activity and healthy eating.

“What the Partnership and child care centers are doing here in Randolph is a model for the entire state,” said Cosco.

Improving natural outdoor learning environments is a key focus of the Partnership’s work with the Shape NC Initiative. Parents, children, staff and the Partnership work together, through a series of interactive meetings, to develop and design the components of the outdoor learning area.

“We are going to rethink how we approach our playgrounds,” said Robby Wheatley with Allied Church in Alamance County. “None of the children I saw today were at all interested in the standard playground equipment; they just walked right by the slide and were too busy in the other activities provided at these centers as a part of the outdoor learning environments.”

This year’s tour includes visits to It’s a Kid’s World in Randleman and three Asheboro-based centers, The Growing Place Child Care Center, Shepherd’s Way Day School and Trogdon’s Day Care.

“We have worked really hard on building our outdoor environment,” said Pam Hall, director of Randleman-based It’s a Kid’s World, Inc. “It brings tears to my eyes to see where we started compared to how far we’ve come with transforming our outdoor space.”

The Partnership is a regional hub for Shape NC, and through funding assistance from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation and the Randolph Hospital Community Health Foundation, is spearheading the creation of outdoor learning environments to promote the importance of the natural environment in the daily experience of all children. With the help of community partners, resources and volunteers, curriculum is moving outside, and children are learning about and eating more fruits and vegetables and increasing active and imaginative play.

The Randolph County Partnership for Children, a non-profit organization and our community’s lead organization for young children and their families. The Partnership for Children is a United Way agency. For more information, visit: www.randolphkids.org.



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