January 19, 2022

Childcare centre naturalized outdoor learning environments (OLEs) stimulate the diversity and the experience of the children’s play time and contribute to their development in a healthy way. Best practice design of OLEs incorporates trees, shrubs, vines, flowers, grasses, edible fruits and vegetables—to connect children with nature and give variety to their outdoor experience.

Why Naturalize Outdoor Learning Environments

Natural Learning Initiative


Childcare centre naturalized outdoor learning environments (OLEs) stimulate the diversity and the experience of the children’s play time and contribute to their development in a healthy way. Best practice design of OLEs incorporates trees, shrubs, vines, flowers, grasses, edible fruits and vegetables—to connect children with nature and give variety to their outdoor experience. This Info Sheet discusses the benefits of connecting children with nature and presents examples of simple ways to naturalize outdoor learning environments in childcare centres.

Why Focus on Naturalizing Outdoor Learning Environments in Childcare? 

Today’s children and families often have limited opportunities to connect with nature. Richard Louv called this phenomenon, ‘nature-deficit disorder’ in his book, The Last Child in the Woods, and opened the nation’s eyes to the developmental effects that nature has on our children. Louv documented how dramatically the modern family life has changed in the last two decades. Children spend more time viewing television and playing video games on computers than they do outside being physically active. Families are eating more processed, high-calorie foods due to their busy schedules and the convenience of it which makes a family sit-down meal a rare event. These changes have led to an epidemic of childhood obesity, which presents serious health risks for children including heart disease, diabetes, sleep apnea, social and psychological problems. Today in North Carolina, more than one-third of young children are considered overweight and obese. In the past decade, the benefits of connecting to nature have been well documented in numerous scientific research studies and publications. Collectively, this body of research shows that children’s social, psychological, academic and physical health is positively impacted when they have daily contact with nature. Positive impacts include the following:*

  • Supports multiple development domains. Nature is important to children’s development in every major way—intellectually, emotionally, socially, spiritually and physically (Kellert, 2005).
  • Supports creativity and problem solving. Studies of children in schoolyards found that children engage in more creative forms of play in the green areas. They also played more cooperatively (Bell and Dyment, 2006). Play in nature is especially important for developing capacities for creativity, problem-solving, and intellectual development (Kellert, 2005).
  • Enhances cognitive abilities. Proximity to, views of, and daily exposure to natural settings increases children’s ability to focus and enhances cognitive abilities (Wells, 2000).
  • Improves academic performance. Studies in the US show that schools that use outdoor classrooms and other forms of nature-based experiential education support significant student gains in social studies, science, language arts, and math. Students in outdoor science programs improved their science testing scores by 27% (American Institutes for Research, 2005).
  • Reduces Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) symptoms.Contact with the natural world can significantly reduce symptoms of attention deficit disorder in children as young as five years old (Kuo and Taylor, 2004). 
  • Increases physical activity. Children who experience school grounds with diverse natural settings are more physically active, more aware of nutrition, more civil to one another and more creative (Bell and Dyment, 2006).
  • Improves nutrition. Children who grow their own food are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables (Bell & Dyment, 2008) and to show higher levels of knowledge about nutrition (Waliczek, & Zajicek, 2006). They are also more likely to continue healthy eating habits throughout their lives (Morris & Zidenberg-Cherr, 2002).
  • Improves eyesight. More time spent outdoors is related to reduced rates of nearsightedness, also known as myopia, in children and adolescents (American Academy of Ophthalmology, 2011).
  • Improves social relations. Children will be smarter, better able to get along with others, healthier and happier when they have regular opportunities for free and unstructured play in the out-of-doors (Burdette and Whitaker, 2005).
  • Improves self-discipline. Access to green spaces, and even a view of green settings, enhances peace, self-control and self-discipline within inner city youth, and particularly in girls (Taylor, Kuo and Sullivan, 2001).
  • Reduces stress. Green plants and vistas reduce stress among highly stressed children. Locations with greater number of plants, greener views, and access to natural play areas show more significant results (Wells and Evans, 2003).

Children Need “Vitamin G”

“Green environments are an essential component of a healthy human habitat” according to Frances Ming Kuo, a researcher documenting the positive link between nature and human health, and social and psychological functioning. Kou summarizes various research studies that show that humans benefit from exposure to green environments (parks, forests, gardens, etc.) and conversely, people with less access to green places report with more medical symptoms and have poorer health overall. Kuo uses the phrase “Vitamin G” (G for “green”) to capture nature’s role as a necessary ingredient for a healthy life. Evidence suggests that, like a vitamin, contact with nature and green environments is needed in frequent and regular doses.

Naturalizing Outdoor Learning Environments in


The majority of children are in childcare for extended periods of time, often eight to ten hours per day, which makes greening their environment by adding natural elements vital to their overall health and functioning. Naturalizing outdoor learning environments means bringing back trees, shrubs, perennial plants, vines, and edible plants for children’s enjoyment and healthy development. Childcare centres with naturalized outdoor environments allow children to have a safe, ready-made access to green places and engagement with nature. A diverse array of plant life encourages children to experience nature in more ways and more frequently. Childcare centres across North Carolina are naturalizing their outdoor learning environments. For example, a child care centre added a welcoming arbor at the entrance to the outdoor learning environment with planters for flowers and vegetables, a defined lawn area, trees for shade, and a fine crushed stone pathway to increase physical activity and improve circulation.

Benefits of Connecting Children with Nature: Why Naturalize Outdoor Learning Environments January 2012

Creating a Supportive Network and Training Resources for Naturalized Learning Environments in Child Care

Supported by: North Carolina Division of Child Development and Early Education

The Natural Learning Initiative

Natural Learning Initiative | College of Design | North Carolina State University

Creating environments for healthy human development and a healthy biosphere for generations to come.

The purpose of the Natural Learning Initiativeis to promote the importance of the natural environment in the daily experience of all children, through environmental design, action research, education, and dissemination of information.


: The material contained in this InfoSheet was produced by the

Natural Learning Initiative (NLI) for informational purposes only. InfoSheets

are not intended to guide construction or installation of items. In no event

will NLI be liable for any loss or damage (including without limitation, indirect

or consequential loss or damage) from the use of or reliance on this material.

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