Based on research finding that access to nature makes for happier, healthier kids, Early Childhood Health Outdoors (ECHO) helps rethink playscapes
At Colorado’s Little Giants Learning Center, an ECHO site, kids ride on a landscaped path (above) and tend a garden bed (below).
ENVISION A PRESCHOOLER SCRAMBLING OVER LOGS, exploring tree-lined paths and tending native wildflowers or vegetables grown from seed. For many kids, these activities are part of a typical day, thanks in part to Early Childhood Health Outdoors (ECHO).
“A love of nature starts at a young age, when children have opportunities to explore the natural world alongside caring adults who model these values,” says Rebecca Colbert. The senior director of design and engagement at the National Wildlife Federation, Colbert leads a team of landscape designers and early childhood educators along with Liz Houston, NWF deputy director of partnerships and development.
Launched in 2017, the program initially helped four Colorado early childhood centers reimagine their traditional playgrounds as outdoor learning environments. Fast forward to 2023: Using ECHO training, resources and design support, nature-centered playscapes are completed or in the works at 167 child care sites and 10 community spaces from Colorado to Washington, D.C. States including Michigan, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oregon, South Carolina and Texas support ECHO principles and are championing similar initiatives, Houston says.
ECHO’s best-practice guidelines were created with North Carolina State University’s Natural Learning Initiative, based on research indicating that outdoor play increases creativity, encourages independent learning, fosters a deeper connection to the natural world and supports healthy child development. “Evidence shows that children who engage regularly in nature experience myriad benefits to mental, physical and emotional health,” Colbert says.
What’s more, ECHO prioritizes working with locations where daily outdoor play may be limited due to environmental contamination, poor air or water quality, or a lack of public resources, Colbert says. “It’s really [about] making sure those experiences are available in those early years.”
“We don’t just plop down our vision,” Houston says. “We really, first and foremost, want to complement whatever work is happening in a particular community, because we know, especially since the pandemic, everybody has a greater appreciation for how healthy it is to be out in nature and to have equitable access.”
Each ECHO playscape is designed to fit the needs of kids in a given location, whether that’s a private child care setting or a public space, such as a museum, park or library. Elements may include play areas studded with stumps to mimic the woods, habitat and vegetable gardens, looping pathways, and shady spots to sit and listen to birds. Some playscapes feature classic swing sets and slides; others don’t.
Take Rocky Mountain Children’s Discovery Center in Cañon City, Colorado. A child care center with an enrollment of 110 kids ages 6 weeks to 7 years, it was one of the first ECHO sites. Co-directors Cheryl Gould and Sharyl Boehm worked with NWF and a host of stakeholders, including teachers and families, to plan and install the new playscape. Unveiled in 2018, the result added 26 kinds of trees, pathways for bikes and scooters, and an expansive garden where kids plant and harvest vegetables.
“Children need places outdoors where they can learn about their bodies in space and use big muscle movements to climb, crawl, run and jump with a sense of risk, to test their limits,” Gould says. “We’ve created daily connections with nature through a beautiful, safe and accessible outdoor space.”
While every site is unique, ECHO’s desired outcomes are largely consistent for the kids who frequent the playscapes: increased confidence, healthy risk-taking, independent thinking, greater cooperation, and more imaginative play and inquisitiveness toward their surroundings.
“Their natural sense of curiosity has increased because we talk about nature so much,” says Carrie Kennedy, an early childhood educator and owner of Miss Carrie’s Child Care in Arvada, Colorado. Kennedy redesigned her play area in 2019 to be more nature-centered for her ten or so charges, typically infants to 5-year-olds. “This is especially true in the spring and summer, when we are planting the garden and observing the bees and butterflies,” she says.
Rachel Wellington saw immediate changes when her son, Mason, transitioned to more nature-based play at Miss Carrie’s. “He became more curious about playing in the trees or climbing things, like the stumps, or finding stuff in the grass,” she says. “He became generally more nature-focused than he was before.”
Mason isn’t alone. “It doesn’t take a whole lot to get kids in that mode,” Colbert says. “Often we see [them] making mud soup. Or they’ve harvested a stalk of grass or a seed head, and they’re using it as a wand to play make believe. It’s really creating the space for that natural way kids want to engage with understanding the world around them.”
Emily Cook is a freelance writer based in Northern Virginia.
A new storymap connects the dots between extreme weather and climate change and illustrates the harm these disasters inflict on communities and wildlife.Learn More
Take the Clean Earth Challenge and help make the planet a happier, healthier place.Learn More
Promoting more-inclusive outdoor experiences for allRead More
A groundbreaking bipartisan bill aims to address the looming wildlife crisis before it's too late, while creating sorely needed jobs.Read More
More than one-third of U.S. fish and wildlife species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades. We're on the ground in seven regions across the country, collaborating with 52 state and territory affiliates to reverse the crisis and ensure wildlife thrive.