Rethinking Outdoor Space for High-Quality Early Learning

Blue Titan/
Oct. 27, 2022


Tiny monarch caterpillars arrived at the school, not floating through the air, but with the thud of a package on concrete.

Our postal carrier had no idea how many lessons were going to emerge from that box for the prekindergartners at our public school in Washington, DC. First, we created a mesh net habitat and placed it in the tiny side yard of our concrete school building, which is just a few feet from a busy street known for nightlife, not nature. Within a day, the caterpillars doubled in size and the students watched, fascinated, commenting on the bite marks in the plants and listening closely for crunching.

Over the next four weeks, children took turns watering the plants in the garden beds and tore off leaves to place in the mesh cage for the very hungry caterpillars. Others made “Cuidado/Careful” signs at the art table, alerting their peers to move with care around the caterpillar’s green, leafy paradise. As the caterpillars transformed inside their chrysalises, I invited children to make symmetrical butterfly paintings in the art area or wrap themselves in giant chrysalises made of scarves under the tree.

We watched with fascination at the changes, comparing the caterpillars with the monarch life cycle stages pictured in a library book. Then the butterflies emerged from their chrysalises, dried their wings, and fluttered in the mesh cage. As the butterflies were released, the children skipped around the garden flapping their arms, squealing, and waving farewell.

This is just one snapshot of the learning that can take place in an early childhood outdoor learning environment (OLE). Outdoor play is linked to improved outcomes in children’s social-emotional, cognitive, and physical development as well as academic gains. OLEs where educators use their training, professional development, and technical assistance to engage young children help these spaces promote structured and unstructured physical activity, play, and discovery. Improving OLEs in child care centers and homes is a low-cost and high-impact strategy for improving program quality, educator well-being, and children’s learning and health. Yet few child care programs receive the funding, guidance, or support to improve their outdoor settings beyond minimum health and safety requirements.

This brief provides concrete actions child care providers can take to enhance their OLEs. Virtual tours, practitioner interviews, and photos provide examples of how providers navigate small yards, urban settings, or limited budgets. Each of the featured programs created exemplary OLEs by training teachers, enhancing the physical environment, finding engrossing materials, and engaging families. The six featured programs were chosen because they demonstrate best practices for specific groups like infants and toddlers, children with developmental delays and disabilities, and children who have experienced trauma. The exemplars represent geographic and climate diversity as well as spaces that honor the culture of the families being served. These educators demonstrate that outdoor learning is possible across the spectrum of child care settings in the United States.

Designing a Space for Infants and Toddlers

Designing OLEs in child care settings begins with an intimate understanding of the challenges that families face in urban or low-income environments. For families that live in small apartments, shared housing, or for those who are experiencing homelessness, child care settings might be the only place where children can safely explore outdoors. If they do not have a private backyard, families may need to travel to visit a playground, but the equipment and space might not be suited to the size and physical needs of their children. They may be hesitant to allow children to crawl on the ground if they see litter or other hazards.

Georgianna Ouellette works as an Early Head Start (EHS) director for seven Massachusetts-based EHS-Child Care Partnership programs and has invested in high-quality OLEs for infants and toddlers. The OLEs at EHS sites in Taunton, New Bedford, and Brockton have been designed to invite educators and families to feel safe and secure as children explore movement in a variety of ways. She says, “in a classroom setting, whether it’s child care or socialization, if you or the parent is telling the child, ‘No, don’t touch that, you can’t have that,’ you’re doing something wrong. Because this is their classroom, not our classroom.” In these OLEs, families find easy to clean turf that looks and feels like grass and is easy to grasp; smaller equipment with rounded edges; and small turf mounds with built-in slides, eliminating potential safety hazards present with hard-surface stairs.

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Mounds with built-in slides make it safer for infants and toddlers to explore climbing, without the risk of falling on stairs.

As children’s brains develop in their first three years, it is important to provide them with serve-and-return interactions that will enhance their physical, cognitive, and language development. For infants and toddlers, this exploration of physical development with a trusted adult is a critical foundational step for social-emotional skills: children gain trust in themselves and adults. When they learn to crawl, walk, and reach, they can seek adults and peers to engage in further social interaction. By designing OLEs with physical exploration in mind, providers can target this important area of development while also providing children access to nature’s other benefits.

