NWF to HOP to Remaking Children’s Outdoor Play

Little kids love to play. That’s not news. Play comes naturally and is necessary for the development of physical, emotional, social and cognitive skills. Play is part of being human. But, as it turns out, not all play is equal.

Recent research shows that young children who play outdoors in spaces that are specifically designed for 0-5 year olds actually garner more developmental benefits:

  • They engage in 22% more physical activity.
  • Their behaviors improve.
  • They exhibit fewer Attention Deficit Disorder symptoms
  • They tend to eat more fruits and vegetables.
Photo by Natural Learning Initiative
Photo by Natural Learning Initiative

In addition, children who spend time outdoors at a young age are more likely to remain active as they get older, and they tend to prefer outdoor experiences into adulthood. Whether you aim to reduce childhood obesity, improve social development, increase cognitive skills or build the next generation of conservation stewards, getting children to spend regular time outdoors at the earliest possible age is a recipe for success.

The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) plans to use this recipe to fundamentally improve young children’s health, development and connection to nature. We’re starting with a big vision for Colorado that will bring high-quality outdoor spaces to all young children in the state. Imagine vibrant outdoor spaces with multiple learning stations that keep kids moving, natural habitats that inspire curiosity and edible gardens that encourage healthy eating behaviors.

And we don’t just plan to bring this to the lucky few — our goal is to make best practices into common practices to improve outcomes for ALL young kids. Whether urban, rural, in licensed day care centers or in public areas used by family care providers, every young child deserves a place where they can realize the benefits of healthy outdoor play.

Photo by Natural Learning Initiative
Photo by Natural Learning Initiative

NWF’s Healthy Outdoor Play, or HOP, is a partnership with the Natural Learning Institute, the international leader in designing outdoor spaces for young kids, and Qualistar Colorado, the state’s early childhood champion. We’re combining expertise to bring cost-effective landscape design, implementation grants, professional development and policy improvements that will shift the norms in Colorado to include high-quality outdoor spaces. Earlier this year, the Colorado Health Foundation hosted nine other funders to build support for this unaddressed need in Colorado.  The importance and potential of this work were clear, and we are now poised to begin this work in 2017.

Within five years, we aim to fundamentally change early childhood care in Colorado to include regular and active time outside.

There are several reasons why this goal is entirely achievable. First, with the right landscape design approach, creating high-quality outdoor spaces for young children can be very affordable. For less than $5,000 in on-the-ground costs, you can make significant improvements.

Photo by Natural Learning Initiative
Photo by Natural Learning Initiative

Second, it doesn’t matter if you work with a tiny yard or a vast field; the right design can maximize space to get kids moving and interacting with nature on a daily basis. Our approach is proven by research from North Carolina State University where it has already been tested and successfully implemented in 77 out of 100 North Carolina counties. By engaging providers and parents in the design of outdoor space and providing training for how to use the space effectively, there is buy-in from those who influence the kids the most. Slight policy adjustments or incentives can also result in substantial motivations for early care providers to participate. Furthermore, this work will target both the 45% of Colorado children in licensed care and the other 55% of young children who spend their time in highly-visited public spaces (e.g., trailer parks, libraries).

With the right strategies, we can make sure all young children, regardless of race, ethnicity, economics or location, spend time outdoors in safe places where they go every day. The benefits of this effort are clear, and the importance of building good habits at a young age are universally accepted.

So, the only remaining question is: how fast can we make this happen? For NWF, it’s just a matter of collaborating with the right partners and implementing the proven strategy. As Colorado HOP takes its first leap in 2017, I have a feeling that it will soar. Help NWF continue programs like HOP.

For more information on NWF’s Healthy Outdoor Play and how NWF plays a unique role in connecting kids to wildlife and nature, please contact Andrea Augustie, NWF Regional Philanthropy Director, at augustea@nwf.org, or 303-441-5169.