New Outdoor Childcare Regulations Enacted in Texas

We have a new policy leader in early childhood environmental education: The Texas Workforce Commission.

That’s right. This spring, following behind the scenes advocacy by National Wildlife Federation and our partners at Natural Start Alliance, the Texas Workforce Commission approved precedent-setting regulations that provide financial incentives for childcare centers with natural outdoor play and learning settings.

First, a bit of background on the regulation of childcare centers.  All states have minimum standards that childcare centers must meet in order to be open for business, and 35 states and municipalities also have Quality Rating Improvement Systems (QRIS) to reward programs that exceed the minimum standards. States are also often purchasers of childcare services. So in this case, the Texas Workforce Commission administers the Texas QRIS system, called Texas Rising Star, and it reimburses childcare centers at a progressively higher rate if they achieve a 2, 3, or 4 star rating. Centers participating in the program serve over 100,000 children each day.

The policy improvements were made at the request of National Wildlife Federation, with technical guidance and support from Dr. Nilda Cosco of the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University.

munchkin academy

Munchkin Academy before. Photo from Natural Learning Initiative, North Carolina State University

The Munchkin Academy in Buxton, North Carolina before (above) and after (below) addition of trees and shrubs, raised garden beds, and a looping pathway.

munchkin academy

Munchkin Academy after. Photos from Natural Learning Initiative, North Carolina State University


The first major change is a paradigm shift that helps us to make the case for time outdoors in nature.  What formerly was known as the “outdoor environment” is now designated an “outdoor learning environment”. With ever-increasing focus on school readiness and literacy in early childhood education, this designation helps make it clear that the outdoors is also a learning environment, and not just a place for kids to run around and blow off steam. The standards also reward centers that link the outdoor environment and outdoor activities with indoor learning, and that include outdoor elements that provide ‘children with the opportunity to care for living things and appreciate nature and beauty’.

NWF, working with North American Association for Environmental Education and the Natural Start Alliance, is about to release a report on early childhood education policy, and the regulations in Texas are the first to address the quality of the outdoor learning environment with any detail.

Now that we have some good policy in place, it should be easier to get other states to act, and in the meantime, 100,000 Texas children will benefit from daily opportunities to learn about nature.

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