While EHS grantees are funded to build outdoor spaces, a considerable challenge lies in coaching and training staff, particularly in the context of a post-pandemic workforce recovery. In Ouellette’s EHS OLEs, teacher-coaches work with staff to practice engaging in parallel talk. While children are playing in the mud kitchen, for example, teachers are taught to narrate: “I see you have a big pot that you’re stirring with that wooden spoon. What are you making?” Teachers learn how to slow down and draw children’s attention to birds, different tactile sensations like cold snow, or the auditory rhythm of raindrops on an umbrella. They learn where to let children take risks and where to offer a helping hand when little ones are engaging in new physical experiences. Each child has an individual learning plan, and educators fill out the outdoor classroom portion of planning forms with the same attention they pay to the indoor classroom.

Georgianna Ouellette, Early Head Start program director at the Associates for Human Services in Taunton, MA, on designing OLEs for infants and toddlers.

Working with Technical Assistance in Home-Based Child Care

Kai Young runs a family child care called Squiggles & Giggles from her home in Detroit, Michigan that serves infants through preschoolers. Young was part of a professional learning cohort hosted by the National Wildlife Federation's Early Childhood Health Outdoors (ECHO) initiative. ECHO worked with each program director to develop a master plan and a phased implementation plan for physical enhancements to their outdoor space. Young also participated in a 10-week series of trainings on best practices in outdoor play and learning.

Young first moved materials that she already had indoors to her backyard, such as art easels, books, picnic tables, and other tools and toys. She then began to make small investments to the environment to create a few permanent centers in response to the children’s interests. She purchased a mud kitchen, an outdoor play kitchen where children can use dirt, water, mud, or other sensory materials to make mud pies, soups, teas, or any other play food. She assembled a music wall by attaching secondhand pots and pans to a piece of recycled fence. She provided the children spoons, spatulas, and sticks to hit the pots and explore the musical qualities of the different surfaces, volumes, and materials.


A music wall with upcycled pots and pans is a low cost way for children to explore music outdoors.

The children explore in a setting that is more conducive to movement, which also allows them to expend energy. As a result of these changes to the backyard, Young has noticed that she and her staff have to manage fewer instances of conflict between the children. With more space to move, more materials, and more things for them to do, the children seem more adept at solving their own problems and thinking more creatively. Young’s observations corroborate recent research illustrating that preschool children demonstrated improved executive function skills when returning indoors after a period of outdoor play.

Every home can be a nature play space, whether it is a suburban lawn or an urban patio or balcony. When these spaces are designed and activated using best practices, children engage in more creative and collaborative play. Young and her students now spend large portions of the day in her backyard, where they engage in free play as well as more structured lessons. For example, Young uses the outdoor environment to teach about classroom rules and safety, in addition to techniques for self-regulation. When learning about when to use one’s “inside voice” and “outside voice,” Young’s students are given full permission to be as loud as they wish at the music wall outdoors. When children learn how to share, they learn that instead of competing for the same toy, they can each find their own materials by searching for rocks, sticks, leaves, or other readily available materials. This type of kinesthetic exploration of classroom rules allows children at Squiggles & Giggles to develop both their cognitive and emotional capabilities as they learn concrete ways to manage their emotions as well as ways to think creatively.

Kai Young, the owner of Squiggles & Giggles in Detroit, MI, on getting started and working with ECHO to deepen learning outdoors.

Young is now collaborating with IFF, a local community financial development institution, to implement her master plan, with ongoing technical assistance from ECHO. Emboldened with the skills and knowledge she received as part of the ECHO cohort, Young and her staff continue to activate the space and engage with children—and nature—with confidence. When Young's OLE is fully realized, the children in her care will enjoy sand and water play, a tire planter grass maze, a dry stream bed and boat play area, a loose parts play area, a garden pathway with a bridge, and more.

Adapting Curriculum for the Outdoors in Small, Urban Spaces

Another center that has partnered with ECHO is Little Giants Learning Center in Commerce City, Colorado, a city in the metropolitan Denver area. Little Giants serves a largely Hispanic population, and 98 percent of its students qualify for free and reduced-price meals. Jessica Garcia, the assistant director of Little Giants, shared the center’s journey to embrace outdoor learning. Little Giants educators first simply wanted to extend what children were learning indoors to the outdoors, because most of their students live in apartments and have little access to nature. The teaching team started by carting materials from the inside to the outside. It added plastic shelves to keep a few permanent materials outdoors, such as cars, blocks, and manipulatives. It added more outdoor art activities and purchased a large $7 tarp to make community murals that could be washed and repainted.

As teachers became more comfortable with and interested in outdoor learning, the outdoor centers grew and became more permanent. In 2018, Little Giants partnered with ECHO to create a design and professional development plan for an outdoor learning environment. The center added a mud kitchen as well as a dramatic play area with a real house and real kitchen. It added sensory tables—tables at children’s height with removable plastic bins into which teachers can add a variety of sensory materials. It added materials with a variety of textures and colors. Sand, wood, and other natural materials replaced the plastic materials. The center developed a toddler learning area, which has a garden full of plants that smell, taste, and feel interesting for young learners.

Virtual tour of the OLE at Little Giants Learning Center. To look around the space, use your mouse to click and drag. Click or hover over the colorful pins for more information about features in the space.

Many child care centers adhere to a specific curriculum or philosophy, some of which might be well suited to adaptation in an outdoor environment. Little Giants staff members use the Creative Curriculum, a project-based learning curriculum that invites children to explore topics through play. Little Giants teachers have been able to adapt many of their lessons to their outdoor classroom, such as the Trees Study, Balls Study, Clothing Study, and Beginning of the Year Study. Teachers often update the centers in their classrooms to reflect the themes of the study. For example, if a classroom is doing the Clothing Study, the centers of the indoor classroom might be organized to invite exploration of clothing, textures, weaving, dying, or washing clothes. One might find a pretend washing machine and clothesline in the dramatic play area, yarn and fabrics in the art area, and sewing materials in the manipulatives area. For programs that combine a nature-based approach with project-based learning in an OLE, children might explore these same topics with similar materials, but with a stronger focus on natural and sensory materials. Children might wash with real soap and water in their dramatic play area, practice making clothing dye with berries in their art area, and weave natural materials on a homemade loom in the manipulatives area.

Jessica Garcia, assistant director of Little Giants in Denver, CO, on using the Creative Curriculum in the outdoor environment.

High-quality early childhood education moves away from siloed subjects and instead embraces the many learning objectives that are embedded throughout the day in children’s play. This happens quite organically at Little Giants. For example, when preschool students water plants, they not only exercise as they carry water across the playground, but they also learn about responsibility. Toddlers learning how to treat plants with care learn lessons in empathy and impulse control for not only the plants but also their peers.

Many of the students in the program at Little Giants are dual language learners. The exploration that happens in OLEs facilitates language development, as children excitedly ask questions about their many discoveries. Parents report that children are eager to talk about their day at school, sharing tales of caterpillars turning into butterflies or harvesting tomatoes that changed from green to red in just a matter of days. The educators also express authentic joy and interest in discovering with the children.

Serving Children with Disabilities Within a Limited Budget

Isabel Huerta is the director of Sammy’s House, a child care program in Austin, Texas that primarily serves children from low-income families who are medically fragile or have a developmental delay or disability. Throughout her career, Huerta has noticed the gradual changes in her students’ sensory needs as they respond to the external factors of a changing urban landscape due to gentrification, increased financial burdens for families, and reduced opportunities for outdoor play. In response, Huerta and her team have created an inclusive outdoor environment that caters to the physical and sensory needs of her students. Research shows the benefits of nature-based interventions for children with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and other developmental delays and disabilities.

While Huerta’s OLE is always evolving, her first investment is in her educators. She believes that a school could have a $100,000 playground, but if the educators do not know how to use it, it will go to waste. Instead, she believes that a “good teacher can teach with a rock.” At Sammy’s House, staff members take turns designing outdoors STEM lesson plans that can be adapted to infants, toddlers, pre-K, and school-age children, with modifications for children of all abilities. Huerta reviews the content with her educators over lunch, and they talk through the different ages, abilities, and needs of all children in her program.

Isabel Huerta, the director of Sammy’s House in Austin, TX, on STEM lesson plans for children of all ages and abilities.

While providers may start with low-cost materials from thrift stores or storage closets, the cost to design one’s dream program can be rather expensive. Much of Huerta’s outdoor space has been created through fundraising, and she has a special recommendation for other providers hoping to invest in their outdoor space: because sponsors appreciate having something concrete that they can visualize, providers should “make a vision that can be sold in pieces.” In other words, design the outdoor space according to special interest areas and provide specific pictures and requests in fundraising appeals.

As Huerta continues to build her outdoor space, she is working closely with the OLE! Texas initiative to follow its OLE! scoring rubric and recommended design elements. The frameworks provided by OLE! Texas outline the different steps providers can take to address safety, inclusion, curriculum, and other policies or procedures that will allow providers to spend more time outdoors with their students.

Creating Interest Areas Outdoors in an Urban Setting

Jenn Dorsey is the director of A World of Friends School in Baltimore, Maryland. A World of Friends is located in the heart of the city and serves predominantly Black students who attend as part of the Pre-K Expansion Grant or with a Maryland state voucher. A World of Friends is a wonderful example of a program that grew slowly over time to incorporate both the design and pedagogical elements of a nature-based philosophy in an urban OLE.

Dorsey says that when she started her center 17 years ago, she practiced in the “traditional” way, and never would have imagined that her students would learn outdoors, in all the elements. But now, after years of increasing children’s time outdoors, her students and teachers spend almost all day outdoors and take frequent excursions to Maryland farms, parks, and trails. As a part of the first week of school and parent orientation, Dorsey talks to parents about the benefits of exploring outdoors and adds outdoor clothing to the school supply list, in lieu of markers, crayons, or paper. She says when children are appropriately dressed for the weather, they approach learning outdoors in the rain, heat, and cold like any other day. She gives her teachers a stipend specifically for their own clothing, as it is her belief that if the adults are comfortable and have a positive attitude about weather, the children will too.

Dorsey has embraced the philosophy, “Anything that you do indoors, you can do outdoors.” The learning centers at her site outside reflect the same centers one might find in any preschool classroom, such as a dramatic play, reading, blocks, and art areas.

A World of Friends Kitchen .jpeg

This mud kitchen was made with materials from a thrift store. Low cost materials allow schools to start slowly, as teachers build interest areas based on children’s interests.

OLEs are not solely defined by the materials. They must be activated by confident practitioners guiding children’s learning outdoors. Dorsey advises that before buying anything, teachers first gather their own materials with students by collecting leaves, sticks, rocks, and pinecones. Early childhood education programs can start slowly and make investments in materials, training, and curriculum changes based on students’ needs and interests. Dorsey taught her teachers to create a few “provocations," or open-ended play activities, on tables or in sensory spaces outdoors, and use those activities to follow children’s leads and interests. She suggests, for example, placing corn in their husks on tables and inviting children to remove the husks to explore the husk, silk, kernels, and, perhaps most exciting, the insects one might find inside. This will prompt a plethora of questions or give children opportunities to connect to their own experiences. Educators can circulate around the centers and observe ways that children interact with the environment and materials in free play with peers and in guided play with teachers, which will inform the types of materials to add to the OLE.

Dorsey says that the most important step on her journey was seeing to believe. “You can’t buy into outdoor learning unless you see it for yourself. You have to go to someplace where they are doing it successfully, because then you’re going to see how it works,” she says. Dorsey is an active member of the Eastern Region Association of Forest and Nature Schools (ERAFANS). She and her staff have participated in ERAFANS trainings and certification programs and have even visited a program in Scotland. She says that seeing children at a nature-based program in Scotland allowed her to witness the development of children’s problem-solving skills, confidence, and ability to use tools safely, and to believe it was possible for her own students.

Jenn Dorsey, the director of A World of Friends School in Baltimore, MD, on setting up interest areas outside.

Learning Outdoors as Post-COVID, Trauma-Informed Practice

Historically marginalized communities were hit particularly hard by COVID-19. Family deaths, job loss, economic hardship, housing insecurity, and so on can translate to challenges in the classroom in the form of hyperactivity, difficulty expressing emotions, and impulsive behaviors. Efforts to provide equitable access to the healthy benefits of nature-based play and outdoor learning opportunities may be especially important for children navigating the traumatic impact of COVID-19.

Wande Okunoren-Meadows, the executive director of the Hand, Heart, and Soul Project and director of Culture Quality and Engagement at Little Ones Learning Center in Forest Park, Georgia, talks about outdoor learning as a way to address multiple systemic issues at once. Not only does her school provide children with access to healthy, homegrown organic food in the middle of a food desert, but her OLE exists as a loving space that counters the preschool to prison pipeline. For Okunoren-Meadows, outdoor learning is a means to demonstrate a more holistic approach to supporting children’s behaviors. In her OLE, educators work with children and their behaviors, and what is a developmentally appropriate need for movement, fresh air, and sensory play, regardless of whether children have experienced adversity. At the site, teachers take children outdoors for a long period of play and exploration prior to circle time, and they work alongside the garden educators to embed learning throughout the morning in the OLE.

Little Ones Learning Center.jpg

Raised gardening beds are a way for students to learn about healthy eating while also engaging in sensory play and movement.

Learning in an OLE can provide critical relief for the child and the educator. Okunoren-Meadows said that over the years she has witnessed growing inequities due to gentrification in metropolitan Atlanta. A child who has experienced housing insecurity due to economic challenges, to use one example, might wiggle or rock back and forth with anxiety during circle time, run around the classroom during transitions, or snatch toys from peers out of a sense of scarcity. In these difficult moments, educators may need to offer emotional support, access to some sensory toys, visuals that make the day more predictable, and scaffolding to help the child resolve conflict with peers. It can be hard for a lone practitioner to always meet these needs at any given moment in a very busy day.

When outdoors, however, this child has the agency to seek his or her own sensory materials, by digging for worms, pouring out water in measuring cups at the water table, or digging for treasure in the sandbox. If the child needs to expend even more energy, he or she can initiate play on the tricycle, perhaps inviting peers to join in a race. The need for movement turns into a positive social interaction with peers. Most importantly, this child’s teacher is able to say “Yes” to their needs, rather than “No.” Instead of engaging in a cycle of redirected behaviors, the child and adult can engage in the positive interactions that are critical for building resilience, self-efficacy, and positive approaches to learning.

Early Childhood OLEs Are for Everyone

The programs featured here show that outdoor learning is possible in diverse communities, even in the smallest of urban spaces or for our youngest children. Whether in large or small spaces, urban or rural areas, or warm or cold climates, the practitioners in this brief adapted their OLEs to the needs of their young learners in the context of their respective communities. They follow the interests of the children and adapt appropriately, through training, professional development, technical assistance, and an investment in the materials and physical elements of their outdoor space. These OLEs are ever evolving, as they take a whole child approach to creating environments where children can meet their need for movement, sensory play, and interconnected learning. The educators in this brief are exemplars not only of high-quality OLEs but of high-quality early childhood education across the spectrum of child care in the U.S.

Resources for Additional Learning


Thank you to the practitioners who contributed valuable insights and information to this project. We appreciate Georgianna Ouellette, Kai Young, Jessica Garcia, Isabel Huerta, Jenn Dorsey, and Wande Okunoren-Meadows. Thank you to Amy O’Leary, Nancy Striniste, Elizabeth Lowe, Erica Sánchez, Natalie Deeb, and Monica Wiedel-Lubinski for your wisdom and connections to practitioners in your respective regions. Thank you to Liz Houston for sharing your expertise. Thank you to Sabrina Detlef for editorial insight. Thank you to Julie Brosnan, Fabio Murgia, and Riker Pasterkiewicz for help in the production of this brief and to Cara Sklar for managing this project. Thank you to the George B. Storer Foundation for its generous support of this work. The views expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the George B. Storer Foundation, its officers, or its employees.